Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Lester, 1883-1968

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Muriel Lester, a social reformer and pacifist.


Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Social reformer and pacifist Muriel Lester (Source: www.muriellester.uk).

Muriel Lester was a social reformer, pacifist, feminist and non-conformist. Like Charlotte Despard, she turned away from her privileged life, dedicating herself to helping the poor and advocating peace. Born in Leytonstone on the 8th of February 1883 to a wealthy Baptist family, by the time of her death aged 83 she had travelled the world, founded a social centre that still exists today, and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice.

Muriel moved to Bow in East London with her sister Doris in 1908. At the start of the twentieth century the East End was crowded and very poor. Many middle- and upper-class humanitarians were embarking on charitable projects in the area around this time, such as the lesser-known Pankhurst daughter Sylvia. In 1915, with money from their father, the Lester sisters bought a disused chapel and opened it as a ‘teetotal pub’, so that local people could have a place to meet in the evenings. They named it Kingsley Hall, after their brother who had died the previous year.

Between 1922 and 1926 Muriel was an Alderman on the radical Poplar Borough Council, and she chaired the Maternal and Child Welfare Committee. In 1928 a new purpose-built Kingsley Hall was designed as a community centre and place of worship. Muriel herself took on the role of vicar. Her spirituality was an important part of her campaigning throughout her life. In 1929 Muriel and Doris set up a second Kingsley Hall in Dagenham, where many Bow residents had been relocated after huge slum clearance programmes in the East End. Both Halls are still going strong today.

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

Modern-day Kingsley Hall in Bow (Source: Peter Thwaite).

But community work in the East End was not the only way in which Muriel tried to make the world a better place. She was also a dedicated pacifist, and in 1914 was a founding member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), a Christian Pacifist organisation which is also still active today. In 1926 she travelled to India and met Gandhi, with whom she developed a strong friendship. When he travelled to London for a conference in 1931, he stayed at the Kingsley Hall in Bow.

In 1934, Muriel began working as a secretary for the International FoR. She travelled the world spreading the message of non-violence. During a trip to Japan she was dubbed the ‘Mother of World Peace’, and she was detained in Trinidad in 1941 because of the success of her pacifist speeches in the US.

Muriel and Doris Lester

Muriel and Doris Lester (Source: Womb Magazine).

Muriel Lester was a woman who never stopped trying to help people. This mission continued even in death, as her body was donated to science. She used her privilege to benefit others, and demonstrated incredible bravery by taking the unpopular and frequently dangerous position of pacifist during two world wars. I make a point of featuring admirable women in the Turbulent Londoners series, and Muriel Lester would certainly make a good role model for any young woman.

Sources and Further Reading
Anon. “Lester, Muriel.” Bishopsgate Institute. No date, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-and-Archive-Collections/Protest-and-Campaigning/Lester-Muriel
Anon. “Muriel Lester.” Wikipedia. Last modified 15th May 2015, accessed 13th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Lester
Anon. “The East End’s Global Peace Messenger.” BBC. Last modified 10th October 2008, accessed 13th June 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2008/10/08/muriel_lester_feature.shtml

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.


 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.

Sources

History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).