How Mark I reinvented itself
By Steve Smith
In telling the tale of Toc H’s UK Marks, I promised that I would come back and look in more depth at the story of Mark I in its final days as a Toc H hostel, then as an International Centre and after it passed into the hands of others. It hasn’t been an easy task since at times the information available to be was complex and contradictory. On top of that many of the key players are no longer with us so I was restricted in the number of first-hand accounts available to me. There is also some inconsistency about the naming of the house which seems to vary immensely and I fear this spills over into my blog. Technically the house stopped being a Mark in 1968 when it was relaunched and its official title becomes International Centre (The term Special Purposes is also used). However, it was a Mark for decades and that term continues to be used in official internal reports. The term International Centre also sowed confusion as it was allied to the International Office which primarily dealt with Toc H units and members overseas. That is not really the context in which the house was named an International Centre. By Michael Oxer’s day the term Community Centre was being used but elsewhere in Toc H (Croydon, Birmingham etc) similar projects were known as Community Houses. Except they weren’t that similar; nothing was. The house at Notting Hill was really quite unique in Toc H terms. So, with the help of several people for whom I am extremely grateful I have managed to disentangle what I believe is the central story. This is that story and trust me when I tell you it’s quite a tale.
First though, let’s give this chronicle some foundations. 24 Pembridge Gardens is a three storey, three-window wide detached house built around 1858 by William and Francis Radford. It sits in Notting Hill, quite close to the Gate, its back garden opening out onto Pembridge Road. Originally in the Borough of Kensington but since 1965 it has been the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Being in Notting Hill as opposed to North Kensington, it actually sat outside the poorest areas of the Borough which may have acted to its detriment later.
Oh, and it has a basement. Very important to this story, that basement!
The whole area had been rural until the beginning of the 19th century when the westward expansion of London reached Bayswater. G.K. Chesterton, a great friend of Toc H, grew up in the area and set his most famous novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill there. Mind you, he also once said, after witnessing the Toc H Ceremony of Light, “That’s the jolliest pagan ceremony I’ve ever taken part in!”
So our stuccoed Italianate villa in Pembridge Gardens was built on a new estate centred on Pembridge Square and was first occupied by the well-known physician Sir Alexander Morison in about 1860. It passed through several families and – in 1921 – achieved some little infamy in a libel case brought by Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde’s lover) against the Evening News. In February of that year they published a story claiming that a maid had found Douglas dead in a bed at 24 Pembridge Gardens! Being alive and well he was able to dispute the report in court. At that time, indeed since around 1911, the house was in the hands of Nicolas Eumorfopoulos, a well-known physicist. It would seem that it was from him Toc H purchased the house.
Toc H moved Mark I there from its original home in Queen’s Gate Gardens in the summer of 1927. We know precise dates thanks to a house diary that was kept for several years. The stewards took possession in late June and the Storming Party moved in on Monday July 4th to get it ready for the remaining Marksmen.
At the time, the once well-heeled area was already in decline with the big houses being turned into hotels and hostels. The whole area had always been home to various itinerants and migrants whether Romany, Jewish, Polish or of many other origins. Perhaps because of this it was Black Shirt country too with a small Fascist HQ at Pembridge Villas and the Kensington Park Hotel often used by Oswald Moseley himself.
The Blitz accelerated the deterioration of the area and the exploits of John Christie further harmed its reputation. In the fifties, malicious landlords – later exemplified by Peter Rachman – took on large houses already holding three or four families and harassed the occupants until they left. They then split the houses further and offered cheap accommodation for numerous families crammed into single rooms. This led to a new community of migrants, invited to the mother country to work on our infrastructure only to find the streets not paved with gold, then drawn to the only housing they could afford. By the mid-fifties the fascists, aided by members of the new Teddy Boy cult, had made a sport of baiting and assaulting the growing West Indian population. Things were building to an inevitable conclusion and in August 1958 the Notting Hill Riots began.
One outcome of the riots and of the environment that spawned them was that the area suddenly became the centre of attention for many well-intentioned groups. The most prominent of these – at least as far as this blog is concerned – was the Notting Hill Social Council. In 1959 Donald Soper, President of the Methodist Conference and a well-known pacifist and socialist, set up a Methodist group ministry in Notting Hill comprising the Revds. David Mason, Geoffrey Ainger and Norwyn Denny. In November 1960 Mason founded the Notting Hill Social Council. An umbrella organisation it promoted temporary or longer term alliances and helped spawn a host of projects.
The Rev. David Michael Mason was a Methodist minister and Labour Party politician. During World War II, he was influenced by Donald Soper and became a pacifist and conscientious objector, working in University College Hospital. He entered the Methodist ministry in 1950 and, as we shall see, became involved in much community work in North Kensington.
The membership of the Social Council included Mason as Chairman, Stephen Duckworth, Donald Chesworth, Pansy Jeffrey, Father Ivor Smith-Cameron, Bruce Kenrick, and Bruce Kent. The Council also worked with people and organisations like Mark Bonham-Carter and the Race Relations Board, the Kensington and Chelsea Inter-Racial Council, the Inner London Education Authority, the Citizens Advice Bureau, and the London County Council.
Bonham-Carter in particular was also well-known to Toc H. The first chairman of the Race Relations Board (and Helena’s Uncle) he was also a cousin of Brian Hulbert Bonham-Carter who was taken prisoner in 1940 whilst working for Toc H in France. In 1967 Mark opened the extension of Mark XX in Putney.
Bruce Kent of course, was the Catholic Priest and peace activist famous for his work with CND. I say was, Bruce is still alive and kicking at the grand age of 91. His namesake Bruce Kenrick was a United Reform Church priest who founded Shelter – which will feature again in this story.
