The other day, having Tweeted the anniversary of Clement Attlee’s death in 1967, I heard from Ruairidh Anderson (@thehowlingsea) who informed me of a poem Attlee wrote, called In Limehouse. Here it is:
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men who go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity
The streets where men decay.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,
Of children born of sorrow,
The workers of tomorrow
How shall they work tomorrow
Who get no bread today?.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.
Not classical poetry, by any means, but a pretty good effort nonetheless, both powerful and poignant. It tells us much about Attlee, a conviction politician from the East End and very much in the mould of the radical Left which emerged in the Victorian period in this area. He was MP for Limehouse for 27 years until 1950 during which time he was Deputy Prime Minister to Churchill during WWII and, of course, Prime Minister of the post-War Labour government, which overhauled the ancient status quo of Britain forever.
Attlee served in World War One in Turkey and the Near East, reaching the rank of Major. After the war he entered local politics as Mayor of Stepney, where he concentrated on improving slum housing, squaring up against rapacious landlords in both his and neighbouring boroughs such as Poplar. He then went on to the House of Commons in 1922.