Our History

Oxford House to University House and the Legal Advice Centre

Oxford House was founded in 1884 as part of the settlement movement. In 1886, Oxford House opened a second building named University House. The aim of the settlement movement was to bring young educated students to poor areas of Victorian London, to work and live alongside local people and inspire social change, hoping to address the societal causes for poverty, and establish clubs for education, arts, music, sports, and in some cases financial support, trade union development and legal aid. Boys’ clubs, men’s clubs, lecture series and religious talks all formed a large part of the settlement work, bringing the privileged alongside the poor through common causes and aid. The settlement houses have been considered to be the origins of social work in England, and Oxford House was one of the very first. It was mostly founded by members of Keble College Oxford.

The East End was the main location for the early settlement houses, becoming home to Toynbee Hall, Mansfield House, Oxford House, and of course University House in the 1880s. For some, the East End was seen as a hot-bed of sin requiring Christian intervention. The Salvation Army was founded in Whitechapel, and its early motivation was to convert poor Londoners such as prostitutes, gamblers and alcoholics to Christianity.

The East End during this time period was a melting point of different ideas and people, and as a result saw many of the biggest political and social movements of the time. As an industrial hub of London, many of the great strikes took place in and around the East End, sparking social and industrial reform: the London dock strike of 1889, and the Matchgirls’ strike of 1888 both took place over poor working conditions and paved the way for industrial reform and the creation of unions. In 1889, the Women’s Trade Union Association was formed to organise women workers in the East End. For a number of decades, the East End was the sight of major political struggles, seeing protests and marches from all parts of the political spectrum. To this day, it is still revered as the crucible of the women’s suffrage movement with the establishment of the East London Federation of Suffragettes headquartered at Women’s Hall, 400 Old Ford Road (which is very near to both our present day offices).

  1. E. Turpin – Life and Paintings

Albert Edward Turpin, was a resident of Bethnal Green and part of the East London Group of Artists throughout this turbulent time period. Besides immortalising University House itself through his paint, he also provides the opportunity for a sketch to be drawn of life in Bethnal Green during the period from the 1880s through to post-war East London and the world in which the University House – Legal Advice Centre was founded and thrived.

Albert Turpin was born in 1900, and served, though underage, for two years (1915-17) in the First World War. He soon joined the Royal Marines and continued in active service until the early 1920s, when he was demobilised and returned to Bethnal Green, where he undertook a whole string of odd jobs, such as window-washing, while painting recreationally. He became more and more involved in local politics, joining the Labour party and identifying more and more as a socialist. Turpin’s autobiography vividly details this period:

‘I became a speaker and lecturer. I led strikes and riots and got myself so disliked or feared by the authorities and police that I was very soon on the lists of the police as an agitator of the violent sort. On many occasions I was arrested for offences ranging from rioting and assaulting the police, to chalking ant-war slogans on walls at nights. To me these incidents were as medals to a good soldier.’

As Oswald Mosley became more active in trying to establish a Blackshirts presence in the East End, Turpin and similar left-wing activists were equally active in their resistance, to the point that an opposition poster of 1936 was published with the headline ‘Turpin Responsible for East End Disturbances.’ He was one of the leading voices in the fight against fascism in the East End in the lead up to the Second World War. On occasion, he was more than a voice against fascism; he had to go to court at one point accused of punching a Blackshirt.

During the Second World War he served as a fire-fighter in East London, where he became increasingly involved with national bodies and unions. In November 1945, Turpin was elected the mayor of Bethnal Green for 1946-7, and he continued to act on the Borough Council after his mayoral term was over. From this period onwards he became heavily involved in the actions of the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement, for the moral and spiritual rejuvenation of the world in response to the calamities of the early 20th century. Despite his involvement in local government and the international cause of the MRA, he still continued to paint and exhibit until his death in 1964. His life provides for posterity an image of the working-class man in Bethnal Green at this turbulent and unpredictable time, the type of man who embodied the spirit of the East End, while recording with his art the buildings and atmosphere of his home. The preservation of his art and his story offer an insight into the community which University House was founded to serve.

