Robert James Lees


 

The People's League

On 13th November 1893 the project that Lees described as his `glorious mission’ was born. He called it the Peoples’ League and it occupied a prime site in the centre of Peckham in South London. 

It was based, broadly speaking, on socialist theories and, although it did not publicise itself overtly as a either a religious or political organisation, religion and politics certainly underwrote many of the League’s activities

 
   
Central Hall, Peckham


The Central Hall, Peckham (c.1950)

 

The Central Hall at 43 Peckham High Street was built in 1894 under the auspices of Robert James Lees as the headquarters of the People's League. The finance for this substantial project was donated to Lees by a Christian `well-wisher' who gave Lees total legal responsibility for the trusteeship.

The South London Press reported the opening, describing the hall as a `well-lighted, handsome structure, provided with a gallery and capable of accommodating 1000 persons.' The architect was Robert P.Whellock. The main auditorium had a seating capacity of 650.

After the demise of the League, the Hall was used by a Baptist denomination, and, from 1908, by the Revd G. Ernest Thorn who founded the `Church of the Stranger' or `Church of Strangers' - and apparently preached in a suit of armour.

F.R.Griffiths' `New Bioscope Trading Company' of St Martin's Lane established a permanent cinema at the hall in 1910 having transferred his film shows from the Peckham Public Hall in Rye Lane where they had been running since 1907.   It appears that the religious work of the `Church of the Stranger' continued alongside the hall's cinematic role.  A brief mention appears in The Bioscope of 13 June 1912 which reported that "The comfortable theatre, known as the Central Hall in the High Street, is having a successful time with Mr J. Oswick at the helm. The large audiences this week are being regaled with "The Battle of the Redman" and are finding this popular film much to their liking."

It is not clear how long the cinema operation continued, but it is probable that films were being screened until the start of the First World War. For many subsequent years, the hall ran Saturday afternoon film shows for children when, according to one report, it was " packed with screaming kids!"  One local resident recalls attending the `penny rush' there in the 1920s when Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films were being screened.

The Revd Ernest Thorn remained minister at the Hall until November 1932. He either sold or rented the hall in that year to Express Dairies who converted it into a `Refreshment Depot' at it was in the ownership of that company by 1935.  

In later years, the hall has been used as a Top Twenty rock & roll club, and most recently as a nightclub. At present (Spring 2004) it is empty, and advertised for sale. It is threatened with demolition. The Peckham Society has launched a campaign to save it from extinction.
 

Lees had first voiced the general ideas behind the league in open-air lectures on Rye Common.  These talks had tended to be two-way affairs in which those who stopped to listen seldom hesitated to challenge speakers to prove the points they were making.  It was on one such occasion, when Lees was telling his audience that people could make their meagre disposable income go further by working together, that the listeners began to pay more attention and respect than usual. Understandably, they challenged Lees to explain how his theories worked in practice. 

Within the Peoples’ League, a number of separate financial groups was formed, each comprising thirty-three members. Each member contributed six pence (6d) weekly to a common fund. Each group became responsible for purchasing one commonly-used commodity. Hence, for instance, the League was able to purchase several thousand tons of coal each year at a discounted price, which was then delivered to each of the members as it was required.  Each member therefore received more coal than they would have been able to purchase if they had individually bought from coal merchants in the normal way. 

Sarah Lees organised a Clothing Department, with a workroom in which seamstresses made up garments from material purchased in a similar manner.  One of the many aspects of this section was the provision of uniform and other necessary clothing to young girls seeking employment in domestic service. The girls were able to attend interviews smartly dressed, and when they succeeded in obtaining a position, they were kitted out with a pack of appropriate clothes. A girl could then repay the League in instalments, once she was in receipt of a regular wage.  In this way, the League’s work could be accepted as a ‘helping hand’ rather than a charitable gift.  

The League also provided recreational facilities including billiards, which were otherwise usually only available within licensed premises. By cleverly setting the charges for their use at slightly below that charged by neighbouring commercial establishments, Lees was able to raise further money to invest in his work. In this way, the cost of providing the children of the area with Christmas parties and gifts was funded.

 


The Programme for the Central's Hall's Service of Dedication on Sunday 11 November 1895

 

The League proved to be extremely successful in providing material support for the needy people of the area. By 1 January 1895, membership was just short of 1600 people.  It provided both physical and spiritual support, and encouraged its members to help themselves by sharing their meagre resources.  An entry in Lees’ diary at the beginning of 1895 provides an entertaining glimpse into this world of philanthropy: 

“ At five this afternoon we gave a free tea to 618 destitute children in the district, followed by an entertainment and games of a kind. But oh! The children. They could only sit down half at a time, and they in the gallery, waiting, began their amusement by spitting into the tea of those feeding, who also retaliated in the same way when their turn came. It was their idea of fun, and more than we could put an end to.  Then the fastidious tastes of the youngsters was amusing. One could not eat bread and butter; another congratulated us on getting such good butter, a third was surely troubled that the butter was not thick enough. One grumbled that some jam was offered to him when he only wanted cake, and another complained that he was not able to eat as many scones as the lad next to him because he was sick……. Well, in desperation we sent them home at 8. Giving an orange to each as they went. So we ended our first New Year tea to destitute children.”

