Hidden chapel uncovered with Lottery Heritage cash for Oxford House in Bethnal Green

Hidden gem... Victorian wood-pannelled chapel at Bethnal Green to reopen to public

Hidden gem... Victorian wood-pannelled chapel at Bethnal Green to reopen to public - Credit: Oxford House settlement

A hidden Victorian chapel tucked away on the third-floor of the historic Oxford House community centre in London’s East End is being reopened to the public for the first time in decades.

The move follows a New Year boost for much-needed repairs to the Grade-II listed complex.

The five-storey building in Bethnal Green is now a step closer to getting £1 million after being awarded an initial £102,800 development funding this week from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The cash will eventually be enough for a completely new roof to replace the leaky Victorian topping, repairing leaded windows and brickwork, opening a new café accessible from Weavers Fields park and a new lift to reopen the roof area to community access.

“This brings us a step closer to restoring a wonderful and hidden Victorian chapel,” Oxford House chief executive John Ryan explained.

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“We’ll be able to open up parts of the building with a new lift and provide more community learning space, to celebrate our 130th anniversary of supporting community life in east London.”

Oxford House opened in 1884 out of the mid-Victorian philanthropic settlement movement supported by the University of Oxford and the High Anglican Church. It ran boys’ clubs, a talk-and-smoke club for working men and Sunday Bible lectures.

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The restoration of the original Chapel was completed back in 1997.

The latest restoration grant also pays for an archive programme to bring “hidden stories” of its 130-year history to life, with a new heritage curator.

Heritage Lottery’s Sue Bowers said: “Oxford House can tell us so much about community life in Bethnal Green, which was at the forefront of social and political events throughout its history. Our initial support to this project will open up these hidden stories and improve the historical building they’re housed in.”

The original Oxford House moved to its present location in Derbyshire Street, off Bethnal Green Road, in 1892, when the solid red-brick building was opened by the Duke of Connaught.

It was used as a shelter from Zeppelin air raids during the First World War, then provided charitable support for the working class through the 1920s and Depression of the Thirties when Bethnal Green had one of the highest unemployment levels in the country.

Mahatma Gandhi gave an impromptu speech at Oxford House during his visit to London in 1931, which attracted a crowd of 3,000 outside to cheer him.

The centre played a part in the fight against the rise of fascism when the Head of Oxford House sent letters in 1933 to the East London Advertiser and to The Times complaining of Anti-Semitic hatred by Mosley’s Blackshirts targeting the East End’s Jewish population.

The building itself was used as a public air-raid shelter during the Second World War, for up to 600 people at a time.

But the settlement went into decline in the post-war years and even closed for a while in 1972. It eventually emerged from its financial crises and celebrated its centenary in 1984 with the Princess Royal as patron.

Today it houses arts and performance groups, Somali organisations, community health projects, pensioners’ clubs and youth work.

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