The History of Kingsley Hall

1.Kingsley Hall

A Community Settlement is Founded

1912. Doris and Muriel Lester start a Nursery School at No.58 and 60 Bruce Road. Children are fed, clothed and cared for at fivepence a day. When mothers can't afford fees, children are sponsored by a network of wealthier supporters. The service is soon expanded to include activities for older groups with the aim to provide for the development of the whole person - the mind, body and spirit - in an environment which brought people together regardless of class, race and religion.

Link to photographs of the founders of Kingsley Hall, Muriel and Doris Lester -32KB.

1914. Kingsley Lester dies, leaving what money he has for work in Bow towards 'educational, social and recreational' purposes.

Photograph of Kingsley Lester after whom the Community Centre is named.

1915. Doris and Muriel Lester buy an old chapel on the corner of Eagling and Botolph Road, which is re-decorated and fitted by local volunteers. It is a 'people's house', where friends and neighbours - workmen, factory girls and children of Bow - came together for worship, study, fun and friendship.

Kingsley Hall, as it comes to be known, runs a Nursery, as well as socials, concerts and Adult School. Football, sunday services and summer holday schemes are also initiated. A new way of life has been created within the Hall.


A Radical Stand in the Political Arena

World War I. Doris and Muriel remain pacifists, in the face of criticism. Kingsley Hall runs a soup kitchen and stays open at night for Air Raid Wardens.

At the close of the war, Doris and Muriel join a march to the House of Commons demanding that milk be sent to Germany, where people are starving.

A German child is adopted by members of Kingsley Hall who pay for her to stay with a local family for two years.

1918. Kingsley Hall maintains strong links with the Suffragettes Movement in East London. Activists campaign for Votes for Women in the face of threats.

Muriel speaks on street corners, and is found Sunday mornings in Victoria Park. Local people contribute after her talks towards maintaining services at Kingsley Hall.

Later, Muriel becomes an Alderman on Poplar Borough Council. She fights for basic provisions such as milk f or children under five.

1926. During the General Strikes of 1926, Kingsley Hall becomes a shelter and soup kitchen for workers.

3. Buildings are purchased or built to meet growing demands for services at Kingsley Hall.

1918. Mr. Lester buys a cottage in Loughton, to be used as a holiday place by families from Bow. Named after his deceased wife, Rachel Cottage, as it is known, also serves for holidays for nursery children.

1923. Enough money is saved to build the Children 's House on Bruce Road which is opened by H.G. Wells., it is laid upon Foundation Stones which represent:


Located on Bruce Road, Children 's House is still run as a Nursery School


1928. Larger accommodations are needed as the popularity of Kingsley Hall grows. A new Hall is built on Powis Road, with funds from people in the neighbourhood & donations from wealthy patrons.

A Stone-laying ceremony took place on July 14th, 1927:

Muriel (centre) watches as John Galsworthy places the brick of 'Literature' and Sybil Thorndike the brick of 'Drama' at the building of the new Kingsley Hall Bow, 14th July 1927.

Sir Walford Davies laid the brick of MUSIC;
Mr J.A.R Cairns laid the brick of CITIZENSHIP;
Miss Sybil Throndike laid the brick of DRAMA;
Miss De Natorp laid the brick of EDUCATION;
Mrs D.S. Waterlow laid the brick of OPEN AIR & COUNTRY;
Mr C. Cowles Voysey laid the brick of ARCHITECTURE;
Mr P.R. LeMare laid the brick of COMMERCE;
Dr Maxwell Garnett laid the brick of WORLD BROTHERHOOD;
Miss Mary Arden Shakespeare laid the brick of FRIENDSHIP;
Mr John Galsworthy laid the brick of LITERATURE;
Mrs J. Douglas Watson laid the brick of the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN;
Margaret Martin laid the brick of KINGSLEY HALL CLUB;
George Lansbury laid the brick of SUNDAY EVENING SERVICE;
Mrs Harvey laid the brick of the WOMEN'S CLUB;
Tom McCarthy laid the brick of the WAYFARERS;
Mayor T.J.Goodway laid the brick of the BOROUGH;
Lady Clare Annesley laid the brick of SERVICE;
George L.M. Davies laid the brick of POLITICS;
Gilbert Bayes laid the brick of ART;

Kingsley Hall, Powis Rd was opened on September 15th, 1928.

The building includes residential units or cells, as Muriel Lester referred to them, including the one used later by Mahatma Gandhi. The building also has a clubroom and dining room, kitchen, office and a space of worship.


Many a visitor from within Britain and abroad comes to stay at Kingsley Hall, and join in with activities at hand.

1931. Gandhi's visit
Lylie Valentine was a participant in activities at the hall before she became a worker at the nursery. In her pamphlet: Two Sisters and the Cockney Kids, she recounts the excitement surrounding Gandhi’s stay in the East End:

"The same year (1931), Muriel told us that Mahatma Gandhi (at whose ashram she had stayed in India) was coming over for the Round Table Conference. He had refused to stay at a hotel, but would come if he could live with the working class, so he was to stay at Kingsley Hall....when he arrived, I think all the people in East London waited outside to see him.

