The Durning Hall story

Monday 23 February 2015

Durning Hall in Earlham Grove is one of Forest Gate's most used "public spaces". Here we look at the background and history of this important local social and care facility.

Durning Hall, Earlham Grove today
The Hall is today run by Aston-Mansfield, a merger in 2000, of two local charitable organisations - the Aston Charities Trust and The Mansfield Settlement. Durning Hall was brought to the merger by the Aston part of the arrangement
The Aston Charities Trust began its formal life in the nineteenth century, co-ordinating  the philanthropy of the Durning, Smith and Lawrence families, whose charitable work was concentrated in London's East End from the late eighteenth century. Their work included the establishment of the Canning Town Women's Settlement and the first Durning Hall, which was built as a community facility in Limehouse, in 1884.

The original Durning Hall, in Limehouse.
 Thanks to Aston-Mansfield for use of photograph
The families' money originated from the carpentry trade in the City of London; and by the mid nineteenth century they had provided a couple of Lord Mayors of London, as well as other civic dignitaries, and had been awarded a couple of baronetcies.

Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence - charity
 founder -  who performed the opening
 ceremony of original Durning Hall, in 1884
The original Durning Hall, although Christian-inspired, was very liberal for its time and aimed to meet needs of impoverished people from all backgrounds and communities, with a minimum of evangelical work tied to its efforts. The Durning-Lawrence family were primarily of the Unitarian persuasion.

Their various charitable foundations operated a Sunday school, a savings club and a coal club. They offered food, clothing and shelter for the needy. They also provided a Barrow Club - aimed at supporting street traders (costermongers - who sold fruit, vegetables etc from hand carts, on a mobile basis) by helping them purchase their vehicles.

The charities attempted to help the young, by hosting Scouts, Guides and Boys' Brigade groups, together with a boys' brass band, and dressmaking and needlework classes for the girls.

The original Durning Hall hosted an orchestra and an amateur dramatic club, which doubled up as a reading class, helping actors to learn their scripts. The organisers of the Hall encouraged debating activities and hosted discussion and lecture sessions, for the erudition of its users.

The Scout group they encouraged survives today, in Forest Gate, and is known as the Busby Scouts, named after one of its founder members, William Walter Busby. He came from Sherrard Road in Forest Gate and helped establish the local scouts troop in 1908. 

Busby signed up to the "West Ham Pals" (13th Battalion, Essex Regiment - "The Hammers") in 1915 and was soon promoted to the rank of acting Captain.  We will feature the Forest Gate connections of this Battalion in a future blog.

William Walter Busby MC, founder of the scout
 troop who meet at Durning Hall,  who was
killed in action towards  the end of  the
Battle of the Somme, having been
awarded the MC for his  bravery on
the first day of the battle.
Busby was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry" on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), but was killed in action, as the Battle drew to a close in November that year. The local Scout troop was renamed the Busby Scouts, in his honour, and changed their neckerchief to khaki colour, in recognition of his distinguished army service. It remains so, today, almost a century later.

The Busby Scouts originally met in a building Forest Lane in the inter war period, which was paid for and supported by a Durning Lawrence family trust.

In 1930 the jumbled collection of trusts and endowments controlled by the Lawrence and Durning families was consolidated by Theodora Durning-Lawrence into the single Aston Charitable Trust.

Theodora Durning-Lawrence, under
 whom the work of the Aston Charities
 was co-ordinated, in the 1930s
Theodora herself, was a strange woman, who never married and despite her considerable wealth chose to live, alone in a single room in a seedy London hotel.

Forest Gate was badly hit by bombing during World War 11, which will be the subject of a future blog. Among the local bomb damage was the local YMCA, situated next to the railway station, and the Regal Cinema, next to that, on Woodgrange Road (see here for a history of local cinemas and that of the Regal, within it).

Durning Hall charity shop, Woodgrange
 Road today. Site of former Regal cinema
 and for a while HQ of local Busby
 Scouts (see door handles to the shop)
Upwards of half of the local population left the Forest Gate area for the duration of the war, many not returning. Among those fleeing were some of the owners of prosperous family homes, along Earlham Grove - including many attendees of the synagogue (for details, see here). Many of the larger houses were subsequently subdivided into a series of flats, and, thus, this once most prosperous part of Forest Gate soon began to appear down-at-heel. after the war.

The Aston Charities were on the look-out for a new premises for a Durning Hall, from which to operate their various activities, at the end of the war. They took over the site of the destroyed Regal cinema and adjoining shops in 1948.

One of the shops, number 59, still somewhat battered, became the new home of the Busby Scouts, with the Aston Trust as their landlords, and it remained a scouts shop until after the youth group formally moved into the new Durning Hall, in 1959. A relic of this part of the story remains on the door handles of the charity shop on Woodgrange Road - see above.

Opening ceremony of Durning Hall,
 Earlham Grove, 1959. Thanks to
 Aston-Mansfield for the photo
The ACT established one of the country's first Housing Associations in 1964 and raised funds to build a 45-bedroom hostel on its Forest Gate site. Princess Margaret opened the facility, which was later extended to provide 50-study bedrooms.

