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Origins of the Settlement House Movement

Excerpted from Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Century by Jeffrey Scheuer



The idea of a settlement—as a colony of learning and fellowship in the industrial slums—was first conceived in the 1860s by a group of prominent British reformers that included John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, and the so-called Christian Socialists, They were idealistic, middle-class intellectuals, appalled at the conditions of the working classes, and infused with the optimism, moral fervor; and anti-materialist impulses of the Romantic Age: people who read the soaring poetry of Wordsworth and Tennyson, the conscientious novels of Dickens, the liberal political thought of the Utilitarian philosophers Bentham and Mill. They were alarmed by a number of aspects of industrial capitalism: the growing gulf between the classes; the materialist ethos of the Industrial Revolution, and the emphasis on self-interest in classical economics; the terrible poverty of the average factory worker, and the brutal routinization of work, as the factory system replaced the individual craftsperson.

The various reform movements alive in England during the middle and late 19th Century eventually flowed into two distinct channels; in the early phases they differed in function as well as philosophy, although the distinctions blurred in later years. One was the charity movement, which led to the proliferation of organizations aimed at assuaging the effects of poverty on an individual basis. The other was the settlement movement which attended to the needs of the working poor; and adopted a more collective and holistic approach, focusing on community values and organizations.

The latter reformers were the more radical, viewing charity as at best a palliative that did not alter the basic conditions and causes of poverty, but merely treated its symptoms. Their motives were a mixture of paternalism (it was believed that the working classes could not endure their miserable conditions forever, and therefore had to be educated in order to preserve the reformers own middle class values) and genuine sympathy for the underclass, They were not socialists in the received sense, and made no direct claims on the state; the emphasis was more on greater cohesion than greater equality. But the stress on fellowship and cooperation, and on eradicating the causes of poverty rather than just the effects, reflected a loosely socialist ethos.

The initial idea was simply to bring the working classes into contact with other classes, and specifically with university graduates—indeed, the first settlement workers were mainly recent graduates of Oxford and Cambridge—and thus to share the culture of university life with those who needed it most. An accompanying theme was that of nurturing the whole person; whereas capitalism placed a premium on economic values, the settlement would offer moral, spiritual, and aesthetic values.’

While reacting to the more traditional conception of charity, the settlement theorists shared the Victorian faith in the possibility of systematic progress based upon the application of science, and especially of social science. It was felt that knowledge would improve character and cure poverty; that scientific progress was the handmaiden, not just of civilization as a whole, but of human moral evolution. Their aim was a grand union between “science and sympathy”—compassion harnessed to knowledge.

In the United States, even more than in England, the late 19th century was an era of profound economic, cultural, and demographic change. Americans from rural areas were flowing into the cities along with a growing stream of immigrants from abroad. And as in England, individual artisans were losing economic ground to the factory system, which reduced the demand for manual labor; the average worker was experiencing a decline in real income, as well as chronic unemployment. Economic pressures on the poor were giving rise to child labor; public welfare was non-existent, and cooperative and mutual aid societies, forerunners of the labor movement, were still in their infancy.

As a result, reform movements were also emerging in the United States at the time, although lacking the philosophical and organizational coherence of their British counterparts. The heterogeneous character of American society, especially as immigrants from Europe began to arrive, made the question of reform a more complicated one. And the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer provided an intellectual argument for the laissez-faire mood of the times, advocating the ‘survival of the fittest’ in society as in nature. But in the Social Gospel movement, which spread through American churches of all denominations during the later 19th century, a reform-minded ethic took hold. Without assuming an explicitly political form, it imbued a populist hostility to business and laissez-faire capitalism, and sympathy for regulation, setting the stage for the reforms of the Progressive Era in which the settlement movement would play an important role.

The Origins

The first attempts to put the settlement idea into practice were made by young Englishmen of privilege and education. In 1867 an Oxford graduate named Edward Denison, the son of a bishop and nephew of a Speaker of the House of Commons, took lodgings in the slum district of Stepney. He came to know his neighbors, offered classes for children, and worked to improve housing and sanitation conditions in the area. Two years later, in poor health, Denison had to abandon the project, and he died in 1870.

Toynbee Hall, circa. 1902
Toynbee Hall, circa. 1902

The next to try was Arnold Toynbee, an Oxford-educated economist, who in 1875 moved to Whitechapel, a working-class section of East London. There he put himself at the disposal of the Vicar of St. Judes Church, Canon Samuel A. Barnett, and opened a center for education and discussion, where he lectured on political economy to the workers of the neighborhood. In a letter from Whitechapel to friends at Oxford, Toynbee wrote: “…Our delicate, impalpable sorrows, our keen, aching, darling emotions; how strange, almost unreal they seem by the side of the great mass of filthy misery that clogs the life of great cities….” Like Denison, Toynbee did not live to see his experiment bear fruit, dying at the age of 32. But their example renewed attention to the conditions of the poor in the London press; and in July 1884 a group of Toynbee’s followers, led by Canon Barnett, established Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, as a colony for university students dedicated to continuing his work. Under the auspices of a joint committee representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities, with Barnett serving as warden, Toynbee Hall became the model for other settlements in England and the United States.

