In 2000, Aston-Mansfield was created by the merger of two organisations – Aston Charities Trust and The Mansfield Settlement – with long-standing links to Newham and east London.

Aston Charities Trust (ACT)

ACT began with the charitable work of the wealthy Durning, Smith and Lawrence families, who supported many good causes in London’s East End during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This included the Canning Town Women’s Settlement and the first Durning Hall which was built as a community resource for the Limehouse area in 1884.

The first Durning Hall met the needs of impoverished people from all types of backgrounds and religions. It strengthened the heart of the community where ill health and deprivation touched extremes unknown elsewhere in the south of England. A Christian Centre that was unusually liberal for its time, it had a Sunday School but it also coped with the physical and mental strains suffered by an ill-educated and undernourished population.

There was a savings bank and a coal club; food, clothing and shelter were found for the needy; and a Barrow Club which helped costermongers with many problems. Scouts, Guides, the Boys Brigade, dressmaking and needlework classes and a brass band formed by local boys were all based there. A Durning Hall Orchestra and a Dramatic Club performed in the main hall, with some members being taught to read and write so they could take part in such activities. People met there to discuss, debate and help one another.

The Durning, Smith and Lawrence families continued to support a wide range of good causes through a collection of Trusts and Endowments, which were consolidated into ACT in 1930 by Theodora Durning-Lawrence, a member of the Kensington Unitarians at Essex Church. As early as 1930 the Durning Lawrence family trust had helped toward the building of a new hall for the Busby Scouts who then met in Forest Lane. By the 1940s few locally could remember a time when Durning Hall had not been part of their lives. The youngsters thought it had been there for ever.

During the Second World War, a series of bombs fell on Forest Gate, with the ABC Cinema in Romford Road destroyed and the Odeon next door gutted, as was the YMCA next to the station. The Regal Cinema which stood alongside, fronting on to Woodgrange Road, was a mess of broken concrete and brick. Two thirds of the people, including many of the Jewish community which had been so strong in Forest Gate, had dispersed and never came back. Comfortable middle class houses along Earlham Grove and the adjoining streets did not see many of the same tenants return. Most were divided up to make room for several families, including hundreds from Canning Town and other parts of the borough that had been even more badly hit.

In 1948, having looked through east London for a place where a new Durning Hall could revive the work of the old in a new way, ACT took over the site of the destroyed cinema and the shops which adjoined it in Woodgrange Road. One of these shops still stood, somewhat battered, and this became the temporary new home of the Busby Scouts with ACT as their landlord. 59 Woodgrange Road remained a scout shop until well after the scouts themselves moved into the new Durning Hall.

In 1959 the second Durning Hall was opened. Its doors have been open ever since.

In 1964, ACT formed one of the country’s first Housing Associations and raised funds to build a 45 bedroom hostel on its Forest Gate site. Princess Margaret opened the new hostel block, originally for 36 people in individual study bedrooms, extended to accommodate 50 people.

For two years, while Forest Gate Community School was being built, 200 pupils from the White Hall secondary school came each day for their lessons in maths, English and other subjects – Durning Hall became a school as well as a community centre. It also became a health clinic during the eighteen months it took to build Lord Lister Health Centre, when the Medical Officer of Health, worried about the facilities for children, lodged doctors and nurses at the Centre.

In 1962, ACT bought a farmhouse in St. Osyth, Essex, to provide  affordable holidays for disadvantaged Newham residents. In 1967 ACT acquired the Canning Town Women’s Settlement, whose premises had fallen into disrepair. The site was cleared to build Lawrence Hall – a 64 unit social housing complex and community centre. A fire in 1970 destroyed the St. Osyth farmhouse and a replacement, the Bridge House Hotel in Southend was purchased and opened in 1971. Lawrence Hall was sold to Springboard Housing Association in 1990 and the proceeds were used to build the Froud Community Centre in Manor Park. The Bridge House Hotel was sold in 2002, Rev Jimmy Froud came as warden of Durning Hall  in 1959 and stayed until his retirement in 1990.  The Froud Centre (with St Michael’s Church) in Little Ilford was his brainchild and named after him against his will. Like Durning Hall, it is carrying on the tradition of a multi-purpose Community Centre, open to all.

The Mansfield Settlement

Named after Mansfield College (Oxford) whose students were the driving force behind its foundation, The Mansfield Settlement was one of several university settlements established on the model of Toynbee Hall, which opened in Whitechapel in 1884. In the same year, Frederick William Newland, an Oxford graduate and Congregational Church Minister, began a ministry in Canning Town and invited pairs of students to work with him for two weeks at a time during the Christmas and Easter vacations. It was this connection that led to the Mansfield Settlement being established in Canning Town.

The Mansfield Settlement was inaugurated on 21st May 1890 at a meeting in Mansfield College. Percy Alden, then a theological student, agreed to be the first warden and thus began a personal relationship with West Ham that led to his becoming its Mayor and a Member of Parliament.

The Settlement’s first home was two houses at 143 and 145 Barking Road. One of those who came to help was Frank Tillyard, a barrister, who realised that much legal help was needed. He set aside one evening a week, first alone and then with colleagues, to give free legal advice. His clinic soon earned the nickname ‘The Poor Man’s Lawyer’. The first service of its kind, it inspired similar initiatives at other settlements, and was a forerunner of the modern Citizens Advice Bureau.

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