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Volunteer stories

Liz's Story

From the moment Toynbee Hall opened its doors, we have been involved in volunteering.

This week we take the time to speak to Liz Allen, volunteer in 1974 and 2014.

As a result of my time at Toynbee Hall as a Residential Volunteer I would say that I understood that you could, as an individual or as a collective, change things if you put enough work into it. People were doing it all the time here. Anything was and is possible.

"In the 60’s and 70’s, London was the place you had to be. I came down from Nottingham to be in the middle of it all. I was squatting in one of the many empty houses in London and then got a job on St George’s Adventure Playground, off Cable Street in East London. Squatting at the time wasn’t illegal; there were so many empty houses around, but they were totally dilapidated and were in a horrible state. It was a bit of a desperate situation, yet it was normal.”

I was 18 when I joined Toynbee Hall as a Residential Volunteer in 1974. At the beginning I didn’t really understand the prestige of Toynbee Hall. Then one day I walked into the library here on site, sat down and started reading. I was amazed, without meaning to I had come to one the most significant institution’s in the UK – Prime Ministers, Royalty, philosophers and social activists had all been a part of its history. Plus Jack Profumo was here at the time and members of the Cadbury and Guinness family came for visits, there was a great sense of expectancy. Many key figures in East London volunteered at the same time as well, including Billy Dove and Olive Wagstaff, as well as local community activist Dan Jones. It was immensely sociable.

I mainly worked as an apprentice with the London Adventure Playground Association (LAPA). I worked in playgrounds in Bethnal Green, Cable Street and Spitalfields. It was a time when you just got stuck into a number of activities, from working with older people, to events, to arts and craft. I remember being brought in at the last minute to run a candle making class. I had never done it before so as I was teaching it, I was learning how to do it myself.

It was all such good fun. People came here to learn about the community and its challenges and just learn about life. It gave me, and others, such a huge opportunity to work with all different types of people and explore life. It was a place of tolerance and acceptance, when so many other places at the time weren’t. It was truly unique.

Liz in the 1970s

Volunteering has changed so much in the 40 years since I first came to Toynbee Hall – as it has for charities and organisations across the country as well. Nowadays, volunteering is much more carefully worked out. You come here as a volunteer with specific objectives to learn and experience. You start volunteering knowing what you want to go on to afterwards with your career.

After almost a 40 year gap I have returned to volunteer once again, as the Archivist. Toynbee Hall has given me a second opportunity to learn and change my career. Here you are allowed to grow and try out new things. It is a really inclusive place and the support allows you to figure out things for yourself, to ask big questions and see if what the status quo is, is actually the best approach. There really is something for everyone here.

I am immensely grateful to Toynbee Hall. Twice in my life now it has picked me up, dusted me down and helped me to get back on my feet."