Disappointed Borrowers at East Ham Public Library

East Ham Public Library opened in east London on 2 January 1899. More than 1,400 borrowers’ tickets were issued within a fortnight of the opening date. By the end of the month, chief librarian William Bridle (1868-1927) was growing concerned about the dwindling numbers of books remaining on his library’s shelves.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900
Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900

On 27 January 1899, he submitted a report to his library committee managers that included the following urgent appeal for more stock:

The result of starting with an insufficient supply of books is that within a month I have had to refuse further admittance, and practically close the Library to all but the fortunate 1,500 readers who were able to make early application [for tickets], thereby causing disappointment, even disgust, among the large numbers of people who are now patiently awaiting their turn to become members [of the lending library]. To meet our pressing needs, the stock of books should be doubled at once. We cannot do less than this and keep faith with the public. We are, by our action in opening the library, inviting them here, and we must be prepared to keep pace with their increasing demands.

This story of immediate, almost unmanageable, demand for reading matter was repeated in new public libraries across London at the turn of the twentieth century. From Hither Green in south-east London to Chiswick in west London to Willesden in north-west London to Lambeth in south London, chief librarians struggled to keep pace with borrowers’ needs. Many became resourceful in their efforts to secure additional stock. Some librarians circulated begging letters to local businesses or authors for books and others got up fund-raising events to secure money to buy additional stock – all to ‘keep faith’ with a reading public whose appetite for literature appeared limitless.



Would you recognise this?

In the late 1960s Vi Martin visited Ilford in Essex. She sent a postcard of her trip to Mrs Rockwell. The postcard showed the super-modern shopping parade at the corner of Ilford Broadway, featuring Bettafit Shoes, Lunn Poly travel agents and the exotically French fashion house ‘Maison Riche’.

Bishopsgate_2_3024  On the back of the postcard, Vi wrote:

Would you recognise this as old Ilford Broadway? My sister and I often talk of the old days and compare the shops and roads and traffic. Thought this might interest you. All the best.

‘The Bethnal Green Humpty Dumpty’

Mancherjee Bhownaggree c.1900. George Howell Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1851-1933) came to Britain from Bombay (now Mumbai) to study law in 1882.* He was part of an informal network of western-educated Indian reformists based in late-Victorian London that included Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Naoroji was elected Liberal MP for Finsbury North in east London in 1892, becoming Britain’s first Asian MP – by a margin of just five votes.

Although he had played a part in Naoroji’s successful election campaign, Bhownaggree rapidly became disillusioned with the Liberal policies Naoroji favoured and by 1894 he was seeking party backing to stand for election as a Conservative candidate. The Conservative party welcomed the chance to manage the political career of a man they believed would provide valuable support in their efforts to combat the influence of the Indian National Congress both in India and Britain; and in 1895 Bhownaggree was selected as the Conservative candidate for Bethnal Green North East in east London.

Here we have an unknown and highly-educated Asian man standing against the self-educated trade unionist leader George Howell (1833-1910) in an impoverished and overcrowded area of inner east London that represented home to a mainly artisan population. Howell had comfortably held Bethnal Green North East as a Liberal-Labour candidate since 1885. It barely requires stating that this was viewed as an ‘unwinnable’ seat but, with Conservative Party guidance and support, Bhownaggree set about an energetic campaign to secure local votes. Extant election ephemera provides evidence of the character of his campaign:

Campaign flyer (front). George Howell Archive, Bishopsgate Institute.

The front of this flyer highlighted the broad implications for wages and employment of allowing ‘alien’ immigration to continue unchecked, together with the economic dangers of adopting a Liberal approach to free trade between nations – according to the Conservative standpoint. The reverse side of the flyer explicitly stated what the Tory Party believed would be the result of these expansive policies for the British-born boot makers, tailors and cabinet makers of east London:

Campaign flyer (reverse). George Howell Archive at Bishopsgate Institute.

Increased rent; overcrowding and insanitary dwellings; sweated trades; and competition for jobs. Bhownaggree’s was a campaign seemingly exclusively concerned to appeal to workers’ anxieties around ‘foreign pauper aliens’ an especially hotly-contested topic in the late-Victorian East End due to the relatively large Eastern European population that had settled around Whitechapel and Stepney, in particular, since the 1880s. According to Hinnells and Ralph (reference below), it was local concerns about immigration ‘plus a good oratory style, an arduous and effective campaign, some Liberal complacency and a national swing towards the Tories, [that] provided the combination of factors which yielded the surprising success.’ The ‘surprising success’ being that Bhownaggree defeated Howell to win the Bethnal Green North East election. A popular constituency MP, Bhownaggree was re-elected in 1900 on an increased majority.

