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The Peel Institute at 125

Celebrating the past and mapping the future of Clerkenwell

Olu Alake, director of The Peel Institute

A range of people sit at long tables set out for a meal in a sepia tinged early 20th century photograph.
The Peel in the early 20th century

In 1896, the local MP for Finsbury Sir George Masterman Gillett had been meeting with associates of fellow Quaker faith. Their thoughts usually turned to the many young men they saw around the area, battling poverty and other associated social and economic challenges. It was these meetings that culminated in the opening in 1898 of The Peel Institute, primarily as a place “to supply the young men… with a social centre for recreation, open every evening in the week…”

They met in a Friends’ Meeting House that was previously a woodyard that had manufactured a long wooden instrument called a “peel” which was used to place bread in huge ovens. The meeting house was commonly known as “The Peel”. The work of The Peel expanded rapidly into a real community centre for all families, providing not just healthy recreation, but also education and vocational training and social connectivity. Sir George was the MP for Finsbury for 14years, culminating in his appointment by the Prime Minster in 1936 as Commissioner for Distressed Areas – effectively, the modern-day equivalent of the Levelling-Up Minister. This despite his notorious short shrift for what he considered inertia of his own Labour Party in tackling issues of concern. It is no surprise that The Peel was the achievement he was proudest of.

As one of the few community organisations that has continuously served the same locality for over one hundred years, there is clear heritage value in celebrating this 125th anniversary. More pertinent than the admittedly remarkable history of the founder and the meandering fortunes of the organisation though, is the story of the locality it serves. What is it about Clerkenwell that has made The Peel such a vital social support infrastructure resource for generations of people? What is in the DNA of the area that infuses successive generations of leaders of the organisation with the passion and zeal to tackle social issues and dedicate itself to making the area a more equal society?

This is particularly enthralling when one considers the myriad other radical social characters and organisations that have made Clerkenwell its base through the past 125 years and even long before: The Chartists and Suffragettes met here, Karl Marx lived here, Dickens walked through and wrote about here, Lenin worked here, Gordonists rioted, prisons stormed, radical presses and bookstores established, LGBTQ people found sanctuary, – all in this area.

Through this 125th anniversary year and beyond, we want to explore these rich seams of local history that have had national significance, and the related socio-economic and cultural themes that have resonated and endured through time. We want to utilise the rich archives of the area and work with local heritage and cultural organisations and individuals to bring this history alive using 21st century technology.

An exploratory consultative meeting took place at The Peel Centre, Northampton Road on the 9th of February 5.30 – 7.30pm. Please contact Olu at [email protected] to discuss further.  

This article is from the February/March 2023 edition of Ec1 Echo. Click here to download your copy.

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About EC1 Echo

EC1 Echo is your free local independent community news website. We publish stories to the web across the week and offer a platform for local people to highlight what matters to them. EC1 Echo is a not-for-profit project in partnership with the Peel Institute. Please consider becoming a subscriber supporter from £3.00 per month.
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