‘New friends here. Want nothing.’

The public life of Muriel Lester (1883–1968) is a remarkable story of localised welfare work, interwoven with political activism on an international stage. It is a story that spans more than five decades and extends from east London to South and East Asia and the Americas. It overturns expectations of class and gender in the first half of the twentieth century – and it includes short but significant chapters on one of the world’s best-known civil rights leaders, Mohandas Gandhi.  

This lecture card from 1953 hints at the range of interests and connections in the extraordinary life of Muriel Lester.
This lecture card from 1953 hints at the varied interests and connections in the life of Muriel Lester.

Muriel Lester’s informal social work started in the early twentieth century in Bow in east London. Shocked by the poverty she witnessed in her chance observations of the lives of the working classes and motivated by spiritually-informed notions of service, charity and social equality, Lester directly initiated programmes to provide free childcare for hard-pressed working families. She also personally stood on open-air platforms in Victoria Park and Hyde Park to speak out against militarism, and in favour of women’s suffrage; and she offered practical support to those affected by the General Strike of 1926. Perhaps her best-known achievement during this period was the establishment of the Kingsley Hall community centre in Bow where all were seen and treated as equal and all had equal access to a range of learning and leisure activities.  

Kingsley Hall was established in the 1920s as a true community centre. All were seen and treated as equal, regardless of (in the language of the time) class, colour or creed.
This 1939 flyer indicates the range of activities on offer at Kingsley Hall.

From the 1920s, Lester travelled across the world campaigning for peace and reconciliation between nations.  It was during these travels that she met Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) in India in 1926. Sharing much in common – most notably their pacifist views and rejection of materialism – the two became regular correspondents and firm friends. When Gandhi visited London in 1931 he refused all offers of luxury accommodation in the West End, preferring instead to share the no-frills communal living enjoyed by Lester and other self-styled ‘apostles of voluntary poverty’ at Kingsley Hall in east London.

In 1941 Lester was partway through a speaking tour of America when she was arrested and imprisoned by British authorities at Trinidad. Speaking against militarism, at a time when Britain were engaged in World War Two,  Lester’s actions were viewed by the British authorities as unpatriotic. At the time of her arrest, Lester was en route from South America to China, Japan and India via the United States. She was almost sixty years old. Fearing negative publicity, the authorities offered Lester hotel accommodation but – true to her egalitarian principles – she refused special treatment and insisted on serving her time in prison.  As this telegram sent to her sister Doris during this period of incarceration shows, Lester accepted her situation with characteristic stoicism and good humour: ‘Imagine Whitsun camp extended. Books. Wonderful birds. Excellent food. No responsibilities. Health never better…New friends here. Want nothing.’  

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1941 telegram from Muriel Lester to Doris Lester from Trinidad.

Alongside her international travels, Lester continued her work in east London. Her selfless and enduring contribution to local life across almost half a century was acknowledged when she was awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Poplar. The East London Advertiser covered the story on 6 March 1964:

‘In recognition of her eminent services to the people of the Borough of Poplar, particularly…her work in founding and maintaining the Kingsley Hall Social Settlement with the help of her sister, Miss Doris Lester; and in recognition also of her valuable contributions in wider spheres to the cause of world peace, the improvement of social conditions, the fight against poverty and disease, and the removal of race and class barriers, Miss Lester [has been] admitted an Honorary Freeman of the Borough of Poplar.’

In fact, Lester always objected to the term ‘settlement’, disliking the suggestion of patronage embedded within its meaning. Kingsley Hall had been run as a community-led initiative with local men, women and children involved in every aspect of decision-making from the first. But, the use of ‘settlement’ aside, this quotation neatly sums up the remarkable story of the life of Muriel Lester. This was a story both of its time and ahead of its time, most notably in its recognition of the need to remove ‘race and class barriers’ an ideal Lester not only promoted in theory but also practised in her daily life and activities.

To find out more about Muriel Lester

The images in this post have been reproduced with kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute. You can find out more about Muriel Lester by visiting the Bishopsgate Library where the Lester Archive is held. A pinterest board was created using items from this collection as part of The Only Way is Ethics project at Bishopsgate Institute in November 2013. This short article provides a useful summary of Lester’s life and achievements – with the emphasis on her spiritual convictions.  An academic treatment by Seth Koven of aspects of the life of Muriel Lester is due to be published by Princeton University Press in autumn 2014. There are also rumours circulating of a feature film.


Speed History – and the 1893 Shoreditch Public Library Opening Ceremony

Inspired by the concept of speed dating, writer Alan Gilbey is pioneering a ‘speed history’ approach to retelling London’s past. In unusual and atmospheric East London locations, historians, writers and actors share stories of local characters or incidents with small audience groups, often using props and costumes to add drama or an element of surprise to proceedings. Every five minutes, Alan rings his bell and the audiences move on to hear another tale told. Across three nights in April and May, this innovative approach to public history is taking place in and around Bishopsgate Institute’s historic library. As part of the Bishopsgate event, I tell the story of the so-called ‘Battle of the Books’, a bitter dispute that split the public library world in the 1890s.

