25 March 2008
By John Prendergast
The Bede House project celebrates it 70th anniversary this year and its survival is down to its doggedness and flexibility, a reflection of the best attributes of the area where it has done most of its best work - Bermondsey and Rotherhite.
From the outset it sought to confront and solve the problems that were being encountered by the people on its doorstep, from helping those who lived in crippling poverty and deprivation in the 1930s, to the racism faced by people in the 1990s as the faces in the community changed.
Bede House was set up in 1938, and it grew out of Princess Marie Louise Settlement where the first warden of Bede House, Nellie Hooker, worked. Nellie had in fact learnt her trade at another great institution, Time and Talents. There she learnt the basic ideals that she brought to Bede, of bringing people from different cultures together for the betterment of both.
In Bede's case this involved those who worked there living in the same area as the people they helped. This meant the ideas of well educated volunteers could rub off on those they helped, and likewise the people of Bermondsey could teach the guys out of university a few rules of streetwise life, helping all become well rounded individuals.
When the Princess Club settlement hit financial problems and was finally forced to close, the Bede rose from its ashes. Although not able to take over its dilapidated buildings, it was able to keep the equipment from the club and after a round of fundraising the Bede opened on a small disused bakery in Southwark Park Road.
The name Bede was selected for the new enterprise, as it was felt the historian and doctor 'The Venerable Bede' who dedicated to prayer, work and study was a role model for all to follow.
The centre was always much loved and cherished in the area and when funding became a problem, people would rally round to raise the funds to keep it operational.
Bede really came into its own during the war years. The centre stepped in and played a number of roles during the bleakest of times. As well as using its basement as an air raid shelter, it also became a meal centre and a citizen's advice bureau.
Being centrally located made it an ideal spot to help people, but being in the thick of the action had its drawbacks, as the building suffered damage and as the war came to an end it was clear that relocation might be necessary.
The group were seeking to expand in any case and when the Lady Gomm Memorial Hospital became available, and was offered to Bede on a peppercorn rent, it was snapped up.
The new centre was always busy and full of events for all sectors of the community of any age, as well as groups for the disabled. As the area began to rebuild itself and transform into a thriving dock community the club saw its role as taking a spiritual leader for these people.
By the time the 1960s came around new challenges faced Bede. The upsurge in poorly erected housing estates bought poor living conditions to the area again. It also meant that community was lost, as people were uprooted in ambitious housing plans and placed in unfamiliar places. Bede became the hub through which they could come back together and revisit old friends, reuniting people who once lived on the same road but now lived in inaccessible areas of housing estates.
One other method used was to champion the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Carnival. The estates would enter floats to win prizes and it would reunite old friends and create new ones. The event became popular and one year the attendance reached 8,000 people.
As the make up of areas changed in the 1980s and 1990s it created racial tension that the Bede was to encounter first hand. The white population felt that its culture was under threat as other racial groups moved in, a common complaint that those had lived there for years were now being ignored.
To tackle this split in the community, the group began anti-racism and community projects, and despite being the victim of an arson attack itself in 1992, they persevered with work such as the Detached Youth Work Project that delivered amazing results.
The group fights on to this day, still encountering funding problems from time to time, as it fights in the ever more competitive charity industry. But it still helps all and ignores none, and whether you are young or old, disabled or have marriage problems, the people at Bede will seek to step in and help in any way they can.
The group are currently gathering stories of how, over the years, Bede has had a positive impact on people's lives and on the community in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. If you have a story to tell or know someone who has, contact Vivien Palmer on 020 7232 1583 or email@example.com
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