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The Beginning of Toynbee Hall
By Canon and Mrs. S.A. Barnett 1909
Editor’s Note: This entry is an excerpt from the book “Towards Social Reform” published by The Macmillan Company, New York, 1909, pp. 239-249.
THE BEGINNING OF TOYNBEE HALL: “How did the idea of a University Settlement arise? ” ” What was the beginning? ” are questions so often asked by Americans, Frenchmen, Belgians, or the younger generation of earnest English people, that it seems worth while to reply in print, and to trundle one’s mind back to those early days of effort and loneliness before so many bore the burden and shared the anxiety. The fear is that in putting pen to paper on matters which are so closely bound up with our own lives, the sin of egotism will be committed, or that a social plant, which is still growing, may be damaged, as even weeds are if their roots are looked at. And yet in the tale which has to be told there is so much that is gladdening and strengthening to those who are fighting apparently forlorn causes that I venture to tell it in the belief that to some our experiences will give hope.
In the year 1869, Mr. Edward Dennison took up his abode in East London. He did not stay long nor accomplish much, but as he breathed the air of the people he absorbed something of their sufferings, saw things from their standpoint, and, as his letters in his memoirs show, made frequent suggestions for social remedies. He was the first settler, and was followed by the late Mr. Edmund Hollond,to whom my husband and I owe our life in Whitechapel. He was ever on the outlook for men and women who cared for the people, and hearing that we wished to come eastward, wrote to Dr. Jackson, then Bishop of London, when the living of St. Jude’s fell vacant in the autumn of 1872, and asked that it might be offered to Mr. Barnett, who was at that time working as curate at St. Mary’s Bryanston Square, with Mr. Fremantle, now the Dean of Kipon. I have the Bishop’s letter, wise, kind, and fatherly, the letter of a general sending a young captain to a difficult outpost. ” Do not hurry in your decision,” he wrote; “it is the worst parish in my diocese, inhabited mainly by a criminal population, and one which has, I fear, been much corrupted by doles.”
How well I remember the day Mr. Barnett and I first came to see it ! — a sulky sort of drizzle filled the atmosphere; the streets, dirty and ill-kept, were crowded with vicious and bedraggled people, neglected children, and overdriven cattle. The whole parish was a network of courts and alleys, many houses being let out in single furnished rooms for 8d. a night — a bad system, which lent itself to every form of evil, to thriftless habits, to untidiness, to loss of self-respect, to unruly living, to vicious courses.
We did not ” hurry in our decision,” but just before Christmas, 1872, Mr. Barnett became vicar. A month later we were married, and took up our lives’ work on the 6th of March, 1873, accompanied by our friend Edward Leonard, who joined us “to do what he could”; his “could” being ultimately the establishment of the Whitechapel committee of the Charity Organisation Society, and a change in the lives and ideals of a large number of young people, whom he gathered round him to hear of the Christ he worshipped.
It would sound like exaggeration if I told my memories of those times. The previous vicar had had a long and disabling illness, and all was out of order. The church, unserved either by curate, choir, or officials, was empty, dirty, unwarmed. Once the platform of popular preachers, Mr. Hugh Allen and Mr. (now Bishop) Thornton, it had had huge galleries built to accommodate the crowds who came from all parts of London to hear them — galleries which blocked the light, and made the subsequent emptiness additionally oppressive. The schools were closed, the school-rooms all but devoid of furniture, the parish organisation nil; no mothers’ meeting, no Sunday School, no communicants’ class, no library, no guilds, no music, no classes, nothing alive. Around this barren, empty shell surged the people, here to-day, gone to-morrow. Thieves and worse, receivers of stolen goods, hawkers, casual dock labourers, every sort of unskilled low-class cadger congregated in the parish. There was an Irish quarter and a Jews’ quarter, while whole streets were given over to the hangers-on of a vicious population, people whose conduct was brutal, whose ideal was idleness, whose habits were disgusting, and among whom goodness was laughed at, the honest man and the right-living woman being scorned as impracticable. Kobberies, assaults, and fights in the streets were frequent; and to me, a born coward, it grew into a matter of distress when we became sufficiently well known in the parish for our presence to stop, or at least to moderate, a fight; for then it seemed a duty to join the crowd, and not to follow one’s nervous instincts and pass by on the other side. I recall one breakfast being disturbed by three fights outside the Vicarage. We each went to one, and the third was hindered by a hawker friend who had turned verger, and who fetched the distant policeman, though he evidently remained doubtful as to the value of interference.