The awkward fact that Britain’s first ever Asian Conservative MP gained electoral success by running an outspoken campaign against ‘foreign pauper aliens’ may explain why the early story of minority representation in Britain has never been sufficiently analysed or celebrated in wider historical narratives. Few people today are aware that London had two Asian MPs in the 1890s. This is surely partly because the case of Mancherjee Bhownaggree cannot be at all comfortably accommodated within the most immediately relevant or obvious existing thematic frameworks, such as empire, colonialism, post-colonialism or multiculturalism. Yet Bhownaggree’s political career is an intriguing and singular one. As Hinnells and Ralph have pointed out, he has been harshly treated by posterity, most notably in India where an argument with one rival damaged his reputation in a media that not only nicknamed him ‘Bow-and-Agree’, for what was seen as his slavish support for Anglo-Indians (that is, British people living in India), but also and frequently subjected him to personal insults – including the title of this piece, taken from the Madras Standard of 1897. Other sources suggest a more positive interpretation is possible. Sensitively handled, the career of the ‘Bethnal Green Humpty Dumpty’ has much to tell us about such topics as: Anglo-Indian relations and networks; working men’s voting patterns in east London; grass roots responses to immigration in the East End; and minority representation in Britain since the end of the nineteenth century. I would certainly be interested to read a comparative study of the lives and achievements of Naoroji and Bhownaggree.


*The content of this post – including the Madras Standard reference – is largely taken from John R. Hinnells and Omar Ralph Mancherjee Bhownaggree 1851-1933 (1995), which itself drew upon an unpublished M.phil thesis by C. Monk ‘Members for India’ (1985). Additional biographical information is available here. The post was inspired by an accidental discovery in the George Howell archive at Bishopsgate Institute. The images are from the Howell archive. They have been reproduced by kind permission of the Institute.



Big Bow Day Out

Visiting London this summer and fancy doing something different? What about a big day out in Bow in east London? Begin your visit with a ride on the Docklands Light Railway to Stratford where you can explore the recently opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Bring your swimming things to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy an Olympic-quality swimming experience at municipal pool prices in the Aquatics Centre. Then hop back on the DLR to Bow Church station. If the weather is kind you might picnic in the peaceful and pretty Memorial Garden alongside Grove Hall Park.


From there, slip into the Nunnery to view the East London Group of Artists Exhibition (on until Sunday 13 July). Many of the paintings displayed depict a curiously soft-focus inter-war East London. Railways, wharves, roads and bridges are popular themes – and the surrounding streets are often eerily deserted.

Detail from Bow Bridge (Walter Steggles), undated.
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928
Detail from Railway Fence (Walter Steggles) c.1928.

Some half a dozen works exhibited feature localities that lie beyond East London – but invariably these possess an East End link. Canvey Island in Essex, for example, has long been a popular destination for day trippers from the city.

Detail from Canvey Island (Walter Steggles) c.1933

On leaving the exhibition, call in at the neighbouring Carmelite Cafe for slices of home-made cake served on cute bone china plates. Or, for a more gritty or traditional east London experience, visit the Bow Bells pub on Bow Road (keeping an eye out for the lurid paintwork on the walls as you head up the stairs to the toilets). Make time to appreciate some of the smaller historic details as you wander between station, park, gallery, pub and tube, such as this beautifully-worked wrought-iron SALOON LOUNGE sign over the doorway of the former Kings Arms pub on Bow Road.


If you have time afterwards, you might like to view the spot where peace activist Mohandas Gandhi stayed when he visited London in 1931. Kingsley Hall is situated just off the Bow Road and offers meals in its 3 Bees Cafe every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.

‘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.

Adventures in the Wild East

On Saturday I visited the News from Nowhere Club in East London to give a talk on the history of the Eton Manor Boys’ Club. It was a really enjoyable evening with some great questions at the end from an attentive and interested audience. It was especially lovely to have a couple of Eton Manor ‘Old Boys’ present. Not least because it saved me from having to sing the club song as a solo towards the end of the talk. Thanks to Brian Cole, in particular, for travelling so far to join us – and for kindly donating two items of club ephemera from his personal collection to the Eton Manor archive.

I promised to share the content of the talk as a pdf so that those unable to attend could read it in document form.

Adventures in the Wild East_Michelle Johansen_2013

Unfortunately I can’t share the 80+ images I showed as part of the talk but these are freely available to view and enjoy in the Bishopsgate Institute archive (for anyone able to travel to central London). To indicate the riches in the archive, here are three photographs from a set of colour slides donated by Club ‘Old Boy’ Peter Wilson. The images show Eton Manorites at summer camp during the late 1950s and are reproduced here with the permission of Bishopsgate Institute & Archive.