Muriel Lester: England’s “Mother of World Peace”

Muriel Lester: England’s “Mother of World Peace”

Muriel Lester was born in Leytonstone, Essex (now in east London), on 9 December 1883 into a prosperous Victorian shipbuilding family. Her father Henry owned a shipyard in Blackwall Docks to the south on the Thames River, on the Isle of Dogs. It was her family's company that built the barge that carried Cleopatra’s Needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, dated 1450 BC, to London when it was given as a gift to Queen Victoria in 1819.

In 1902, the parents and five children moved seven miles further northeast to Loughton, where they lived in a large and lovely home called “The Grange.” Both Henry and Rachel were devout Baptists, and Henry served as president of the Essex Baptist Union. Muriel and her siblings were brought up to love Christ and to give back to the communities in which they lived. Muriel was converted and baptized in 1898 at age fifteen and joined the Union Church of Laughton. Her sister Doris and brother Kingsley soon followed. The forward-thinking Lesters provided their daughters Muriel and Doris, with a rare gift when they sent them to St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Scotland, to attend St Leonard's College.

The two sisters were traveling to London one day to shop when the train on which they were riding stopped for a time in “The Bow,” an area of slums, poverty, and despair. Looking out of the train windows, these privileged young ladies realized for the first time that not everyone lived with the luxury they had enjoyed each day. In 1902, an invitation to a dance at a club in Bow Road, for women workers at a match factory, changed their lives. The sisters had a wonderful time, became regular visitors to Bow, and made many friends with the poor and working class people who lived there.
Muriel began to question why Christians seemed not to connect Jesus’s radical call to discipleship with their everyday lives. She noted that wealthy Christians often gave funds to help charitable causes, but usually chose not to involve themselves with the poor or to cross class lines to change underlying causes of social ills. Muriel became troubled. She wanted to do something about it.

To learn better how to help those who lived in such dire conditions, Muriel and Doris asked their father for a small terraced cottage in Bromley by Bow from which they could begin to minister with and live among their new friends. To his credit, Henry was glad to do so. In 1912, they moved to Bruce Road in Bow, which they called Rose Cottage, and later Rachel Cottage, where they lived for the next forty years. They first began to listen and observe, then to do small, “overdue acts of justice.”
They encouraged local people in this overcrowded and polluted area to believe that they deserved, and had the potential to achieve, as much in life as the rich and powerful. They saw education, healthcare, clean air, nutritious food, and access to nature, music and the arts, as rights of which Bow people were being unjustly deprived. They aimed to prove that "ordinary men and women were quite capable of running their own affairs." They believed that neighborhood buildings could be owned and run democratically by the community. The hope was that the experience of cooperation and self-government, especially if it began in early childhood, would produce citizens capable of bringing peace and social equality to the nation and the world.

When their brother died unexpectedly in 1914, he left a sum of money to help the community of Bow. Together, Bow residents decided to purchase a disused Chapel, which they refurbished and named “Kingsley Hall” in his honor. From this community center, Muriel and Doris and Christians who lived in the area began ministries to bless the community. They met for church services, started Sunday School classes for age groups, fellowshipped with and took care of each other. They started a nursery for small children on Bruce Street and a women’s Bible study group and, in 1912, founded an orphanage called the Children’s House. Infant mortality rates then dropped from the highest to one of the lowest of any area of London. A new Kingsley Hall was built in 1928 to accommodate the large numbers of community members being served each day.

News of this work swelled beyond the boundaries of England. Muriel and Doris became pacifists, and Kingsley Hall became a retreat center, where many people from around the world came to learn how this community lived and worked together so effectively. Gandhi was a visitor in 1931, spending twelve weeks at Kingsley Hall. He took his daily morning walk about the Bow, visited its residents, and received governmental officials from his tiny room there.

Muriel became known as a leader for reconciliation, accompanying Gandhi on his tour of the earthquake-shaken regions in Bihar on his anti-untouchability tour during 1934. That same year, Muriel became Ambassador-At-Large and, afterwards, Traveling Secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, speaking in many nations, particularly after World War II.

Muriel retired in 1958 and moved to 49 Baldwinn’s Hill in Loughton to take care of her sister Doris, who was ill. In 1963, Muriel was honored by the “Freedman” award, which celebrates persons of distinction who have rendered eminent services to a Borough. When she died in 1968, three years after her sister, Muriel was famous, particularly in the US and in India. In Japan she was given the title, ‘Mother of World Peace.’ Today the Children’s House is still a nursery school, and two Kingsley Halls serve their communities in Bow and Dagenham. This month, we celebrate Muriel Lester’s courage and vision for the work of the Kingdom, right where she lived.
"How ridiculous we often are in our negations, our strutting self-importance,
our penchant for making labels and sticking them on people.
As though labeling a person disposed of him!”

                                                                                                                — Muriel Lester
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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