Mr Peter – a glimpse at the life of Peter East

By Steve Smith

One hundred years ago today, a man was born who would go on to make an impact on two continents. He would not make the sort of ground-shaking, seismic impact that sees some men remembered with statues, plaques, and other bombastic monuments because he was amongst the most unassuming men I ever met. But to many young Bengalis in East London, and many more still in Bangladesh, Peter East – often Mr Peter – was the man who helped them find their way in the world and Peter’s memorial is the lives they have gone on to lead.

This is not a detailed look at his work with the Bangladeshi community because for that you need nothing other than Ken Prideaux-Brune’s 1985 book, A Kind of Love Affair (From Brick Lane to Bangladesh). Rather it is a brief look at his early journey in Toc H and an attempt to understand his legacy.

Next Saturday, a large group of Peter’s friends and associates will gather at All Hallows to remember and celebrate his remarkable life. Sadly, I won’t be able to as I am away on holiday and much as I admire his work, I can’t class myself as a close friend; I only met him in his later years. The first time was at a small photography project I was running at Brixworth Country Park. I must admit that the name meant nothing to me at that time when I was introduced.

Peter (second from left) at Brixworth on the project where I first met him

The man I met was large of stature but quiet and humble. I noticed that he had an artificial hand but otherwise, he was simply another Toc H member I was pleased to have met. The next time I met him – I think at a dinner at the St Ethelburga’ s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, in Bishopsgate – I had started to become interested in the history of Toc H and I had read Ken’s book. I now saw Peter in a very different light. Sadly, I think that was the last time I saw him as he died not very long afterwards but I continued to learn about him and his work as I attended various fundraising dinners for the Friends of Khasdobir and as I started researching Toc H on Tower Hill.

Who was Peter East and how did he come to Toc H? Born in Skegness on the 22nd April 1923, at 20 Lumley Road (now an Oxfam charity shop), his parents were Bert and Lizzie East (the latter also known as Lillie). Bert’s family had been ropemakers and had owned a ropewalk in Boston, Lincolnshire and the family had only moved to Skegness a few months before Peter was born, the eldest two children having been born in Boston. Lizzie’s father Joseph Bowens was a brush maker in Boston and lived with Bert and Lizzie when he was widowed, until they moved away. Peter’s siblings were Herbert Joseph (known as Bert) born 1917, Kathleen Mary (1921), and Elizabeth Mavis (1925)

Older brother Bert worked for the Public Benefit Boot Company before the Second World War. This pretty much did what it said on the tin and sold boots for the benefit of the public by cutting out middlemen. Bert was also an active member of Toc H – since at least 1937 – which no doubt had some bearing on his younger brother’s later decision to join. And Bert certainly made an impact during the war as he joined the army and became one of General Wingate’s original Chindits, the unit making long-range penetration missions into Burma to attack Japanese troops. He would write letters home from India, though they were no doubt highly censored. He also officiated at Toc H Circles overseas and would later give talks about his experiences with the Chindits.

For Peter though, there would be no military career. His ambitions to be a chef were also thwarted in October 1938, when, whilst working in a bakery, Peter had the accident that would alter the course of his life. He let his right hand come into contact with the knife of a dough-cutting machine and he lost three of his fingers and part of a fourth. He recovered but military service was not possible. Although listed as Incapacitated on the 1939 register, he later became a clerk for the council and we know that he joined Toc H as a member and worked in one of their local War Services Clubs  One of his jobs was apparently writing letters in French. He later became branch secretary.

Barring his accident, Peter’s early life was a fairly normal one. After the war, Bert joined his father in East and Son, a business now specialising in making sun-blinds and waterproof covers, allowing the family to live in reasonable comfort in the leafy wide roads of central Skegness. Bert Jr married Gwen Johns a sister at the local hospital 1949 (Peter was best man) and Kathleen married local band leader Cyril Cowpe, two years later (Peter was Groomsman). At one point Peter and his parents lived in Latchford House, a large house on Roman Bank and let out rooms to boarders.

Peter did join the family firm for a time, however he decided to train at Butlins in Skegness and by the mid-fifties he was running the Butlin’s holiday camp in Ayr, Scotland. It was here he was working when his father died in 1955.

