Gandhi In The East End

| 15 June 2007
photo shows open window

Photo:Stacey Yates

In 1931 Gandhi came to London for the Round Table Conference to press for the Independence of India. Instead of staying in a West End hotel he lived in an East London community centre, Kingsley Hall.

As India prepares to celebrate 60 years since independence Stacey Yates photographs the hall as it looks today, and we explore the story of Gandhi's time there through the eyes of his hostess, Muriel Lester.

The hall is open for historical tours a couple of times a year. You can next visit during Open House Weekend in September.

photo shows peace library

Photo: Stacey Yates

Muriel Lester was a Christian pacifist who in 1925 had visited Gandhi's ashram in India. She shared many political beliefs with Gandhi: like him, she'd rejected her middle class wealth and chosen to live on the bare minimum in sympathy with the very poor. Both were teetotalers concerned about the temptation of the nearly destitute to drown their sorrows in alcohol. They were also critical of the rich, and their tendency to overlook their responsibility for much poverty.

She ran, and lived at, the Kingsley Hall Community Centre in Bow. Her book "Entertaining Gandhi" published in 1932 tells the story of his visit. At 75 years' distance, her style now seems a little prim, but like Gandhi, Lester was pushing a radical agenda.

The dealings of the Round Table Conference are only occasionally mentioned in the book. Instead she describes the relationship between Gandhi and the local people of Bow, the struggle to keep the press at bay, and many public and private conversations about religion and politics. The story begins with some of reactions in England to Gandhi's expected visit:

photo shows cell interior

Photo: Stacey Yates. Gandhi would go to these windows to greet the crowds of Bow.

"My post-bag contained some wonderful epistles now. '...As a patriot how can you harbour this man? Shameful if you do.' One started 'Repent! How can you entertain an old devil like Gandhi What can you be thinking about - an Englishwoman... Black people should know their place.'"

"Of course there were numbers of delightful letters from equally unknown people who were appreciative of the invitation we had given. The letter we liked the best however, was from a Lancashire textile worker......"

Lancashire textile workers had been hard hit by the Indian boycott of British cotton manufacture, and his letter draws out the complex of interdependence that made Britain rely on its Empire:

"May I say... that I am a 'Lancashire working man' who is to some extent suffering through the actions of the 'Indian Congress leaders'? I have a profound admiration for Mr Gandhi... But I believe it is in the realm of practicable possibility to assist our Indian fellow-workers to a higher standard of living and at the same time for our friend Mr Gandhi and his Indian colleagues to modify their views upon the Economic Boycott of Lancashire cotton goods.

"For Lancashire is essentially a manufacturing country and cannot be converted into an agricultural country, therefore the workers of Lancashire must either manufacture cotton goods or live in a state of perpectual economic misery."

The slum tenements that covered much of Bow during the 30s were destroyed by the Second World War. Today the hall is surrounded by 60s housing estates. Photo: Stacey Yates.

One of the issues that that the book subtly brings out is the parallel position of the working classes of London and the 'Untouchables' of India, both of whom face very difficult lives. Lester describes an encounter she has with a Bow man with no hope of work. His unemployment benefit is about to end. He has decided to get himself sent to prison for petty theft so his family will be cared for and avoid the workhouse.

Meanwhile Gandhi describes campaigns in India to try to break down the barriers between Untouchables and other castes, by providing schools where Brahmins and Untouchables mix, and demanding the right of Untouchables to enter Hindu temples.

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Outside Gandhi's rooftop cell Photo: Stacey Yates

Gandhi was from the high Brahmin caste, and although he challenged the caste system at least one Indian at the Round Table conference, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, was unconvinced of Gandhi's ability to speak for Untouchables. Himself an Untouchable, Ambedkar was a brilliant academic, but his skills were unregarded in India.

Inside the cell. Photo: Stacey Yates

Kingsley Hall had small cells on the roof, used by volunteers who agreed to work six days a week from early morning to late at night for their food, the cell to live in and two shillings a week. Gandhi lived in one of these cells for the duration of his visit.

Today Gandhi's cell is preserved, and the adjoining ones have been taken over by the Gandhi Foundation which runs a peace library out of the centre.

Gandhi's lifestyle was a source of great fascination to the press, who invented many stories about his habits.

