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'Rehabilitating homes and people': Peter Bedford Housing Association celebrates 50 years

PUBLISHED: 11:45 14 August 2019 | UPDATED: 11:53 14 August 2019

Precious Martini-Brown outside the row of Peter Bedford Housing Association flats in Clissold Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

Precious Martini-Brown outside the row of Peter Bedford Housing Association flats in Clissold Road. Picture: Polly Hancock

polly hancock

It's 50 years since the Peter Bedford Housing Association was founded off the back of a project set up by a Pentonville Prison officer to boost ex-offenders' self-worth. Emma Bartholomew speaks to an original tenant who remembers the pioneering, supportive communities established as a result

A picture from Peter Bedford's 25th anniversary report, “Who do you think you are listening to…?”A picture from Peter Bedford's 25th anniversary report, “Who do you think you are listening to…?”

In 1969 Pentonvillle Prison warden Michael Sorensen set up a project to help prevent men reoffending on their release.

He noticed they would more often than not find themselves jobless, and the Peter Bedford Project offered apprenticeships in light industrial factory work. If participants did well they would be offered a home.

"Our stratagem was to approach people who had accepted others low estimate of their worth and had written themselves off as unemployable and unhelpable," explained Sorensen. "Instead of offering them help we wished to see what would happen if we asked them to help us with work we had to do."

Sorensen, a Quaker himself, named the project after the 18th century social reformer and Quaker philanthropist Peter Bedford, to acknowledge the support given by the Bedford Institute Association, which funded its first shared home to house six ex-offenders.

A picture from a 1990 Peter Bedford report, “Working for a better life”A picture from a 1990 Peter Bedford report, “Working for a better life”

The emphasis was on self-organisation, and tenants had to make their own house rules, cook, clean and function as a community. Two years later, in 1971 the Peter Bedford Housing Association (PBHA) was set up to develop provision of longer-term housing through government funding.

The same year Hackney Council offered them eight Georgian houses in Clissold Road as short life accommodation for a peppercorn rent. They would have otherwise been demolished in the slum clearances.

PBHA staff and tenants renovated the derelict homes, installing central heating and hot water.

"The majority of our accommodation has come to us through having been neglected and people working to change something together," said Peter Bedford's director of services, Vanessa Morris, who now presides over hundreds of properties in Hackney and Islington.

A photo from a Peter Bedford Trust report from 1987 about John Bellers Ltd, a trading company named after the Quaker reformer. The company provides work for tenants, servicing both external and internal cleaning contracts.A photo from a Peter Bedford Trust report from 1987 about John Bellers Ltd, a trading company named after the Quaker reformer. The company provides work for tenants, servicing both external and internal cleaning contracts.

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"Local authorities either turned a blind eye to people squatting or encouraged community groups to take over stock that was unattractive for people to buy or rent and rebuild it. It was common in the '60s and '70s to take over space that had been abandoned during the war, and to create new models for living. Our organisation grew out of that movement.

"We got people to work together towards their own rehabilitation but rehabilitation of the property at the same time, creating something beautiful out of something that had been unloved. We came from the grassroots level to support the people who had the worst barriers to housing, who had been stigmatised in some way, either through mental health or those who had been in prison."

The idea was for people to support each other and it was expected that everyone would contribute to the community in some way.

A picture from the Peter Bedford Trust report 1968-85, published in 1985A picture from the Peter Bedford Trust report 1968-85, published in 1985

"Helping others is a really important part of it, particularly when you think of people who have been stigmatised and told they aren't worth much," said Vanessa. "It's very powerful to say: 'We need you to help others'."

In the initial programme practising Quakers worked as volunteers to set projects up. Precious Martini-Brown secured a tenancy in 1985 at one of the 24 flats in Clissold Road through her work with the Quaker organisation, the William Allen Society. She has lived there ever since.

"We had a sense of community here in Clissold Road," remembers the 73-year-old. "Able people were supporting less able people in the house. If someone had a very cluttered house and was hoarding things for example, other people went in and helped them sort it out. Sometimes everybody needs a little bit of help, and we were very clear we never divided human beings into categories of people who needed help and who were helping. That was important to us.

"We say everybody has something to contribute, so even the people who were most dependent on other people's help had a unique important role to play, especially as community binders."

Precious Martini-Brown's photo of a PBHA community boating holiday taken in 1991 on the Grand Union CanalPrecious Martini-Brown's photo of a PBHA community boating holiday taken in 1991 on the Grand Union Canal

Fifty years on, although the group no longer has any formal Quaker links, the values of respect, mutual support, consensus, participation and encouraging people to work together to find solutions to their problems, are still held aloft in the housing association's work with socially excluded adults.

Now the organisation is pioneering a new form of peer support for people who would find it hard to find affordable and safe housing, with help of a grant from the Nationwide Foundation.

Staff from the Nationwide Mare Street branch will also be helping the new tenants develop their skills and get back to work.

The housing association marked its golden anniversary with an art exhibition in its Holloway Road charity shop, and will hold a celebration in Clissold Park in September.

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