Poor Man’s Lawyer Services

Oxford House carried out legal aid services from the very beginning of the concept. The first mention of Oxford House’s Poor Man’s Lawyer (PML) activities is recorded in the annual report of 1897, although mention is made of increased demand on the service from ‘previous years’, suggesting that the service existed in some less official capacity for a number of years before making it into the annual reports. The PML division of Oxford House provided free legal advice to local residents of Bethnal Green, serving those too poor to pay for legal advice. The type of work undertaken was as varied as it remains today, although given the nature of the East End and men’s employment, the majority concerned workplace compensation. The PML service also dealt with divorces and family troubles, housing disputes, property claims, the creation of wills and will disputes, and issues of local fraud. The service was so widely used and appreciated by the community that as early as 1901 the House decided to stop advertising the service, being already overwhelmed by demand. From the beginning, the House was conscious of its role within the wider legal community; anxieties over what cases fell under the scope of the PML service, as opposed to those that should have been paid for, are recorded in the 1887 report and recur, as well as the desire not to get involved in criminal cases.

Although very few names are recorded in the early records, similarities with other settlement houses make it possible to assume that this advice was given by recent law graduates, who could take advantage of the residency element of settlement houses for accommodation in London near legal firms and courts, while also gaining legal experience through advising the poor. Across the years, this developed from an informal to a more structured service, with regular evening advice sessions led and supervised by qualified lawyers. In 1911, for example, these sessions were run three times a week, with advice being given by a combination of residents and non-residents of the settlement. The fluctuating nature of the residents on-site at Oxford House often meant that external help was sought; this quote illuminates the situation in 1903:

‘As the majority of cases deal either with matrimonial differences or with claims for compensation, there is a pressing need in this branch of the assistance of a resident or visitor qualified to practice as a solicitor, and having the time and inclination to do Court work.’

The PML service grew quickly and seems to have been very effective in supporting and representing the Bethnal Green community. In 1910, when the PML Committee of Oxford House had a fixed staff of three, their work and accomplishment is summed up:

‘The existence of the Committee is now well known in the district—and beyond—and a good percentage of the legal problems, large and small, that trouble this particular portion of East London is brought to one or another of the members of the Committee for resolution. The Committee does not confine its activities to giving legal advice, but in many cases follows up advice with action, while in some instances where peaceful negotiations prove fruitless it is able to secure the co-operation of a practising solicitor in bringing the matter before the Courts.’

In 1916, a local lawyer, A. C. Crane, helped to supplement the war-depleted expertise of the service, being praised in the annual report.

The Poor Man’s Lawyer Association was formed in 1900 at the initiative of Mansfield House, and Oxford House was represented on the Committee of this association by one of its residents, Mr R. Feetham. This association does not seem to have lasted though, as another PMLA was started in 1913 by the Law Society, though this too seems to have disappeared, perhaps due to the outbreak of war. Still, the general picture formed is of Oxford House PML service operating within a wider community of East London legal aid services, communicating and working alongside other institutions to provide free legal advice and services to the poor of the East End. Oxford House PML later became affiliated with the Bentham Committee, established to unite PML centres across London and to help provide legal action (as opposed to legal advice) in cases that went to County Courts. Oxford House continued to provide legal advice and legal aid to the citizens of East London throughout the 20th century, with great success, made possible by the generosity of time and knowledge by House members, residents, local solicitors, and the wider legal community.

Despite blows to the service during both world wars, the service remained operational across the 20th century, until the Legal Advice Bureau recognisable today was set up in 1941, through University House.

University House and the Legal Advice Bureau

Oxford House itself was only open to the young, elite, Oxford graduates (both in terms of membership and physical entry), but other clubs were set up for members of the local community to get involved and become a part of the settlement ideology. University House was set up as an off-shoot of Oxford House, as the club for the working men of the East End. It had separate premises from 1886 onwards, although operated by Oxford House and supported by Oxford House members and finances. University House was the site of most of the sports clubs and the Repton Boys’ Club, as well as a working men’s smoking club; much of the outreach of Oxford House took place through University House as the location in which men of all social classes could interact.

