Muriel Lester Collection

Peace campaigner, community worker and writer, Muriel Lester was born in 1883 at Gainsborough Lodge, Leytonstone, Essex, the third daughter of a wealthy businessman, Henry Edward Lester, and his third wife, Rachel Mary Goodwin. In 1908 Muriel and her sister Doris moved to Bow (now Bromley by Bow) in London’s East End and became active in providing social and educational activities in the community. The sisters were joined by their younger brother, Kingsley, who died in 1914. The following year, with financial help from their father, the sisters bought a disused chapel as a ‘teetotal pub’ to give local people,evening meeting place. It was named Kingsley Hall, in memory of their brother. Muriel and Doris then set up the first purpose-built ‘Children’s House’ in London. Designed by Charles Cowles Voysey according to the ideas of Maria Montessori, it was opened in 1923.

From 1922 to 1926, Muriel served as an Alderman on George Lansbury’s radical Poplar Borough Council, chairing the Maternal and Child Welfare Committee. In 1928 Cowles Voysey designed a new, purpose-built Kingsley Hall for the sisters, combining the functions of a community centre and place of worship. Muriel herself took on the role of vicar. In 1929 the sisters set up a second Kingsley Hall was on the vast new Becontree Estate in Dagenham, Essex, where many Bow residents had been relocated as part of the slum clearance programme.

Muriel took a pacifist stance in 1914 and was a founding member of the Christian pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR). She travelled to India in 1926 to meet M.K.Gandhi: this was the start of a warm friendship. In 1931, attending the Round Table Conference on Indian independence in London, Gandhi stayed at Kingsley Hall in Bow. In 1934 Muriel Lester began her work as travelling secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Over the next years she carried a message of Christian non violence into the very heart of conflict situations all over the world. She had a large following in the USA.The success of her anti-war speeches there led to her detention in Trinidad in 1941. She mixed easily with the humble but impressed many influential figures, among them Clement Attlee, George Lansbury, Lord Lytton, Lord Halifax, Gandhi, Nehru, Kenyatta, Mandela, H.G. Wells, Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Chiang Kaishek, Sybil Thorndike, and Vera Brittain.

Muriel Lester was an exponent of practical Christianity, but her writings also reveal deep spirituality. In addition to copious Travel Letters, She wrote numerous articles and had over twenty works published, including two autobiographical accounts, It Occurred to Me (1939) and It So Happened (1947). During a trip to Japan she was once dubbed Mother of World Peace; more formal recognition of her work came in 1964 when Muriel was awarded the freedom of the borough of Poplar. She died on 11 February 1968 at her home, Kingsley Cottage, Loughton, Essex. A thanksgiving service was held at Kingsley Hall, Bow, on 4 April; her body was donated to science. Part adapted from the entry by Jill Wallis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies.

Many of Muriel and Doris Lester’s private papers were stored after their death at Kingsley Hall Dagenham by Sydney Russell. Jill Wallis included some other material that she had gathered when writing Muriel’s biography, such as the photocopied matter from Swarthmore College and copies of photos and other donated or loaned items.

The collection consists of correspondence, diaries and autobiographical notes, scrapbooks, photographs and drafts, produced by Muriel Lester as founder of Kingsley Hall and travelling secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The archives also contain books and printed records of the two Kingsley Halls and Children’s House, Bow, Doris Lester’s personal papers and the files collected by Sydney Russell as Minister Warden of Kingsley Hall, Dagenham.

This archive entry was last updated on 11/11/2018. Information incorrect or out-of-date?
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