Visit our installation artwork at Coal Drops Yard: ALL OUR STORIES

8th July – 5 Sept

This collection of illustrated stories captures intergenerational narratives and amplifies the voices of children. From it, Bethany Williams, London-based sustainable fashion designer, humanitarian and artist, has created her first large scale public art work.

The works are a continuation of Williams’ ongoing project with two East London grassroots organisations: The Magpie Project, a charity that supports families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness; and ​London College of Fashion’s Making for Change, a fashion training and manufacturing programme operating from two fully equipped sites, established in 2014 at HMP Downview with a sister site based at Poplar Works.

Titled ‘All Our Stories’, the illustrations have been generated through an ongoing series of collaborative storytelling workshops with the children and mothers from the Magie Project and Making for Change communities. For the visuals, Williams teamed up with illustrator and artist Melissa Kitty Jarram to transform these stories into a series of illustrations that in turn have been transposed into flags.

Sustainable fashion designer, humanitarian and artist, Bethany Williams, unveils Coal Drops Yard's striking new flag installation, marking the designer's first ever large-scale artwork. A continuation of Williams' acclaimed fashion collection that launched at London Fashion Week 2021. The installation is comprised of 90 colourful, illustrated flags, which stretch between the iconic roofs of Coal Drops Yard. The artwork is the first life of the flags, and they will then be re-purposed into a limited edition, unisex fashion collection sold in Kiosk N1C in Coal Drops Yard and Browns Fashion.

Each storytelling workshop culminated in a variety of creative outcomes, as each of the different communities interpreted the brief in their own way. The stories shared below recollect childhood memories in many forms; folklore tales shared from generation to generation, bedtime chronicles and fairytales whilst others contain childhood stories and nostalgic recollections of real life memories. Recognising community childhood stories and narratives – whether they have a strong written tradition or not is important in terms of assigning value and sharing power.

Bethany Williams is the second artist to take on this textile commission for Coal Drops Yard. A key and unusual feature of this project is that the decommissioning process is at the forefront of the considerations. This is only the first life of this fabric: once the installation comes down the material will be turned into two collections, one available to buy from Kiosk N1C in Coal Drops Yard and one in collaboration with one of Williams’ key retailers.

Proceeds from the sales will then be donated back to the Magpie Project and Making for Change.

The flags themselves are created from an organic Hemp Slub and which is 100% recyclable. The material choice references the age-old practice of flag-making, considers the future of Hemp’s role in the textile industry, and reflects Coal Drops Yard as a destination for fashion.


Dino, a Magpie Project community story

A knight finds an egg and keeps the egg. The egg hatches and becomes a dinosaur. The knight has to save a princess who lives in a tower. The knight rides the dinosaur everywhere and it climbs a tree. He finds the princess but doesn’t know how to get up the tower. But, the dinosaur can burp ladders! And he can fly if he farts. To find the princess he has to burp and fart. Each fart and burp (and picking of his nose!) helps him to save the princess. The knight and the dinosaur managed to save the princess, who liked farting, burping and picking her nose too. So they all farted and burped and picked their noses together!

Chaos, a Magpie Project community story

A wealthy merchant moved into a new province and built a big palace with a beautiful door, heavily adorned with gems and stones. The King’s guards found the lavish door and told the King about it. At night, all the villagers went to see the door glistening in the dark. The King grew jealous and, afraid that the Queen might think the merchant’s door was better, he too put up a beautiful, bejeweled door. But no one came to see it. The King sent the guards to steal the merchant’s door. The guards stole the door with all its gems. And so the merchant made a new door better than the first one.

This happened a few more times. Then the King summoned the merchant. The King said “I am the King of this region and it is a disgrace to me that your door is more beautiful than mine”. The merchant said “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Where I come from we had riches but then lost them. We worked hard and rebuilt our homes. I decorate my door so that people who are too embarrassed to ask for help can just take the gems.” The King felt ashamed and decided to put out a bag of gems for people to take them whenever they needed.

The moral of this story is that when you give, you don’t have to tell the person that you have helped them.

The Sun and Wind story, Bethany William’s childhood story

Once the Wind and the Sun came to have a quarrel. Both of them claimed to be stronger. At last they agreed to have a trial of strength. “Here comes a traveller. Let us see who can strip him of his clock,” said the Sun. The Wind agreed and chose to have the first turn. He blew in the hardest possible way. As a result, the traveller wrapped his cloak even more tightly around him. Then it was the turn of the brightly shining Sun. At first he shone very gently. So, the traveller loosened his cloak from his neck. The Sun went on shining brighter and brighter. The traveller felt hot. Before long he took off his cloak and put it in his bag. The Wind had to accept his defeat.