This is the second time I’ve been involved in speed history with Alan. During the ‘East End Back Passages’ walking tour around Shoreditch in December 2012, my story used the experience of chief librarian William Plant of Shoreditch Public Library as a way in to a wider narrative of learning, class and culture in Victorian Britain, taking in silver trowels, streams of bunting and a trip to Monte Carlo on the way. I’m posting my five-minute Shoreditch story, together with a photograph of Plant with his friends and colleagues in the Society of Public Librarians (1895-1930). The photograph was taken during a society summer outing to Kent in 1922 and is reproduced with kind permission of the Bishopsgate Institute and Archive. With public library provision especially vulnerable in a climate of spending cuts, the true story of the Shoreditch Library opening ceremony assumes a particular poignancy and significance. Read the story – and the next time you find yourself alongside one of London’s Victorian public library buildings, pause for a moment to re-imagine the scenes around the time ‘your’ library first opened to the public…brightly-coloured streamers and bunting…brass band music…large crowds of cheering men, women and children…and a shared sense of progress and optimism.

The Shoreditch Public Library 

In 1850 the Libraries Act was passed. It allowed local governments (at that time known as vestries) to use money from the rates (or local taxes) to fund the building of public libraries, free at the point of use, where all might have ready access to newspapers, books and informal learning. London was notoriously slow responding to the Act: some thirty years after it had been passed just two rate-assisted libraries had been built, in Westminster and in Wandsworth. For a variety of reasons (including the 1870 Education Act and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887) the late-1880s and 1890s witnessed a boom in library building programmes across the capital and by 1914 there were more than one hundred main and branch library buildings in London. There was an air of novelty, excitement and anticipation surrounding these new so-called ‘universities of the people’ and one way to get a sense of this is by describing the fanfare or ‘ta-dah!’ of the public library opening ceremony when thousands of local people would come out onto the streets to celebrate each new library launch. Library buildings and nearby trees and railings would be festooned with flags, banners and bunting. Brass bands played jolly tunes before and after the ceremony – often performing at the head of a procession of the local ‘Great and the Good’ as they paraded from the Town Hall to the Library to launch the proceedings in grand style.

The Shoreditch Library Opening celebration was scheduled for May 1893. Eager to book a big-name guest, the new chief librarian William Plant (below, top left) invited the Prime Minister William Gladstone to officiate on the platform. His approach was unsuccessful. Finally, Plant wrote to John Passmore Edwards, a self-made publisher and keen supporter of the library movement. Edwards had financed a number of public library projects in the East End, including at Shoreditch where he had paid the full construction costs of the library premises. Edwards had also officiated at dozens of library opening ceremonies – later in the 1890s he was to open not one but two library buildings in East London in a single day – but he was unable to take the platform at Shoreditch. Instead he proposed a politician friend, the Duke of Devonshire.

On the one hand, then, we have William Plant living and working in a free library located on the obscure fringes of the notorious East End. Surrounded by builders’ rubble, he regularly worked on late into the evening to prepare the library for public use. He fretted over the gilding of the words ‘Shoreditch Public Library’ on the front of the building; he bartered with booksellers ton gain the best price for books for the shelves; he oversaw repairs to the joints in the hot water pipes; he grew anxious about delays to the laying of a new cork carpet; and he expressed concerns about the efficiency of the monogrammed mat purchased for the library entrance. On the other hand, we see the Duke of Devonshire moving from one smart location to another. His staff remained in touch with Plant, issuing peremptory updates on the arrangements for the Shoreditch opening ceremony: his Grace had just left for Monte Carlo; his Grace was enjoying a day at the Races; no, his Grace wasn’t yet able to confirm a date for the ceremony; and so on.

The Duke of Devonshire’s half-hearted engagement with the Shoreditch opening ceremony indicated the ‘Cinderella status’ of the rate-assisted library in the eyes of those who moved in more elevated circles. At the same time, Plant’s grand aspirations for his opening ceremony reminded us that, at grass-roots level, the new free libraries were perceived altogether differently. Before the advent of the rate-assisted library, only those men and women with a disposable income or respectable social connections and/or a stable home address were able to access London’s various circulating and subscription libraries, university and church libraries and large reading rooms – of which the British Museum was probably the best known. Yet even the cheapest reading matter (down to and often including the daily papers) might lie beyond the financial reach of ‘ordinary’ people. So how would the self-improving domestic servant, the out-of-work bricklayer, the impoverished pupil-teacher, the itinerant labourer or the down-at-heel office clerk access books or learning in late-Victorian?

The public library was a truly egalitarian innovation – part of a broader movement aimed at widening access to ‘rational recreation’. Rather than spending their leisure hours in the pub, on the street corner or at the Music Hall, working-class men and women might use their weekends to promenade or perambulate in new public parks. Equally, they might spend their evenings reading or studying in ‘lighthouses of learning’ or ‘temples of light’ as the new public libraries were variously termed. Library user statistics from the period prove that there was a real demand for opportunities for self-acculturation among the urban working and lower-middle classes. By 1914, the city’s 100+ rate-assisted libraries stood at the unofficial heart of local cultural and intellectual life, circulating millions of books annually to hundreds of thousands of readers, as well as getting up popular lecture series’ and reading circles. Little wonder, then, that the new free libraries were known as the ‘universities of the people.’