Over time, as Oxford House grew and the number of projects it undertook expanded, University House grew more and more independent from Oxford House, being run by a separate head and generally conducting business directly. Finances were still shared and University House operations reported in the Oxford House annual reports until the Second World War saw a split between the two operations. In 1943, University House became a separate institution – this is the description in the 1943 annual report for Oxford House:

‘During the last year the activity at University House has in no way diminished. With untiring energy and much wisdom, J. L. Peterson, the Warden, has contrived to develop the life and work of the Centre. The Repton Boys’ Club, the University House Girls’ Club, the Nursery School, the Residential Hostel, the Free Legal Advice Bureau, the Bulletin Service, the Residential Settlement, and all the lesser services and activities are alive and progressive and are making an immense contribution to the life of Bethnal Green. The Oxford House will retain a lively interest in the affairs of this daughter settlement and will always have a sense of responsibility for it.’

The Legal Advice Bureau was thriving at the time of the split only two years after it was established, and continued to be reported on as successful and expanding for the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the records for University House have not survived in the same way as those for Oxford House, but through the Oxford House report of 1941 it is apparent that the centre was popular from the outset: ‘The Free Legal Advice Bureau deals with an average of 30 cases a week, of which approximately 7 are new.’

The only University House annual report that still exists from back then in local records comes from 1954, and shows the changes in operational practice over such a short time, with legal aid becoming much more regulated and becoming even more involved in wider networks of legal advice.

‘The Legal Advice Bureau is substantially dependent for its continued existence upon a grant from the London County Council, whom the Council thanks. The Treasury Finance provided for in the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1947 has not been forthcoming, and funds which were formerly available for the financing of the pioneer Poor Man’s Lawyer have been withheld since the passing of the Act. Landlord and Tenant, Matrimonial, and Accident cases make up the bulk of the work. The Bureau is open every day… Everyone in East London is grateful to all the staff for their loyal service and professional skill.’

From the outset, the Bureau was the project of Anne Waltuck, who had worked at University House in a community service role before establishing the Bureau. She ran the service herself, organised the practicalities, and gave most of the advice herself, though supplemented with the advice of professional barristers and solicitors in evening sessions that she instituted. Anne was very strict with “her lawyers”, demanding attendance with no excuses short of hospitalisation for her evening sessions, and instructing that they must find their successor before retiring! She knew as much and often more than her professional lawyers, and was adored by her clients and co-workers. In 1979, the Legal Advice Centre (University House) registered as an independent charity; the Centre also moved from the University House premises. The Centre moved to premises on the Roman Road in the mid-80s, and is still based there today. Thanks to expansion, we also now operate out of Derbyshire Street in Bethnal Green. Anne Waltuck reluctantly retired at 70, and died in 2003, but her legacy continues to live on in the Legal Advice Centre today. Her belief that the inability to pay legal fees should not be a barrier to legal aid still remains at the core of the Centre’s ethos, and her spirit as a true East Ender still inspires our work in the community. Her work and 45 years of service are still felt in the Centre today.

Legal Advice Centre – Looking Back and Looking Forward

The Legal Advice Centre and the Poor Man’s Lawyer form a line of history stemming back to the 1880s, the origins of the settlement movement, pro bono legal advice and of social work itself. Some very notable lawyers have volunteered at the Centre over the years. Cherie Booth QC volunteered for us as well as her sister, Lyndsey. Sir John Mortimer CBE QC was also a regular. In addition to penning Rumpole of the Bailey, Sir John was also a noted playwright, and in his largely autobiographical play, A Voyage around My Father, he sets a scene at the Legal Advice Centre involving Anne Waltuck. The Centre has also had a surprisingly large number of barrister volunteers who went on to become High Court judges, including our recent Chairman, Sir Robin Knowles.

The Legal Advice Centre is the last remaining part of University House and is steeped in a rich history. On the second floor landing outside our offices in Derbyshire Street, there is ‘Gandhi’s Window’, from where Mahatma Gandhi once gave an impromptu speech during one of his visits to the East End. From the photographs of the time, it was clear that Mr Gandhi was greeted by curious and good natured East Enders, as they, like us, witnessed on their doorsteps, some of the great moments of our time.

Produced by Georgie Willis (Oxford graduate) with help from Eddie Coppinger (CEO University House). October 2021.