The moral of this story is that gentleness and kind persuasion win, where force and bluster fail.

A flag with two tales – Monkey, a Magpie Project community story
There was a cap seller in the village. One day he had sold lots of caps and was tired, so he sat under a tree. The tree was full of lots of monkeys who saw the seller sleeping. One monkey came down to take a cap from the seller’s bag and climbed back up the tree. The seller woke up and was shocked to see the bag was empty. “Hey monkey, give me my cap back!” Then he thought of an idea to get them back. He took off his own cap and threw it up. The monkey copied. The seller threw it on the ground. The monkey copied. The seller picked all the caps and put them in his bag!

Tiger, a Magpie Project community story
There once was a girl who, as she sat on the hillside watching the village cows, was bored. To amuse herself she took a great breath and sang out, “Tiger! Tiger! The Tiger is chasing the cow!” The villagers came running to help the girl drive the tiger away. But when they arrived, they found no tiger. The girl laughed at the sight of their angry faces. “Don’t cry ‘Tiger’, girl,” said the villagers, “when there’s no tiger!” They went grumbling back to the village. Later, the girl sang out again, “Tiger! Tiger! The Tiger is chasing the cows!” To her naughty delight, she watched the villagers run to help her drive the Tiger away. When the villagers saw no tiger they sternly said, “Save your frightened song for when there is really something wrong! Don’t cry ‘Tiger’ when there is NO tiger!” But the girl just grinned and watched them go grumbling back to the village.

Later, she saw a REAL tiger prowling about the cows. Alarmed, she leapt to her feet and sang out as loudly as he could, “Tiger! Tiger!” But the villagers thought she was trying to fool them again, and so they didn’t come. At sunset, everyone wondered why the girl hadn’t returned to the village with their cows. They went up the field to find the girl. They found her weeping. “There really was a Tiger here! The cows have scattered! I cried out, “Tiger!” Why didn’t you come?” An old woman tried to comfort the girl as they walked back to the village. “Nobody believes a liar… even when she is telling the truth.

All Our Stories: a collaboration

Saturday 12th of June at 12pm sustainable fashion designer, humanitarian and artist, Bethany Williams, launched her latest collection, All Our Stories.  

“She still wears stories passed down to her by her mother. Words that no longer fit the same way because life has stretched and changed its shape, but the moral of the story remains. Like the smile on her face. Her joy is new, even though the ending is not. She has not forgotten the promise she made, never to waste these old, tattered tales but to tell them to her children – again and again. To get to the end and watch them smile. They are their stories now. They are All Our Stories.” – Eno Mfon, Spoken Word Poet 

All Our Stories is inspired by Bethany’s continued work with East London grassroots organisation, The Magpie Project, a charity that supports women and children under five who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Magpie project works to make sure that a spell in insecure or temporary accommodation does not result in permanent damage to the life chances of the children who experience it.  

Artist Melissa Kitty Jarram –  inspired by the folklore passed from generation to generation and childhood stories that continue to inform us in our adult lives – ran a storytelling workshops with the Magpie families and illustrated the magical narratives they shared. She then used waste book covers in her illustrations to tell a new story. 

The collection focuses on five main storylines shared by the families of the Magpie Project, “AOS”, “Blessing”, “Dinosaurs” and “The Girl Who Cried Tiger”, as well as Bethany’s own, “The Sun and The Wind” childhood story. 

 “What we noticed through the story-telling workshops, was that the moral in each story always came back to kindness, care, and respect for one another and how these traits, whilst important in childhood, have just as much meaning in adult life.” Bethany Williams 

Working closely with Jane Williams, the founder of the Magpie Project, Bethany Williams will continue the theme of the collection in a commitment to running creative workshops with the Magpie Project community that will capture, share and amplify their myriad stories.  It is the collective’s belief that disseminating these stories empowers and encourages community togetherness and voice at many levels. 

The silhouettes of the collection are inspired by the V&A Museum of Childhood garment archive. This collection sees Bethany’s first detailed exploration into tailoring with a suit inspired by a historical children’s skeleton suit from the 1800’s. The skeleton suit was the first children’s garment designed for play. The new shapes stand alongside our existing forms representing our continued development. The collection also features two corsets created with Welsh designer Rosie Evans using offcuts from the collection production. In these corsets, Rosie has replaced traditional boning with a material made out of fruit packaging waste. 

