New Lottery cash to save ‘hidden chapel’ of Bethnal Green’s Oxford House

Oxford House today

Oxford House today - Credit: Archant

Urgent repairs can soon begin at the historic Oxford House in London’s East End, with its now-famous ‘hidden’ Victorian chapel.

Oxford House today

Oxford House today - Credit: Archant

The charity running the Bethnal Green community arts centre, first opened in 1892, has landed a £1.4 million windfall from the National Lottery, almost half the £2.9m needed for repairs.

This is going towards a new roof to protect the ‘hidden chapel’ with its Victorian wood panelling on the third-floo0r and make it accessible to the public. A new café, new lift and a spruced-up roof garden are also included.

“It brings us a step closer to carrying these much-needed works to secure the building for the next century,” Oxford House chief executive John Ryan said. “It’s a fitting way to celebrate our role in the community life of Bethnal Green.”

The grant also pays for activities to bring to life stories of its 130-year history and the East End’s diverse communities it has served, portrayed by groups that use the Derbyshire Street building like Green Candle Dance, Kayd Somali Arts and the Young & Talented drama school.

Oxford House today

Oxford House today - Credit: Archant

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Oxford House has also raised £25,000 crowdfunding from 125 donors, as well as grants from trusts, foundations and Tower Hamlets council to help meet the balance.

Mayor John Biggs stressed: “It’s important that Oxford House is restored to continue being a valuable community resource where people come together.”

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The story of Oxford House begins in 1884, one of the first settlements established by High Church Anglicans from Oxford University to bridge the social gap and bring well-off students face-to-face with urban poverty.

The first settlement was in the disused St Andrew’s school where Weavers Fields park is today. Students came down from Oxford to interact with and understand “the working man”.

Oxford House today

Oxford House today - Credit: Archant

The movement sprang from the work of the Rector of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett, and his wife Henrietta, to establishing the Toynbee Hall Settlement.

But this was thought at Oxford “not sufficiently religious enough” which led to a settlement at Bethnal Green, providing help to the poor and dispossessed through boys’ clubs, a ‘talk and smoke’ club for working men—and Sunday Bible lectures.

It had a sick fund, poor man’s lawyer, labour registry for those out of work and a mutual loan society. Social issues were also tackled like bad sanitary, unemployment and homelessness.

Oxford House had to move to bigger premises by 1892, when the five-storey red-brick building in Derbyshire Street, off Bethnal Green Road, was opened by the Duke of Connaught, now Grade II-listed.

Oxford House today

Oxford House today - Credit: Archant

The First World War stopped many programmes with Oxford graduates entering the Army and leaving a shortage volunteers. The building was used as an air-raid shelter in 1917.

Mahatma Gandhi gave an impromptu speech at Oxford House in 1931 on his visit to Britain, attracting a crowd of 3,000 outside to cheer him.

The East End became the target of anti-Semitism in the 1930s with the rise of the Blackshirts, Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The Head of Oxford House sent letters to the East London Advertiser of the day and to The Times complaining of the “disturbances caused by the Black shirts”.

The Victorian building was used as an air-raid shelter in the Blitz in 1940, housing up to 600 people. Children from Bethnal Green were evacuated to Wales where Oxford House set up wartime residential schools with accompanying mothers.

The war had broken down social barriers and Oxford House became more a part of the community than an outside settlement that had been dropped into it.

Bethnal Green was changing rapidly during the slum-clearances of the 1950s and 60s, the once-overcrowded district with “a cheerful communal chaos” of back-to-back terraces now facing social isolation in modern high rise housing schemes.

This led to the settlement turning into a community centre, but lack of funds led to many activities being abandoned. The premises were used only by a couple of Community Association groups by then and the chapel on the third floor became virtually forgotten.

But there was a wind of change in 1971. New fundraising projects were started, with emphasis on youth work. Summer play schemes, workshops and programmes with young offenders began.

It became ‘home’ in the 1990s to Somali groups disbursed by the civil war as well as community health projects, pensioners’ clubs, youth work and art workshops.

Arts Council lottery money in 2003 paid for an extension for gallery space, a theatre and a dance studio.

Now this latest raft of Lottery cash is set to put Oxford House sailing into a second golden era.

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