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The Voluntary Poverty Movement

September 29, 2021
by Robert Nurden

Last chance! Only a few tickets left for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S WALKING TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS on Sunday October 3rd at noon. Email to book.

Map of the Gentle Author’s Tour drawn by Adam Dant


Join me on a ramble through Spitalfields taking less than two hours, but walking through two thousand years of history and encountering just a few of the people who have made the place distinctive.

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Kingsley Hall where Mahatma Gandi stayed in Bow, designed by Charles Voysey

Robert Nurden discovered his grandfather’s involvement with the Voluntary Poverty Movement recently while researching his biography Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey with my Grandfather

Imagine four earnest people praying together round a simple wooden table on which lie notes and coins, and food and clothing, while in a corner of the bare room waiting for the ceremony to end, stand a group of London’s poorest. 

You are witnessing a meeting of the Voluntary Poverty Movement. In 1921, a band of revolutionary Christians – more grandly known as the Brethren of the Common Table – met in Bow to share what was superfluous to their own needs with the needy. It was an initiative in which the rich sought to dispense their wealth and make themselves poor. Only in this way, they claimed, could they understand what it meant to be destitute. Yet, as it played out over the next few months in the back streets of the East End, this short-lived piece of pie-in-the-sky idealism constitutes one of the most hypocritical acts in the the history of do-gooding. 

All started well. The Daily News, the Star, the Evening Standard, and other English-speaking newspapers across the world, covered the launch of this lofty but practical take on Christianity. The Evening Standard noted that the group were even prepared to “face exploitation” by less needy people claiming handouts with the definition of ‘need’ left to the conscience of each individual. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News declared “Millionaires & Paupers Join in Self Denial.”

The leader of the Voluntary Poverty Movement was Muriel Lester, an heiress from Loughton in Essex, who with her sister Doris had been working to alleviate the condition of the working class in Bow. She is remembered for her friendship with Mahatma Gandhi and it was she who hosted his visit in 1931. 

Muriel told the Standard: “We ask no questions as to character, and welcome both saint and sinner, preacher and purloiner, dukes and dockers, clergy and convicts… We have no connection with any religious body. None of them will look at us. We came into existence because we realised that it isn’t enough to give away money. We feel we have no right to possess it.”

“Our invitation … is not into enforced poverty but into a very glorious alternative, involving a drastic readjustment in your affairs … we invite you into this condition that the needs of others, whether in our own country or abroad, may generously be supplied by the overflowing of your treasure.”

The other signatories were Rosa Hobhouse, Mary Hughes and the Rev Stanley James. They met in an old chapel that Muriel had bought on the site where Kingsley Hall was built in 1928, where Gandhi stayed, on the corner of Powis Rd and Bruce Rd in Bow. 

But the four signatories completely failed to practise what they preached. They did not “reshape their lives” in line with their vow of poverty, and the press discovered these failings and lambasted them for their hypocrisy. 

Journalists realised that Muriel was relying on her sister Dorothy, who did not join the movement, for financial support. The recent death of their father Henry, a wealthy shipbuilder, had made them beneficiaries of his huge estate. Although Rosa’s husband Stephen had renounced his claims to his family’s Somerset estate, he and his wife set up a family trust which cushioned them from any hardship. 

Mary Hughes, who was the daughter of Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, retained control over an inheritance which included substantial properties in Buckinghamshire, although she did make these available as homes for the unemployed and “fallen women.” In reality, none of them had made any significant sacrifice. 

Only one  – the fourth signatory, Rev Stanley James – had done so, yet the resulting burden fell not on him but on his wife and family. It is here that I must declare an interest: Stanley is my mother’s father and I learned of his involvement while researching his life for the biography I was writing, Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey with my Grandfather. At the time of his participation in this ill-fated enterprise, he and my grandmother Jess, and their seven children were living a life of poverty in a remote cottage in the Mendips. 

Stanley wrote nine books and was editor of the Crusader, a pacifist journal. He wrote in his autobiography that conditions at the family cottage “were as primitive as those of a prairie shack, but no one seemed to mind”. This view was not shared by others. There was no running water, so they had to collect it from a nearby spring, and they had to subsist what they grew in the garden. The kitchen was a lean-to at the back of a house that suffered from severe damp problems throughout. The seven children were forced to share beds, sleeping top-to-tail. 

With Stanley absent most of the time, my grandmother’s life was one of drudgery and hardship. My mother remembers how, when the postman arrived, all the children rushed to the door, hoping he was delivering a cheque in payment for Stanley’s writing.

There is no evidence that my grandmother knew her husband was re-directing the little money they had to the poor of the East End. In his later writings, Stanley never mentioned that he was a member of the movement. Perhaps he was ashamed of the way he had abandoned his own family in order to pursue this idealistic cul-de-sac? Quite how much money he contributed to the cause is unknown, nor is it known for how long he continued this arrangement. One assumes that his contributions petered out like those of the other more affluent participants. 

Yet Muriel Lester, when interviewed by the Daily News, was in no doubt that Stanley’s unusual background made him a perfect appointment. “A great work was done by the Rev Stanley James, who served as a soldier in the Spanish-American war, worked as a cowboy in the Wild West, and nearly starved time out of number,” she said. She could also have told the reporter that he had been a shepherd, newspaper reporter, navvy and hobo in Canada, and, back in England, a preacher, pacifist, communist and supporter of women’s emancipation.

The Voluntary Poverty Movement was not the only doomed East End enterprise that Stanley joined. At the Catholic Darby Rd Mission near Tower Bridge, he encouraged Dockers to take Mass after work when they were exhausted. This proved another disappointment as Stanley admitted ruefully, “They preferred billiards to the Bible.” 

Reverend Stanley James

Muriel Lester

Mahatma Gandi welcomed by Muriel Lester at Kingsley Hall, 1931

Tapestry depicting Mary Hughes (in a red cape)

Mary Hughes’ former Dew Drop Inn in Spitalfields

5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2021

    Reading a little further in to the background of Robert’s book is fascinating and makes one very sympathetic to Stanley James benighted wife and children.

    On a more cheerful note, the photo of Ghandi with the Pearlies is great!

  2. aubrey permalink
    September 29, 2021

    A really fascinating history, vividly told.

  3. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 29, 2021

    What an interesting story! I hope the book will be distributed in Canada.

    And, as I scrolled into the images, my first thought was, ‘oh, Grantchester’s James Norton could play the Rev. Stanley James. A little hair dye and…”

  4. September 30, 2021

    That is a remarkable story. I will have to get this book

  5. October 1, 2021

    The generosity of the Rev. Stanley James and others like him, often meant their own families were neglected and left seriously impoverished. I loved the tapestry though, and imagine this was part of the Quaker one which I was privileged to visit the whole collection in Kendal (Cumbria) many years ago.

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