 At a time when the V&A Museum of Childhood has fully decanted for refurbishment, All Our Stories has filled the empty space with new stories and community faces for our campaign imagery.  

As with all her work, the collection is created via Bethany’s social manufacturing partners who are built into the framework of social enterprise. Bethany continues to work with community driven, UK based social manufacturing partner, Making for Change Poplar Works. For the first time, Williams is using donations of Merino Wool deadstock from Lanificio Ermenegildo Zegna, which has been printed with eco-friendly inks via Orto Print in Peckham.  

Through the collaboration with Mending For Good, knitwear has been a key area of development for this collection where Williams proudly introduces a new social manufacturing partnership called Manusa. Manusa is, a social cooperative that involves people from various backgrounds, specializing in hand-techniques including delicate crochet, embroidery and hand-knitting. Designed in collaboration with Alice Morell Evans, the knitwear uses Sesia Wool industry waste sample swatches, crocheted together with Seisia organic bio wool. Each year,  the sample swatches created each season become surplus at the end of each cycle of production. To utilise this waste, Bethany and Founder of Mending For Good, Barbara Guarducci, developed a sorting technique with Sesia for their team to separate the swatches. 

Barbara Guarducci said “Mending for Good was born to provide design-driven technical solutions for the excess stock and left-overs of the fashion industry. Everyday tons of so far “considered” waste are still produced, that is why we love to collaborate with visionary designers such as Bethany Williams that sees waste as the raw material from which a beautiful story can start.”  

The book cover waste, provided by Hachette, is used for Bethany’s iconic Book Bags, and integrated into the collection garments through their woven textile collaboration with San Patrignano, an education and rehabilitation programme that teaches traditional Italian craft and a sense of community.  

Six looks from All Our Stories make up Bethany Williams’ submission for the 2021 International Woolmark Prize finals.  

20% of the profits from this collection will be donated to The Magpie Project via The Bethany Williams Benevolent Fund, a fund set up by The Magpie Project and Bethany Williams in 2020. 

Read what British Vogue has to say about the latest Bethany Williams Collection here


House of Lords Committee on Covid Recovery

We were a bit taken aback and incredibly honoured to be asked to give evidence to the the House of Lords committee on Covid Recovery on Tuesday April 20th 2021.

We asked, as we always do, whether we could bring a mum who experienced the crisis first hand to speak, and on this occassion it was unfortunately a no, so instead we sent out a quick survey to find out what our mums’ main concerns were, and what they wanted policy makers to know.
Some 67 people answered, and we fed in the results to our oral evidence to the committee. Read our survey results here.
Mums were concerned about their own mental health, about the physical and emotional development of their children, and about poor housing conditions and poverty.
Their asks were:

  • An end to the hostile environment which is keeping their children in poverty,
  • The right to work,
  • Affordable childcare so that single parents can work,
  • Better provision of children’s centres and early years.

We also wanted to recognise and laud the efforts that Newham Council and Public Health England made during the crisis in Newham under the leadership of Mayor Fiaz. So we asked for their input too. Read about how Newham worked with the third sector and community and faith groups to make sure nobody was left behind in the crisis.

Watch our evidence to the house of Lords

Newham’s response to Covid

The COVID crisis made visible a pre-existing, chronic crisis of inequality and poverty – and the Covid response improved the lives of people suffering before COVID (the homeless, those in unsuitable accommodation, those with NRPF) as well as those who were newly in need. 

  • The spread of COVID 19, government instruction to stay at home and sudden economic crisis exposed and exacerbated deep inequalities in Newham. The borough was already tackling public health crises including related to poor air quality, the housing crisis and poverty. 
    Newham is the most ethnically diverse borough in the UK, with 73% of residents from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It quickly became clear that the pandemic was disproportionately affecting Black and minority ethnic communities and so was experienced acutely in Newham. There were a number of complex interrelated issues affecting this, borne of long standing health inequalities and structural racism. 
  • ONS data also showed a stark correlation between COVID 19 mortality rates and the prevalence of overcrowded housing. Between 1 March and 17 April 2020, Newham had the highest death rate (114.3 deaths per 100,000) and the biggest overcrowding problem (25.2% of homes are overcrowded). 
    You can see in this photographic essay by Laura Dodsworth the conditions that our mothers had to endure during lockdown. One Room Lockdown. These were mothers who were not under Newham’s direct care and therefore did not benefit from the Mayor’s decision to move all of those in shared accommodation in to self contained homes in order to facilitate the possibility of self-isolating, or social distancing.
    We were so worried about the plight of those unable to keep safe in Migrant Help accommodation that the ITV did a story on it, and the Mayor of Newham wrote to the housing secretary to express concern.

