Oxford House, Bethnal Green’s oldest cultural hub

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We talk to CEO John Ryan about Bethnal Green’s Oxford House and its journey from a pioneering ‘settlement house’ for students from Oxford University, through hard financial times, to plans for a £3million renovation that will secure its future as one of East London’s most vibrant community hubs.

Oxford House’s University roots

Oxford House was established in 1884 as the first ‘settlement house’ to open. Students and graduates from Keble College, Oxford University, undertook a period of residential volunteering to learn first-hand about the realities of urban poverty and to come up with innovative solutions.

These volunteers were either graduates or worked locally and lived upstairs in Oxford House replicating the colleges at Oxford University in the heart of Bethnal Green. Volunteers provided practical support to alleviate or remove the impact of poverty to the local community by working on projects such as youth clubs, poor man’s lawyer, labour exchanges and adult education classes.

In 1891, Oxford House relocated to its current building from its original location in Weaver’s Fields and has remained there ever since.

Affordable work space, arts centre and cafe

Oxford House provides affordable office space to around 30 organisations, charities and social businesses as well as affordable meeting and events space.

The facilities include a theatre, gallery and dance studio with a programme of weekly activities including dance and health and fitness for all ages: from under fives to 90 years plus. The Gallery provides excellent professional gallery space for new and emerging artists.

Children and the Arts, a nationwide charity looking to promote children’s involvement with the arts, and Green Candle Dance, a community group promoting dance for the young and old, are just two of the organisations that rent office space at Oxford House.

In partnership with other community groups, Oxford House provides a programme of community classes and events seven days a week.

Our highlight? It is a hard call, but don’t miss the volunteer-led art exhibitions at the gallery. One exhibition has been a particular highlight for us. Coming or Going? – EU Londoners Contemplate their Future was a series of portraits of people affected by the Brexit vote.

Make sure to get involved with a dance class or two, but remember, when the new cafe and bar are finished, this will be a great place to hang out, drink a coffee with a friend, or settle down to do some work.

There are a range of volunteering opportunities where you can gain valuable work skills or donate your time to support Oxford House’s work.

Plans for a grand design

In June this year, John Ryan, Chief Executive, will have been working at Oxford House for 10 years.

Before taking the job at Oxford House, Ryan worked for The Abbey Centre, a not-dissimilar organisation based in Westminster. When he began his new role, he knew he was in for a challenge. ‘It was in a pretty dire financial situation, and we had to take serious action to get it to where it is today’ he explained.

This involved reducing the staff from 30 to 10, and focusing on what Oxford House was originally about. Five years later, after the original financial situation had been resolved, the roof started to leak hugely. This was the next thing that needed resolving.

Since then, Ryan’s main task has been preparing for the future and the renovation. ‘Honestly, I’m so excited for building works to start, I think it is my proudest moment of my time here so far.’

Photograph of John Ryan, Chief Executive
John Ryan, Chief Executive

At the end of May, the building works will finally begin. Although they will take up to a year, they are vital to secure the future of Oxford House. The first port of call will be fixing the safety risks, such as the broken roof and windows. After that, there are plans to build a new main entrance, a new cafe and bar that is easily accessible from the path. There will also be a roof terrace accessible by lift that can be hired for events alongside the existing theatre and church spaces.

The former Chapel is a wonderful hidden wooden panelled space at the top of the building. It has been closed to public access for years because of water damage from the roof but during the renovation, it will be repaired and be prepared for community use.

Dannatt Johnson Architects, who have worked on the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and the Brixton Windmill, are the architects behind the new build. The contractors employed to carry out these works are members of the local community, ensuring that economic benefit is retained within the community.

Ryan’s plea to our community; ‘Please continue to hire our theatre space while the building works are taking place. It is our main source of income and is most definitely needed to help us finance this £3 million project.’

In September, Oxford House will be involved with Open House, so make sure to swing by on the 22nd or 23rd to check out this beautiful old building as it undergoes its long-awaited restoration.

Volunteering opportunities

Volunteering is, and always has been, at the heart of what Oxford House does. The OH! Gallery is entirely run by volunteers, providing valuable opportunities for people to experience jobs they would otherwise have no access to. Each year, Oxford House has approximately 50 volunteers working with them across the board.

Currently, Oxford House is looking for volunteers to help with a heritage storytelling project they are working on which aims to further engage local audiences. They are always keen for more volunteers – the best thing to do is pop in during their opening hours to find out about current opportunities, or head to the volunteering section of their website here.

Photograph of Oxford House

Visit Oxford House Monday-Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday 10am-1:30pm or Sunday 10am-2:30pm at Derbyshire Street, Bethnal Green, London E2 6HG. Keep up with their activities on Facebook and Twitter.

Like this? You might also enjoy our feature on Toynbee Hall.

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