On 1 December 2020 Quaker Homeless Action (QHA) became part of Quaker Social Action through a planned merger.
This event prompted two of the volunteer founders of QHA - David Chesterton and Jeffery Smith - to recall its establishment 50 years ago.
The Christmas of 1971 marked not only the birth of Quaker Homeless Action, but also the first ‘Open Christmas’ for people affected by street homelessness in London. This Open Christmas paved the way for similar events run by Crisis at Christmas, St Mungo's and indeed some London local authorities.
In the autumn of 1971 a relatively small band of Friends got together to set up a London Quaker Action Group with the ambition of running an Open Christmas in London. They were inspired by the work of a Quaker Action Group in Philadelphia and of the Manchester Non-Violent Action Group, which had run an Open Christmas in 1970 in Manchester - an idea they had borrowed from Stockholm.
Such an enterprise required support, so a letter was written to The Friend (Quaker magazine) asking for help. This was quickly forthcoming with donations of around £1,000 as well as gifts including men’s clothing and food. The Open Christmas was being planned to remain open 24 hours a day over a period of five days and would require many helpers. Once again, a request in The Friend did the trick and swelled the numbers involved.
By November 1971 a venue still hadn’t been found, but after much door knocking on church halls across the East End, the crypt of St George-in-the-East was offered
By November a venue still hadn’t been found, but after much door knocking on church halls across the East End, the crypt of St George-in-the-East was offered. This magnificent Hawksmoor church had been badly bombed during the second world war and extensively rebuilt with a large and modern crypt.
Close by in Cable Street was the Methodist Men’s Care Unit; from here they provided an evening soup kitchen as well as a nightly ‘soup run’. During the run up to Christmas, to gain experience of the reality of street homelessness, helpers were encouraged help in the soup kitchen and join a soup run. This went out at around midnight taking soup and bread to the homeless in several locations, including King's Cross and Spitalfields Market. The staff at Cable Street were quickly convinced of the plans for an Open Christmas and were very supportive. This also afforded them an opportunity for well-deserved rest over Christmas.
Word of our Open Christmas spread by word of mouth and when we opened the doors to the crypt it slowly began to fill with those living on the streets, many of whom normally slept in ‘derries’ (derelict houses) or ‘skippers’ (meaning a place to kip). At that time the East End had numerous derelict buildings in which it was possible to kip in relative safety. There were some women, but mostly men and generally between 35 and 55 years of age. Many drank heavily, with a number mixing cider or cheap wine with meths, which they called ‘Jake’. Many services, particularly those offering overnight accommodation were ‘dry’, meaning drinking was not permitted, nor was arriving seriously intoxicated.
We sought to avoid a paternalist, patronising approach, and to treat those staying with us as equals and enable them to be more in charge of their lives.
We did not wish to exclude anyone and so decided to permit drinking providing this took place quietly and didn’t overly affect others. Those who became very intoxicated and loud were asked to leave and to return after they had quietened down. Many presented with quite serious mental health issues and a significant proportion were former members of the armed forces. We sought to avoid a paternalist, patronising approach, and to treat those staying with us as equals and enable them to be more in charge of their lives. Whilst a free Christmas day dinner could be found fairly easily, support on other days around Christmas, regular food and overnight shelter could not.
Although the crypt was large, the kitchen was about the size of a domestic one, with an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cooker. Fortunately we also had access to the cookers at the Men’s Care Unit. Detailed records of the numbers staying weren’t kept, but there were around 300 every day, which placed incredible demands on those preparing and cooking vast numbers of meals over many hours each day.
Helpers not involved in kitchen work spent hours sitting and talking with our guests or playing cards and other games. One evening the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ was watched in rapt attention. A doctor volunteered to run a surgery and we ran a very successful clothing exchange, although dealing with discarded filthy and lousy clothing was a challenge. Some guests had beds available elsewhere in night shelters and so the numbers reduced to around 150 sleeping overnight on the floor. For the 1972 Open Christmas, mattresses that had been used the previous summer in Christian Action’s ‘Tent City’, a hostel for back-packers on Wormwood Scrubs, were borrowed and following a successful plea for blankets, a much better night’s sleep could be offered.
For many of us, an abiding memory was the smell, of cooking, of cigarette smoke, but mostly from large numbers of unwashed people in dirty and often damp clothes
For many of us, an abiding memory was the smell, of cooking, of cigarette smoke, but mostly from large numbers of unwashed people in dirty and often damp clothes, living and sleeping together in close proximity in a poorly ventilated crypt.
We didn’t conduct formal risk assessments, the unexpected happened or nearly happened: heads were put together and resolutions found. The drains blocked and rods were found. The LPG gas ran out and a camping shop was found to be open on Boxing Day. At the end the parquet floor was filthy, someone got a table knife and started to scrape, others joined in. Three hours later it was clean.
The 1971 Open Christmas proved to be a great success, so successful that a few months later we ran an Open Easter. We also took responsibility for running the soup run every Thursday night out of the Men’s Care Unit in Cable Street, and went on to do so for many years. St George-in-the-East remained our base for the 1972 Open Christmas and the Open Easter of 1973. Following this the London Quaker Action Group separated into two groups and Quaker Homeless Action emerged. This was entirely amicable, with a number remaining involved with both groups.
In 1973, Quaker Homeless Action increased the numbers that could be accommodated when it ran Open Christmases in four locations: a Salvation Army Hall opposite the Limehouse Town Hall, St Bennett’s House at Queen Mary College in Mile End, Christchurch on Blackfriars Road and St Matthew’s Church Hall on the New Kent Road. This allowed us to offer two ‘dry’ Open Christmas venues in St Bennett’s and St Matthew’s. By Christmas 1974 the Salvation Army Hall had been demolished and in its place we used the United Reformed Church in Pott Street, a stone’s throw from the current Quaker Social Action offices in Bethnal Green.
At the same time as running Open Christmas and Open Easter, Quaker Homeless Action involved itself in a major Friends initiative converting the Prince Arthur pub in Swiss Cottage into accommodation for the young homeless. It also undertook a number of ‘work camps’ improving facilities at homeless centres and other community centres.
In those days homelessness often arose because former soldiers were poorly supported and for many others... mental health services were inadequate
A half dozen Friends started Open Christmas, scores more came to help and befriend. In those days homelessness often arose because former soldiers were poorly supported and for many others, whose lives had fallen apart, mental health services were inadequate. Addressing the root causes was beyond us, we simply provided some welcome relief and compassion in a hostile environment.
QSA would like to thank David Chesterton and Jeffery Smith very much indeed for contributing this important historical account.