The response of Newham was exemplary in terms of communication, decisiveness and trusting and enabling community groups, faith organisations and third sector to act in the interests of our residents.
Partnership working has been central to supporting residents in Newham, with the council, voluntary, faith and community sector all mobilising together at rapid speed. This included: 

  • The Newham Food Alliance – A network of voluntary, community and faith sector organisations coordinated by the council to distribute food. In 2020, this network and HelpNewham distributed 264,000 food parcels to Newham residents, and council vehicles moved over 920 tonnes of Felix fare-share surplus food, with these figures rising daily.  
  • The Newham Social Welfare Alliance has worked with community organisations to provide training sessions on Housing and Homelessness, Domestic Violence to Children and Young People’s Mental Wellbeing.  Since November, 753 people from 81 organisations have attended sessions. 
    Establishing a COVID-19 Health Champions network of 400+ residents who share information in the community. The network was recognized as best practice by the government and the Ministry of Communities and Local Government now funds similar work at other Councils.  
  • Pioneering a rapid local testing model in the borough, which has fundamentally changed access to testing particularly for the most vulnerable communities. 
  • Working with the local NHS to establish vaccine sites beyond health care settings, including pop up vaccine sites in churches, temples, mosques and community centres.  
  • Offering free accommodation for living in overcrowded housing, the first local authority in the country to do so. This followed research by the council on why some residents feel unable to self-isolate, which found that 71% of those surveyed listed fear of losing their job as a factor that gets in the way of being able to self-isolate. A further 60% said they were preventing from self-isolating by the need to earn money.  
  • Newham rapidly mobilised an emergency accommodation and assessment centre and accommodation for all rough sleepers, regardless of their immigration status or local connection (Four Hotels and 40 Houses of Multiple Occupancy.) Newham has had the largest decrease in rough sleepers this year nationally, with rough sleepers falling by 91%. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Newham had accommodated 124 Rough Sleepers, with approximately 70 people still on the streets. Newham currently has 212 people accommodated and 6 people on the streets. Throughout the pandemic 198 people have been supported to move on out of this temporary accommodation and into longer-term settled accommodation. 

3. The response to COVID proved that – with political will and central funding – crises can be addressed. It proved that other long-standing chronic crises – child poverty, homelessness, food poverty, digital poverty, hygiene poverty, loneliness, NRPF –  could benefit from being treated as a public health crisis of the same urgency. 

  • The pandemic has dissolved many of the barriers between the council, health partners, voluntary, faith and community organisations. This unprecedented mobilisation to support residents demonstrates what is possible when local authorities and community organisations are giving the appropriate funding and powers. In March 2020 the Chancellor promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to fund councils through the pandemic, but as of March, the impact of the pandemic on Newham council was £82m, and support from government only estimated at £68m. Council across the country have been left short. 
  • The pandemic has also shown the power of local authorities of convenors of local communities during crises. Councils like Newham are uniquely placed to play this role. During COVID 19, we have seen the value of a more balanced central-local relationship in tackling this challenge. The vaccine programme shows each level playing to its strengths: with central government using its purchasing power and other levers to accelerate vaccine development and acquisition, and the local NHS, council and community partners working to get it into people’s arms. The Test and Trace Programme has in contrast been highly centralised. 
  • Newham has launched its 50 Steps to a Healthier Newham Health and Well-Being Strategy 2020-23, that sets out how Newham will respond to the significant pre-existing and new health challenges created by the pandemic. The strategy details how the borough will work with partners to do all possible to maximize the health of the population over the next three years, placing a key focus on supporting people around the determinants of their health. 
  • This is underpinned by the Council’s ‘Towards a Better Newham’ COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, all informed by the council’s overarching strategic goal to tackle inequality, racism and disproportionality. The strategy is based on eight pillars, including a commitment to measuring the council’s success in future on the health, happiness and wellbeing of residents. 
  • Newham is showing what is possible with imaginative policies, partnership working and political will. Going forward, we need a national approach that focuses on prevention and tackling structural inequality at its roots. 

