Bishopsgate Institute marks 100 years of Lester sisters’ work for the poor

The story of the philanthropic Lester sisters who pioneered social care among the poor of London’s East End exactly 100 years ago—whose legacy lives on in 2012—is being unveiled with a public talk today.

The daughters of a wealthy shipbuilding magnate opened the Children’s House nursery school in Bromley-by-Bow in 1912 where they fed and cared for youngsters whose families were usually too poor to pay.

They went on to set up Kingsley Hall community centre which still flourishes today, despite being abandoned for 20 years.

Now the story of Muriel and Doris Lester is on show at the Bishopsgate Institute to mark the centenary of their work.

No social history of the East End can be without the chapter on the sisters, which begins in 1912 with the nursery at Bruce Road, where mothers who could ill-afford the shilling-a-day (5p) were ‘sponsored’—no-one was turned away.

They set up Kingsley Hall in 1915 with a legacy from their late brother Kingsley, as a ‘people’s house’ that brought neighbours, workmen, factory girls and children of all backgrounds, races and religions together.

There were links with the Suffragettes in the 1920s when Muriel spoke on street corners and on Sunday mornings in Victoria Park, who was then elected to Poplar borough council campaigning for basic provisions such as milk for children.

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They ran a shelter and soup kitchen at the hall for workers during the 1926 General Strike, then moved to a bigger purpose-built centre in Powis Road in 1927.

Muriel, a pacifist campaigner travelling the world in the years between the wars, stayed at Ghandi’s ashram in India on her global peace tour.

Ghandi was later invited to London in 1931 for the Round Table conference on India’s future and opted to stay at Kingsley Hall rather than be a guest of the Government.

But it fell into disuse after the sisters died, first Doris in 1963 then Muriel in 1968, and remained empty until a community campaign began in 1979 to get it reopened. Richard Attenborough chose it for a scene in his 1983 Ghandi blockbuster.

Kingsley Hall thrives in 2012 with its community projects in today’s East End—as it did with its two pioneering founders Muriel and Doris Lester, social reformers of vision in their day.

That story is told at the Bishopsgate Institute at 4pm today (Thurs), in the Great Hall.

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