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Hall where Ghandi stayed starts archive to get its memories’ on record

PUBLISHED: 16:32 09 December 2008 | UPDATED: 13:52 05 October 2010

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THE historic Kingsley Hall has hosted such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and the man who made a film about him, Richard Attenborough, during its 80 years as one of the most-distinctive community centres in London’s East End. Now the centre opened by the Muriel sisters in 1928 at Bromley-by-Bow is marking its heritage with an all history’ archive project

TOP: Years of neglect show Kingsley Hall dilapidated until Richard Attenborough (above) rediscovered’ the famous hall and led a campaign to raise funds to reopen it in the 1980s and (inset) wartime resident Mary Mather, now 82, who returned this month for an 80th anniversary archive project...

BELOW: Kingley Hall’s most famous guest, Mahatma Gandhi, meets founder Muriel Lester (to his left) and East End cockney Pearly Kings and Queens when he stayed there in 1931...

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By Victoria Richards

THE historic Kingsley Hall has hosted such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and the man who made a film about him, Richard Attenborough, during its 80 years as one of the most-distinctive community centres in London’s East End.

Now the centre opened by the Muriel sisters in 1928 at Bromley-by-Bow is marking its heritage with an all history’ archive project.

“It’s an all-history activity venture,” explained project co-ordinator Alice Mackay.

“Older people are recording their memories of the hall and youngsters are working with them to produce a DVD. We’re really making history for the future.”

Sisters Muriel and Doris Lester founded a nursery school for the East End’s poor in Bromley-by-Bow in 1912.

Their brother Kingsley left money to be put towards educational, social and recreational’ activities when he died two years later.

They bought an old chapel with the legacy, which they renamed Kingsley Hall in memory of their brother and benefactor.

Volunteers refitted it and used it as a nursery and people’s house’. It was used as a soup kitchen during the First World War and also established strong links with the East London Suffragettes, aided by Muriel Lester who became an activist and international peacekeeper.

The foundation was laid for a new centre in 1927 which opened a year later.

The new Kingsley Hall had a distinguished international figure as its guest in 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi came to London for the round-table conference on India’s future. He declined the Government’s invitation to stay in a West End hotel, preferring instead to shelter among the working class of the East End 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.

The archive project coincides with Kingsley Hall’s 80th anniversary which was in August. It included a stone laying’ with guests like 82-year-old Mary Mather, who lived at the hall during the Second World War when it was used as a rest centre and shelter. She’s now on its board of trustees.

“The whole area was evacuated including all schoolchildren in 1940, apart from essential workers,” Mary recalls. “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 met had Gandhi.

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

Volunteers like Mary visited poor families in the neighbourhood 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 added. “You can imagine what a dramatic impression all this made, not to mention my chat with Muriel Kingsley herself.”

Mary lost touch’ with Kingsley Hall for the next 30 years, but its values influenced much of her career later.

Richard Attenborough shot one of the scenes for his film in the 1980s about Ghandi at Kingsley Hall itself, which was by then dilapidated and disused.

It was Attenborough’s rediscovery’ of the forgotten Kingsley Hall that led to a fundraising campaign for its rejuvenation and eventual reopening in 1985—after years of decay and neglect.


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