A new nest for magpie minis

Even before lockdown we were fast outgrowing Forest Lane Lodge.

We do not have sole use of the building, which means that we were setting up and breaking down the equivalent of a full nursery provision each time we opened.

That, alongside not having enough storage for our donations or a private area for our minis to play safely means that things were stretched.

Our irreplaceable professional partners who descend on our building to meet mums where they feel safe and supported often found themselves squatting on the floor, working on a chair in the playroom, taking case notes on the roundabout – making do.

Then lockdown happened…..

Our staff numbers doubled, the number of mums and minis we are supporting at any given time also doubled and a half (Grew by 150%?)

All these factors are adding up to the inevitable and unsettling conclusion that – to quote the classic film – we are going to need a bigger boat.

The good news

There is a great building very close by which is vacant. It is a five minute walk from the Lodge so even if a professional, a volunteer or a vulnerable mum comes to the old building it won’t be far to get to the new one. Other massive positives are:

  • There will be SO much more space,
  • We will have sole use of the building. We will have a garden all to ourselves to grow flowers, veg and children,
  • Our minis will have a private, safe space (indoor and out) to play,
  • We will have capacity inside to invite all of our beloved professional partners such as LBWP, Health Visitors, Family Support workers, Shelter advisers, Beauticians, Reiki practitioners, dance artists, artists, theatre practitioners to come, spread out and do their thing.

We are also hoping that the space will allow for a:

  • Laundrette
  • Cafe/cooking collective
  • Community garden
  • Digital hub
  • Advice space, but most important of all
  • Chatting, play and chaos and creating minis’ memories and mums’ belonging.

We could also imagine the wider community using the space for:

  • Hot desking,
  • Birthday parties,
  • Evening classes, etc.

The not so good news

It’s a building that has been squatted in. It is in a terrible state and it is not 100% clear what state it will be in if we get possession.

To make the building what we dream it could be for our families we would need:

  • Corporate or community groups to volunteer to clear the building
  • Corporate or community groups to volunteer to clean and paint
  • Specialist builders/developers to help with repairs
  • Gardeners/landscape artists to help create a beautiful outdoor space
  • Interior designers to help us imagine an amazing and magical place where mums and minis are centered
  • Furniture/office suppliers to help us kit the place out
  • Kitchen suppliers to help us create a beautiful collective cooking space, or
  • The money to pay for any of the above that we cannot beg or borrow in-kind.

So here’s where we need your help

We know we ask a lot of you, our beautiful, bountiful community. And here we are asking again, after a year where we have all given more than we ever thought possible. But – you know – it’s just so important to show up for our most vulnerable children and mothers. The brilliant thing is that with a little time and generosity we can, together, make something really beautiful and meaningful happen.

What can you pledge?

We feel as though we need to get an idea of whether our dreams are possible. We know – from the amazing support we have had in the past year – that there are many, many of you who help us, answer our call-outs, come to our aid. But before we take this on, it would be great to have the reassurance that a few of you may be on board to help again.

If you are interested in helping us give our mums and minis a safe, beautiful space to heal, learn and thrive please fill in the pledge form below.

If – hopefully when – we sign a lease, we will get back to you and see if you are still up for it. Then we will get it done and have the biggest thank you party Newham has ever seen!

Thank you so much, as always, for being there for our families. We will be in touch, hopefully with good news and a call to action as soon as we can.

Thank you Ruth

Our beloved social work student closed the doors on her placement today. She came to us in the middle of the Covid chaos – but despite this, she has approached every person, every task, every opportunity with love, curiosity and a wonderful instinct for how to keep people safe, how to make sure people feel comfortable and a really wicked sense of humour.

This is what she told us about her placement:

I have been immensely honoured to have had the opportunity to work with The Magpie Project.

Thank you for embracing and enriching me with the experience of impacting society, one family at a time! 

My soul is richer with satisfaction for having been a part of the life-changing, opportunity-making, dignity-restoring, empowerment machine that is THE MAGPIE PROJECT! 

You have all readily shared your knowledge with me, and I hold all I have learned dear to use now and ​in the future. Thank you for contributing towards my professional development. In many ways, I have developed as a person too, such as my capacity to empathise. 

I am ever so glad to have started my practice journey with the Project as it enabled me to see need without any barriers and certainly to think of ways in which this need could be met.  I am sure this training has enhanced my ability to think creatively regarding alternatives to service provision. 