We began our work very quietly and simply: opened the church (the first congregation was made up of six or seven old women, all expecting doles for coming), restarted the schools, established relief committees, organised parish machinery, and tried to cauterise, if not to cure, the deep cancer of dependence which was embedded in all our parishioners alike, lowering the best among them and degrading the worst. At all hours, on all days, and with every possible pretext, the people came and begged. To them we were nothing but the source from which to obtain tickets, money, or food; and so confident were they that help would be forthcoming that they would allow themselves to get into circumstances of suffering or distress easily foreseen, and then send round to demand assistance.
I can still recall my emotions when summoned to a sick woman in Castle Alley, an alley long since pulled down, where the houses, three storeys high, were hardly 6 feet apart; the sanitary accommodation, pits in the cellars ; and the whole place only fit for the condemnation it got directly Cross’s Act was passed. This alley, by the way, was in part the cause of Cross’s Act, so great an impression did it make on Lord Cross (then Mr. Cross) when Mr. Barnett induced him to come down and see it.
In this stinking alley, in a tiny, dirty room, all the windows broken and stuffed up, lay the woman who had sent for me. There were no bed-clothes; she lay on a sacking covered with rags. “I do not know you,” said I, “but I hear you want to see me.”
” No, ma’am !” replied a fat, beer-sodden woman by the side of the bed, producing a wee, new-born baby; “we don’t know yer, but ‘ere’s the babby, and in course she wants clothes and the mother comforts like. So we jist sent round to the church.”
This was a compliment to the organisation which represented Christ, but one which showed how sunken was the character which could not make even the simplest provision for an event which must have been expected for months, and which even the poorest among the respectable counts sacred.
The refusal of the demanded doles made the people very angry. Once the Vicarage windows were broken; once we were stoned by an angry crowd, who also hurled curses at us as we walked down a criminal-haunted street, and howled out, as a climax of their wrongs, “And it’s us as pays ’em.” But we lived all this down, and as the years went by reaped a harvest of love and gratitude which is one of the gladdest possessions of our lives, and is quite disproportionate to the service we have rendered. But this is the end of the story, and I must go back to the beginning.
In a parish which occupies only a few acres, and was inhabited by 8,000 persons, we were confronted by some of the hardest problems of city life. The housing of the people, the superfluity of unskilled labour, the enforcement of resented education, the liberty of the criminal classes to congregate and create a low public opinion, the administration of the Poor Law, the amusement of the ignorant, the hindrances to local government (in a neighbourhood devoid of the leisured and cultured), the difficulty of uniting the unskilled men and women in trade unions, the necessity for stricter Factory Acts, the joylessness of the masses, the hopelessness of the young — all represented difficult problems, each waiting for a solution and made more complicated by the apathy of the poor, who were content with an unrighteous contentment and patient with a Godless patience. These were not the questions to be replied to by doles, nor could the problems be solved by kind acts to individuals nor by the healing of the suffering, which was but the symptom of the disease.
In those days these difficulties were being dealt with mainly by good kind women, generally elderly; few men, with the exception of the clergy and noted philanthropists, as Lord Shaftesbury, were interested in the welfare of the poor, and economists rarely joined close experience with their theories.