It’s also worth noting Pansy Jeffrey. Pansy was originally from Guyana and had initially worked as a nurse and health visitor but began working in race relations in Notting Hill in 1959, a year after the riots. She was employed full-time as a West Indian Social Worker by the Family Welfare Association Department of the Kensington and Chelsea Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Another organisation that began in 1963 was the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It was started by Bruce Kenrick, a member of the Iona Community, and a number of local residents that included Frank Bailey and Pansy Jeffrey. Frank is about to feature heavily in our story and he was a forthright man. In fact, talking about the formation of the Housing Trust he later said:
“I was a member of Notting Hill Social Council. I was at the meeting when this housing trust was created. They tell you now that a man called Kenrick started it, Kenrick didn’t start it, Kenrick was also one of the people who were there.”
Regardless of this, Frank certainly made an impact in the area. He had arrived in London, via New York, in 1955 to join the fire brigade. He became the first post-war black fireman in London working for the West Ham fire brigade at Silvertown. Already something of a left-wing firebrand he became the Fire Brigades Union’s branch rep. But finding himself constantly overlooked for promotion, in 1965 he left for a career in Social Work in Kensington. Homeless himself because he caught his wife in bed with another man, he was very interested in the work of the Social Council hence his involvement with the formation of the Housing Trust.
Within a few months of the Trust forming, Marksmen from Mark I were helping with the shifting of furniture and sorting of letters coming in in response to an appeal put out by Kenrick. They also allied themselves with the Family Services Unit and helped decorate houses for families with difficulties and ran fundraising clothing and jumble sales. And, as John Mitchell reported in The Journal, at Christmas 1963 a few brave Marksmen even took several children of problem families to the circus and lived to tell the tale.
It wasn’t just the Mark either. The Mobile Action unit that met at Tower Hill – in the corrugated tin shed near Talbot House, the Toc H hostel at 42 Trinity Square. The shed was otherwise used by Major Henry Bowen-Smith, Tubby’s occasional driver. The Mobile Action group also did a number of weekend and evening decorating projects and in September 1964 Toc H School’s Section ran a work camp in the area where some fourteen boys lived for a fortnight and helped decorate the outside of what was the second house bought by the Trust . They also delivered appeal letters throughout Kensington and Knightsbridge; helped set up a children’s playground and redecorated a room for an 82 year old lady on whose behalf the Housing Trust were resisting eviction attempts! Toc H repeated these decorating projects at least in 1965.
Gary M. James was a Mark I resident involved in some of these projects. He recalls one occasion when they were doing up the flat of an elderly lady in Paddington. The Project Leader, John Mitchell, offered to give the lady a lift in his car to pick up her pension from the Post Office. When she got in the car she climbed up and sat on the parcel shelf with her feet on the seat. It turned out it was her first ever trip in a car.
One of the most ubiquitous players on the community action landscape in Notting Hill was Donald Chesworth. He has his own Toc H connections although I want to first mention his father, who although not directly involved with this particular story, was a Toc H man through and through and probably the original link between the Toc H Mark and his son.
Frederick Gladstone Chesworth was born in Lambeth on the 6th September 1898 and early on became a manager at a printing works, a job he was still doing in 1939. In the Great War he served in the London Scottish and post-war on 29th August 1920 married Daisy Radmore. Their son Donald Piers Chesworth came along in Birmingham on 31st January 1923. A brother, Martin, followed in 1930.
Ches Snr was one of the first Birmingham Members of Toc H (He and Daisy had moved there from London) and in World War II he looked after the Toc H Services Clubs in Italy. Then in 1954 he took over the role of Editorial Secretary from Barclay Baron and for the next nine years was responsible for producing The Journal, the Toc H periodical. In 1963 he retired to Tunbridge Wells where he volunteered at the Medical Library of the Kent and West Sussex hospital until shortly before his death in January 1975.
Whilst his father was supporting the troops in Italy, young Donald, fresh from an education at the London School of Economics, was a Leading Aircraftman in the RAF but with strong political views. He stood for the Labour party in Warwick and Leamington against Anthony Eden in the 1945 General Election. He lost but made waves by being, at 22, the youngest candidate in the election that brought Clement Attlee a landslide victory.
Donald stood again in the 1950 election for Bromsgrove, this time coming second to Tory Michael Higgs by just 190 votes. He then became a local councillor in North Kensington (1952-1965) inevitably sparking a concern for housing which became one of his life’s driving passions. He was also vehemently active against poverty and was chairman of War on Want for many years and he worked as an adviser to various Commonwealth governments such as Tanzania and Mauritius.
Though he never joined Toc H – possibly because he was an agnostic and Toc H is, of course, a Christian group – he had many connections beginning, I believe, in 1954 at the same time his father became editor of The Journal. Donald sat on the Forward Committee of Toc H in his role as Overseas Secretary of the Union of Socialist Youth, and as a member of the LCC. The committee was literally looking forward at the future work of Toc H.
Donald sat on more committees and held more roles with more organisations than can be listed here. Most relevantly for us he was a Director of Notting Hill Social Council (1968-1977) but we’ll cover this and other relevant work in Kensington in the sixties and early seventies in the main text. Chris Holmes, who we will meet shortly, claimed that it was Chesworth who persuaded Donald Soper to start an initiative in North Kensington, in which case he may have set off the chain reaction that creates this entire story. We’ll learn what happened to Donald after his time in Notting Hill toward the end of the article.
The aforementioned Frank Bailey would be central to another organisation formed in the mid-sixties. Following a meeting at the offices of the Kensington Post in 1965, between people concerned about race-relations in the area, in January 1966 the Kensington and Chelsea Inter-Racial Committee (IRC) was established. Its committee included Bill Carr, Pansy Jeffery along with Anne Bretherick, Anne Evans, Dr June Bean, Clive Thomas, Jonathan Rosenhead, and Ivan Weeks. It was described as having a hesitant start so on Monday 29th January 1968 it held a meeting to explain its aims. The platform held Frank Bailey, James Cummings, Selwyn Baptiste and Mark Bonham-Carter. Cumming had been appointed as Community Relations Officer and we will meet Baptiste a little later.