I have seen the resilience of the human spirit; that people may be bruised by their ordeals, yet believe that tomorrow will get better. 

Ruth, Social Work Student

I’m convinced that the project plays a vital role in creating this belief; that you shine a beacon for all the mothers in your care, to trust in the possibility of positive change! That you empower these mothers to utilise their strengths; give them a voice! 

Thank you for enabling me to be a participant in this great experience.

Call out for babies and boobs

We are excited to be working alongside a committee of Newham, BME, Migrant or marginalised mums, Alternatives and the NCT to co-create a suite of support services around childbirth and parenthood.

In our initial workshops, our mums told us they felt let-down by a lack of early, as-and-when needed help. It meant they were not able to establish breastfeeding.

For many mums, feeling you’ve not had the support you need to breastfeed can trigger difficult emotions which are hard to come to terms with. For some of our mums who are living below the breadline, the expense of formula is potentially financially devastating.

So we are committed to giving as much support to breastfeeding as possible.

This is where you guys come in. We usually demonstrate with whatever is to hand – a toy octupus, miming and gesticulating at our own, or mums’ boobs – which you will probably agree is not the best thing!

So we were thinking it would be nice to have some woolly boobs and babies !

Can you knit or crochet us a boob – or a baby to help with our classes?

There are many great patterns online. We would love all sizes and skin tones. Please feel free to:

  1. knit a boob or a baby or two, make sure it is safe and easily washed.
  2. send it to
    The Magpie Project, knitting appeal.
    c/o Forest Lane Lodge,
    Forest Lane Park,
    Magpie Close
    E7 9DE
  3. Or get in touch with Jules to discuss what you will be knitting.
  4. If you don’t knit, buy us a doll – these are the best.
  5. If you want to support our work, donate money and we promise we will put it straight to work helping mums and minis.

Buy bespoke hand made jewellery and be part of the Magpie magic

We cried tears of emotion when Jeff and Andi from the amazing local emporium Number 8 Forest Gate suggested making us their charity of the year and designing bespoke jewellery to in our honour.

A fixed amount from each sale goes to helping our mums and minis (£300 and counting!).

This is the core collection but Jeff is adding special limited edition pieces throughout the year (Valentines, Mother’s day, etc…).

We are utterly overwhelmed by how beautiful these creations are, and how clever Jeff is at fashioning unique hand-made pieces based on our logo and magpie feathers.

DPOhdjHVoAAxI7w.jpg(Like real feathers no one of Jeff’s creations is the same)

If you would like to buy a piece of Magpie Magic

Just email Jeff and Andi and they will talk you through the process.

Or write to:

Number 8 Forest Gate Emporium,
8a Sebert Road, Forest Gate,
London E7 0NQ.



Prices start at £15 so there is something in the collection for everyone.




Read about us in Inside Housing

Inside Housing

No place like home: raising children in unsuitable temporary housing

What’s it like trying to raise a baby in cramped and dangerous temporary housing? Jess McCabe investigates.  Illustration by Jonathan Gibbs

How do you teach a baby to crawl? What should be their first food? How do you toilet train a toddler? Should you let your baby sleep in your bed?

These are questions all new parents ask.

But if you’re homeless, finding the answers becomes a lot harder than a quick scan of a Mumsnet thread.

At the end of last year, the latest round of homelessness statistics garnered more media attention than usual – partly because of the number of children counted as homeless in the run-up to Christmas: 120,000.

But what is it really like trying to raise children in temporary accommodation? What is the impact on the lives and development of some of the youngest and most vulnerable residents of this country?

If anyone should know the answers it’s the mums who come to the Magpie Project, a drop-in playgroup-cum-support service, and the volunteers who run it.

Twice a week, in a community centre off Romford Road, an ungentrified high street in Forest Gate, east London, it is a haven for mums with children under five who are homeless, in temporary or emergency accommodation, or insecure housing.

Everywhere young children are happily squealing and running about. A tangle of prams forms near the door. Play-Doh is resting on a table, waiting to be played with. Mums are chatting.

At first glance this scene could be any playgroup in the country. A few details, however, jump out: a young mum is sizing up two winter coats for her two-year-old and a volunteer passes out packs of nappies.

The coats were probably donated by other local mums – once the project’s volunteers find out a specific item is needed, they put a call out to an informal network of Newham mums. The nappies are offered to counter a specific problem.