“If men, cultivated, young, thinking men, could only know of those things they would be altered,” I used to say, with girlish faith in human goodwill — a faith which years has not shaken; and in the spring of 1875 we went to Oxford, partly to tell about the poor, partly to enjoy “eights week ” with a group of young friends. Our party was planned by Miss Toynbee, whom I had met when at school, and whose brother Arnold was then an undergraduate at Balliol. Our days were filled by the hospitality with which Oxford still rejoices its guests; but in the evenings we used to drop quietly down the river with two or three earnest men, or sit long and late in our lodgings in the Turl, and discuss the mighty problems of poverty and the people. How vividly Canon Barnett and I can recall each and all of that first group of “thinking men,” so ready to take up enthusiasms in their boyish strength — Arnold Toynbee, Sidney Ball, W. H. Forbes, Arthur Hoare, Leonard Montefiore, Alfred Milner, Philip Gell, John Falk, G. E. Underhill, Kalph Whitehead, Lewis Nettleship! Some of these are still here and caring for our people, but others have passed behind the veil, where perhaps earth’s sufferings are explicable.
We used to ask each undergraduate as he developed interest to come and stay in Whitechapel, and see for himself. And they came, some to spend a few weeks, some for the Long Vacation, while others, as they left the
University and began their life’s work, took lodgings in East London, and felt all the fascination of its strong pulse of life, hearing, as those who listen always may, the hushed, unceasing moans underlying the cry which ever and anon makes itself heard by an unheeding public.
From that visit to Oxford in the ” eights week” of 1875 date many visits to both the Universities. Rarely a term passed without our going to Oxford, where the men who had been down to East London introduced us to others who might do as they had done. Sometimes we stayed with Dr. Jowett, the immortal master of Balliol, sometimes we were the guests of the undergraduates, who would get up meetings in their rooms, and organise innumerable breakfasts, teas, river excursions, and other opportunities for introducing the subject of the duty of the cultured to the poor and degraded.
No organisation was started, no committee, no society, nor club founded. We met men, told them of the needs of the out-of-sight poor; and many came to see Whitechapel and stayed to help it. And so eight years went by — our Oxford friends laughingly terming my husband the “unpaid professor of social philosophy.”
In June, 1883, we were told by Mr. Moore Smith that some men at St. John’s College at Cambridge were wishful to do something for the poor, but that they were not quite prepared to start an ordinary College Mission. Mr. Barnett was asked to suggest some other possible and more excellent way. The letter came as we were leaving for Oxford, and was slipped with others in my husband’s pocket. Soon something went wrong with the engine and delayed the train so long that the passengers were allowed to get out. We seated ourselves on the railway bank, just then glorified by masses of large ox-eyed daisies, and there he wrote a letter suggesting that men might hire a house, where they could come for short or long periods, and, living in an industrial quarter, learn to ” sup sorrow with the poor.” The letter pointed out that close personal knowledge of individuals among the poor must precede wise legislation for remedying their needs, and that as English local government was based on the assumption of a leisured, cultivated class, it was necessary to provide it artificially in those regions where the line of leisure was drawn just above sleeping hours, and where the education ended at thirteen years of age and with the three R’s.
That letter founded Toynbee Hall. Insomnia had sapped my health for a long time, and later, in the autumn of that year, we were sent to Eaux Bonnes to try a water-cure. During that period the Cambridge letter was expanded into a paper, which was read at a College meeting at St John’s College, Oxford, in November of the same year. Mr. Arthur Sidgwick was present, and it is largely due to his practical vigour that the idea of University Settlements in the industrial working-class quarters of large towns fell not only on sympathetic ears, but was guided until it came to fruition, and the first meeting of undergraduates met in the room of Mr. Cosmo Lang [now (1908) about to become Archbishop of York]. Soon after the meeting a small but earnest committee was formed; later on the committee grew in size and importance, money was obtained on debenture bonds, and a head sought who would turn the idea into a fact. Here was the difficulty. Such men as had been pictured in the paper which Mr. Knowles had published in the Nineteenth Century Review of February, 1884, are not met with every day; and no inquiries seemed to discover the wanted man who would be called upon to give all and expect nothing.
