Kingsley Hall celebrates its 90th anniversary where Gandhi stayed in 1931
PUBLISHED: 16:39 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:49 14 September 2018
The historic Kingsley Hall where Mahatma Gandhi stayed in 1931 to be among the East End's poor is marking its 90th anniversary tomorrow.
The centre in Bromley-by-Bow opened in 1928 by philanthropist sisters Muriel and Doris Lester is remembered for Gandhi’s London visit to attend the Imperial Conference on India’s future.
He lived there for 12 weeks as guest of Muriel to be with the working class, rather than stay in the West End feted by the government.
His visitors at Kingsley Hall included Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George, the Archbishop of Canterbury and east London’s Pearly King and Queen.
Lylie Valentine who worked there in the 1930s later recounted in a pamphlet: “Muriel told us that Mahatma Gandhi was coming over for the Round Table Conference and refused to stay at a hotel, but to live with the working class, so he was to stay at Kingsley Hall.
“All the people in East London waited outside to see him. He spent a lot of time with us and visited our nursery school and all the children called him ‘Uncle Gandhi’. There was something about him that always lives with the people.”
Kingsley Hall became the community hub of the 1930s and through the war years.
Sylvia Bishopp met the Lester sisters as a small child when her mum took her to the centre in Powis Road in 1931.
“Kingsley Hall was like a big light,” Sylvia recalled in the East London Advertiser when she returned in 2008 at the age of 84 for a heritage project. “Muriel and Doris taught me what ordinary people could do and I gained the confidence to get further in the world.” But it has a turbulent history. It was used from 1965 for one of the most radical experiments in psychology of the time by the Philadelphia Association for non-restraining, non-drug therapies for treating schizophrenia.
The project with schizophrenic patients living at the centre brought opposition in the community. The controversial project was finally wound up in 1970 and Kingsley Hall was boarded up.
The site remained empty through the 70s, but attracted vandalism. Its founder never lived to see the hall become derelict. Muriel had died in 1968 aged 86.
The Lester sisters came from a wealthy family, Christian socialists fighting to improve conditions of the East End’s working class.
Muriel arrived in the East End at the turn of the 20th century and was joined by her sister Doris in the First World War. They bought a disused chapel in Eagling Road and set up the first Kingsley Hall in 1915, named in memory of their brother Kingsley who had died the year before. It was a ‘people’s house’ where neighbours, workmen, factory girls and children came together for worship, study and friendship. A shelter and soup kitchen was opened there for workers during the 1926 General Strike.
"Gandhi refused to stay in a hotel for the Round Table Conference on India, so he stayed at Kingsley Hall. He visited our nursery and all the children called him ‘Uncle Gandhi’. There was something about him that always lives with the people."
But the demand outgrew the chapel and foundations were laid for the present building in Powis Road in 1927. It was opened a year later on September 15 with ‘celebrity’ sponsors including author John Galsworthy, actress Sybil Thorndike and Poplar’s MP and former mayor George Lansbury.
Kingsley Hall became the hub of the community throughout the Depression of the 1930s.
But the post-war Welfare State in 1948 undertook much of the social work advocated by the Lester sisters. The hall became less prominent and was used as a youth hostel and neighbourhood centre.
Community centres had gone out of fashion by the 1970s and the building was eventually abandoned—until being ‘rediscovered’ a decade later by Richard Attenborough who used its facade to film a scene in his Gandhi biographic movie.
Campaigners then raised the funds to reopen Kingsley Hall on March 2, 1985, for youth groups, arts and photography workshops, advice surgeries and education projects.
Kingsley Hall also houses the Gandhi Foundation, pursuing international peace in the tradition of its namesake.