At the meeting Frank didn’t stick to his script. Rather than explain the aims of the IRC as he was supposed to do, he chose to criticise the police. This would not be the last time that Frank’s outspoken behaviour would upset the apple-cart. During investigations for the Mangrove trial he is described by the police as a West Indian militant, much of whose activity is unhelpful in particular in relations between immigrants and the police.
The IRC’s rebooted Executive Committee featured many familiar names and some new ones who will become familiar to us. Alongside Frank as Chairman were Dora Bullivant (Vice-Chair), James Cummings (Community Relations Officer), the Revd Wilfred Wood (Treasurer), the Revd David Mason, and Pansy Jeffrey. Affiliated organisations included the Notting Hill Social Council and the
Notting Hill Group Ministry, the Notting Hill People’s Association, the Adventure Playground, Universal Coloured People’s Association, the Black People’s Alliance, and Toc H!
Another important organisation begun in 1966 was the Notting Hill Community Workshop. This in turn set up the Notting Hill Summer Project in the summer of 1967. The organisers saw the Project as a community empowerment project, driven by the failures of local democracy. The Summer Project’s principal aim was to compile a register of housing conditions, something which was deemed necessary to know before housing in the area could be improved. Other aims included obtaining evidence dispelling myths about black people jumping the queue for social housing. The Project received one hundred volunteers, most of whom were bussed-in university students. They surveyed over 8000 households and completed nearly 5500 interviews. Unfortunately the survey took two years to collate and analyse which damaged its impetus.
One of the key figures in the Workshop and in this story, was Chris Holmes. Holmes was born in Otley, West Yorkshire in July 1942. His father, Gordon, was an insurance broker and a Methodist lay preacher. His mother, Doris, was the pillar of the local Methodist community. Chris gained an economics degree at Clare College, Cambridge in 1964 and a postgraduate management diploma from Bradford University in 1966. His first job was with John Laing, the construction group, in its personnel department, based in west London. He rented a home in nearby Notting Hill. Chris was soon sucked into the local activism and community work and lived in the Notting Hill Community Workshop house. He was involved with the aforementioned Summer Project in 1967 and, as we shall see, in 1968 was appointed Warden at the Toc H house.
One thing we haven’t mentioned so far is the whole sixties counter-culture movement in the area. Home of ‘drop-outs’, activists and most of the most psychedelically enhanced musicians of the era, they have little bearing to this story, well except maybe one thing! It’s long been a mystery inside Toc H why Pink Floyd’s genius ‘madcap’ Syd Barrett wrote a song called Pow R. Toc H. By the time someone at HQ thought to write to his management company and ask in the mid-70s, Syd was living on a planet of his own making and the other members of the band had no idea why he called the song that. It’s an instrumental so I’m afraid the lyrics don’t help. But I just wonder if, as Syd was falling out of a show at All Saint’s Church Hall or popping into the London Free School on Powis Square, he spotted a sign for some or other Toc H activity in the area posted underneath a decayed and damaged street sign for POWis SquaRe. It’s just a theory.
Pretty much all that has been written so far in this blog has been setting the scene for the main drama which is about to unfold. And it begins with an ending. We saw that back in 1963 the Marksmen had been involved in community work but by 1968 the whole concept of the Marks was under threat. People had different expectations of short-term rented accommodation. No longer were small dormitories and shared facilities enough for the students and itinerant workers who had populated Toc H Marks since the twenties. Despite all the additional benefits that Toc H had layered on top of the standard hostel package, the concept was passé. Some Marks had already closed, others were slated for closure, nearly all were haemorrhaging money and various reviews had taken place. There was no longer a Mark I branch though there were still branches in the area at Hammersmith, Fulham, and at Mark II in Pimlico. Something had to give and it was decided that Mark I was to be earmarked for Special Purposes. In the late spring of 1968 it closed down for a dramatic refurbishment.
It emerged in July 1968, still catering for hostellers but now on a self-catering basis. It was also directed to take on an international aspect and was renamed an International Centre. It was to be under the auspices of Dora Bullivant who was on Toc H’s paid staff as International Secretary. We have already met Dora as Vice Chair of the IRC.
Born Dora Parry in Cheshire in 1913, she had a theatrical background having run various projects in her native north of England. She ran a production company called Strand Electric in the North and produced shows for Staveley Amateur Dramatic group amongst others. In 1952 she wrote her first play, a religious piece called On the Rock
At Toc H her pièce de résistance was a group of black dancers performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the 1970 Festival. Called Light, it was a collaboration with the actor Keefe West and featured both professional dancers and other young people. It was a contemporary piece aimed at “breaking through the language barrier [and] able to convey eternal truths clearly to an audience of every race and creed”. You knew it was going to be difficult for the rather staid elements of Toc H to handle when the Festival brochure came with the warning
“To enjoy this work, especially created for Festival ’70, it is necessary only to come with an open mind free from all preconceptions and be ready to participate in a fresh and exciting experience.”
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to Dora’s appointment overseeing the new Toc H International Centre. Dora was to be based at the Toc H enclave on Tower Hill so someone was need to run the centre on a day to day basis. In the summer of 1968 Chris Holmes was appointed as Warden. Unlike in the traditional Marks the Warden at the International Centre was neither appointed from within the residents nor expected to live there, and it wasn’t an Honorary position as Chris was actually a paid staff member; more like a Centre Manager than a traditional Warden (This change also happened at some other Marks most notably Mark III at Hackney).