Forest Gate's old Whitehall School was knocked down, in the early 1960's, to be replaced by what is now the Forest Gate Community School. During the two years' of the new school's construction, Durning Hall provided temporary teaching accommodation for over 200 pupils.  The Hall later became a temporary health clinic, during the eighteen months it took to construct the Lord Lister Health Clinic, on Woodgrange Road.

Durning Hall used for emergency classrooms,
 while first Forest Gate Community school
 was being constructed, in the 1960s
In 1962 the Aston Charitable Trust bought a farmhouse in St Osyth, in Essex to provide holidays for "disadvantaged" Newham residents. This was destroyed by fire in 1970 and was replaced as a holiday home for local people by the Bridge House hotel, in Southend, which was purchased and opened the following year. This was sold off in 2002, as it was no longer felt to be an economic proposition for the charity.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the ACT acquired the old Canning Town Women's Settlement, whose premises had fallen into disrepair. They cleared the site and built Lawrence Hall, a 64-unit social housing complex and social centre. This was sold to Springboard Housing Association in 1990 and the proceeds were used to build the Froud Centre (with St Michael's church), on Romford Road, in Little Ilford.

Rev Jimmy Froud, Warden of Durning Hall
 from 1959 - 2002, after whom the
 Froud Community Centre
 in Manor Park is named
This Centre was named after Jimmy Froud, who had come to Durning Hall, itself, as its warden in 1959, and stayed until his retirement in 2002. Like Durning Hall, The Froud Centre continues the ACT tradition of hosting a multi-purpose Community Centre, open to all.

Footnote: For further information, including the current activities of the Hall, see the Aston-Mansfield website, here and The Aston Story book, by Evelyn Ray Keen.   


  1. I was christened by Jimmy Froud at Durning Hall, 1961 -62. My mother
    Was involved in the Amateur Dramatic Society there prior to her marriage and my grandmother worked at the hall. Jimmy Froud was a remarkable man.

    1. I was a member of Durning Hall when it was an old shop in Woodgrange rd..I was at the opening of Durning hall and as a teenager attended everything..I met my husband there and he was a member of the Amateur Dramatics..I was a Sunday school teacher.Loved Dot and Harry and went to there home in Clova Rd often..Only left when we moved to Kent in 1965 and then to Australia.

  2. yes indeed jimmy was remarkable. I was fortunate to be one of the first ten residents when the superior accommodation opened. Dotty and Harry ran this side of the site and cared and fed me well during my stay. I was even married by Jimmy in the Chapel there. Happy memories.

  3. Hi "anon"
    Just seen your posting. I also was an early resident , in Sept '64, and remember Jimmy, Harry and Dotty - I wonder if any of them are still with us. From a quick dredge of my failing memory, do any of these ring a bell ? Liz, Audrey, Barbara,Helen, Joan, Brian, Derek, Frank, Les, Paul, Rev Alan, Ahtoo, Kohli, Marco (?), Roger, Tony G and Tony H. Sorry if I have missed you off !!

    1. I lived at the Hall from 1965 to 1967 and remember most of the names in your report. We did not appreciate all that Jimmy did for us. Dot and Harry were wonderful people. Phil Greenwood

    2. Brian Stewart ( August 2020 at 07:45

      Hi Rod,
      I have just seen your post. I was also one of the first group of residents at Durning Hall having transferred from Lord Summers House, a hostel for scout leaders on the site of what is now The Hartley Hotel on Romford Road.I remember many of the peple you mention, perticularly Audrey, Helen, Frank, Les and Rev Alan. Jimmy, Dot, and Harry were important figures in all of our livs at that time, and I have often had cause to remember them with greatb affection. At the age of 80, I still live in East London and am hevily involved in youth work in Newham. I would love to hear from anyone from that time.

    3. Hi Brian
      Great to hear from you and many congrats for continuing your youth work into your 8th decade. You may remember my elder brother Gordon who was at Lord Summers House with you before you transferred to DH.
      I drove past DH a few months ago - a sad sight but it did bring back many happy memories. I met Roger Rawstron a few years ago and I think Audrey is now in Bristol - but other than them and your and Phil’ postings, I havent any idea what has happened to our motley crew. Hope you are well
      Best wishes. Rod

  4. Oh my. Durning Hall is so run down today just like the PO Sorting Office next door. The interior IS 1959. Upstairs is not fit for purpose and inaccessible to many because of the broken lift. There is more. Depressing.

  5. Does anyone know of a charity shop in Woodgrange road called each one teach one basically trying to help young people by encouraging older people with skills to take on one person to teach, hence each one teach one, I believe it was in the mid to late eighties, a great initiative .

  6. No - but try here for a charity of that name: run by local singer/actor/film director, Ben Drew (Plan B).

  7. I lived in the hostel at Durning hall 24 years ago

  8. I was a member of the Brownie pack which met at Durning Hall in the 'shop' premises in Woodgrange Road. Can't remember the exact years, but must have been during the early to mid fifties. My brother was a member of the Scout pack there also. I still have a metal badge with DH on a coloured background.

  9. The above post could have been written by me! Also a Brownie at Durning Hall and brother also in the scouts, same period of time.


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