Stephen Blanchard traces Ruskin Readers’ search for a new home
Adults with literacy issues can be a hidden minority in Lambeth. People may struggle to get by at work and in accessing things like jobs, housing and health services but they are often reluctant to share the problem with others.
But despite recent set-backs, a group of local volunteers is still helping them to improve their literacy.
Amity Reading Club was set up almost 40 years ago by Gladys and Philip Glascoe to teach adults with reading and writing difficulties.
The Lambeth council of the time recognised the importance of this work by giving the organisation permission to use the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill as a venue.
In 2008 the group became known as Ruskin Readers (named after the Victorian critic John Ruskin and the nearby park that bears his name).
Ruskin Readers is made up of around 25 volunteer tutors and 20 students, split into two groups meeting for two hours on Monday evenings and Wednesday afternoons.
Students are welcomed into a friendly atmosphere and assigned their own tutor. Skills are developed at the student’s own pace and volunteers receive support and training.
Advice and support are also given for students’ lives outside the club. The groups go on outings to local theatres and cinemas and visit museums, galleries and other places of interest.
The organisation had a secure home in the library until the present Lambeth council announced that it was to close the building and re-open it as a gym.
Like other local groups, Ruskin Readers was forced to find a new venue at very short notice. And they had lost access to their collection of books and educational material—now behind the locked shutters of the library.
“We were forced to spend money on expensive publications written especially for adults,” says lead tutor Caroline Knapp.
For a while, Ruskin Readers was forced to split, with the Monday night group meeting at the Cambria pub on Cambria Road in Loughborough Junction and the Wednesday afternoon group meeting upstairs at Streatham Library.
Caroline was forced to keep the group’s few hastily acquired resources in boxes and bags in her front room. “This involved lugging books, reading lamps and stationary to and from the Cambria,” she says. A challenging task for a disabled pensioner without a car.
The Cambria is a friendly neighbourhood pub, but it could only ever be a stop-gap.
“Caroline scoured the internet,” tutor Rae Stoltenkamp recalls, “calling contacts and posting desperate messages on Facebook.”
Then another tutor suggested St Faith’s Church on Red Post Hill in nearby Southwark.
There they were warmly welcomed by Reverend Susan Height who allowed them to use an area of the church and then rent a large upstairs room in its community centre.
“We feel as if Ruskin Readers has finally found a refuge,” Rae says.
“But where was Lambeth council in all this? The funding promised for the evicted groups is still to materialise.”
Ruskin Readers has been kept alive by the commitment of its members, help from private donors, a London Community Fund grant, and the generosity of a church in a neighbouring borough.
“That is what I call community spirit – something which seems decidedly lacking at Lambeth council,” says Rae.