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Conscientious objectors

At the outbreak of the Second World War Oxford House’s situation seemed bleak. Head of House John Lewis had left London and the young residents the House relied on were called up for military service.

Determined to ensure Oxford House would carry on helping the community, new Head Guy Clutton-Brock decided to take on young conscientious objectors as residents. With their help, Oxford House continued to provide clubs for local people as well as protection from air raids and even schools for evacuees.

One young pacifist was Peter Kuenstler, who had been ordered by a tribunal to continue with his university studies and work as a fire-watcher. Keen to do more, Kuenstler began working at Oxford House as a cleaner. Soon he was helping Oxford House welcome the 300 people who sheltered there nightly during the Blitz. Later he would become manager of the Webbe Boys’ Club, bringing sports and drama to over a hundred local teenagers.

Another, John Raven, had been a top Cambridge scholar before the war. When it became clear that many local parents were unwilling to evacuate their children if the family would be separated, Raven rented two large houses in Wales for Oxford House and set up schools in each to house and educate around 60 East End children.

These wartime experiences at Oxford House were formative for both men. Returning to academia, Raven became an expert on Plato and advocated for the importance of improving access to top universities. Kuenstler, meanwhile, never lost his taste for social work. Appointed by Bristol University to the first fellowship on youth work in Britain, he later became a UN advisor on youth and communities, taking the expertise he gained at Oxford House to over a hundred countries worldwide.

Text: Lucy Valsamidis

Image: Bethnal Green Road looking west. Scene after raid of May 10-11,1941