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

Book Review: ‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

'To End All Wars' by Adam Hochschild

‘To End All Wars’ by Adam Hochschild

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars. London: Pan Books, 2011.

By the time we reach the centenary of Armistice Day in 2018, I get the feeling that we might be suffering from a certain degree of World War 1 fatigue. The sheer number of  documentaries, dramatisations, books, ceremonies and art installations will likely make it difficult for any one thing to stand out. I think that To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild has a good chance of leaving a lasting impression.

The story of the first world war is familiar to most of us, but To End All Wars tells the narrative from an unfamiliar perspective; it is about those people who spoke out against the war. Opposition is not discussed in the traditional narratives of the war, the general perception appears to be that it wasn’t criticised until years afterwards. Admittedly critics of the war were few, tested as they were by the “mass patriotic hysteria” (Hochschild, 2011) but they most certainly did exist. On the 2nd of August 1914, there was a huge anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, with calls for a general strike if war was declared. Prominent campaigners like Keir Hardie, Charlotte Despard and Sylvia Pankhurst continued to oppose the war, with Pankhurst proposing a Women’s Peace Expeditionary Force, where 1000 women would march into no-man’s land between the two armies.

Publicly criticising the war required a great deal of bravery. Those that did were almost instantly ostracised, derided or accused of treachery, labeled as German spies trying to undermine the war effort. Many paid a heavy price for their defiance. For example, the Wheeldon family, socialists who hid soldiers escaping conscription, were convicted in 1917 of the completely false charge of attempting to murder Lloyd George and another member of the war cabinet, victims of a government attempt to disgrace the anti-war movement. 3 family members were sentenced to 5-10 years hard labour after a sham trial that didn’t even last a week.

To End All Wars is arranged chronologically, making the tragic progress of the war appear even more inevitable as the reader can do absolutely nothing to prevent the horrors that we know full well are coming. The style of writing is dramatic, and the book often reads more like a novel than non-fiction. Charlotte Despard, the famous suffragette and anti-war campaigner, was actually the sister of John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until 1915. Hochschild hides this connection though, revealing it like a plot twist at the end of a chapter. The first chapter is spent introducing the key players in the book, developing them like characters. Whilst the approach felt a bit unusual at first, it makes for an engaging and accessible read.

Admittedly, Hochschild does spend a lot of time describing the events of the war, and whilst this is generally useful context, it does sometimes feel like filler, padding out the relatively rare examples of opposition to the war. However on balance this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, that provokes thought about the nature of war and opposition to it, as well as providing a rare new insight into the First World War.

Book Review: ‘Voices From History- East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

'Voices from History: East London Suffragettes' by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

‘Voices from History: East London Suffragettes’ by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor.

Jackson, Sarah and Rosemary Taylor. Voices from History: East London Suffragettes. Stroud: The History Press, 2014.

Voices from History: East London Suffragettes marks 100 years since the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a group led by Sylvia Pankhurst which was asked to leave the Women’s Social and Political Union after they refused to toe the party line. Not content with  campaigning for female suffrage, this inspiring group of women worked to aid and empower the local community. They started a nursery, 3 ‘cost-price’ restaurants and a co-operative toy factory, as well as campaigning for a living wage and better housing. Voices from History is a brilliant account of these achievements and others.

Voices from History is aptly named, telling the story of the ELFS with the aid of numerous first-hand accounts. One of the aims of the book is to celebrate the work of everyone involved in the Federation, even if their names have now been forgotten. The extensive quotes from multiple contemporary sources does this well, highlighting that the achievements of the Federation were down to the efforts of hundreds of individuals, not just well known leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst.

The book is very well contextualised, with female activism in the East End of London both before and after the  ELFS being detailed. I think it is often easy to view groups like the Suffragettes as isolated and unusual incidents, but in fact that is most often not the case, and the structure of the book demonstrates that well. There is a long tradition of radical activism in the East End, and the book situates the ELFS within this history. The final chapter discusses women’s activism in the East End since the suffragettes, right up to the present day. I particularly liked this way of concluding the book, as it shows that the story is not in fact over; there are many more battles to be fought against poverty and inequality in the East End.

Any criticisms that I have are minor really. In the middle of the book there are some wonderful pictures that illustrate the story brilliantly, but I would prefer it if they were interspersed throughout the book, so that you don’t have to keep skipping back and forth to the relevant images. Also, I would have liked more information about the archives and sources used during the research for the book. Even just a few sentences about how and where the research was conducted would have been much appreciated.

Voices from History is a thoroughly enjoyable read about a fascinating period of radicalism in the history of the East End of London. I attended the launch of the book as part of the East London Suffragette Festival in August this year and it was clear that the project was a labour of love for the two authors. Their admiration of the East London Suffragettes, and their determination that the ELFS get the recognition it deserves, shines through the pages of the book. The reader can’t help but feel the same.

East London Suffragettes Festival

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‘The Awakening of Miss Appleby,’ a pro-suffrage play (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Between the 1st and the 10th of August 2014 was the East London Suffragettes Festival (http://eastlondonsuffragettes.tumblr.com), celebrating the centenary of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Over the course of the 10-day period, a series of events were organised across East London, including a film night, talks, a book launch, a walking tour and, on Saturday the 9th, a full day of talks, events, and stalls at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets. Organised solely by volunteers, I think it is safe to say that the festival was a huge success. I attended the book launch, the day at Toynbee Hall, and the walking tour, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at all three.

 

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East London Suffragettes Walking Tour, led by David Rosenberg (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East London Federation of Suffragettes were more radical and broad in their aims than more well-known groups campaigning for women’s suffrage. The group started out as a branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), run by Sylvia Pankhurst. As the mainstream suffrage movement focussed on the emancipation of middle and upper class women, Sylvia worked with working class women in the East End of London.The East End women were asked to leave the WSPU when Sylvia disobeyed her mother’s (Emmeline Pankhurst) orders and spoke at a rally in support of Irish Home Rule. It was at this point that the East London Federation of Suffragettes came about. Whilst other suffrage groups suspended their campaigns during the First World War, Sylvia and her fellow activists kept campaigning, becoming increasingly anti-war as time progressed. As well as campaigning, the group set up a cost-price restaurant, a nursery, and a cooperative toy factory to help support the local community. 

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Poetry in Toynbee Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

All of the above information I learnt during the course of the festival, I had no previous knowledge of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. So for me at least, the festival’s goal of revealing the ‘Hidden Histories’ (one of the panel discussions organised by the festival) of the women of the East End was a resounding success. Another of the festival’s goals was to look forward as well as back, connecting the work of the suffragettes with campaigns that are still going on today, in particular the issue of tackling domestic abuse in East London. This is an admirable goal, and it proves that the study of historical protest has a purpose beyond entertainment or commemoration. Activists and campaigners can learn from their past counterparts, and also take heart and inspiration. Sylvia Pankhurst and the women of the East End were brave, strong, and fiercely independent, embodying qualities that many modern women, campaigners or not, aspire to. We should remember them because they deserve to be celebrated, but also because their actions continue to inspire and empower.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved in the organising and running of the festival, you did a wonderful job.