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Woods, Robert Archey

in: People

Robert Archey Woods (December 9, 1865—February 18, 1925) — Settlement House Pioneer, Founder of South End House the First Settlement in Boston, Social Reformer, Author and Educator

Introduction: Robert A. Woods was born in Pittsburgh, PA., on Dec. 9, 1865, the fourth of five children in a family of Scottish-Irish immigrants.  His father, Robert, was a businessman in Pittsburgh and a founder of the United Presbyterian Church in East Liberty, a rural community near Pittsburgh. His mother, Mary (nee Hall) Woods, emigrated with her parents from Belfast, Ireland. Robert Woods’ father died when he was fifteen. Encouraged by his mother to go to college, his higher education career began at Amherst College.  After graduating from Amherst in 1886, Woods entered Andover Theological Seminary, attracted there by the work and reputation of the Reverend Dr. William Jewett Tucker whose approach to social economics was deeply critical of charity organization societies and traditional philanthropy. Dr. Tucker advocated looking for bolder efforts to bring about social justice and economic change. Stimulated by this association, Woods began to search for a philosophy that could combine both social and individual salvation.

In 1890 Woods graduated from Andover and Dr. Tucker then asked him to go to England and investigate the social settlements there and report back to the seminary.  Arnold Toynbee and Reverend Samuel A. Barnett conceived the plan for a university settlement to give Oxford University men the opportunity to live and work among the poor.  In 1885 Toynbee Hall was established in the East End of London.  Canon Barnett’s work and the development of Toynbee Hall became the example and inspiration for the establishment of many more settlements, both in England and the United States. Many visitors interested in the “practical application of Christianity” were attracted to Toynbee Hall to study their pioneer efforts. Woods was a resident of Toynbee Hall for six months and during this time he studied English efforts to help the poor and absorbed the ideas and experiences of Canon Barnett. The lectures Woods gave at the seminary describing his experiences at Toynbee Hall were published in 1891 as: English Social Movements. That same year, Woods decided to establish a settlement in Boston in order to test the idea of a settlement.


Boston’s First Settlement: After young Woods returned from his London visit of six months, he and Professor William J. Tucker discussed at length the possibility of establishing a similar center of “social Christianity” in Boston.It was in 1891 that Professor William J. Tucker invited interested persons to attend a meeting to organize Andover House in Boston. This meeting was held at the Union Congregational Church on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End in October. Thanks to the warm reception of the idea, a second meeting was set up in order to perfect the organization.In December, the Association, with William J. Tucker as President, chose 6 Rollins Street as the location for Andover House. A voluntary committee of ladies began to furnish the house.

Andover House was the first settlement in Boston.  There were four others in existence:

Robert A. Woods was appointed as the first Head Worker. Andover House opened with four men in residence in 1892. They started clubs for boys and girls and organized a literary society for young men and women. From the journal of Edward H. Chandler, the first resident of Andover House, the following activities were noted:

  • January 1: First one to take up residence: E. H. Chandler … very little furniture on hand-no shades-only five rooms carpeted.
  • January 2: R. A. Woods came in from Andover … shades put up. Residents boarded at Sanford Cafe!
  • January 7: G. P. Morris moved in
  • January 12: Miss Long moved in and assumed charge of housekeeping arrangements.
  • January 17: First meals served in the house.
  • January 18: The Reverend J. A. Bevington moved in, completing the corps engaged.
  • January 28: By invitation, R. A. Woods joined the Ward 16 Conference of Associated Charities.
  • January 30: Invitation to ‘John Bull’ (so called), to bring his friends in next Monday morning, to form a club at the house. But John Bull and his chum McCarthy did not appear on the morning they were invited, and the residents feared their first attempt at a Boys’ Club was a failure. Then the next day John Bull and McCarthy came in with talk of a funeral the day before. They played games for an hour or so with Woods and Morris. The settlement was “in business’.” (from Andover House records)

During that first year the following activities show rapid growth in varied directions:

• A circulating library and a stamps savings office were established.

• Cooperation with Associated Charities and other helpful agencies in the district began. .

  • Acquaintance was made this first year with a number of trade union leaders,

• The Reverend Bevington and E. H. Chandler joined the Ward 17 Conference of Associated Charities,

• The first South End Free Art Exhibition was held at old Franklin School, Washington and Dover Streets.

• First record was made of flower distribution through an Association of Mutual Helpers (forerunner of the later well-appreciated Fruit and Flower Mission, which donates flowers and fruit to shut-ins and to hospitals).

