Charlotte Araya Moreland spent a week as a summer intern at London community centre, Pembroke House, and writes about their projects, the volunteers, and the local area.
Many Cambridge students come from London, but not many of them come from Walworth, just south east of the Thames. Sandwiched between Elephant and Castle and Peckham, two areas of London swept well along the tide of gentrification, Walworth’s deprivation is clear to the eye of an outsider – as are its still present traditional working-class roots.
Walking through the neighbourhoods of Old Kent Road and the Aylesbury Estate, it’s easy to see that this is not a place which inspires confidence and Oxbridge-ambitions in many of its young people. Yet, it is by no means an unfriendly area. I can sense that people sometimes give me a second glance, but this is more because I am wandering around looking lost in a residential neighbourhood. I could easily be just another resident of the new shiny blocks from around the corner.
Or, as is the case, a volunteer at Pembroke House, the mission- turned-community-centre which straddles Tatum
and Huntsman Streets.
Pembroke House was established in 1885 by a group of alumni from Pembroke College, as part of a wider Settlement Movement by Oxbridge colleges in London. At the time, it was seen as a radical form of philanthropy, offering community and charity services in combination with a Christian mission – and it was also a way of impressing upon young gentlemen their duty to the working classes. While Oxford colleges set up missions in the East End, Cambridge established theirs in South London.
The Christian mission of Pembroke House is now the role of St Christopher’s Church, which uses the building’s chapel on Sundays for worship. Pembroke House itself welcomes, and is staffed by, people from all faiths and none. One of the centre’s volunteers, Tom Seery, told me that he felt there was a definite sense of spirituality in Pembroke House’s work,
which makes it feel special – even if it doesn’t censor any of the conversation in the weekly ‘Lunch Club’ for the over-60s.
As well as organising its own projects like music teaching and gardening workshops, Pembroke House hosts outside projects. ‘Migrateful’ teaches refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to be chefs and provides language training, while ‘IntoUniversity’ encourages schoolchildren in deprived areas to continue into higher education. It seems that the activities timetable caters excellently to all members of the community, including lifelong locals and those who are new arrivals. Indeed, it is so successful that every week sees over 500 people come through the doors of Pembroke House – a bittersweet statistic, considering that it is the only product of the Settlement Movement still operating with the three original elements of a church, a social action centre, and a residency.
It is the people of Pembroke House who left a real impression on me during my time there. One Tuesday morning, I sat in the garden with their cleaner of 32 years, Maureen. We had much to discuss, and she offered a lot of wisdom on topics as diverse as parental discipline, Irish Catholicism, the digital age, and capital punishment. Maureen is a woman with many stories to tell, and one who has made a very significant contribution to her local community. She was recently awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Southwark, an honour accorded to public figures including Harriet Harman MP, the late Dame Tessa Jowell, and Sir Michael Caine.
This conversation – and others during the week – I found quite startlingly refreshing from the often-stagnant conversations Cambridge students have with each other. It made me think: I have seldom (if ever) really sat down to speak with people who have lived lives so very different from my own.
And yet it is these differences which stimulate great conversation, as well as imbuing my memories of Pembroke House as being a place which welcomes all.
I was particularly struck by the experiences of Tom Seery, the Lunch Club Volunteer Coordinator. Having suffered from agoraphobia, he was guided towards volunteering at Pembroke House as part of his recovery. Years on, he is thriving and has hopes for his future, and is most definitely continuing to participate in the work of Pembroke House. He has what some might flippantly call a ‘wholesome’ attitude to his work and public service. But underneath the smiles and banter, Tom seems to have a deep sense of positive tranquillity and restoration – and fulfilment from his work within the community.
One of Pembroke House’s ongoing aims is to foster a closer relationship with students at Pembroke College, and when term begins in October, I will of course be singing its praises to anyone who will listen! Recently, they’ve
introduced internships and work experience in fundraising, media and communications - which is what I was doing. These are being made as accessible as possible by covering expenses and offering the possibility of accommodation in the Pembroke House residency next-door, where a number of volunteers live – including two Cambridge alumni.