In time a Management Committee was also set up to oversee things with the ubiquitous Donald Chesworth at the helm. The other key figures on this committee were Pansy Jeffrey, and David Mason. It’s no coincidence that all three of these were also on the board of the Notting Hill Social Council and that the IRC committee included Chesworth, Jeffrey, and Dora Bullivant. It would becoming increasingly difficult know which tail was wagging which dog at times.
The new International Centre aimed to aid community and race relations in Notting Hill by providing a base for 10-12 residents to work in the wider community. As such, it housed an international group of residents (Trinidadian, American, English, and Guyanese) who worked or volunteered in local projects such as the Adventure Playground and the Kensington and Chelsea Inter-Racial Council (IRC). And the opportunity for people of different backgrounds and races to live together in a multi-racial community was another stated aim. The final objective was to provide a resource for community groups. Amenities such as office space and meeting rooms (and as we shall see later, printing facilities) formed part of that purpose.
Occasionally the hostel put up young people who had arrived in London without jobs, contacts or accommodation. This was under the auspices of the Blenheim Project, a Social Council initiative for ‘young drifters’ that still runs today.
The Centre offered rehearsal space for a local steel band, almost certainly this was Selwyn Baptiste’s playground band as he was a resident in the house. He was also one of the people associated with the beginnings of the Notting Hill Carnival.
The Inter-Racial Committee were given office space in part of the basement and soon Frank Bailey was running a club there for black teenagers. They also offered Free Legal Advice on Fridays between 7.30 and 9.30pm.
It’s worth looking at the basement at this point. It was actually a semi-basement so that the windows gave the occupants a view of the outside at ground level. It was broken roughly into four (with lots of cupboards, small stores, a toilet, and a coal bunker. One of the cupboards contained drawers lined with green baize where the silver would have been kept in the house’s earlier life. There was also a large extension protruding into the garden which had been added on years before.
Frank’s IRC office was at the front of the house and across the hall from it was an old kitchen. Behind the kitchen was the former laundry used by the Marksmen when the house held twenty plus residents. It had a barred window looking out into the back garden. The fourth room was just used for storage. The basement had its own entrance into the back garden and then out onto Pembridge Road so people using it didn’t have to traipse through the house disturbing the remaining residents. The residents did have access to the kitchen as it was the only one in the house but were rarely about during the day.
In November 1968 Chris cleared the old laundry to make room for the Notting Hill Community Press. The Press was started by Beryl Foster, a student nurse who had arrived from Ireland in early 1966. Drawn to the activities of the Community Workshop in 1967, her fellow nurse, Linda Gane, persuaded her to give up nursing and take a job on the second Summer Programme in 1968. Donald Chesworth and John O’Malley interviewed her and she ran five temporary Play Sites in North Kensington with Barry Persad, later the leader of the Notting Hill Adventure Playground, that summer.
To earn a living after the Summer Playschemes ended the women decided it would be a great idea to start a newspaper despite having no experience in running one whatsoever. However, on talking to some of the community groups they found that rather than a newspaper, they wanted a facility to print their own materials. So Beryl and Linda acquired and set up a press with the help of the Community Workshop and moved into the basement of Toc H. The Press printed various materials for local groups including the report that eventually came out of the 1967 Summer Project survey.
Chris let them use the basement room rent free. At that stage they couldn’t possibly have afforded rent anyway. They even relied on neighbourhood people bringing them food. The press they acquired was sold to another group and leased back from them at a peppercorn rent; the sole purpose to ensure that if they went bankrupt the machinery couldn’t be seized. Beryl dealt only with Chris, not really aware of a Centre Management Committee let alone Dora or Toc H headquarters on Tower Hill.
A 1969 Chris Holmes’ memo in the spring of 1969 gives us a good snapshot of what was happening at the time. It begins by listing the current residents who were Selwyn Baptiste, Joyce Manson, Peter Doble, Roy Phillipps, Maggie Slaughter, Frank Bailey, Susan Stoate, Pamela Stoate, Peter Browne, Keith Gaskin, Gill Long
Chris says he believes that all the above people are involved in community activities to some degree: Selwyn with the playground and steel band; Joyce the summer school and involving students (especially overseas ones) in the community; Peter giving legal advice at the Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre; Keith – a West Indian student – giving advice on the Legal Aid panel run by the IRC; Maggie also helping the IRC as a caseworker; Peter teaching religion at a local school but also helping arrange summer camps; Susan, a secretary in a local hospital visits old people in the area; and Roy involved with the Universal Black Organisation who produced a magazine
The memo goes on to say that the IRC have their office in the basement and use the building for many different meetings plus parties and social events; The West Indian Singers (A folk group stemming from the Theatre Workshop), a West Indian Youth group and one or two others use the house. The Notting Hill Press work from the basement publishing The People’s News, The Notting Hill Herald and countless community pamphlets, leaflets and brochures.
Besides the IRC it was used for meetings by Notting Hill Social Council; the Motorway Development Group; the North Kensington Renewal Coalition; North Kensington Fabian Society; Summer Play Programme; Notting Hill Sure Help Association; Eleanor Rathbone Association and others
Twelve volunteers for a pilot planning project for the Summer Play programme used the house as a base for their activities for a week; Chris delivered a training programme to voluntary housing advice workers; they helped find local boys for a Toc H Summer camp in Guildford; they took in a Czech Relief Organisation for six weeks whilst they were in London working with refugees from the 1968 Russian invasion; and they also took in girls as ‘emergency Cases’ during family break-ups.
Of the residents in the house Beryl only really recalls one troublesome tenant; an artist who used to paint his sheets and never paid his rent, although she thinks few did. The other resident she remembers well was Roy Sawh who, unusually, had a room on the ground floor and not the upper storeys where most of the residents’ rooms were. She says Sawh was one of those who did pay his rent as he knew he was on to a good thing.
