London’s Czech community centre Velehrad to close down

Velehrad, photo: Jiří Hošek

The Czech and Slovak community in London are set to lose a venue that has served as a meeting place for generations of refugees and expats. Founded by a Czech Catholic priest in Notting Hill in 1964, the Velehrad centre has provided new arrivals with accommodation and served as a place for various social, cultural and religious events. But the organization that runs the centre has now decided to sell the property, which is a move opposed by many Czech expats in the UK. I discussed the issue with Milan Kocourek, a London-based journalist and the head of the local chapter of the expat organization Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences.

Velehrad,  photo: Jiří Hošek
“The reason is that there is not enough money for the maintenance of the building. The trustees announced this to the Czech and Slovak community last year. Apparently the building requires extensive refurbishment but there was not enough money for it so they started to look for another owner. Negotiations have been successful and the Velehrad is going to be sold. The new owner will take over on 15th April.”

What do the members of the Czech and Slovak community in London think of this move?

“As chairman of the society of art and sciences I must say that vast majority of our members in London did not like the idea. They were arguing that there are several negative points, for instance what would [Velehrad’s founder] Father Lang think of it? They were convinced that Father Lang would not be happy because he established the place.

Milan Kocourek,  photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
“They were also saying that there is a monument on the house - a Jan Palach memorial created by the famous sculptor František Bělský – what will happen to it and to the memory of Velehrad? I think most people did not like the idea at all.”

The decision is final, the sale will go ahead – but what will happen, do you know who the new owner will be and what will happen there with the community centre?

“I don’t know anything about the new owner. Organisations which have been housed in Velehrad will have to move to a new place. A new place has not been found yet but the trustees are still looking. They are searching for a house which would have a larger community room than Velehrad. Space is required for more than 100 people to fit into one room. In Velehrad this was hardly possible. Organisations like ours, society of arts and sciences, will move to a new place once it has been found, hopefully still in central London.”

Jan Palach memorial on Velehrad building,  photo: Jiří Hošek
The sale is expected to fetch quite a lot of money given the upmarket area where the Velehrad community centre is located; I saw a figure of £10 million. Do you think that will provide some sort of boost to the Czech and Slovak expat life in London?

“Indeed. That will be money towards the purchase of the new house and its refurbishment for new purposes. Hopefully it will be a success but at the moment nobody seems to know where it will be.”