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.
Clement Atlee is trying to write a poem. It’s not going well. He knows what he wants to say. He feels a fire that he hopes might ignite others, but his words are wet and keep sputtering out. There must be better words than these.
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?
The more Clement uses the word ‘feet’ the weirder the word ‘feet’ seems to sound. Feet. Feet? This poem doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to be effective – he tells himself in the hope of feeling a bit better.
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.
There is a knock on his door. Someone wants to see him about drains or nurseries or..
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.
GAH! The last verse is the worst – and it needed to be the best. After the meeting the muse has fled. Clem doesn’t blame her. The path to hell is paved with well-intentioned meetings about social housing. Still, he half likes his poem. It won’t change the world, but it did change one piece of paper. Paper. Papers. There’s so many to read. There’ll be no time for poetry if he becomes an MP.
Clem Attlee did write this poem. He lived in Toynbee Hall. In 1919 he was Mayor of Stepney, Labour MP for Limehouse in 1922, Leader of the Labour Party in 1935 before becoming Labour Prime Minister in 1945.
About the authors | About Dan Jones | About the project
Please seek permission before using this text in any other format / please inform the author if you use any part of this text in another format.