George Lansbury, Labour MP opening
the timber-framed building, 1931
'Pushed out from Slumdom' photography
from a Kingsley hall pamphlet, 1930
Kingsley Hall came to Dagenham in 1929. Muriel and Doris Lester, who had previously founded a Kingsley Hall branch in Bow, were asked by residents of the new Becontree Estate to set up a community centre for them. The Lester sisters bought the land with money left to them by their brother, Kingsley, after whom the hall is named. Kingsley Hall started life in Dagenham as a marquee, with a caravan for staff to live in.
“At Bow they had some problems with the drains, so my Grandfather
went to Muriel, who got George Lansbury who was the local MP… Muriel gave
my Grandfather a suit, and when he went through the pockets of this suit he
found a ten shilling note…He went to Muriel, and she said, ‘Well, the suit's
yours, so that must be yours as well.’”
Built after the First World War as part of Lloyd George’s ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ programme, the Becontree Estate provided 29,000 homes for 145,000 new residents. It was the largest housing estate in Europe, and enabled mass-migration from inner-city slums to growing countryside suburbs.
“Hackney was so poor and so terrible. Fleas and bugs and rats in our bedroom… The doctor got us
a house in Dagenham in 1928. There was four houses and the rest of the street wasn’t even built.”
“We landed where Kingsley Hall is, and it was a big field. We used to go over there to play as they were building
the shops... Dagenham was built for Londoners. My Mother said it was like Heaven with the gate open.”
The new Becontree houses had electricity, inside toilets, and gardens, but there were no public amenities for the new residents. Many travelled back to their old neighbourhoods to shop and socialise.
“The people that moved down from Bow kept going back to get their shopping… And they kept
saying, every time they went back, ‘When are you gonna start Kingsley Hall in Dagenham?’ ”
Muriel and Doris Lester were inspired by their Christian faith and believed that this should be expressed by providing a welcome for all, and by engaging with the needs of the entire community. Their strong moral values governed Kingsley Hall, which the Lester sisters considered a ‘teetotal pub’. Their guidance, as well as that of later leaders, inspired the early members of the community church to generously give their time and resources to Kingsley Hall.
“There’s never anything that is a gamble, never hear the word ‘lucky’. There’s never guess the weight of the cake,
or selling raffle tickets. Anything that is in any way regarded as gambling was always unacceptable.”
“Between the ages of about fourteen to sixteen you were in the Youth Club, sixteen to eighteen you were in a club
for older boys and girls, and then from eighteen onwards was the club, which we all wanted to become members, called the Unity Club. They dressed in a different way and they were aspiring… After leaving school it was Kingsley Hall and its leaders who encouraged me. They taught me how to lose the worst aspects of an estuary accent without speaking posh, but at least be articulate. They taught me public speaking which I was grateful for.”
Muriel’s sincere faith and empathy for the poor allowed her to speak very engagingly, regardless of the class, age, or nationality of her audience. She thought worship should be a joyous experience: dignified yet informal, prayerful yet not pompous, and with the space for quiet personal reflection.
In the beginning
Kingsley Hall children's playground, c. 1947
Camp Fire Girls