"The subject of the goats soon became a threadbare jest to us at Kingsley Hall. We heard that a flock of them for the special use of the Mahatma was to be stabled on our roof, that he liked to watch his goat being milked, and many other silly lies all tending to portray an egotistic, eccentric oddity. Actually we found him quite as happy with lemonade as with milk and liking to eat without fuss the ordinary products of whatever country he was visiting."

cell with candle

The cell. Photo: Stacey Yates

Much of their conversation took place at 5.30 in the morning during hour long walks around Bow, past the chemical and drinks factories around Three Mill Lane.They including very frank conversations about religion. Lester admits that she could find little to admire in the institutions of Hinduism, and so they discuss it in depth:

"Our arguments ranged over such subjects as the sacredness of all life, the position of women, Kali worship, untouchability, re-incarnation, caste, cleanliness, fasting, the Bagh-vad-gita, the neglect, torture or killing of cattle, prayer, and idol-worship."

The peace library today with a statue of Gandhi. Photo: Stacey Yates

The book also describes a variety of visits. He's an object of huge fascination in Bow:

"Soon the children are divided into two camps - those who have seen Mr Gandhi and those who haven't, and everyone in the second is doing his best to achieve distinction by joining the first."

They go to visit some of the luminaries of the time - Lloyd George, Lady Astor, as well as meeting students at universities and schools, including at Eton, where he gives a speech. It's clear that there's still an expectation in the period that the products of English public schools will predominantly rule the country:

"You occupy an important place in England. Some of you perhaps will become Prime Ministers and Generals and Administrators in future years. I am anxious to enter your hearts whilst your character is still being moulded and whilst it is still easy to enter. I would like to place before you certain facts as opposed to the false history traditionally imparted to you...."

The roof of Kingsley Hall. Photo: Stacey Yates

Famously, Gandhi also met Charlie Chaplin whilst in London.

"One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled and a little amused at his own bewilderment. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence wa being broken by a deprecatory voice: 'But he's only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.' The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name."

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Rooftop garden. Photo: Stacey Yates

"'But don't you know that name, Bapu?' I inquired, immensely intrigued. 'No' he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give."

"Charlie Chaplin! He's the world's hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures."

"So the following week, further East even than Bow, in Dr Katial's house in a back street in Canning Town, the inhabitants were given the double thrill of welcoming both men."

peace library

The Peace Library. Photo: Stacey Yates

Towards the end of Lester's book, the limited success of the conference becomes obvious.

"A few mornings later Mr Gandhi told me he had had a long talk with the Secretary of State for India, and in the course of discussion about certain eventualities, Sir Samuel Hoare announced that Congress would have to be crushed.

'But surely we couldn't crush Congress, could we?' I inquired, thinking how repression always strengthens the will to resist.

'Of course not' answered Gandhi serenely. 'I begged Sir Samuel to reconsider the position. It would be such a tremendous strain on both communities, ours and yours, if you were to set yourselves to do it. '"

photo shows yellow hall interior with bust of gandhi

Inside the hall. Photo: Stacey Yates

Shortly after his return to India, Gandhi was again arrested. Lester describes how she found out:

"I passed a paper shop. 'Arrest of Gandhi' shouted the placard."

"Thus the unequal fight begins. I believe we British are fordoomed to defeat in this struggle. We cannot fight our best when the enemy persists in keeping up a spirit of friendliness. We cannot work up enthusiasm to nerve us to attack unresisting men for very long."

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Blue Plaque to Gandhi outside the hall today. Photo: Stacey Yates

Her analysis was perhaps a little optimistic: it was another 15 years before the independence of India was finally agreed. But the story she tells of the relationship between two resourceful and canny idealists is still fascinating today.

Kingsley Hall continued as a community centre for many years, then was used by the Philadelphia Association from 1965 - 70. During the 70s it was boarded up and vandalised, making it uninhabitable by 1980. Its connection with the Indian leader made renovation possible. The film-maker Richard Attenborough came to the hall to shoot scenes for his 1982 biopic of Gandhi. He united with the local action group to raise money to repair the hall.

Today it's again used by many communities in Bow, including a large Bangladeshi women's group, a youth group, people practicing Tai Chi, and of course, peace activists.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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