Tag Archives: Stepney Words

George Lansbury’s Dream Of Poplar

George Lansbury (1859 – 1940) was a socialist politician who represented Poplar in the East End. He was jailed in 1921 with 30 fellow councillors for the Poplar rates revolt.
His granddaughter is Murder She Wrote actress Angela Lansbury.
Chris Searle is the teacher whose Stepney Words anthology led to the school strike in 1971. This poem is from his 1980 collection Red Earth.

George Lansbury’s Dream of Poplar

In our beloved triangle
Midst cut and docks and Lea.
I dreamed a future happiness
Of the people strong and free.

There’s not much grass in Poplar,
The soil is pressed by stone,
But earth made rich by the flowing Thames
Has a wilful people grown.

Our riches are our people,
The jewels are in their eyes.
Their hands have built a city
And their work made a future rise.

The times we marched together,
Striking evil at its root!
We sang, spoke and persuaded,
Seized power from the brute.

The people of the spreading world
Share our doorsteps now,
Our massive strength must forge a life –
One blood, one love to sow.

To own those things we always made,
To organise our power,
To plant new work in dying docks,
Strike the workers’ eternal hour!

Fifty years after I still dream on
And the mist clears over the Thames.
The vision still embraces my heart
And sends the past in flames.

In our beloved triangle
Midst cut and docks and Lea.
I dreamed a future happiness
Of the people strong and free.

Chris Searle


The Fourth Quarter – Chris Searle

From Mainland, 1974
Chris Searle was the teacher whose sacking for publishing his pupil’s poetry sparked the Stepney school kid’s strike in 1971.

The Fourth Quarter

From the cocoon breaks the monster,
The world lets him breathe again,
His poison falls back in the memory,
He breaks the day, the noon darkens.

Now is the fourth quarter:
The century ends that promised us equity.
The winds sweep through the branches,
The leaves rustle with warnings.
The crosses clank on the national flag,
Their clangs make the sound of marching iron.

To the beat of chauvinism and voracious nostalgia
The fascists reassemble.
Their white slogans wave in our streets,
Their scientists move to prove their prejudices
With synthetic fact, designed for genocide.

The beasts are rampant in Chile:
Their allies move in the British cadres,
Planning their hatred in army words –
Now is the calling,
The time of dithering is done,
The here, the now, the us!

We, who have lived the guise, beguiled by security,
Fooled by the affluence of the skin,
Know the facade drops away, reality tightens.
We, who have waited this calling,
We the readers, the rockers
We the teds, the demonstrators,
We the banners, the mods,
We the marchers, the skinheads,
We the hippies, the hooligans,
We, the waiting generations,
The diverted ones, the untried ones,
The pawns of mode, the children of welfare:
Throw away your shades, move with your brothers –
The time of dithering is done!

Chris Searle


Chris Searle – Stepney Schoolkids Strike

Chris Searle is the teacher whose publishing of poems by his pupils led to his sacking and to the kids then going on strike and marching to Trafalgar Square to demand for his re-instatement.

This poem about the kids is from his 1974 collection Mainland.

Strike Of Words
(Stepney, May 28th, 1971)

Anyone can write a poem, I still hold that,
But you children, sharply organised,
You made your words strike,
The words of your class march,
Past middle-class poet-cynics
Shaking their heads, declaring
‘Poetry can do nothing,
It makes nothing happen’.

Yes, their poetry can do nothing,
Morosely making nothing of the world,
But yours, wed to the march
Can take it over.

Priests who lived for learning shackles
And dullards hanging on to power
Saw their enemies in you, in us,
And with your shouting, loyal words
You blew them over with your poetry.

These children made me what I am,
Their words carved me out a new mind –
I work to make myself
Worth the winning.

Magnificent children,
Sons and daughters of
The future’s implacable equity:
I am in love with your clarity
I am in love with your Class.

Chris Searle

Stepney 71

Stepney Words, Poetry And A Schoolkid’s Strike

In 1971 teacher Chris Searle asked his school head to publish a small collection of poetry by his pupils.
He taught at John Cass Foundation and Red Coat School in Stepney. John Cass’ governors, according to Mr Searle, were businessmen, priests and “general philanthropists who thought they were doing working-class children a favour.” Mr Searle’s view was that “Schools must be there for the exercise of power for ordinary people, working-class people and black people, within the inner cities.
“The ways of the school contrasted harshly with the vitality and verve of the students. As drama teacher, I used to do play readings but I found they responded better to poetry, and I was reading William Blake and Isaac Rosenberg to them, both London poets who took inspiration from the streets. So I took the pupils out onto the street and asked them to write about what they saw, and the poems these eleven-year-olds wrote were so beautiful, I was stunned and I thought they should be published. Blake and Rosenberg were published, why not these young writers? We asked the school governors but they said the poems were too gloomy, so they forbade us to publish them.
“I showed the poems to Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, and he loved them. And it became evident that there was a duality in the church, because the chairman of the school governors who was a priest said to me, ‘“Don’t you realise these are fallen children?” in other words, they were of the devil. But Trevor Huddleston read the poems and then, with a profound look, said, “These children are the children of God.” So I should have realised there was going to be a bit of a battle.”

At first the head, Geoffrey Barrell, agreed until he actually saw the poems and then quickly changed his mind.
Not one to be knocked back Mr Searle put out the collection, Stepney Words, with the support of former dockers’ leader Jack Dash (who wrote poetry himself), and by Trevor Huddlestone, then Bishop of Stepney and raised £200 for the publishing.
The horrified governors quickly sacked Chris Searle and over 100 East End headteachers stated that none of them would employ him.

Stepney Words

The kids saw it differently and promptly went on strike. They marched to Trafalgar Square in their uniforms demanding that Mr Searle got his job back. “Thank you God from high above, For sending Searle for us to love,” they chanted at the school gates. On the walls, slogans in purple paint proclaimed: “If Mr Searle goes – we go.”
“It was in their blood. It wasn’t an unusual thing for them to march in the streets or to go on strike. It was part of the culture,” Chris Searle said.

Stepney 71

Three days later the kids wen back to school but it took two years for Chris Searle to get his job back. Two years, a high court ruling and the suprising intervention of Margaret Thatcher, then the Secretary of State for Education.

The story became front pages news in the national papers. The book sold more than fifteen thousand copies, with the poems published in newspapers, and broadcast on television and read at the Albert Hall. The Sun even ran a double-page spread of poetry: ‘The Astonishing World Of These East End Kids’.

In October 1973, a writing group was suggested by Chris Searle. He met with his ex-pupils to share their writing in a room of the Basement Project beneath St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street and The Basement writers was started, home to the likes of Gladys McGee. Initially they published poems on posters that were stuck up on the corrugated iron around building sites. Books and readings soon followed.

East End
What is it
Dirt? Old buildings?
no-one is sure
The only thing I’m sure about
is that I live there
and have done all my life. . . .

The East End is like
Five parts of the world
put into one place.

Janice Lee

Brick Lane

Brick Lane is a horrible place
Where everyone has a gloomy face
There isn’t one little space to play football
Everyone plays in the dirt
Filling all their hair with dirt
What a place
I always try to be happy and cheerful
Now I begin to get doubtful.

Tony Hussey

Watney Street

Chattering, talking, holding up traffic.
Women shopping buying fruit, food
on the lookout for a bargain.
Man on the corner selling stolen purses
one eye on the cashbox
one eye on the cashbox
fruit seller shouting “buncha bananas”,
someone buys some don’t know they’re half rotten
One selling toys made in hong kong
old men under the arch selling broken plates.

Alan Gilbey