Bow was once famous for its pottery – a quick browse on eBay will show that well-preserved pieces of Bow porcelain are highly sought-after these days. We thought it would be fantastic to rekindle the pottery tradition at the Centre, bring it back to the heart of Bromley-by-Bow. But we had no potter. And we had no kiln. All we had was an empty room that I had set aside, in hope.
My first move was to put an advert up outside the church:
KILN WANTED. ENQUIRE WITHIN.
It had become my habit to leave the doors to the church building open, so that passers-by knew there was life inside and that we were not closed to them. I was desperate to bring the outside in, to encourage contact with the people Iwas there for. Opening up one day, I watched as a young dark-haired woman, out walking her dog, stopped to read my advert. The dog was tethered to a piece of string. They both looked up at me.
‘Are you looking for a kiln, then?’ she asked, with a nervous grin.
‘Yes, I am indeed,’ I replied, sensing a bite.
‘Why, do you have one?’
‘Funnily enough, I do. It’s never been used. It’s in our house, just down the street there. Why don’t you come over for a cup of tea?’
It was an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse.
Most of the pre-war two-up-two-down housing which had been built in our part of the East End had been bombed out of existence during the Blitz, but one row of terraces survived just down the road, an obstinate reminder of past times. These houses were in poor condition. The GLC had moved all of the former residents out into local flats and tenements, with a view to demolishing them. However, this hadn’t come to pass and, over the years, they had come to be occupied in the main by a bunch of artists looking for a cheap place in London – among them this young woman, whose name I now knew to be Margy, her husband, Frank, and their two children, Theo and Nicky.
When I eventually went to meet her I was greeted by Theo, dressed in a bright blue cape and with a superhero arm thrust out in front of him, dashing with the kind of energy only a young boy can muster through the largely empty rooms. They’d moved in with just £5 worth of furniture. I could smell oil paint.
This young hero would eventually gain a place at Cambridge to study architecture, and end up working for the Eden Project in Cornwall. But for now he was saving the world in other ways. Back then, I had no idea what effect a lifetime spent in Bromley-by-Bow might have on his future. I was just there to buy a kiln.
Margy and I sat down and began to get acquainted. She had grown up in Africa and her early life had been a peripatetic one, moving from place to place with her sisters. She had eventually struck out on her own to come to London and study art. She’d been living in a squat which was masquerading as a fire station when she met and fell in love with Frank.
Margy was a fine artist. Somewhere along the way, she had acquired a kiln. We finished the tea.
‘I want to buy the kiln from you, Margy. And I want you to teach a pottery class. What d’you think?’
I later discovered that she had never taught pottery in her life, but she agreed to my suggestion without hesitation. She liked the idea, and would have a go. It was a spirit I learnt to love, and her whole family shared the same easygoing, can-do attitude – they became a sounding board for me for years to come.
© Andrew Mawson
The Social Entrepreneur: Making Communities Work by Andrew Mawson is published by Atlantic Books, £9.99