A Wedding That Captured The Nation's Heart - It was a wedding that summed up the spirit of the Blitz. . . . and showed how even Hitler's Luftwaffe could not disrupt the Cockney way of life.
On 20th April, 1941, the morning after 150 incendiary bombs had gutted St. Bartholomew's, East Ham a bride and groom arrived at the wrecked church. They found charred timbers and ravaged walls were all that was left of the church where they were to be married that day.
But Helen Fowler, aged 20 of Caledon Road, East Ham and her Canadian soldier sweetheart, Cpl. Christopher Morrison, aged 21 of the 48th Highlanders stood proudly amid the ruins of the bombed-out church and made their wedding vows, while fireman played their hoses on the wooden beams which were still smouldering.
The Rev. Albon Rabson, the church curate, conducted the ceremony "with all the dignity of a normal occasion", a church spokesman said at the time. The couple did not kneel because of the debris and a table was brought in for the marriage registers, relatives stood on the stone steps.
Tears of pride and anger filled their eyes. But the spirit was not broken. The ARP Warden for East Ham was quoted as saying "We can still sing. There is no yielding in the fight to bring about the downfall of the Nazism."
The wedding of the corporal from the 48th Highlanders and the Dagenham Girl Piper made front page news in Britain and Canada. Local papers of the time were not allowed to reveal it was St. Bart's that had been wrecked by fire until months afterwards. News blackouts were in force to keep information from the enemy, and in some cases the public.
Helen, who joined the Dagenham girl Pipers at the age of 12, went with the Pipers, who accompanied the King and Queen when they visited Canada in 1939. In Toronto she met her husband-to-be. When she arrived home in England ten weeks after the war had been declared, Helen continued writing across the Atlantic and later, when Cpl. Morrison arrived in England with the Canadian forces they arranged to be married.
When interviewed by Colin Grainger of the Newham Recorder in 1983 they said they remembered the day they wed as if it was yesterday. "He was nearly an hour-and-a-half late" said Helen.
"Ah but I did have an excuse dear," said Chris. "A few bombs had fallen the night before." Chris was staying at a special serviceman's hostel in the City and left with plenty of time to spare with his best man but Hitler's bombers had severely hit London during the night. "There were holes in buildings everywhere, it was an unbelievable sight," he recalled. "It was like hell's half acre. We were on the train and suddenly we were ordered of at Aldgate East. It took ages to get to the church by a mixture of hard walking and bus rides. Helen and her family were distraught. They were driving round in the car for ages."
Helen added: "The Church was in ruins but nothing was going to stop our big day. But the driver said that he had another wedding to go to so he couldn't wait much longer."
Finally one of Helen's relatives stationed near the Town Hall saw the lads. And all was right.
"I clearly remember the firemen playing their hoses on the burning wood. It was an incredible moment in our lives," said Helen.
They lived just a stone's throw from where they were married in Greatfield Avenue, East Ham where they raised six children Lee, Christopher, Laurie, Stuart, Judith and Andrew. Chris who won numerous rifle shooting awards was a member of the Queens 100 - the 100 best shots in the Commonwealth Empire. After he left the Army he did a variety of jobs including bus conductor, rigger, docker and Ford worker.
Extracts from a special supplement of the Newham Recorder 21 April, 1983.