Ghandi's Kingsley Hall marks its 80th birthday with street party
PUBLISHED: 19:54 06 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:30 05 October 2010
A STREET party marked the 80th anniversary of the East London's famous Kingsley Hall where Mahatma Ghandi stayed in 1931. Organisers invited those who used the hall in Bromley-by-Bow over the past eight decades to meet up again on Saturday (August 2). Around 400 turned up. The day belonged to old memories and reminiscences about how it all started in the 1920s and how it became a refuge for the East End during the dark days of the Second World War
TOP: Ghandi's now-historic visit to London's East End when he stayed at Kingsley Hall and met cockney Pearly kings and queens, and half-a-century later Richard Attenborough (above) returns for the hall's reopening in 1985, holding the hand of long-time volunteer Lylie Valentine, after having filmed a scene from Ghandi there five years before
BELOW: A dilapidated Kingsley Hall in the 1970s and (inset) a children's Sunday school class on the roof in 1940, during the dark days of the Second World War
A STREET party marked the 80th anniversary of the East London's famous Kingsley Hall where Mahatma Ghandi stayed in 1931.
Organisers invited those who used the hall in Bromley-by-Bow over the past eight decades to meet up again on Saturday (August 2). Around 400 turned up.
Entertainment included a street dance, while the Gandhi Foundation and CND ran stalls, the Peace Garden had story telling, then a procession along Powis Road.
But the day belonged to old memories and reminiscences about how it all started in the 1920s and how it became a refuge for the East End during the dark days of the Second World War.
Kingsley Hall was founded by the Lester sisters Muriel and Doris in 1928, with backing from their father Henry Lester, the shipping magnate.
Muriel was widely travelled and undertook 30 global tours promoting world peace in the inter-War years. She stayed at Ghandi's ashram on her visit to India.
Ghandi remembered her identity with 'the common people' when he was summoned to London in 1931 for the Round Table conference on India's future and opted to stay with the poor in the East End rather than be a guest of the Government.
It is part of the East End's story that's remembered by people alive today.
"Instead of a posh hotel, he stayed six weeks at Kingsley Hall," recalls Leslie Franklin, an East End kid in the 1930s and 40s.
"I remember hundreds of people would follow him every time he appeared in the streets."
Kingsley Hall remained open throughout the war years, a refuge centre used for an air raid shelter. The building was a solid, concrete reinforced structure. Wartime families felt safe there.
But more important, it kept the spirit of the East End alive during the war years.
"For me, Kingsley Hall made the War years less frightening," Leslie added. "Nobody was ever turned away.
"It was a great place for us teenagers to meet. Saturday was dance night when we danced to records of the big orchestras like Harry Roy, Ambrose, and Roy Fox. Teenagers came from as far as Bethnal Green and Poplar to join."
But it fell into decline when community activity waned in the 1950s. There was too much distraction from television, then the Swinging Sixties.
The Lester sisters were now old and finding it difficult keeping Kingsley Hall going. Doris died in 1963. Muriel handed the place over to Ronnie Laing before she died in 1968.
Laing was the cult psychologist who pioneered treating schizophrenia in the community who set up the Philadelphia Association and ran a psycho-therapeutic experiment for five years at Kingsley Hall.
It did not go down well in the community, which now felt excluded.
Laing's experiment ran five years before the building fell into disuse and the inevitable decay. It remained empty throughout the 1970s until a community action group set up in 1979 to campaign to get it reopened.
Suddenly Kingsley Hall was back in the limelight, literally. Richard Attenborough chose it for a scene in his film Ghandi in 1983, staring Ben Kingsley (no connection with the hall).
He had to 'dress up' the facia of the now-dilapidated building before he could use it in the film shot.
But it focussed attention on the hall. Attenborough backed the group's campaign and helped get £250,000 from the Greater London Council, enough to renovate the building and extend it.
Today, Kingsley Hall specialises in youth work, dance and women's groups, anything for the community's needs... as it always did.
But it gets just £15,000 a year from the local authority at Tower Hamlets for youth activity. There are 11 youth groups, so what little money there is gets spread thinly.
The hall runs on a full-time staff of one, centre manager David Baker , and a part-time development co-ordinator, Beatrice Nicholson.
The rest are community volunteers who run the various groups.
But then, Kingsley Hall always was supposed to be run by them.