 


Concerts of light classical music involving musicians and singers from the Peckham are were a regular aspect of the League's programme of events.
Note Item 15, a Recitation by Mrs Sarah Lees.
 

 

Although probably unique in the way it operated, The Peoples’ League was not the first establishment of its kind to open in the Peckham area.  On 13 July 1872, a ‘safe house’ for destitute children was opened in Peckham by Maria Rye. The house was capable of providing accommodation for up to eighty girls and incorporated a laundry, school house, playground and a two acre garden.  Maria Rye had earlier founded the Female Middle Class Emigration Society that, from 1861, was responsible for escorting parties of young women to Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  In 1869, she turned her attention to young girls, usually between the ages of 5 and 12 years who were in the workhouses. 

Maria Rye’s activities met with strong criticism following an investigation commissioned by the Local Government Board in 1874.  As a result, the Board stopped the emigration of children from workhouses.  After a serious illness in 1895, - the same year in which illness caused Lees to close the League - she retired, and the management of the home in Peckham was transferred to the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society.

The Peoples’ League was a curious amalgam of Christian philanthropy and socialist ideology. In addition to the practical workshops, and the financial committees, members were encouraged to improve their education and knowledge, and, of course, to learn more about the Christian faith. Lees himself preached and lectured, and invited other Christian organisations to take part as well.  Lees and his supporters were constantly reminded of the violence which was ever present in this community. Sometimes, his speakers were given a rough reception, particularly in the case of those who preached temperance:

 “ Tonight the Minehead Corp of the Salvation Army visited us for the first time and conducted the Temperance Meeting. It did us good, and they received no injury…”

Perhaps because of its success, the League faced opposition from the established church.  The premises in Peckham were rented from the Church which demanded relatively high payments.  The League’s costs for a typical lantern lecture in 1895 were about one pound, with receipts totalling about £2 and 5 shillings.  However, in January 1895, the Church Assessment Committee of the Vestry assessed the annual rent at £250, or almost £5 per week.  Lees was waiting for the County Council to grant him a license that would treat the League as a place of worship and therefore exempt from the full commercial tariff.  

In February 1895, Lees was summoned to Lambeth Court to answer the charge that he `kept open the Central Hall, High Street, Peckham, as a room of public resort, for the purpose of public music without having obtained the grant of a certificate in writing under the seal of the London County Council.'  It was noted by the court that Lees had applied for a certificate on several occasions but that the Council had declined each time to issue one because they considered the building was not structurally fit for a place of public entertainment.  Lees had also applied for a music and dancing licence but this had been refused too, on the grounds that he had not obtained a certificate.

Defending Lees, barrister Horace Avery claimed that Lees had acted out of ignorance in continuing to run musical events at the hall, and that at all licensed places of worship (which he claimed the hall to be), musical events were an habitual practice. He further claimed that the authorities had never indicated to Lees that those places came within the Act and thus required a certificate.

However, it was proven that Lees had continued with his concerts, and he was found guilty, fined and ordered to pay costs.  

Spiritualists have long claimed that Lees was able to fund the activities of the Peoples League, or at least the initial fitting out of the buildings, from a pension he received from the Privy Purse.  If indeed he was the beneficiary of such a pension, then it has to be asked why the money was not available to him when he most needed it. Some years before the setting-up of the League, he was penniless and, because of his debts, he lost his home and property and considered committing suicide. 

The League expanded in its activities and attracted many local people to its ever-open doors. It closed because its success outgrew Lees’ physical ability to manage it.  After just a few years of undoubted success it finally collapsed when Lees was forced by ill-health (and perhaps other reasons) to leave London and live in Cornwall. 

Lees had kept much of the management of the League to himself, and so there was no-one else capable of taking over the reins of what had become, in a short space of time, such a complex organisation. Although his eldest sons muddled along for several months, it became inevitable that what he called his  “great work” could not survive without his daily involvement.

 


A typical week in the People's League programme including a Children's Lantern Lecture, concerts, services and musical lectures.

 


Strong financial management is evident in the operation of the League. In the case of the Popular Concerts, admission was free but a charge was levied for the printed programme.

     

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© 2005 Stephen Butt Rev-07/03/05