How a flooded hidden chapel at Oxford House is now Bethnal Green’s jewel in the crown
- Credit: Oxford House
A hidden chapel built by Victorian philanthropists at Oxford for the East End’s poor is finally being reopened to the public after being saved by a £3million rescue operation.
Rainwater damage to the unique timber-lined chapel locked away on the third floor of Oxford House community centre in Bethnal Green has been repaired as part of a total make-over for the centre.
The formal reopening by the mayor of Tower Hamlets this week marks the end of 12 months of restoration work including the chapel that had been out of use due to its run-down condition.
The centre has a new entrance facing Derbyshire Street Pocket Park and a sweeping glass ramp leading into a large public café opened up by knocking down two walls.
The historic staircase has been restored with new lighting illuminating stories on the landings telling the story of Oxford House since 1884.
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The rescue operation came from the National Lottery, local authority grants and a mass crowdfunding launched in 2017 by its chief executive John Ryan.
"We're a small organisation and it has taken a long time to get support," he told the East London Advertiser. "But we got there. Yet it's been only 12 months to transform the whole building."
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A spiral staircase now leads up to a new roof terrace opened to the public for the first time.
"We used to have to get up there by ladder," John recalled. "Now we have a terrace with a 360-degree panoramic view across east London and the City."
But Oxford House has changed, like the community it serves. It's more like an arts centre today than the original settlement for the poor.
"It still aspires to be a community place," John insists. "But it needs to be open to the serve those who have money and those who don't."
Activities include arts, dance, toddlers groups, ballet and performing arts for children. It has a studio and a café that's managed in-house rather than parcelled out to a franchise, reflecting the nature of Oxford House.
Up to 30 charities and social businesses rent office space, but there are still some offices to fill. It hosts groups such as London Citizens Land Trust, Green Candle Dance, Kayd Somali Arts and the Young & Talented drama school.
Oxford House was opened by Anglicans from Oxford University in 1884 to bring students face-to-face with urban poverty and was set up in the disused St Andrew's church school where Weavers Fields park is today. It soon outgrew its humble premises and the present purpose-built centre was opened by 1892.
The East End settlement movement sprang up from the work of the Rector of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett, and his wife Henrietta, who opened Toynbee Hall.
But the Oxford elite thought this was "not religious enough" for the East End's working class and began a new settlement at Bethnal Green to the poor and dispossessed through boys' clubs, a 'talk and smoke' club for working men — and most important Sunday Bible lectures.
Social issues were tackled such as bad sanitary, unemployment, homelessness and sickness. It had a sick fund, poor man's lawyer, labour registry and a mutual loan society.
Mahatma Gandhi gave an impromptu speech at Oxford House in 1931 on his visit to Britain, attracting a crowd of 3,000.
The centre championed the East End's large Jewish community during the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s with Mosley's blackshirt fascists on the march. The Head of Oxford House Settlement sent letters to the East London Advertiser of the day and to The Times complaining of the "disturbances caused by the Blackshirts".
The Second World War broke down social barriers and Oxford House became part of the community rather than a settlement dropped into it.
But lack of funds led to many functions being abandoned by the 1960s, when the chapel on the third floor became virtually forgotten.
Now this latest raft of Lottery cash has put Oxford House sailing into a second golden era.