Mr. Barnett and I had spent eleven years of life and work in Whitechapel. We were weary. My health stores were limited and often exhausted, and family circumstances had given us larger means and opportunities for travel. We were therefore desirous to turn our backs on the strain, the pain, the passion, and the poverty of East London, at least for a year or two, and take repose after work which had both aged and weakened us. But no other man was to be found who would and could do the work; and, if this child-thought was not to die, it looked as if we must undertake to try and rear it.
We went to the Mediterranean to consider the matter, and solemnly, on a Sunday morning, made our decision. How well I recall the scene as we sat at the end of the quaint harbour-pier at Mentone, the blue waves dancing at our feet, everything around scintillating with light and movement in contrast to the dull and dulling squalor of the neighbourhood which had been our home for eleven years, and which our new decision would make our home for another indefinite spell of labour and effort. “God help us!” we said to each other; and then we wired home to obtain the refusal of the big Industrial School next to St. Jude’s Vicarage, which had recently been vacated, and which we thought to be a good site for the first Settlement, and returned to try and live up to the standard which we had unwittingly set for ourselves in describing in the article the unknown man who was wanted for Warden.
The rest of the story is soon told. The committee did the work, bought the land, engaged the architect (Mr. Elijah Hoole), raised the money, and interested more and more men, who came for varying periods either to live, to visit, or to see what was being done.
On the 10th of March, 1883, Arnold Toynbee had died. He had been our beloved and faithful friend ever since, as a lad of eighteen, his own mind then being chiefly concerned with military interests and ideals, he had heard, with the close interest of one treading untrodden paths, facts about the toiling, ignorant multitude whose lives were stunted by labour, clouded by poverty, and degraded by ignorance. He had frequently been to see us at St. Jude’s, staying sometimes a few nights, oftener tempting us to go a day or two with him into the country; and ever wooing us with persistent hospitality to Oxford. Once, in 1879, he had taken rooms over the Charity Organisation office in Commercial Koad, hoping to spend part of the Long Vacation, learning of the people; but his health, often weakly, could not stand the noise of the traffic, the sullenness of the aspect, nor the pain which stands waiting at every corner; and at the end of some two or three weeks he gave up the plan and left East London, never to return excepting as our welcome guest. His share of the movement was at Oxford, where with a subtle force of personality he attracted original or earnest minds of all degrees, and turned their thoughts or faces towards the East End and its problems. Through him many men came to work with us, while others were stirred by the meetings held in Oxford or by the pamphlet called the “Bitter Cry,” which, in spite of its exaggerations, aroused many to think of the poor; or by the stimulating teaching of Professor T. H. Green, and by the constant kindly sympathy of the late Master of Balliol, who startled some of his hearers, who had not plumbed the depths of his wide, wise sympathy, by advising all young men, whatever their career, “to make some of their friends among the poor.”
The 10th of March, 1884, was a Sunday, and on the afternoon of that day Balliol chapel was filled with a splendid body of men who had come together from all parts of England in loving memory of Arnold Toynbee, on the anniversary of his death. Dr. Jowett had asked my husband to preach to them, and they listened, separating almost silently at the chapel porch, filled, one could almost feel, by the aspiration to copy him in caring much, if not doing much, for those who had fallen by the way or were “ignorant of our glorious gains.”
We had often chatted, those of us who were busy planning the new Settlement, as to what to call it. We did not mean the name to be descriptive; it should, we thought, be free from every possible savour of a Mission, and yet it should, in itself, be suggestive of a noble aim. As I sat on that Sunday afternoon in the chapel, one of the few women among the crowd of strong-brained, clean-living men assembled in reverent affection for one man, the thought flashed to me, ” Let us call the Settlement Toynbee Hall.” To Mr. Bolton King, the honorary secretary of the committee, had come the same idea, and it, finding favour with the committee, was so decided, and our new » Settlement received its name before a brick was laid or the plans concluded….
Source: “Towards Social Reform” by Canon and Mrs. S.A. Barnett, published by The Macmillan Company, New York, 1909, pp. 239-249.
Other sources of information about Toynbee Hall:
Toynbee Hall: www.toynbeehall.org.uk/about-us
Spartacus Educational: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/EDtoynbeeH.htm