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Oxford House cleans up with £1.4m Lottery cash and more to restore its flooded chapel

PUBLISHED: 17:00 18 October 2019 | UPDATED: 20:01 18 October 2019

Former Bethnal Green Rector of St Matthew's parish Kevin Sculley looks round the restored chapel with the current rector Erin Clark, to the sounds of cellist Zosia Jagodzimska. Picture: Mike Brooke

Former Bethnal Green Rector of St Matthew's parish Kevin Sculley looks round the restored chapel with the current rector Erin Clark, to the sounds of cellist Zosia Jagodzimska. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

A former rector returned to the East End looking round a hidden chapel now restored that was almost wrecked by floodwaters whenever it poured down from the heavens.

Disaster... buckets used to catch rainwater that had damaged the chapel at Oxford House. Picture: Oxford HouseDisaster... buckets used to catch rainwater that had damaged the chapel at Oxford House. Picture: Oxford House

Kevin Skully came back to Bethnal Green for the official reopening of Oxford House centre after its £3million restoration which included replacing the very leaky roof above the Victorian chapel tucked away on the third floor.

"It was common to hide chapels on the upper floors in Victorian times," he reflected.

"This was the quietest place as the ground floor was always noisy and busy."

Mural at entrance to Oxford House depicting its social activities. Picture: Mike BrookeMural at entrance to Oxford House depicting its social activities. Picture: Mike Brooke

The former Rector of St Mathew's parish at Bethnal Green, now warden of St Barnabas College in Surrey, looked round the unique oak-panelled chapel with St Mathews' current rector Erin Clark, with an accompaniment from 'cellist Zosia Jagodzimska brought in for the occasion.

Among the VIPs at the reopening was MP Rushanara Ali, worried about lack of government help for such social movements.

She told the East London Advertiser: "The government is missing a trick by not supporting institutions like Oxford House.

Bethnal Green's MP Rushanara Ali... Bethnal Green's MP Rushanara Ali... "The government is missing a trick not supporting institutions like Oxford House." Picture: Mike Brooke

"These wonderful institutions have come from good will and philanthropy, but struggle without funding and having to rely on the Lottery."

A crowdfunding campaign was started in 2017 to renovate the whole centre, including saving the chapel.

John Ryan, Oxford House chief executive for the past 11 years, went cap-in-hand to Tower Hamlets Council, then to the National Lottery which coughed up £1.4m towards the restoration.

Chief Executive John Ryan raised £3m to restore Oxford House to its former Victorian glory. Picture: Mike BrookeChief Executive John Ryan raised £3m to restore Oxford House to its former Victorian glory. Picture: Mike Brooke

He told his VIP guests: "We had plastic buckets and sheeting covering the entire chapel before we got a temporary roof on. It was grim.

"You'd hear the rainwater making some kind of musical accompaniment, which was kind of depressing."

The ambitious makeover completed in just 12 months includes a new spiral staircase leading up to a roof terrace now open to the public for the first time.

Canary Wharf seen from Oxford House rooftop terrace now open to the public for the first time. Picture: Mike BrookeCanary Wharf seen from Oxford House rooftop terrace now open to the public for the first time. Picture: Mike Brooke

"We used to have to get up there by ladder," John remarked. "Now we have a 360-degree panoramic view from Canary Wharf to the City."

Activities at the centre include arts, dance, toddlers groups, ballet and performing arts for children. It hosts a score of voluntary and social organisations.

Oxford House was opened by Anglicans from Oxford University in 1884 to bring students face-to-face with urban poverty. It soon outgrew its humble premises and the present purpose-built centre was opened by 1892.

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.

Its settlement ethos with its mission to minister to the poor continued right up to the Second World War.

Social barriers were changing in post-War Britain, however, and Oxford House soon became part of the community rather than a welfare mission.

But lack of funding led to many functions being abandoned by the 1960s, when the chapel on the third floor became virtually forgotten.

Now this latest Lottery cash has put Oxford House into a new golden era.

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