“We found that mums were taking so long between nappy changes trying to eke out the nappies,” Jane Williams

“We found that mums were taking so long between nappy changes trying to eke out the nappies, that we were seeing really, really, sore, sore, sore bums,” explains Jane Williams, who founded the Magpie Project.

Many of the mums here have no recourse to public funds, due to their immigration status.

Placed in emergency accommodation by social services under the council’s ‘Section 17’ duties towards their children, they subsist on £37 a week.

In Newham this is often given in vouchers for the supermarket Iceland – which, devastatingly for mums of small children, locally does not stock nappies or formula. Mums are left to rely on food banks and help from friends; some even use powdered milk or custard instead of formula.

Ms Williams, a governor of a nearby children’s centre, started the Magpie Project after noticing so few of the mums in temporary accommodation locally were accessing their services. They weren’t able to engage with the children’s centre because their most basic needs weren’t being met, Ms Williams says. Among these needs, she says, are “having somewhere to cook, being able to keep themselves and their children clean, feeling safe, and also just having the information or being mentally and emotionally well enough to be able to get through the door at this children’s centre”.

The Magpie Project started as a seven-week pilot with the support of the children’s centre, but was so successful it decided to carry on – although it only has funding to run until April. Staffed by volunteers (an ex-head teacher, a midwife on maternity leave, a health visitor, an artist), the project runs twice a week in a space donated by a local charity. Ms Williams is the only paid staff member, with three days a week covered by a grant from the Stratford Development Partnership. A solicitor from the London Black Women’s Project provides legal help and someone from Shelter provides housing advice.

“The model was, if these mums just have somewhere to go, have a cup of tea, get their lunch, if they can’t get here on the bus [then] we pay their bus fare, and then their children just have somewhere clean and safe and spacious to play,” says Ms Williams.

“These are extreme circumstances, and trying to carry on any kind of parenting is almost impossible.”

Around 25 mums and children turn up to every session. “We’re getting about three new mums every time we open the doors – so that’s a little hectic,” Ms Williams says. Since the project began in June 2017, only eight of those mums have been rehoused – all outside the borough.

Many are stuck for protracted periods in unsuitable housing. “Especially mums who are not housed by housing but are housed by social services, are housed into these hotels that are truly horrifying.” says Ms Williams.

Many are homeless due to domestic abuse and “they’re already traumatised, and they’re already brutalised, and then they’re in this place where it’s noisy all night, there’s aggressive begging in the corridors, it’s filthy, there are drug addicts, there are people with mental health problems, there are people just out of prison – if you’ve got a small child, it’s absolutely terrifying”.

“These are extreme circumstances, and trying to carry on any kind of parenting in that situation is almost impossible.”

The Magpie Project’s artist gives children the chance to get creative with cucumbers and paint

The Magpie Project’s artist gives children the chance to get creative with cucumbers and paint

Even basics like potty training are a challenge, leading to toddlers being kept in nappies longer than they need to be. “[In] a lot of these places it’s three fire doors between you and the nearest toilet – you don’t know whether it’s going to be accessible, you don’t know whether it’s going to be clean. It’s so difficult,” Ms Williams says.

“And nutrition – we’re finding a lot of difficulties with mums feeding babies because they don’t have access to anywhere to cook. So all of the advice of freshly cooked vegetables is very, very difficult. And mums are in the situation where they either queue to use the cooker for about four hours, with their child with them, or they get a takeaway.

“I think the main thing that we’re trying to combat is the guilt and the stress when everything inside you as a mother is telling you that you have to do all of these things for your child, but you are thwarted in being able to do them by your circumstances.”

The Magpie Project focuses on families with under fives because they are particularly vulnerable and it is a crucial age for child development. Ms Williams points out that it’s impossible to know how many are homeless at this young age because the official statistics don’t track age and can’t differentiate between a newborn and a teenager.

“Once a child reaches five, they are being looked for by schools, by regulatory bodies. Under five, people are not looking for your child. So it’s so easy for a child to get lost in the system,” she explains.



The most recent homelessness statistics from September 2017 revealed that 120,000 minors were officially counted as homeless.

When the MP for Tooting questioned Theresa May about this during Prime Minister’s Questions – and specifically the 2,500 homeless children in that borough – Ms May’s response drew cries of “shame” from the opposition.