From the outset, there was a remarkable lack of orthodoxy in the settlement movement; the settlement idea remained a very general one, assuming different forms in response to different conditions, each settlement drawing its specific methods and aims from the needs of its community. Flexibility was the key. The basic idea, however, was constant: a settlement was to be an outpost of culture and learning, as well as a community center; a place where the men, women, and children of slum districts could come for education, recreation, or advice, and a meeting place for local organizations. It was usually run by two or three residents, under the supervision of a head worker. They would live at the settlement and involve themselves as fully as possible in the life of the neighborhood, studying the nature and causes of its problems, and developing rapport with community leaders—teachers and clergy, police, politicians, labor and business groups—in order to facilitate the development of its independent life and culture. The internal structure of a settlement consisted mainly of the various clubs, civic organizations, and cultural and recreational activities-—such as lectures, classes, and child-care—that convened under its roof.

The early literature of the settlement movement is high-minded and uplifting in tone, at times rhetorically idealistic, hut not sentimental or condescending toward the working classes. Robert A. Woods, headworker of Andover House in Boston and a leading apostle of the American settlement movement, wrote: “…Not contrivances, but persons, must save society….the needs of society are in persons, and there must he overturnings and overturnings, till everywhere the resourceful shall be filling the wants of the needy….” Woods in fact hoped there would he a continuous link between settlements and universities, with the settlements serving as laboratories for the study of social problems. He optimistically foresaw settlements eventually becoming ‘an organic part of the university, one of its professional schools perhaps.’ This turned out to he an extravagant hope: for many years the settlements were, in the formal sense, the work of amateurs; and like traditional charity organizations, they relied heavily on the work of volunteers. But out of that amateur enterprise the profession of social work developed, eventually replacing the settlement as the principal form of direct social service.

Jane Addams, the most prominent of the American settlement theoreticians, and founder of Hull-House in Chicago, described the movement as having three primary motivations The first was to “add the social function to democracy,” extending democratic principles beyond the political sphere and into other aspects of society. Addams, who came to understand political corruption while working in Chicago, saw that political democracy had failed to eliminate poverty and class distinctions; workers had no place to congregate, to organize, to enjoy cultural or social activities, or to learn. The settlement was conceived as such a place. The second motivation she saw for the settlement was to answer a natural longing of people for fellowship and sympathy—a term that recurs in much of the writing of settlement leaders. Men and women of education had no outlet for their natural sympathy for the poor; settlements offered it.

The third motivation, Addams writes, is expressly religious, and of a piece with the Social Gospel: to foment a Christian renaissance, based upon “…the desire to make social service… express the spirit of Christ”—the spirit that stresses the interdependence of human beings, and the power of love. However, there is no religious orthodoxy here; the mission of the settlement remains an essentially secular and flexible one—as she puts it, to lead whatever of social life its neighborhood can afford, to focus and give form to that life, to bring to bear upon it the results of culture and learning; but it receives in exchange for the music of isolated voices the volume and strength of the chorus.

Although naturally allied with working people and the poor, the settlement would also, in Addams’s view, be a neutral place, offering itself as a forum for discussion between workers and capitalists, citizens and police, parents and teachers, etc., and as a source of aid to individuals. In ‘The Objective Value of a Social Settlement’ she observes: Perhaps the chief value of a settlement to its neighborhood, certainly to the newly arrived foreigner, is as an information and interpretation bureau.

In sum, settlements embodied, at their inception, a constellation of ideas which, though not explicitly political, were as progressive as any in their time: the idea that society is a social organism, which cannot he healthy if part of it is sick; the idea that economic and environmental conditions, as well as individual character, determine a persons station and welfare; the idea that poverty must he treated systematically— that the causes, not just the symptoms, must he addressed; the idea of self-help, as opposed to paternalistic elevation by contact; the idea of the settlement as an extended family, and as a community—binding force.

Thus, the settlement itself had no single, clearly defined purpose, except in very broad terms. It was not a mechanical institution; rather it institutionalized experimentation, and social service based upon empirical research into local conditions. Each settlement was different. The connecting themes were: to foster organizations within the community, as dictated by local needs and interests; to serve as a buffer between the individual and the realities of slum life; to offer educational, cultural, and social activities for people of every class, age, sex, race, and religion; to facilitate the growth of individuals and of the community through participation in autonomous groups; to offer an atmosphere of fellowship similar to that of the college or university. The idea of the settlement was not to superimpose a new element on its community, but to be a kind of glue.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Scheuer, J. (1985). Legacy of light: University Settlement’s first century. New York, NY: University Settlement Society of New York.  Retrieved [date accessed] from

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