Muriel Lester Collected Papers
Held at: Swarthmore College Peace Collection [Contact Us]500 College Avenue, Swarthmore 19081-1399
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Muriel Lester was born in Leytonstone, Essex, in December 1883, to Henry Lester Jr. and Rachel Goodwin Lester. In 1902 a visit with her father to a factory girls' club in Bow, a destitute part of London, made such an impression on her that she began to go there regularly as a social worker. In 1914, she and her sister Doris bought Zion Chapel in Bow and converted it into Kingsley Hall, a community center for the area residents. For 20 years, Muriel made Kingsley Hall the center of her work: she led Sunday worship, rewrote hymns, officiated at communion and marriage services, organized a nursery school, initiated a men's adult school, and threw herself into helping alleviate the sufferings of the poor (and earning herself the sobriquet "the Jane Addams of London". Muriel was elected as a socialist in 1921 to the Poplar council, on which she served for nearly five years. Under her leadership, Poplar became the first locale in Britain to authorize dental clinics for mothers, distribution of milk to poor children, and the provision of health benefits. She believed that capitalism was inherently selfish and she and a small group of others committed themselves to a lifestyle of voluntary poverty, with Muriel donating most of her personal resources to support Kingsley Hall.
Muriel was a pacifist by 1914. She joined with others in protesting the war, and supported famine relief and reconstruction efforts. In January 1919, she led a march from Bow to the House of Commons in London, calling for help for children in war-ravaged countries. Through her Save the Children Fund, humanitarian aid began to flow. Later, India's non-violent struggle for independence, and Gandhi's leadership, were of keen interest to Muriel and revitalized her interest in pacifism. An admirer of her work at Kingsley Hall invited her along on a thirteen-week visit to India in 1926-1927, where she became friends with Gandhi. When he spent three months in Great Britain in 1931, Kingsley Hall hosted his visit.
In 1933, Muriel turned over the leadership of Kingsley Hall to her sister; in 1934 she became Ambassador-At-Large and later Traveling Secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation [IFOR]. She had joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1915, and had attended the founding meetings of IFOR in Holland in 1919. Her new responsibilities included investigating injustices and campaigning for reform (as she did in India in 1934 when she traveled about the country with Gandhi, speaking against untouchability); collecting documentation on various issues; giving speeches and writing articles; organizing IFOR chapters; and conducted prayer schools. During a visit to Latin America in 1941, she was detained in Trinidad for ten weeks by British authorities. Public outcry led to her release, though on her return to Britain she was detained several days in Holloway Prison and her passport was confiscated for the duration of the war. This in no way discouraged her from organizing anti-war efforts, helping to break a blockade of aid to the continent, or resuming her work at Kingsley Hall.
Muriel continued to travel for IFOR even after her official retirement in 1954(?). She died on February 11, 1968.
The Swarthmore College Peace Collection is not the official repository for the papers of this individual.
Gift of J. Nevin Sayre.
For the catalog record for this collection, and to find materials on similar topics, search the library's online catalog.
Processed by SCPC staff; checklist prepared by Anne M. Yoder, Archivist, February 1998; added to March 2008
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includes, on page 2, an event in Detroit, Michigan, during Lester's visit there in the 1930s