"....besides doing his work with the Government, he spent a lot of time with us. He visited the Nursery School and all the children called him Uncle Gandhi. At six o'clock each morning, after his prayers, he took his walk along the canal, talking to workmen on the way.... There was something about him that always lives with the people."

Gandhi's twelve week stay at Kingsley Hall, September 12th to December 12th, 1931, certainly caused quite a stir locally but many of the subsequent stories told have proven untrue. Gandhi did meet Charlie Chaplin but it was at a house in Newham. As for a goat being with him during his stay, it didn't exist! Richard Attenborough, for his film Gandhi, would copy in fine detail actual footage of Gandhi meeting the Pearly Queen and King of East London outside Kingsley Hall.

1935.Hunger Marchers from Jarrow Stay at Kingsley Hall
In 1935, Ellen Wilkinson led the Hunger March from Jarrow to London, and some of the men were put up from Kingsley Hall . . . Again, it was the poor helping the poor. They collected their pennies and opened the Jumble store for them.


1934. Muriel accompanies Mahatma Gandhi on his tour of earthquake-shaken regions in Bihar on his anti-untouchability tour.

1935. Muriel visits the Far East, USA, China, Japan and India to report to the League of Nations on drug investigations in the regions.

Other visits throughout the 1930's take her to America, Holland, Russia, Eastern Europe and Indonesia, promoting peace missions and lecturing at conferences. She is notably appointed Ambassador at large and Travelling Secretary for the International Fellowship Of Reconciliation.

1958. Muriel retires from full-time work. Attempts to secure aid for famine relief in India.

1963. Muriel becomes a Freeman of the Borough of Poplar on her eightieth birthday. She dies in 1967.


Following World War II, with the welfare state undertaking much of the work advocated by the Lester sisters, Kingsley Hall continues as a youth hostel and community activity centre on a quieter note.

1965. R.D. Laing and his colleagues ask the Lesters for use of the Hall as a community for themselves and a few people in a state of psychosis. As a result, Kingsley Hall, became home to one of the most radical experiments in psychology of the time.

The aim of the experiment, known as the Philadelphia Association, was to create a model for non-restraining, non-drug therapies for seriously affected schizophrenics.

Based on the notion that psychosis, a state of reality akin to living in awaking dream, is not an illness simply to be eliminated through the electric shocks favoured in the Western tradition of the time but, as in other cultures, a state of trance which could even be valued as mystical or Shamanistic, it sought to allow schizophrenic people the space to explore their madness and internal chaos.

One notable resident of this experiment was Mary Barnes. Along with resident psychiatrist Joseph Berke, Mary later went on to write "Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness", describing her stay at Kingsley Hall and use of her mental condition as a vehicle for painting and creative expression. Her account became famous in the 1970's when it was used as the basis for a well-received theatre piece.


Unfortunately, given habits of residents in the 'no-holds barred ' experiment, to howl at night or walk into local pubs and finish all drinks on the table, the local community was largely hostile to the Philadelphia project.

Windows were regularly smashed, faeces pushed through the letter box and residents harassed at local shops.

By 1970, after five years of the Philadelphia Association, named after the ancient city of brotherly love, Kingsley Hall was boarded up, and during the seventies it was severely trashed.

In the 1980 's Kingsley Hall was the set for the film "Gandhi". During the filming Richard Attenborough united with the Kingsley Hall Action Group to raise enough funds to carry out an extensive refurbishing. Many of the local community contributed their skills and commitment to bring Kingsley Hall back into a usable community centre.

Kingsley Hall was reopened in February, 1985, and has since gone on to be used for activities ranging from youth groups, holiday outings or arts and photography workshops, to advice work, wedding functions and educational projects.

It also houses the office of the Gandhi Foundation, which pursues interests of peace internationally, in the tradition of its namesake.

In 1995 the Hall suffered two major burglaries and then vandals broke in and burnt down the offices. The committed staff and volunteers were completely gutted by this destruction but continued to run youth groups, advice sessions, clubs and meetings. The new management interprets its remit as serving the local community and the cause of international peace and to do so in exciting and innovatory ways. Some of our current activities and groups include:

Women’s Groups

Regularly attended by 80 Bangladeshi women and 20 Somali women who manage themselves.

Youth Activities

Run by Streets of Growth, Wadajir, Ale Douvan, Urban Youth, Friday Night Youth Club, BbB Cultural & Youth Club, BbB Youth Consortium, Bow Youth Club.

Dance Classes

The local authority obtained a large capital fund for Kingsley Hall in 2005 to improve the facility and accessibility for youth. The first floor Youth Hall was given a wall of mirrors and a dance consortium, called 2 Draw Entertainment, use the hall as a dance studio three nights every week. In addition on Friday's there is Ballroom dancing in the Main Hall.

Other Activities

The larger rooms are ideal for meetings, concerts, plays, parties, wedding receptions and smaller scale conferences. Tai Chi, Tower Hamlets CND, Patchwork, and TUSH a local housing cooperative, hold regular activities and meetings.