Centerprise. Photograph: Maggie Hewitt
From the archives: Centerprise on Kingsland Road. Photograph: Maggie Hewitt

An oral history project has been launched to remember a much loved Hackney institution and symbol of the borough’s radical past.

A Hackney Autobiography: Remembering Centerprise will record the history of Centerprise, a bookshop and cultural centre that from 1971 until 2012 facilitated ground-breaking work in oral history, literacy, history, story writing and more.

Oral history organisation On the Record has received a Heritage Lottery grant for the project, and is looking for volunteers as well as people who remember Centerprise, which was located on Kingsland Road.

By July 2016 organisers hope to have published a book on the history of Centerprise and have launched a map-based app so people can discover the stories published by Centerprise on their phones whilst they walk around Hackney.

Rosa Vilbr, co-director of On the Record, says: “Centerprise was one of the first community publishers in the country and it was an idea that took off and spread all around the country after that.

“It was a vibrant place that involved people in the community and gave people access not only to experience culture but also a means to produce it.”

A Hackney Autobiography will focus on the community publishing, writing and literacy works carried out by Centerprise during the 1970s and 1980s, led by author Ken Worpole, then a teacher at Hackney Downs School.

Work published by Centerprise included creative writing by local children, poetry and books about Hackney’s past. The project will bring back into prominence some of these works, such as a book on Dr Jelley, an eccentric medical practitioner from Homerton who dispensed medicine and advice cheaply to the poor and boasted of being able to treat 100 patients in an hour.

Worpole believes the speed at which Hackney is changing makes the project an urgent one, saying that we live in a culture “which is often blind to the struggles and achievements of earlier generations in shaping their own lives”.

Vilbr adds: “There’s a lot of culture – new culture – in Hackney, and it often feels like it’s coming from the outside rather than being generated from within. What the history of Centerprise shows is that there’s always been artists and writers and poets amongst the general constituency of people that live in Hackney.”

On the Record is hosting a free gathering at the Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, EC2M 4QH on Saturday 24 January for people who remember Centerprise. To RSVP and for further information email info@on-the-record.org.uk

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