“Anybody hearing that will assume what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not. It does not mean that,” said Ms May. “Families with children who are accepted as homeless will be provided with accommodation.”

Whatever the prime minister was trying to imply, the real numbers may be even higher – with many families like those interviewed by Inside Housing for this story being housed under ‘Section 17’ by social services departments. This can happen if families are deemed ineligible for housing because of being ‘intentionally homeless’ or due to immigration status.

Campaigners at Shelter made a Freedom of Information Act request in 2016 and found 1,259 families (or around 4,000 people) in this position. Just under half the women who have attended the Magpie Project are housed by social services.

Diane Walls is a former primary school head and Newham councillor, and one of the Magpie Project’s volunteers.

“The years between birth and five are the most important years in a child’s development, when they learn to speak, to walk, when they start relationships with other children and other adults. When they first learn their place in the world,” she explains. “And once you cut them off from space and other children and a clean, safe environment, you are inhibiting that progress and inhibiting that development.”

But to really understand what that means, you need to talk to some of the mums. Amelia* is relaxing on a colourful playmat while her one-year-old, Rachel, investigates a toy; her two-year-old is concentrating on a nearby train set.

“We’re always happy when we come here,” she says. “At home, you think, think, think, think. Here it is better, you don’t think, you just relax. Watch them play. It is really good. It’s better than sitting at home and thinking, worried.”

“Once you cut children off from a clean, safe environment, you are inhibiting their development,” Amelia

Home for the past year – the whole of her young daughter’s life – has been one room, plagued with mould and with no room at all for the children to play. At first there was only one bed, so all three had to share. Eventually Amelia, who is from Ghana and is waiting for her documents to come through, managed to find a second bed to cram into the room for her toddler.

“When we come they give us nappies. It was very hard for me – I could hardly buy nappies. And when you come here they will give you some and you also get to talk to other mums here. At least you release some stress before you go home.”

“This one,” she says, gesturing towards her two year old, “when we come he will just jump out of the pushchair when he sees the toys because he doesn’t have all these toys at home.”

Alika’s child is the same. When she brings her two toddlers here, “he gets out of the buggy at the bus stop and he runs”, she says. The small family have been moved time and again as Alika’s violent husband has tried to track them down.

Mice were bad and bed bugs left her covered in bites, but the worst was shared accommodation where one of the neighbours smoked cannabis. “[My son has] got asthma – he was coughing constantly. That man didn’t care; I asked him constantly not to smoke. He smokes in his room but the smoke comes out.”

Katya is in a similar situation. As she bounces her 11-month-old daughter on her knee, her face is crumpled with worry. Her voice is shaking.

“It’s actually a really terrible place,” she says, describing the nearby hotel where she has been housed by social services after fleeing her violent husband. “I have pictures.”

On her phone, she scrolls through one photo after another showing mice droppings all over the bathroom, and even next to the bed which she shares with her daughter. No cot was provided for the baby to sleep in, again forcing them to share.

In the hallways going in and out, she has to brave aggressive beggars. “It’s not a safe place for babies. It’s not clean, it’s full of mice.”

One-year-old Rachel puts down a slice of banana and lifts herself up. She takes a few wobbly steps. “She took her first steps here,” says Amelia proudly.

*Names of mothers and children have been changed


© 2017 Inside Housing
All rights reserved

Get to TESCO and VOTE Magpie!

The Magpie Project is bidding to bag a massive cash boost from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative. Tesco teamed up with Groundwork to launch its community funding scheme, which sees grants of up to £4,000, up to £2,000 and £1,000 raised from carrier bag sales in Tesco stores awarded to local community projects.

The Magpie Project is one of three groups in the Newham region to be shortlisted to receive the cash award.


BUT HERE IS WHERE YOU COME IN! Shoppers are being invited to head along to Tesco stores to vote for who they think should take away the top grant.

Alec Brown, Head of Community at Tesco, said:

“We are absolutely delighted to open the voting for January and February. There are some fantastic projects on the shortlists and we can’t wait to see these come to life in hundreds of communities.”

For our part, here at Magpie we are really excited about being chosen to compete for funding. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to gain much needed money that will go straight to supporting East London’s most vulnerable mums and children.

Voting is open in all Tesco stores throughout January and February. Vote using a token given to you at the check-out in store each time you shop.


To check the location of any of the above stores, please go to the tesco website here:


Please share with all your friends and family, let’s win the £4,000 for our wonderful Magpie Mums and Minis.

Thank you!!