Tubby Clayton clearly had more of a pull on Peter than Billy Butlin because in June 1958 Peter was appointed to work with the Toc H Service Clubs with BAOR and he was a Warden in Berlin. He was in Berlin when the wall went up and wrote an article in The Journal about Christmas 1963 when West Berliners were allowed to see their family in East Berlin for the first time since 1961 but had to queue nine hours to do so. He also reflected on the sixty-five wooden crosses on the wall that marked the deaths of those people killed whilst trying to escape to freedom in the west. It would not be the last time Peter would come to see the effects of partition on human suffering.

Peter (far right) in Berlin

Peter remained in Berlin for virtually all his time with BAOR, sometimes running the club on his own, though he did move to Paderborn for a while. He was made Deputy Commissioner BAOR to Mayne Elson before returning home on the 27th October 1967 to take up the wardenship of 42 Trinity Square (Talbot House) from Group Captain Oliver and taking over his flat. Tubby was still resident on the Hill at this point.

By late 1968 he had the medical student residents – people like Geoff Ibbotson – open a medical centre at the Men’s Care Unit of St George’s Methodist Church.  Additionally, whilst in Germany Peter had read about the race riots in Notting Hill and came home determined to something to improve relationships. This started when he oversaw the running of English classes, initially for Pakistani boys. The work with young Pakistani boys expanded to include trips out to the Tower of London, museums, zoos, “anywhere that wasn’t Brick Lane”. This led to the formation of the International Youth Club which met on Saturdays (and occasionally Fridays and Sundays too).

Under Peter’s wardenship Talbot House was the heart of Toc H in London, even when Tubby died and then when HQ moved off the Hill for Wendover, it remained a key centre for Toc H work, straddling as it did the City and the East End. In 1969 Peter was appointed London Marks’ Commissioner (Whilst remaining Warden of Talbot House).

A conflab of Wardens (Peter, Bill Brittian, and John Burgess) at a staff gathering

The work at the house was active and diverse. One project worth noting though, because of the contact Peter made with the community of Stepney (or rather Tower Hamlets as it was now more properly known), was in 1971 when Peter was running summer playschemes at Matilda House by St Katherine’s Dock, sponsored by Avenues Unlimited, an organisation founded by Derek Cox, who would work closely with Toc H. The playscheme covered the whole of Tower Hamlets and was aided by the Winant Volunteers.

One resident of the hostel at Talbot House, Martin Rivett, recalls a children’s party there where Peter caused consternation among some of the guests who did not know him well. When the tongs could not be located, Peter removing the sausages from the deep fat fryer by putting his gloved (artificial) hand in the hot fat and pulling them out!

Then Peter’s focus turned to the newly founded nation of Bangladesh. The story of how Toc H were closely entwined with the establishment of this new state can be read in my earlier blog

Peter visited Bangladesh 1972 and he soon began working with young Bangladeshi boys and was proud of what he did to help racial harmony with the Asian community. In 1973 he took over Number Seven the Crescent (behind 42) as a hostel for Bengali boys and for the next nine years was the centre of his work. This is where Ken’s book is far more valuable than anything I could write and so I won’t try. Peter would continue to visit Bangladesh every 18 month or so, sometimes taking youngsters who lived at the hostel with him.

To give some idea of its significance of Number Seven, Bishop Trevor Huddleston was a regular visitor, and Ashok Basu Dev – the first full-time Asian youth worker in the country, working with Avenues Unlimited – worked closely with Peter taking the boys away to various Toc H residential centres. Rickmansworth – a site originally owned by the old East End Highway Boys Club would become a favourite. Toc H would eventually buy the site.

Peter guiding some youngsters at camp (Probably Rickmansworth)

Caroline Adams replaced Ashok at Avenues Unlimited and worked closely with Peter for the next nine years and along with people such as John Newbigin, Shah Rahman, Dan Jones, Pat Topely, Mike Thomas Abbas Uddin, now leader of Tower Hamlets council, and Pola Uddin (later to become Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green, the first Bengali woman in the House of Lords the Community) were given the tools to flourish for themselves. Peter’s contribution to this was community was recognised when he was honoured in the 1979 New Year Honours’ list with an MBE. And it was Peter’s work with the Bangladeshi community in Spitalfields that led to Toc H allowing Mark I in Notting Hill to go full circle and to become a Bangladeshi Centre in 1976. It still serves this purpose today although is now completely independent of Toc H.