Sawh was a former Communist from Guyana who lived in Russia for a while. From 1967 he was a Black Power leader, described by the police as an opportunist. Sawh was involved in many black organisations, several of which he started. These included the Racial Action Adjustment Society with Michael de Freitas (Michael X) in 1965, the Universal Coloured People’s Association in 1967 (and later a splinter group the Universal Coloured People’s Association and Arab Association), and the Black People’s Alliance in 1968. He spoke regularly about racism at Speakers’ Corner and despite his reputation with the police was credited with dampening down tensions after the Mangrove march in August 1970. In 1967 he was the second black person in Britain to be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred and was jailed for three months (ironically using the Race Relations Act 1965 that had been brought in to try and protect black people). He moved into the Toc H Centre probably in the summer of 1968 soon after it opened but it was in September 1969 that he started one of his most significant projects when the Free University for Black Studies opened in the centre. On Monday the University taught Asian Studies; on Wednesdays – African; and on Fridays – West Indian. They were invited to use the house by the Toc H Management Committee and it ran mostly from the library of the house. It was seen as a significant piece of work in the field.
But the one constant in life is that things change and in the middle of 1969 Chris Holmes resigned to take up a community development post in Islington. It came as a surprise to Beryl who knew Chris well – they attended the same parties. She said he was friendly but reserved (except when publicly speaking) however his departure came as a complete surprise.
As both a resident and one of the prime users of the house Frank Bailey replaced Chris as acting warden for eight weeks. It was a difficult time for him as the IRC was in turmoil. He was disliked by some of the white liberal crowd and considered an ‘Uncle Tom’ by the black power groups. Community Relations Officer James Cummings quit the IRC in October because of internal tension and the Borough Council, who supported the organisation with a grant, put conditions on the funding. In essence they wanted Frank and David Mason to be replaced on the committee by Borough Council officials.
And then, whilst Acting Warden for Toc H, Frank hit the headlines again. In October 1969 there was a fuss in the Kensington Post about a woman evicted by Frank. A Mrs Marie Bethule – a 23 year old nurse – was invited to stay at the house for a few days around August 1969 with her infant daughter whilst alternative accommodation was sorted out for her. She apparently refused to accept the accommodation offered and wouldn’t leave the house.
Discussing the matter Pansy Jeffery said there were certain “personality clashes” at the house because its work was experimental and “very difficult to run”. She added that the NHSC had taken over management of the house from Toc H so they could be better involved in the community but she was concerned the row might cause the house to be withdrawn. This is the first we hear of the bloodless coup that meant that the NHSC were effectively running the centre now.
At the same time, Toc H were recruiting a new Warden. The Rev. Michael Oxer was a Presbyterian minister in Melbourne, Australia. He was present when the Revd. Geoffrey Ainger, from the Notting Hill Ministry, toured Australia and Michael was very interested in working with the London Ministry. This was agreed with David Mason and Geoffrey Ainger but they realised Michael needed somewhere for him and his wife to live. Aware of the Toc H Warden vacancy they saw how they could kill two birds with a single stone and put Michael forward, even though he himself was previously unaware of Toc H. He was accepted and in late July 1969 Sandy Giles, the Director of Toc H, wrote offering him the position on the recommendation of the Toc H Committee at the house.
Michael arrived from Melbourne in October accompanied by his wife Jenny, who proved to be a pillar of the community getting involved with many things despite falling pregnant. Their son Jonathan was born on the 26th July 1970 at St Mary Abbott’s Hospital.
After a period of getting to know the Centre and what was happening there, in April 1970 Michael produced his own report on the activities based on his first six months running things. This report reflects that there seems to be a lot of individualistic work going on rather than residents engaging in a common task. It also talks about a benevolent sponsor in the background – referring to the Social Council – and suggests they might have a vested interest in taking over the house.
Michael noted that the various groups that used the house operate quite independently of Toc H. He said that as the groups grew big enough they tended to move on and a new embryonic group replaced them. Thus Toc H is acted as a resource and support for such groups without dominating them.
He noted that several groups used the house regularly and he had developed systems for managing the bookings well. He particularly drew attention to the West Indian Standing Commission Legal Panel which he said provided a real caring service. He was pleased that as well as providing legal advice to clients it acted as a good networking meeting for lawyers from different parts of the West Indies. He went on to single out the work done by Roy Sawh’s Free University of Black Studies. He also liked the exuberant touches the Placenta Workshop theatre group and the Trinidad Singers bring to the house.
He further talked about having to evict two West Indian residents and having a poor relationship with a former West Indian resident. He warned that white people needed to analyse their motivations when trying to work cross-culturally and that simplistic political stances were very dangerous.
Then Michael discussed the two businesses operating in the basement. Firstly the IRC, which he noted was having difficulties even before he arrived and said that some members of the house management committee were on the IRC committee in an effort to try and save things. He was more scathing of the Notting Hill Press which he felt had somewhat used the house. He said he was disappointed by the attitude the Press had chosen to adopt and that his then current stand toward the Press was the opposite to his attitude on first coming to the house as Warden.
Beryl said Michael Oxer was opposed to the Press although he was kind enough to give her a room to sleep in for a short while when he discovered that I was sleeping in the Press room, having been evicted from a squat in Clarendon Road. She remembered her room upstairs was very spartan and cold.
Michael recalled that the presence of the Press was discussed at various internal meetings and the decision to ask them leave was made. This news reached the Kensington Post and in April 1970 they reported, with typical journalistic sensationalism, that the Press had been evicted. The official line was that Toc H shouldn’t be allowing a commercial firm to sublet as Toc H were a charity and it went against their rate relief. The Press, originally a simple community group has subsequently become a limited company.
Beryl recalls that Roy Sawh was the only resident she remember supporting them when they were told to leave. According to the Post, the Press complained they were being harassed in an effort to get them out. Donald Chesworth, chairman of the Toc H Management Committee, refused to comment. Whatever the reason by May they had found new premises though it would take 4-6 weeks for them to move as they had to pour new concrete floors to take the weight of the press in the cellar they had found in Ladbroke Grove. This wasn’t the end of the Notting Hill Community Press story but the end of their connection to Toc H.
