SOCIAL reformer, pacifist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Muriel Lester made many poignant quotes during her life.

“How insensitive, inartistic, unscientific, and ungracious it is to take anything for granted” was one of them.

This pretty much summed up Muriel’s attitude to life. She didn’t take anything for granted. Muriel is one of the people being remembered in the Clever Essex Campaign. Launched by Southend arts group Metal, the campaign is aiming to recognise Essex’s greatest ambassadors who have helped put the county on the map. In short, they want us all to remember the incredible Essex men and women throughout the ages who have who have helped shape the world as we know it.

Muriel was born in Leytonstone - then a prosperous part of Essex - in December 1883. She grew up in a large, relatively wealthy household. Her paternal grandfather, Henry Edward Lester, Sr (1806-94), and father, Henry Edward Lester, Jr (1834-1927), a Justice of the Peace, were successful in the ship-construction business.

The Lester family were also prominent in Baptist circles and helped form several congregations. Henry Lester served as president of the Essex Baptist Union from 1887-1888 and 1903-1904. In his address for 1904, he stressed to parishioners the importance of serving others and helping bring reconciliation to a broken world. These would become themes central to Muriel’s future work.

In 1908, Muriel and her younger sister, Verona re-organized the Baptist approach to Sunday School. By dividing classes according to age and gender, they pioneered graded Sunday School programmes.

As Muriel grew up she contemplated studying at Cambridge University. However, already committed to social service and issues of justice, she decided to to school at 18.

During these formative years, as she travelled through the slums of London, she began to notice poverty everywhere she looked, even from the train window while travelling to London for an evening out.

She recalled: “I was utterly terrified at first, because we ordinarily only rushed through it on a fast train up from Leytonstone, where we lived, to the West End, shopping, or to go to a Pantomime ... now and then the train would stop dead quiet in the middle of the East End. And there was a ghastly smell “Do people live down there?’ I enquired. The answer came - I can hear it almost in my ears still - ‘Oh yes, plenty of people live down there, but you needn’t worry about them, they don’t mind it, they’re not like you, they don’t mind any of these smells. Besides, even if they did, they only have themselves to blame. They get drunk. That’s why they’re poor.’”

Incensed by this attitude towards the poor, Muriel’s calling became even clearer when soon afterwards she visited a party at a factory girls’ club in Bow, an extremely poor part of London. She realised she needed to help the people she encountered and began to go to Bow regularly as a social worker before moving there permanently in 1912 with her sister Doris. Their brother, Kingsley also lived with them until his death in 1914.

Over this period Muriel became sceptical about institutional Christianity. She felt the church wasn’t doing enough to change the world. Becoming more radical in her thinking, Muriel deepened her study of Tolstoy’s teachings of non resistance and she shared these ideas with her students at Loughton Baptist Union . In 1914 the Muriel and Doris brought Zion Chapel, previously used by a strict Baptist congregation on Botolph Road in Bow.

They turned into ‘Kingsley Hall’, named after their late brother and for almost two decades the community centre served as a base for their work.

Muriel identified with the residents of Bow and became a parson’. She performed ‘priestly duties’ such as leading Sunday worship, re-writing hymns, leading prayers, officiating at communion and marriage services and providing pastoral care.

She later recalled of those days: “Day and night my mind was set on this job of getting a little community in East London to function as servants and lovers of their neighbours, cooperating with God by restoring their birthright to His dispossessed children, the birthright of music, art, poetry, drama, camps, open-air life, self-confidence. the honor of building up a new social order, the Kingdom of Heaven, here and now in Bow.”

Muriel campaigned against the First World War, saying: “The first casualty in every war is truth. War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and duelling — an insult to God and man — a daily crucifixion of Christ.”

In 1921 Muriel and two friends committed themselves to voluntary poverty, donating their personal wealth and resources to the restitution fund or Kingsley Hall and promising to live a simple, humble life. Reports of Gandhi and India’s non-violent struggle for independence gave Muriel’s passionate pacifism fresh impetus. Muriel had met Mahatma Gandhi many times in her role as Travelling Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and had travelled throughout India with him.

In September 1931, Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference in London as the representative of the Indian National Congress Party, whose aim was Indian independence. The British government laid on a suite of rooms at the Hilton Hotel and a fleet of plush cars for Gandhi’s entourage, but Gandhi rejected the arrangements saying that he would rather stay with his friend Muriel Lester at Kingsley Hall in Bow.

He stayed in a ‘cell’ on the roof and was able to live in the same simple style in which he lived in India. Kingsley Hal became the centre of world attention during his three months’ stay and many famous people came to see him, although Gandhi was more interested in getting to know the locals.

On one occasion Gandhi, wearing his familiar loin cloth, sat cross-legged on the floor to receive visitors. When it was his turn to respond, he motioned for a pencil and piece of paper and wrote: “Thank you very much; Monday is my day of silence upon which I never speak”.Muriel explained that Gandhi’s weekly day of silence enabled him to listen, think and pray better.

When the Second World War broke out, Muriel organized anti-war activity and resumed her work at Kingsley Hall. With other peace activists, she raised funds which the community centre used for food, clothing and the Children’s House. At the same time, Muriel Lester won the friendship and support of people in high standing. including the author, H. G. Wells,and the actress, Sybil Thorndike.

Muriel retired from full-time work in 1958 and in 1963 she became a Freeman of the Borough of Poplar on her eightieth birthday. By then, she had twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was recognized as one of the world’s leading pacifists. She wrote numerous articles and had over twenty works published, including two autobiographical accounts, It Occurred to Me (1939) and It So Happened (1947).

Today Kingsley Hall is still a working community centre that caters for local youth and women’s groups and hosts activities. Muriel died in 1968, aged 82. She never married and never had children. Selfless to the end, as per her arrangements her body was donated to medical science.