Britain's clowns, who faced eviction from their base of 30 years, are smiling again. They have this month been given a new headquarters by Hackney Council and a home for the world's oldest collection of clown memorabilia.

The clowns' gallery, which consists of hundreds of props, posters and clowning costumes, has since 1960 been housed at the back of Holy Trinity Church, Hackney.

But next month the church, where hundreds of clowns gather each year for a memorial service to Joseph Grimaldi, the father of clowns, is to turn their base into a community centre and day nursery.

Clowns International, whose president is Ron Moody (best known as Fagin in the

film version of Oliver]) has been hunting for a home for the

collection since February.

Hearing of their plight, John McCafferty, leader of Hackney Council, offered the clowns a disused Territorial Army drill hall rent-free for seven years. In return the clowns will give free performances and clowning workshops throughout the year.

The council has spent pounds 30,000 refurbishing the derelict hall as part of the 'Heart of Hackney arts project, which has also seen the reopening this month of the 1,200 seat Central Hall, an auditorium which had been closed for 30 years. Former drug offenders were employed to do up the clowns' gallery as part of a rehabilitation and training programme.

Council officials hope to renew the Joeys' lease after seven years, the longest possible under local law, so that they have a permanent home.

'We don't want to lose the clowns' gallery, which has been in the borough for 30 years, said a council spokesman. 'We're very proud of it and we think that clowns are very nice people too.

Clowns International, which includes a vicar, a fireman and a retired colour sergeant among its members, believes that the permanent exhibition will spark renewed interest in clowning. The number of full-time Joeys in Britain has decreased over the last 20 years because of the demise of circuses.

'The gallery has an important educational function, explained Fizzie Lizzie, a female clown who has a BA on the subject. 'It is important for fashion students and artists as well as children and clowns.

Although grateful to the Holy Trinity church for housing their gallery for so many years, London's clowns say that the new premises will assuage concerns about the safety of their collection, which includes several hundred rare posters, billboards and photographs as well as contemporary props such as a three-foot pair of shoes.

A picture of Grimaldi (1778-1837) was stolen from the church recently and eight years ago several exhibits were damaged during a fire.

To raise money for the new exhibition, which is now being previewed, the clowns are performing at festivals throughout the country. On 20 August a group of clowns - including Pandromini, alias David Drummond an antiquarian bookseller - will perform at the Greenwich Park family day.

'It's the best thing that's ever happened to clowns in the UK, said Mr Drummond. 'We hope to build up the collection and make it a world centre.

The exhibition opens on 4 November, but in peculiarly sober style. A party is planned at the gallery but makeup and costumes will be banned.

'We have strict rules that don't allow clowns to smoke or have a drink in costume. So we'll come along just as we usually dress, said one of the organisers. 'We're just normal people, you know.

(Photograph omitted)