Muriel and Doris Lester &
The Heritage of the Kingsley Hall Community Centres
The website of the Kingsley Hall Community Centres Heritage Committee (KHCCHC)
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Virtual Tour of KH Bow
1. Main Hall The visitors will be gathered together and taken to the Main Hall to meet the tour guide. After an extremely brief introduction I would suggest that you take people out of the hall to the first floor Youth Hall before beginning your talk. The Main Hall will be noisy and not conducive to beginning well.
You need to think about when to mention the Main Hall. It is the key part of the building that everything else is in position to. Perhaps you could get them to have a quick glance around before setting off. When you come back down the visitors will be more relaxed and you may find it easier to keep their attention.
Take people through the door to the right of the stage (This door will be locked most of the day and only opened a few minutes before you are ready). Then up the green stairs to the first floor.
2. Youth Hall One approach to a good tour is to think of something of interest to you that you want to get across to your audience about Kingsley Hall.
I have a theme in mind as I go round, and then I highlight that theme in different places remembering to conclude the same idea at the end of the tour.
Themes could be:
the peace connections of the building;
the fact that the building was built for local people and has been run by local people except for the R.D.Laing period, and is now very active with 13 different groups in the building putting on activities for many of the local communities;
that Kingsley Hall has attracted many famous people – Gandhi; Laing; George Lansbury; recently Tony Benn…
that Kingsley Hall was the fourth building for the Lester Sisters in their mission to create community provision (their first community activities started at nos 58-
that Kingsley Hall is the main youth centre of the area
There is a lot of concrete in the building, which is very visible in the Youth Hall, those huge beams above you are what is holding things together, they are far bigger than necessary, but the load bearing of concrete was still not fully understood in 1928. When Kingsley Hall was built the locals commented that it was built so well it would last a thousand years. The bombing all around during the second world war left many derelict buildings but Kingsley Hall stood firm although windows and doors were blown out in one blast that hit two houses in what is now the Peace Garden. People at the time were down in the cellar.
Alex: “In this room for the past 70 or more years the young people of Bow have met and fulfilled the original aims of the Lester Sisters and Kingsley Hall:
“As a place of fellowship in which people can meet for social, educational and recreational intercourse without barriers of class, colour or creed.” “
The Youth Hall is now in use by 8 different youth groups, 4 of which are youth led. A recent investment of £100,000 towards youth facility and accessibility has enabled the Youth Hall to also be used as a dance studio and is in use 15 hours a week for Street Dancing and Break Dancing.
3. Art Room and Kitchen This area was originally the library. Mary Barnes’ room was the east end of the Art Room (1965-
4. Project Room Muriel and Doris would reside here during the day. It is now used for youth activities. The fireplace and picture rail are original.
There will be a few archives relating to Muriel on display on a table.
5. Gandhi’s Cell People visit Kingsley Hall from India, Australia, the States, and Canada. Most visit because Gandhi stayed here for 12 weeks in 1931 to discuss the future of the subcontinent at the Round Table Conference. It is the 60th anniversary of Independence so there has been a lot of publicity of late about Gandhi.
6. Gandhi Foundation Office Kingsley Hall was empty after 1970 when the licence wasn’t renewed for the Philadelphia Association. The building was badly vandalised. By the end of the 70s a local action group formed to renovate the Centre. Richard Attenborough got involved because of the film: “Gandhi”. Richard became the patron of Kingsley Hall and the President of the Gandhi Foundation. The Gandhi Foundation is dedicated to spreading the message of Gandhi.
The open area on the roof was so that people could get the sun. Rickets was common in the 20s. There is also an open rooftop at Childrens House where the children had a nap outside. The Lesters used UV lights to treat the worse cases.
The caretakers flat was built in the fifties. Before then there were 6 cells where people lived who wished to serve in the building 6 days a week. There were 3 facing south for the women and three facing north for the men. The Gandhi Foundation office has been created out of 3 of the cells.
7. Fountain The original fountain has gone. There is a dispute as to whether it was donated by A.A.Milne or H.G. Wells.
To the east is Bromley by Bow Centre, in background is Three Mills film studios and just visible, Joseph Bazalgette’s famous Abbey Mills Pumping Station.
The school is called Palace School. It was the palace of King James I but was knocked down in 1894. The main room is in the V&A. The surrounding area was known as the Scottish Settlement.
The Kingsley Hall Development Plan proposes to build upward from the Extension two floors and to put in a lift.
8. The journey down
Toilets Go back to Gandhi’s Cell and make sure you have everybody. Go down the green stairs to the first floor, through the Youth Hall to the far side double doors onto the red stairs, down the red stairs, pass the Mezzanine toilets. At the bottom of the stairs take the door on the right and you will come into the front foyer (this door will be locked much of the day but I will make sure it is open when you need it).
There will be a display of peace activities around the Mezzanine toilets. Various peace groups have used Kingsley Hall as a conference centre. One year we had 50 Indian farmers stay. They were campaigning against destruction by the World Trade Organisation of the livelihood of small farmers. This was the only washing area we could offer them. Kingsley Hall has been the meeting place for Tower Hamlets CND for more than 20 years. Others have formed a group called the Muriel Lesters who are affiliated with Trident Ploushares and take direct action to campaign against nuclear arms.
During the sixties a young woman called Crystal lived in the toilets and would peep through the window onto the activities in the Main Hall below. The local kids find this area creepy.
9. Vestibule and Rest Room The Rest Room was called the Chapel. During the Lester’s period It was always open for people to enter. It was converted into the main office in 2000.
10. Front of Building There is a famous clip of Gandhi waving to the crowds below from the balcony. The use of concrete is clearly on display. The architect Charles Voysey was the son of the famous Charles Voysey. Voysey senior was part of the Arts and Crafts movement. He also designed furniture and kitchen utensils. His buildings were famous for there low ceilings. He also campaigned before the first World War for concrete to be shown as concrete rather than disguised as wattle and daub. His son clearly carried on with some of his father’s ideas and Kingsley Hall shows of its concrete with pride.
11. Main Hall Alex: “During the week this hall would be used for various social activities: Old Time & Ballroom Dancing; Scouts & Cubs; Socials; Sunday Service; Wedding and Baptism Ceremonies. There was a stained glass window in memory of George Lansbury MP Bow & Poplar 1900-
Muriel would preach from the stage and there is a Christian feeling to the hall. There is a cross in the stage window and on the opposite wall around the entrance doors there are the three windows of the trinity.
Above all the double doors there is the hint of an art deco motif.
12. Peace Garden During his stay in 1931 Gandhi planted a Tree for Peace. The garden was just a small strip in those days. The present Peace Garden was opened shortly after the newly renovated Kingsley Hall in 1986
Time to wrap up, remind people of the soup kitchen, the Laing display, the stalls and the activities in the timetable, and if you still have breathe this is your chance to make that final enlightening statement:
Alex: This is the end of the tour, but as you have seen the work and the high ideals of the Lester Family continue by the work of the present day staff. If you have enjoyed your visit and share the aims of Kingsley Hall, maybe some time in the future you will come back …and give some help to ensure the good work continues.”
This page is based on the London Openhouse notes for guides.It Includes input from Alex Stratton
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