The IRC also dissolved in the summer of 1971 having been inactive for over a year. Frank remained living at the house and called himself Deputy Warden though how official this was is open to debate.
Meanwhile Michael Oxer got on with the job of trying to bring order to the house and it was proving to be a very difficult task. After identifying problems in his April report things only got worse, through no fault of his. He introduced many systems to make the centre run more smoothly and was promoting its use. In October 1970, in a letter to the Post, Michael Oxer advertised the centre as a rehearsal space for bands and several made use of this.
Michael’s chief contact with Toc H was through Dora Bullivant who he found supportive but otherwise he was out ‘on the fringe’. There was no involvement of branches or the Mobile Action group and though he recalls visiting a couple of other Toc H Houses for meetings there was little contact. He was astonished when visiting the house at Birmingham at how much organised creative work was going on. This highlighted the difference between a project very much still under Toc H’s control, and the experimental community work in Notting Hill. Outside of Toc H, Michael of course was in close touch with David Mason and Geoffrey Ainger at the Methodist Ministry. Michael does recall Tubby making a formal visit to the house for a reception but was most interested in paying a visit to the Chapel. The Toc H Annual Report 1969/70 for the year ending 31 Mar 1970 summed up:
“The experiment at Notting Hill has made it possible for several interesting cultural projects to start.”
Speaking recently, Michael told me that the biggest problem was really the residents, or at least some of them. Far removed from the traditional Marksmen of old, some of the individuals in the house were difficult, argumentative and selfish and there was a lot of internal friction both between residents, and between residents and the many groups using the centre. This did not bode well for a community project. On more than one occasion it was Michael personally who was at the receiving end of the aggravation. One resident complained in writing that Michael’s “holy-rolling” activities on a Sunday were quite disturbing and asked that people refrained from stamping and jumping. This probably referred to the bands rehearsing in the basement.
Not only was the human element of the project in trouble, the fabric of the building was in constant disarray with works often required. It was clear that the experiment that was the International Centre of Toc H in Notting Hill was circling the drain.
Dora departed Toc H during the second half of 1970. Having created a brilliant – if perhaps unappreciated – performance for Toc H’s June Festival she decided to expand her ideas for using dance as social movement. In the middle of August 1970 she started Workshop 42 on Tower Hill (named of course for the hostel at 42 Trinity Square). As many as 90 young people were working on a show to be performed at UN event at Festival Hall in March 1971 to launch the United Nations International Year to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. The show was to be repeated on April 10th at the Albert Hall in an event sponsored by War on Want (the Chesworth connection presumably).
It was no surprise then when in early 1971 Michael Oxer resigned and returned to Australia with his wife and new born son. In a letter to the Post he stated that he intended to write about the “incredibly complex experience gained trying to run the house”. In their next Annual Report Toc H said he was returning to Australia after “a hectic spell at Mark I”. Michael says this was a major understatement.
Michael would prove to be the last Toc H Warden and by February 1971, Toc H had decided to close the community house. The experiment had largely failed though there was much to be taken from it and many lessons to be learned. The one real successful project based there during the 2½ years of its existence as an International Centre was probably Roy Sawh’s Free University. This moved to Gower Street and continued a while longer.
At this point that David Mason and the NHSC became formerly involved by offering to take on the house. So in 1971 the Central Executive agreed to lease the building to Notting Hill Social Council for one year on a full repairing lease at £2000 p.a. This seemed a good solution all round and in their annual report Toc H said this allowed them to carry on the experimental work started there by Toc H since 1968 but for an income rather than a deficit.
NHSC were tardy in signing the lease. Toc H wanted them to take on financial responsibility for the property from 1st July 1971 but this didn’t happen. Discussions already taking place at Toc H about future use of the building after the lease expires. Things were about to get a little messy contractually but more of that later. First though the experimental work of the last two years was however, about to be overshadowed by something quite spectacular.
The problems of East Bengal had been rumbling for many years and erupted in December 1970 at the Pakistani elections. Then on the evening of the 25th March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of The Nation, declared the independence of Bangladesh before his arrest by the Pakistani Army.
The 26th March 1971 – fifty years ago today – is considered the official Independence Day of Bangladesh, and the name Bangladesh was in effect henceforth.
The first diplomatic Mission of modern Bangladesh was founded in Kolkata on the 18th April 1971 after M. Hossain Ali, the Pakistani Deputy High Commissioner, and the other Bengali staff at the mission defected to the provisional government which would be headquartered there during the Liberation War.
That summer members of the UK Awami League felt that they should have a Mission or Embassy in London. An action committee was formed with Justice Abu Sayed Choudhury as president. He had recently arrived in London after attending a human rights conference in Geneva. An old friend of Choudhury, Sultan Mahmud Sharif was one of those people and he told me that in June 1971 they were first looking at the business premises of two Bengali jute exporters. These though were in Chancery Lane and near Greek Lane in east London and the League felt the new Mission should be with most other Embassies in Kensington. Luckily one of, what Sharif describes as their “freedom fighters”, knew Donald Chesworth and he offered the group the use of a single room on the ground floor of the Toc H house at a very low rent. Sharif is clear that Chesworth made the offer on behalf of Toc H (and not the Notting Hill Social Council) though whether Toc H at headquarters had any idea how generous they were being is another matter! This, of course, is immediately before the NHSC lease was supposed to commence. Chesworth had made several trips to the region during the year as a Director of War on Want and was incredibly concerned about what was happening in the region.
Sharif says the house at this time was deserted and in a dilapidated state. The group, including their wives and children, had some hard work decorating the room but when they finished Chesworth was so pleased with their efforts he offered them first the rest of the ground floor and then the entire basement for cooking and accommodating families as well.
