Remembering my days at Kingsley Hall

by Irene Lanegan nee Lague

Some of my happiest memories are the times I spent at Kingsley Hall. In 1940, just after World War II had started, my friend took me there. To join the Youth Club you had to be fifteen, I was only fourteen and a half so I was worried that I might be turned away, so in I went trying hard to look fifteen. To protect London from the bombing by enemy aircraft a blackout was in operation; so all street lamps were turned-off; the windows of every house were blacked-out. Leaving the streets we walked through on our way there in total darkness. But as I entered the main hall it was the brightness of the lights and the warmth of the room, Kingsley Hall being one of the few places, in Bow, with central heating, that gave me a welcome that I remember to this very day. Luckily I must have looked fifteen because I wasn't turned away.

After that, most evenings I was to be found in Kingsley Hall, with my many friends, dancing to the records of the famous orchestras of the day, such as Victor Sylvestor. One of the great pleasures of my early years was ballroom dancing. It was at Kingsley Hall that I learned to dance. George Reeves, a boy about the same age as me taught me, he was a lovely dancer. The Youth Club meeting room was always a hive of activity. The week was divided up into dance nights and club nights when you could play table tennis, snooker, billiards or just sit around chatting with your mates.

It was in January 1941, and as usual being a club night I went along, but the first thing I noticed when I entered the clubroom was a young man who I had never seen before. To me he was a total stranger. He was a local boy on leave from the army, known by all except me, so within minutes he was part of the gang. He was only seventeen but had falsified his age to join the army, eighteen being the accepted age. Billy had been a member of Kingsley Hall from a very early age. He knew both Muriel and Doris Lester, the sisters who had built Kingsley Hall and Children's House. Billy and his friends, at week-end, would cycle from Bow in east London to the Lesters' home in Loughton. With Epping Forest to roam in, a good time was had by all. Billy was also a member of KH's football team. Kingsley Hall was a place where there was never any trouble or rowdiness it was simply not allowed. The Lesters and their staff were very kind people who were truly respected by the teenage boys and girls.

Being wartime every thing was top secret; soldiers were not allowed to let relatives know where they were being sent to or when they would be home on leave, they just came home unannounced. I always hoped to see Billy when he was home on leave from the army and for some reason he always made sure I knew when he was home. Soon we started to date or become a couple as they say these days. We did most of our courting at Kingsley Hall so when we decided to get engaged the engagement, much to our delight, was announced in KH's Monthly Magazine.

We had planned to marry soon after our engagement. Sadly it was not to be. In 1943 Billy's regiment was sent to Italy. It was in Italy that some of the longest and bitterest battles of the Second World War were fought. Billy was involved in these battles. He fought in the long battle to recapture Monte Cassino. When victory in Europe was declared in 1945, 1 was hopeful that Billy would soon return to his home in Bow, London and we would be reunited. But once again it was not to be, after nearly three years of being up the front in many major battles, he was sent to India. Another year was to pass before he returned home. During the four years he was away I waited patiently but as each day passed I became ever more fearful of his safety. I was always praying that he would be returned safely to his family and me. When the day dawned when he was to return I was overjoyed. But we had to have a period of getting to know each other again. Billy had gone out as a boy and returned as a man. But I aam proud to say our marriage in 1947, was followed by fifty-six happy years together only to be ended with Billy's death in 2003. Billy Lanegan was a man who gave me and his family so many years of love and happiness and when his country called him he, like his comrades who fought with him, was not found wanting.

In our later years we would often sit and talk about the good times and the many good friends we had from our Kingsley Hall days, friendships that have lasted right up to this very day. I shall always remember Muriel and Doris Lester for the long lasting happiness they brought into my life. If the Lesters had never come to Bow I may have never met that young soldier boy Billy Lanegan who I first met at Kingsley Hall.