Hidden, at the moment, down a long builders alley is a building that is more than just a building, it represents 130 years of social catalyst for change in the East End.
The building is called Toynbee Hall, as is the charity that was set up back in 1884 by Samuel Barnett, a Church of England vicar, and his wife Henrietta.
They needed a building to launch a radical vision, of encouraging future leaders to live and work as volunteers in London’s East End, bringing them face to face with poverty, and giving them the opportunity to develop practical solutions that they could take with them into national life.
Many Oxford students have slept in the dormitories in the roofs while gaining work-experience with the charity, and still do so to this day.
This is no curious idealism of modest reach, as some of the biggest social changes of the 20th century were born here, or later created by people who started their political career as volunteers in the building.
A long list of successes, such as supporting the match girls strike, the Poor Man’s Lawyer, and the Citizens Advice Bureau. Today its relevance is marked by the fact that both Tony Blair and David Cameron used the building to launch their own welfare and poverty campaigns here.
A 130 year old building though, needs to be renovated occasionally, and for the past few years, that’s what’s been happening.
The hall has long been hidden from view, but a redevelopment of the estate it owns will see the the frontage opened up for the first time, turning what was a row of shops, and later a walled off park into a public open space that leads to the Hall itself.
That the hall has been hidden away is a crying shame, as even from the outside, it’s a wonderful old building, built in the vicarage-gothic style, and with a lot of very early art-nouveau decorative features inside – especially the grand staircase.
The staircase landing now also decorated with a huge print from the Booth’s poverty maps as a reminder of the cause the charity seeks to champion.
The main hall was plain when built, but later clad in mock-tudor panels, and then painted with murals. The murals were thought to be lost, but it seems that in the 1970s someone simply reversed the wood panels, so the murals are still intact, albeit in need of work to restore them.
One of the busts in the hall to look for is of the former Tory government minister, John Profumo, who resigned in disgrace back in the time when a Minister resigning from government was a career ending event rather than the short holiday from power as it is today.
A few days after he resigned, he turned up at Toynbee Hall as a volunteer, and spent most of the rest of his life there, mainly using his considerable contacts book to raise a lot of money for the charity.
It’s behind the old building that the new has been added.
In a style that is effective, and popular, they’ve added a corridor outside the old building to link it to the new, essentially turning the former outside wall into an internal one — and retaining the original external appearance.
That gives a pleasing mix of rough old stone and brick sitting sharply next to modern wooden flooring and glass floor panels. The juxtaposition of old and new works when done well, and apart from some builder flaws noticeable in places, the effect here has been a good one.
The glass floor panels bringing natural light down to the ground floor corridor which would otherwise be illuminated solely by man-made lighting.
The result though is to create a visible tie between the heritage and the future in a corridor that carries the flow of people around the two buildings.
What’s been done over the past few years is not just the physical restoration of a building, but in doing so, they’ve achieved the rejuvenation of a charity that’s still an important part of the East End of London.
The building has never been a public building, but now it is open to the public — as they have a permanent exhibition in the new corridor space telling the social action from the world’s first university settlement.
The Toynbee Hall building, just up from Aldgate East tube station is now open to the public every weekday between 11am and 3pm and on the 3rd weekend of every month. There’s also now a cafe in the courtyard outside.