In search of the Bedford Institute

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A sunny Saturday afternoon in April and the FA cup is into semi finals. When I get off the bus, football supporters are making a racket outside Liverpool Street station.

They’re either Spurs or Chelsea supporters, I have no idea which, and either way passers by are scurrying, trying not to be intimidated.

I haven’t been up this way in London for years and I have to orientate myself. My trip today is research. I’m tracing someone who was here more than one hundred years ago. The area reeks of glass, concrete and modernisation which doesn’t give way until a few hundred yards up Broadgate where I realise I have gone wrong.

Underfoot the pavement crunches with dirt. Gentrification hasn’t washed this far. The buildings around me exist in a hope that they too will one day be tarted up but demolition seems a more likely end for them.

I make my way by reckoning, looping around streets, walking slowly. I cross a busy road and duck down an alley.

On another street, people hang around. Two couples watch me suspiciously. They’re dressed like they might be going to a wedding or a Saturday lunch. The men in suits, the women in what used to be called frocks, remind me of Bob Hoskins and London gangster films.

A woman passes, on her way to a little corner shop that sells magazines, groceries, beer, and wine. She trips, and almost sprawls, and her companion grabs her arm, and swears. They both ignore me, intent on the cafe, and its food and drink.

Rubbish bags spill on the pavement in a heap. There are beer cans in the gutter, and broken glass underfoot.

When I find the Bedford Institute it has a shuttered abandoned look. Buildings, when people desert them, have an unmistakable look. They get like corpses.

The building was a beacon, once, a statement of hope for the people living here. The institute offered adult education, and worked to alleviate poverty. Semi-derelict, it still has a charm, and the beauty of good design, like bone structure in a face. Someone thought it out with care, and wanted to make a statement on this corner.

I am researching the life of Jack Catchpool, work that I hope will become a full blown biography. A young Quaker, fresh out of school, he came to the institute just before the first world war. He was looking for a way he could be of service to the society in which he lived.

After his day job in the City, where he was unhappy, he ran boys’ clubs, and evening classes. Catchpool went on to become secretary to the Friends Social Union, went to Russia with the Friends War Victims Relief and, after time as a sub-warden at Toynbee Hall, became the first national secretary of the Youth Hostels Association.

He was a Quaker, and the street I am on is still called Quaker Street. The Bedford Institute was here because the whole area, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was one of utter deprivation. Poverty was endemic. It went with insecure employment, short term contracts and low pay. We call them ‘zero hours’ today. They created poor housing, ill health and slums.

Catchpool lived in a single room where he fought a nightly battle with bed bugs. But he, and others like him, were fighting a battle with poverty, and with a society that wanted to ignore people who were poor. Today the institute is shut up, closed, and its purpose gone.

Poverty is still here today I suspect, a little less visible, sandwiched between the concrete and glass of Liverpool Street, and the gentrification of Spitalfields. Poverty is still here but it doesn’t look as it did at the end of the Victorian era.

Maybe it has become indecipherable to me. There is no one to translate it for me. No one with books, and social surveys, and studies of its damage to make me aware of what is happening, no social reformers like Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth, and no Charles Dickens either, writing about it. No one like Jack Catchpool either.

Poverty has become hard to read. I don’t understand it the way I do understand the poverty of one hundred years ago and the institute itself has closed. It’s now an empty, derelict building, awaiting some kind of fate that is not yet apparent. It’s a little like us all, waiting to find out what will happen.

How does an area like this with piles of rubbish on the pavement and broken glass continue today? How does a listed building that was built for such purpose remain empty for so long, I wonder.

How have we become so powerless? What allows such neglect to endure? What has happened to that high purpose of eliminating poverty that fired men like Jack Catchpool?

Somewhere between 1914 and today, something changed. Some of it is to do with professionalism, the view that poverty is a problem that professionals solve. Some of it is the wasting of our faith in our society. Some of it is a recurring attitude that says poverty is a choice, a result of indigence, a lack of moral fibre. Victorians often said that and that view is back again, in vogue.

Some answers must be in what was happening when Jack Catchpool worked in this area and in what he was trying to achieve. His quest to find a place where he could be of real service to the people caught my interest when I wrote an earlier book about youth hostels. Youth hostels became his life’s work from 1930 and part of the answer to that age’s poverty.

I turn back towards Spitalfields. The restaurants adopt a sheen of wealth. They make a pretence of modernity, and nod to a way of life that knows no poverty. Everyone here is rich, and well paid, or at least they aspire to be. At the window of a flower shop, a man in casual clothes adjusts his collar, and checks his reflection.

You can find out more about the Bedford Institute here

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