Whilst it’s easy to assume that Peter and Toc H’s work created a positive, diverse community in the area, it cannot be forgotten that it did so against a background of National Front marches and violence. Brick Lane could be violent as well as vibrant and it is testament to Peter that he never shied away from this. He even lived on the Holland Estate in Spitalfields.

Eventually, it would not be fascists or bigots that brought this period of work to an end but accountants. Talbot House was owned by the Wakefield Trust and it was no longer viable for them to let Toc H use it for free. The same was true for Number Seven out the back. There was resistance but ultimately, just as all the other Toc H Marks had gradually closed, Toc H closed 42 Trinity Square and Number Seven as hostels. Peter was Warden to the end.

Peter with some of his young friends as his 60th birthday celebration

And that might have been that. Never married, Peter decided on his 60th birthday in April 1982, three weeks after his beloved hostels closed, to take a year’s sabbatical from Toc H. He spent time with his family – his mother died in October that same year – with his friends such as Ken and Barbara Prideaux-Brune, and John and Marolyn Burgess. And then on the 30th April 1983, Peter decided to turn his sabbatical into permanent retirement and finished working for Toc H. He retired, not home to Skegness, or to a bungalow on the south cost, not even to Spain – yet – but to Bangladesh. John Burgess drove him to Heathrow and he departed for his adopted country on the 15th May 1983.

Within a year he had worked out a plan to help the people with whom he lived. It was published in the form of a letter published in Point 3. He planned to help young people in Bangladesh complete their education by  providing small grants to families to stop them having to send the children to work.  The pilot project was in the Syhlet district of Bangladesh. Schools Under the Sky had begun. Along with Harun Ahmed, Peter formed the Khasdobir Youth Action Group in 1984 to run the Schools project and several other spin-offs. As well as work with the young they also worked with the aged, poor community in Bangladesh.

Harun Ahmed and Peter

Harun was widely respected in Sylhet, his power and influence in the village of Khasdobir was immense. He was automatically the chairman of any organisation formed and nothing happened without his say so. But it was a benevolent dictatorship as such as Harun cared deeply for the poor of the district and was a very humble man overwhelmed by the attention Toc H sometimes directed at him. John Burgess was the first Toc H staffer to visit the project when he went to Syhlet in November 1984 for four weeks. A UK based project – Friends of Khasdobir – would be set up to support Peter’s and Harun’s work. Originally under the umbrella of Toc H, it set up as an independent charity in 2006.

Peter at the School Under The Sky

Peter had to spend four months in UK in 1986 when he became severely ill with hepatitis but he recovered and returned to Bangladesh. Two years later though, at the age of 65, Peter left Bangladesh for Alicante in Spain and proper retirement. Harun kept the project going alone until his death in March 1997. The following year Peter lost his brother Bert.

Meanwhile, he had moved into the Abbeyfield Home built in the grounds of Toc H headquarters in Wendover. He remained in touch with Toc H and the with the Friends of Khasdobir who held many fundraising meals in Bangladeshi restaurants in Wendover and farther afield.

Peter died, aged 81, on the 15th May 2004 in Stoke Mandeville and was survived by his sisters. His funeral was at St. Mary’s Church; the Reverend John Hull took the Service.

As I said at the beginning of this article, you won’t find a statue to Peter anywhere in the East End or in Bangladesh. Not even a blue plaque. What you will find are people who talk about him and his work with love, affection, and gratitude; people whose lives were immeasurably enhanced by coming into contact with Peter when they were younger. And such was the dedication of Peter and his colleagues, his work survives and flourishes today.

If you enjoyed this blog please consider making a donation to the Friends of Khasdobir

Further Reading

A Kind of Love Affair (From Brick Lane to Bangladesh) by Kenneth Prideaux-Brune (Toc H 1985)

The Swadhinata Trust

Many thanks to John Burgess for his help with this article

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