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ADVERTISER 150: How we reported Ghandi's stay in east London for the 1931 conference on India's future

PUBLISHED: 19:01 08 December 2016 | UPDATED: 20:38 08 December 2016

1936 Gandhi stays in the East End for the London Conference on India

1936 Gandhi stays in the East End for the London Conference on India

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Our nightly look at the stories the East London Advertiser has covered since 1866, as part of its 150th anniversary this year, arrives at the 1930s when Mahatma Ghandi arrives for the London Conference on his country's future. He won't stay in a hotel with the other top delegates, but instead prefers kipping down in the draughty Kingsley Hall to be with the East End's working class...

1931: Mahatma Ghandi and Muriel Lester at Kingsley Hall, pictured with East End cockney Pearly kings and queens1931: Mahatma Ghandi and Muriel Lester at Kingsley Hall, pictured with East End cockney Pearly kings and queens

1931: India’s National Congress leader Mahatma Gandhi is in London for the round-table conference on future Home Rule, but refuses the British government’s hospitality of staying in a West End hotel.

He prefers accommodation with East London’s working class and is put up at the new Kingsley Hall community centre in Bromley-by-Bow during his month-long visit. It is a brief chapter that has gone down in the East End’s folk history, which led to the creation of the Gandhi Foundation.

Mahatma Gandhi addresses a large gathering in October at Kingsley Hall. He calls the speech his spiritual message.

He tells the gathering: “I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. He who would test the fact of God’s presence can do so by a living faith and since faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence the safest course is to believe in the moral government of the world and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of truth and love. Faith transcends reason. All that I can advise is not to attempt the impossible.”

1931: Mahatma Ghandi and the people running Kingsley Hall1931: Mahatma Ghandi and the people running Kingsley Hall

Kingsley Hall itself is a strong chapter in East End tradition and culture. It had been opened by sisters Muriel and Doris Lester in 1928 to help bring education and social relief to the poor, after the foundation was laid the year before.

The sisters are from a wealthy philanthropist family who had set up a nursery school in 1912 for the East End’s poor. Their brother Kingsley had left money when he died in 1914 to be put towards “educational, social and recreational activities”.

The sisters buy an old chapel with the legacy and rename it Kingsley Hall in his memory. Volunteers refit it as a nursery and “people’s house”. It becomes a soup kitchen during the Great War, 1914-18, and afterwards establishes links with Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Suffragettes, aided by Muriel Lester who becomes an activist and international peacekeeper.

Kingsley Hall also becomes a shelter and soup kitchen for workers during the 1926 General Strike. The ‘hunger marchers’ on the Jarrow March stay at the Hall in 1935.

1927: Murial Lester (right) with actress Sybil Thorndike watch foundation stonelaying of Kingsley Hall by John Galsworthy, July 14 [photo: Tower Hamlets Archive]1927: Murial Lester (right) with actress Sybil Thorndike watch foundation stonelaying of Kingsley Hall by John Galsworthy, July 14 [photo: Tower Hamlets Archive]

But soon the clouds of war loom across Europe once again as the 1930s draw to a close. Kingsley Hall is used as a war-time rest centre and air-raid shelter for families made homeless in the Blitz.

One girl who lives at the hall during the Blitz, Mary Mather, recalls her stay many years later when she tells the East London Advertiser in 2008: “The whole neighbourhood was evacuated in 1940 including all schoolchildren, apart from essential workers. It was a stressful time.

“A teacher looking after us kids through this time was Christine Lester, who often talked about her cousin Muriel who had been a suffragette with the Pankhursts, had travelled the world before the War and had met Gandhi.

“I came back later as a volunteer during the Easter holidays in 1944, and again in 1945.”

Volunteers like Mary visit poor families during the hardships of the war who needed support. They also organised concerts, plays and dances for the community.

“One Sunday the actress Sybil Thorndyke came and gave a reading,” Mary remembers. “You can imagine what a dramatic impression all this made, not to mention my chat with Muriel Kingsley herself.”

But Kingsley Hall falls into disuse and eventually becomes dilapidated. It is only when Richard Attenborough in the 1980s wants to shoot one of the scenes for his film about Ghandi where he is staying at Kingsley Hall itself that a fundraising campaign is started for its restoration and eventual reopening in 1985.

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