• Participation by younger children from the South End in “Country Week” started. “Country Week” began in 1877 in Boston. Rev. William Gannett had heard accounts of bringing poor children to the countryside in Copenhagen, Denmark and began to experiment with a similar program in the Boston area. The Young Men’s Christian Union shortly thereafter took over the management of “Country Week” at Rev. Gannett’s request. In many ways one can find that camping, which later became an essential part of the settlement’s work, originated with the humble beginnings of “Country Week,”

The activities so listed illustrate a basic tenet of the settlement movement, namely the coordination of existing services, under whatever auspices those services had developed, The year 1893-1894 witnessed even greater breadth of cooperating efforts. While families living in the country were persuaded to take children into their homes from areas such as the South End, the parents of city children were taught what some of the benefits of visits to the country might be,

The Opportunist Club-young businessmen and residents of the house assisted in relieving the great distress among the unemployed in the South End. Active relief work was carried on in connection with the Workingmen’s Relief Committee of the Central Labor Union. Several restaurants offering low cost meals were opened by the settlement on Harrison Avenue. They served hot meals to the factory workers in the area.

A hearing on the subject of public baths took place before a committee of the City Council, at the request of a group of South End House residents and trade unionists. The lack of sanitary facilities in the many houses was of great concern to the settlement.

The name of Andover House was changed in 1895 to South End House. The major reasons for the name change that were noted,was to give the settlement more identity with the local neighborhood and minimize the original sectarian connection with Andover Theological School.

Robert Archey Woods Works to Expand the Role of Settlements: Inspired by Charles Booth’s study of the London poor, Life and Labour of the People (1904), Woods determined to apply a similar method of survey to Boston. Essentially, his goal was to utilize the neighborhood as a means for enriching the city. The result, the first such American survey, conducted under his direction, was The City Wilderness: A Study of the South End (1898) and Americans in Process: A Study of the North and West Ends (1902). His pioneer surveys of ethnic communities taught method to settlement workers and helped create social-work institutions.


Planning meeting for the National Federation of Settlements at White Plains, NY, March 30, 1908. Front row: Graham Taylor, Mary McDowell, Robert A. Woods. Second row: Cornelia Bradford, Jane Addams (in striped blouse), Lillian Wald (seated), Elizabeth Williams, Dr. James Hamilton. Back row: Helen Greene, Helena Dudley, John Lovejoy Elliott, Meyer Bloomfield, Mary K. Simkhovitch, Ellen W. Coolidge. Union Settlement Association Records, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Woods also helped organize the National Federation of Settlements (NFS) in 1911. The NFS developed out of nearly 20 years of growing inter-agency cooperation and informal conferences. As early as 1892, pioneers in the U.S. settlement movement met to share their experiences, hopes, and enthusiasm, and collaborated on national issues of concern to them and their neighborhoods. Seventeen settlement leaders who met in New York City in 1908 took initial steps toward forming the NFS. Instrumental at this meeting, and in later years, were Robert A. Woods, Jane Addams, Gaylord S. White, Albert J. Kennedy, Graham Taylor, and Lillian D. Wald.

After two years of planning and fund raising, the NFS was launched in June, 1911, at a meeting attended by roughly 200 delegates from settlement houses around the U.S. Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago became the first president of the new organization. Its first executive secretary was Robert Archey Woods. New York settlement leaders John L. Elliott, Lillian Wald, and Mary K. Simkhovitch also played prominent roles in the new organization. Despite its small and largely voluntary staff, the emerging Federation quickly became involved in a host of progressive social issues that concerned its members. The Federation’s general policy, as stated in its 1920 articles of incorporation, was: to federate the social settlements, neighborhood houses and similar institutions for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the settlements and the neighborhoods in which they were located; to encourage the development and maintenance of settlements in cooperation with neighborhood residents; to organize conferences, groups and studies; to cooperate with private and governmental agencies; to consider and act upon public matters of interest to settlements and their neighbors and to act in an advisory capacity to settlements and neighborhood houses.

With Albert J. Kennedy, Woods produced Handbook of Settlements in 1911 and Young Working Girls in 1913. Woods was elected president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1917 and President of the National Federation of Settlements in 1924. Woods died unexpectedly in Boston in 1925 after a short illness.

Woods papers are in the Houghton Library of Harvard University.

SourcesAlbert Boer, The Development of USES – A Chronology of the United South End Settlement Houses: 1891 –1966 in the United South End Settlements Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

Other Resources: An account of the National Federation of Settlements can be found in: Peter Romanofsky, ed., “National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers” in Social Service Organizations (Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions, 1978) vol. 2, pages 533-540.