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The East End's peace messenger

The Kingsley Hall Archive
Local people were eager that Muriel's life be remembered

Muriel Lester was a close friend of Gandhi, a published writer, an international peace campaigner and founded community centres in the deprived areas of Bow and Dagenham in East London. However, her story has been largely forgotten. Until now…

"We always meant to do something on Muriel but it is only now that we're really concentrating on it. She is the main person of the building, the reason why we're here, the instigator and she kept it going for 40 years," says David Baker, manager of the Kingsley Hall Community Centre in Bow.

The history project, bringing together Muriel's written archives and oral histories, has become possible through a £49,900 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, the impetus came from local people who were eager that Muriel's life and work be remembered.

Kingsley Hall

Kingsley Hall was an institution founded by Muriel Lester, with her sister Doris, which has roots going back to 1912 when the sisters ran a nursery for local children.

Kingsley Hall
Kingsley Hall was named after Muriel's brother who had died young

Over the years the nursery would expand and become a 'People's House' where local residents could study, worship and enjoy social events.

Muriel and Doris named Kingsley Hall, after their brother who had died young. It is still a working community centre that caters for local youth and women's groups and hosts activities such as dancing and tai-chi.

"It's a building owned by, and for, the local community," says David.

Today, Kingsley Hall is best known for Gandhi's three month residence in 1931 while he was attending a major London conference on the future of India. People still come from all over the world to visit Kingsley Hall because of this connection - most recently the son of Gandhi's secretary was shown around.

However, few visitors will be aware that Gandhi's stay was only possible because of his close friendship with Muriel Lester. Even fewer will know anything about Muriel.

Where Gandhi slept in Kingsley Hall
The room where Gandhi slept in Kingsley Hall has been preserved

Turning her back on privilege

Muriel Lester was born in Leytonstone in 1883 into a prominent Baptist family. Her father and grandfather had been successful in the shipbuilding industry, which meant she was able to enjoy a relatively privileged upbringing.

Despite her comfortable background, Muriel turned down the opportunity to attend University and embark upon a career for herself. Instead, she decided to devote her life to social justice and helping others.

There are several factors why Muriel travelled down this path. She was very religious and believed that helping others was an important part of her faith.

Muriel Lester
Muriel's faith was very important to her

In addition, she was heavily influenced from reading about Gandhi's non-violent struggle for Indian Independence. From 1926 onwards, she would make several visits to India, and once stayed at Gandhi's ashram where they eventually became friends.

The great man once gave Muriel the cheeky compliment: "I think of all my English friends, known and unknown; you are by no means the least."

Gandhi in the East End

Muriel invited Gandhi to stay at Kingsley Hall should he ever visit London, which he did in 1931.

"He must have had a lot of respect for her because he must have met a lot of people who said I'm going to do this for you and I'm going to do that," says David Baker.

Gandhi in London 1931
Gandhi stayed in Kingsley Hall when he visited London

"When Muriel said she was going to do something she went and did it, which is an unusual trait that she and Gandhi shared."

"He enjoyed his stay here and it was wise because if he had stayed in the West End the press would have lampooned him. He wouldn't have had a life, but here he was left alone and walked around in the streets. He wanted to stay with people that he lived with in India, i.e. the poor."

Peace campaigner

Just like Gandhi, Muriel believed that individuals could change the world through their actions. She was a committed pacifist, who had attempted to meet Hitler to avert the Second World War. She was arrested on at least a couple of occasions for her anti-war sentiments during the battle with the Nazis.

She was an advocate of women priests and wrote several books about her travels, her religion and politics. Muriel would later spend many years travelling the world as secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation - a Christian pacifist organisation.

"Muriel was spiritual and yet very determined. At the same time, you read her notes and she wasn't worried about how she appeared, had a very good sense of humour and was a very good writer," says Alice Mackay, the project coordinator for the Muriel Lester archives.

David Baker & Alice Mackay
Kingsley Hall's David Baker with project coordinator Alice Mackay

"People always say that Doris was the one who was much more friendly and jolly. People could relate to Doris more easily."

"Muriel, reading between the lines, was a little scarier. She was more of an intellectual and when she started to run Kingsley Hall she had very strong ideas about how things should be done… Everything had to be scrubbed every single day at the right time and in the right place."

"Mostly, people say Muriel was wonderful but we really loved Doris! They were not set apart, they lived in the community and everybody knew them."

The project

A new website will launch in May 2009 that will become an online archive of Muriel Lester's writings, photos and oral histories. Many local people who knew Muriel have already come forward and been interviewed. On the website, people will also be able to add their own memories.

"All these people are coming from different backgrounds, parts of the country and who have different connections with Kingsley Hall and the Lester sisters," says Alice.

"But they all say that their lives were hugely affected and wouldn't have been the same without this."

Muriel Lester died in 1968, aged 82. She never married and never had children. But now it is unlikely that she will ever be forgotten.




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