Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House

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By the time of Peter Kuenstler’s arrival a lot had changed since the pioneering days of the East End settlements. In the 1880s, social reformers such as Samuel Barnett had been attempting ‘missionary’ work into an East End largely ignored by the ruling classes*. Leading up to the war, it was becoming increasingly hard to recruit ‘settlers’ and maintain the ascetic approach to staffing Oxford House. The all-male rules were relaxed with the recruitment of a female cook and a matron. Some of the settlers now worked in the City, returning in the evenings to do voluntary work at the settlement.

Oxford House and Clutton-Brock

With the outbreak of World War II, the Head, Rev John Lewis (who had infuriated Council members by marrying and breaking the male celibate tradition) decided to follow the rest of the Bethnal Green evacuees and leave for the country. Oxford House was virtually shut down. As a ‘caretaking’ measure the Council agreed to appoint Guy Clutton-Brock as Head. Juggling the role with his job as head of the Probation Service, the new Head began to recruit from the ranks of Conscientious Objectors. These men had been exempted from military service on grounds of conscience, and threw their energies into serving their country in a different way.

Wartime work at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Peter Kuenstler had been excused military service on condition that he continue his studies and did two nights a week fire watching. ‘This involved keeping awake armed with a bucket of sand and a bucket of water, in case incendiary bombs were dropped … I have never understood the logic of this’ he writes. ‘After the weekend in Bethnal Green I returned to my home in Hendon where I tried, in vain, to apply myself to vacation reading of Plato and Aristotle. After two weeks I gave up and went to Bethnal Green and pleaded with Guy Clutton-Brock to let me stay at the House for a few weeks. He explained there was nothing to do, the schools were closed, most of the families had been evacuated to the countryside.’

Oxford House and Webbe Boys Club

‘However in the end he agreed to take me on temporarily as a cleaner in the daytime and as an assistant at the Webbe Boys Club in the evenings.’ For this, Peter got pocket money of £1 a week. It was the beginning of an association that would last eight years. The residents of Bethnal Green lived in constant fear of air raids. Peter recalls heading for Bethnal Green in a Number 8 bus, the eastern sky orange, reflecting the burning buildings below. But though the streets were often a chaotic mess of fire engines, rubble and worse, the first reaction of the neighbours was to get ‘out in the streets asking where help was needed’.

Zeppeling raids and Oxford House

An unusual quandary arose for the Residents at the house. Neighbours would come around asking to shelter in the building from the bombs. Government policy was to advise the opposite – to stop large groups clustering together for fear of greater casualties. But people wanted to be together – the older ones even remembered sheltering in Oxford House from Zeppelin raids. The staff gave in and bussed in bunks for the people to sleep on. As well as a nightly shelter, the House was designated a Rest Centre. So, when their houses were hit and made uninhabitable, local families came in until more permanent housing could be found for them.

Oxford House and air raids

‘We often had to improvise to respond to new and extraordinary needs,’ Peter remembers. ‘I was sent off to visit every hardware shop I could find in order to buy chicken wire [to baffle bomb blasts].’ Luckily, because of the tradition of keeping hens in the backyard, there was plenty of it. The men found themselves rescuing furniture from bombed houses – it had to be liberally dosed with paraffin to kill off bugs. Peter took a 14 year old from a penniless family to the nearest clothiers to buy him a complete set of clothing – socks, pants and all, £14 the lot – so he could go to apply for his first job.

Leaving Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Fascinating, varied and ultimately exhausting work. By 1946 Peter was almost burnt out and decided to move on. He worked first on radio programmes for the BBC, then got a Research Fellowship in Youth Policies and Programmes at Bristol University. He was astonished: ‘several of my fellow applicants were academically qualified while I was not’. Perhaps eight years thinking on his feet in Bethnal Green was more useful than a paper qualification, as Peter himself acknowledges. ‘I had been given unparalleled field training in Youth and Community work. Most importantly I learnt unforgettable lessons from people like Guy Clutton-Brock and the hundreds of men, women and children I got to know at Oxford House.’

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
This entry was posted in East End at war, East End philanthropy, Religion and the East End. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Peter Kuenstler at Oxford House

  1. Nick says:

    Peter Kuenstler was a great man who influenced and helped the lives of many people. Sadly, he passed away recently in late 2012. He will be remembered

  2. Nick says:

    Sorry for the typo, Peter Kuenstler passed away in late 2010, not 2012

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