On the 27th of August 1971 the Bangladesh Mission to London moved in to the redecorated house and the Bangladeshi flag was raised for the first time in the UK. The Mission of course was still unofficial at this point as Bangladesh had not yet been recognised by the British government. Nevertheless a large crowd were present to bless it, including Bengali members of staff who were still working with the Pakistan High Commission. The inaugural function was presided over by Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury and key speakers included Peter Shore MP, John Stonehouse MP, and journalists Anthony Mascarenhas and Simon Dring.
After liberation, Chowdhury returned to Dhaka and was elected as President of Bangladesh on 12 January 1972 and on the 4th February 1972, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, announced to the Commons that the British government officially recognised the State of Bangladesh. Later that day, from the Toc H building at 24 Pembridge Gardens, the national flag of the independent Bangladesh was again ceremoniously hoisted. And from that day the first Bangladesh High Commission outside India was officially open.
Whilst this was an amazing piece of history was happening at the house, all was not well! The NHSC were still avoiding signing the lease or paying any rent. In early 1972 Toc H started steps to regain possession of the building. By July the lease had still not been signed and though a payment of £2000 was received Toc H were trying to repossess the property. The Social Council had expressed an interest in buying the property with Donald Chesworth leading the discussions. One wonders if their failure to pay the rent and sign to lease was a tactic to convince Toc H to sell. If so that’s considerably ironic given what the Council was formed to tackle.
An inspection of the property by Donaldson and sons (Toc H’s property agents at the time) found the condition was better than when the tenant took over and noted that the main occupant at the time was the Bangladesh High Commission.
The Commission moved out around April 1973 (To Queen’s Gate thus almost reversing the Marks original move in 1927) because they were sharing Pembridge Gardens with families and now had some 70 staff to accommodate
The leasing wrangles continued through 1973 with the Council still in possession (though it’s unclear who was in the house after the Commission left) and Toc H still trying to evict them. In the Annual Report 1973/4 (For the year ending 31st March 1974), it was reported that after “protracted and tedious negotiations” a settlement was reached with the previous tenants and Toc received £4750 in payment of rents and other charges. This was final settlement. The Council vacated the premises during the year and negotiations for its sale by tender were started.
During the period it stood empty, Toc H member Rodney Broomfield, later a Central Councillor, lived in as a sort of a caretaker and there was also one remaining resident whom I believe to be Frank Bailey.
In early 1975 the Scientology based charity Narconon were looking to lease the building as a hostel for the rehabilitation of drug addicts but planning permission for the change of use was refused.
The house now lay empty for several months but the next stage of its journey awaited. It came from Toc H ‘on the Hill’ and would essentially be due to the work of one man, Peter East.
Peter joined Toc H in Skegness as a young man. Later he joined the staff and went to work in the BAOR club in Paderborn, Germany. Whilst he was there he read about the race riots in Notting Hill and in 1967 when he finally returned to the UK to become the Warden of Talbot House at 42 Trinity Square, he was committed to improving race relations. Initially he taught English to young Asians at Toynbee Hall. These were mostly Bengalis from the Sylhet region. Then he set up an Asian Youth Club in the hut at back of Talbot House (it later moved to the crypt of St Botolph’s church, Aldgate). He organised camps to the Christian community Othona, out at Bradwell and in 1973 established a hostel for young Bangladeshis at No. 7 The Crescent (Directly behind 42 Trinity Square). If you want to know more about Peter’s work then track down a copy of Ken Prideaux-Brune’s A Kind Of Love Affair.
When Peter discovered that the old Mark I was standing empty, and knowing of its existing association with Bangladesh, he felt it might make an excellent Bangladeshi community centre. Thus in the annual report 1975/6 presented at the Central Council meeting in November 1976 it announced that in the coming year,
“the empty Notting Hill Mark is to be refurbished and eventually opened as a hostel for young Bengalis working in London. This scheme, which has the blessing of the Central Executive, is an extension of the work which has been carried out so successfully on Tower Hill for some time now. The house will remain the property of Toc H who will be represented on the management committee of this experimental venture.”
And so it became precisely that. The centre was largely run by a marvellous lady called Muni Rahman, whose husband, Shah, worked closely with Peter in the East End. There were a lot of Bangladeshi cultural events and dance classes. On one occasion the young Toc H group from Southampton came and taught them some English folk dances.
Essentially a project of the new Inner London District (formed July 1975), members were to work alongside future residents getting the building decorated with Toc H providing a loan for repairs. A number of prominent Bangladeshi community members agreed to serve on the Management Committee.
And it stayed like this for the next six years – a joint Toc H and Bangladeshi Community project until in June 1982 the lease was due to expire. At Central Council it was extended for a year after which Toc H agreed to sell the Mark to Bangladesh Community without putting it on the open market.
Ken Prideaux-Brune recalls:
“When Toc H took the decision to close its remaining Marks and sell the properties we agreed to offer Mark 1 to the Bangladesh community and the High Commission set about raising the money. There was an extraordinary meeting at the Centre, chaired by the High Commissioner and attended by a number of Bangladeshi businessmen. Everyone was expected to make public pledge of what they would contribute. After the High Commissioner had spoken and invited pledges there was dead silence for about 10 minutes. Eventually someone offered a sum. Then there was silence for several more minutes and then someone else offered. More Silence. Eventually after a very embarrassing hour or so a considerable sum had been pledged. I don’t know how much of it was actually paid. I suspect that at the end of the day the Bangladesh government had to put in a considerable sum. But the building was sold and a committee set up to run it. It then emerged that there was considerable resentment against Muni. The Centre had been very much run by Muni. She made all the decisions but she also did all the work. If the floor needed scrubbing Muni would be on the floor scrubbing. The men on the committee (and I think they were all men) talked a great deal about how the centre must be run democratically but they didn’t actually do anything. But Muni was forced out (and shortly afterwards was killed in a car accident).”
There was time needed to ensure a proper legal footing for the purchase. In fact there was a bit of a battle with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea over planning permissions and perceived change of use. Eventually in March 1985 there was a ceremony to formally hand over the Centre to the Bangladeshi Community in in the presence of the then High Commissioner Mr Fakhruddin Ahmed and led by Harry Brier Chairman of Toc H.
The High Commissioner said “it was from this house that diplomatic notes were first exchanged with HM Government upon the recognition of Bangladesh as an independent state
The General Secretary of the Bangladesh Centre said;
“The Bangladesh Community will remember this momentous evening with gratitude. Toc H is handing over the charge of the premises, located at 24 Pembridge Gardens, to the Bangladeshi community in London.
In 1971, during the Liberation war of Bangladesh, Toc H offered us accommodation in setting up our first High Commission. From thence, we communicated all the Western world for support of our cause for freedom.
Number 24 Pembridge Gardens is used as a symbol of unity and co-operation in the movement for the Independence abroad here in the UK.
The history of the Independence Movement in Britain owes much to Toc H, which has given open support and aid to the Bangladeshi community.”
The sale agreement provided that Toc H would have the right to appoint a member of the Committee so Ken Prideaux-Brune took on that role. He recalls
“that the meetings were chaired by the High Commissioner or his Deputy and they insisted that the meetings should be held in English but every time someone got excited, which was quite often, they lapsed into Bengali. It quickly became clear that there was no point in my attending. So I pulled what I thought was a master stroke. I appointed Tassaduq Ahmed as the Toc H representative. Tassaduq was very much an ‘elite’ (I think his brother was Minister of Education) but was a good friend of Peter’s and had been awarded an MBE for his work with the Bangladesh community in the East End. He obviously spoke Bengali and I knew would stand no nonsense from the talkative do-nothing brigade.
And after that Toc H more or less stepped back from the Bangladesh Centre in any official way and left it to its own devices. It was, after all, all grown up. It continues to this day.
And that more or less finishes the amazing story of Mark I but I just want to end by finding out what happened to some of the key players.
Frank retired in 1990 but continued to follow his interests in African politics and the role of colonialism in shaping the Caribbean diaspora. An avowed communist, he consistently championed equality and the rights of working people, particularly black people. He died on the 2nd December 2015 exactly one year after Chris Holmes, the Warden who preceded him at Toc H.
After her Workshop 42 shows for the UN and War on Want which were about performance based on social issues, Dora developed Worksop 42 into a system she claimed as an alternative to Yoga. Dora also did much to promote dance as a way of improving mental health (Years ahead of today’s well-being initiatives) and in 1975 wrote a Relaxation in Movement. She died on the 19th March 2005 aged 91.
He left the area to work in the East End becoming Warden of Toynbee Hall (1977-1987) and in his later years he campaigned to reopen the Children’s Beach by Tower Bridge, something Tubby Clayton did successfully sixty years earlier. Unfortunately he died before the project came to fruition and after his death it was dropped. He died on the 24th May 1991.
He moved from community work in Notting Hill in the late 1960s to community work in Islington, before becoming director of a North Islington housing rights project. He went on to be Deputy Director at Shelter as deputy director (1974-76). After positions with the Society for Co-operative
Buildings, an East London housing association, and CHAR, the housing campaign for single people, he ran London’s largest public housing department at Camden Council. In 1995 he returned to Shelter as Director in his most high profile role. The election of a Labour government in 1997 opened up new doors and Chris was a member of various groups, committees and commissions..
He wrote two books, A New Vision for Housing (2005), and a history of Notting Hill housing trust in 2006. His health began to deteriorate in 2008 and by the following year he was unable to walk. Living in a wheelchair focussed his activism on better access for disabled people.
He died on the 2nd December 2014
As well as her involvement seen above, Pansy also belonged to various groups sympathetic to her own passions such as the West Indian Mother Club and she was on the management committee of North Kensington Neighbourhood Law Centre. By the end of the 1970s it became clear to her that an increasing number of elderly people of Caribbean origin were suffering from isolation and loneliness so Pansy opened a drop-in centre in 1980, which evolved into the Pepper Pot Club in Ladbroke Grove. Pansy died in 2017, the Pepper Pot Club continues.
He was a member of the Greater London Council representing Ealing North 1973–1977. He also stood for parliament on a number of occasions and was later Chairman of the Electoral Reform Society. Mason died on the 18th May 2017.
Michael returned to Australia on returning to Melbourne Michael became a member of a new multi faith team (Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican) working in the inner SE area of metropolitan Melbourne. In the late seventies Michael ‘hit a wall’, his marriage broke up and he left the church to become a renovations builder. He then became a major player in the Australian and International bicycle industry until his retirement. Remarried with a daughter by his second wife and six grandchildren, Michael lives in Melbourne.
Roy continued to talk the talk at Speaker’s Corner and also stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in several elections during the 80s. In 1987 he wrote his autobiography, From Where I stand, which was said to be the first Indo-Caribbean autobiography published in the UK. He is currently living in Australia with his Australian partner Jenny Lawther, a specialist in housing for women.
Thanks to Ken Prideaux-Brune, John Mitchell, John Burgess, Michael Oxer, Dr Tank Green, Beryl Foster, Mark Ecclestone, Sultan Mahmud Sharif and Gary M. James.
Dr Green’s thesis Digging at Roots and Tugging at Branches: Christians and ‘Race Relations’ in the Sixties is a detailed study of the work of Christians in the sixties in England, with specific reference to a Methodist church in Notting Hill, London.
Also the Toc H archives @ The Cadbury Collection; The Journal; Point 3; Kensington Post, Find My Past and the beast that is the internet.