Toynbee Hall, established in memory of the philanthropic historian Arnold Toynbee in 1884, was the first settlement house to be founded within the late nineteenth-century British settlement movement. Established in the East End of London by Christian minister Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta, a social reformer and philanthropist, Toynbee Hall has the mission of serving the poor. The Barnetts implemented the innovative idea of bringing university students, from the elite social class, to live and work alongside the underprivileged poor. An inspiration to many who visited it, Toynbee Hall also served as the model for the United States first settlement house, Jane Addams' Hull House based in Chicago, Illinois. Toynbee Hall remains the longest running settlement house in the world, and continues to develop solutions for handling the social effects of impoverishment. The work of Toynbee Hall, providing real experience of living for others, as well as directly improving the lives of those in need, is a valuable step in advancing human society that will enable all people to live fulfilled and successful lives.
The mission of Toynbee Hall, as developed by founders Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, is to promote practical and innovative programs for underprivileged residents of all ages, backgrounds, and associations. Aiming to meet the needs of all local residents while improving the conditions in which they live, Toynbee Hall provides various services designed for families, adults, youth, elderly, and immigrants to help London’s underprivileged population to maximize their social potential. Toynbee Hall, in part with the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, and with the International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres, works to improve the social conditions for London’s lower-class by offering various local programs, advocating for social policies of justice, and networking for social change at the local and national levels. To date, Toynbee Hall provides services for more than six thousand community members and maintains a volunteer staff of more than four hundred residential and non-residential members.
Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884 by British church official Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta in hopes of alleviating the impoverished and underprivileged position of those living within London’s East End. The solution, as designed by the Barnetts with the support of Oxford University, involved bringing England’s most privileged elite into the dilapidated British borough to work, educate, and serve as an example to the surrounding communities and their members. Through a philanthropic mix of education and social reform, the Barnetts hoped to significantly improve the poorest of London’s neighborhoods and change urban British society for the better. With its foundation, Samuel Barnett urged residents "to learn as much as to teach; to receive as much to give."
Born in Bristol, England to father Francis Augustus Barnett, an iron manufacturer, Samuel Barnett received his formal education at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1866, he visited the United States and in the following year he was ordained to the Church of England curacy of St. Mary's, Bryanston Square, taking priest's orders in 1868.
In 1873, Barnett married Henrietta Octavia Rowland (1851-1936), a philanthropist and notable English social reformer. Later that year, the newlyweds came to the impoverished Whitechapel parish of St. Jude’s, intent on improving social conditions. The area, notorious for its squalid and overcrowded housing conditions, inspired the young couple to work on behalf of the poor of their parish, opening evening schools for adults, providing them with music and entertainment, and serving on community boards. Soon, various charities became involved in the philanthropic cause under the Charity Organization Society which aimed to improve the conditions of London’s impoverished.
In 1877, Samuel Barnett formed a small committee, over which he presided, to consider the organization of a university extension in London’s East Side. The committee received influential support and in October of the same year four courses of lectures were given in Whitechapel.
An 1884 article published by Samuel Barnett in the Nineteenth Century first introduced the idea of a university settlement in which students of an elite class could live alongside, learn about, and contribute to the welfare of a population of surrounding poor. Barnett’s publication resulted in the subsequent formation of the University Settlements Association, and the eventual founding of Toynbee Hall in 1884. Shortly after its establishment, the settlement was visited in 1888 by American reformer Jane Addams who later returned to the United States inspired to create similar facilities there. Her settlement association, Hull House, opened in Chicago, Illinois a year later in 1889.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Barnett remained a select preacher at both Oxford and Cambridge University, receiving canonries in 1893 and 1906. During his service, however, Barnett retained wardenship of Toynbee Hall until his resignation in 1906, upon which the position of president was created for Barnett so that he might further retain his connection with the settlement house.
Henrietta Barnett, a strong believer in the power of education to effect social change, was also influential in the social reformation of London’s poor. In 1884 she established the city’s Children's Country Holiday Fund and oversaw annual loan exhibitions of fine art at the Whitechapel gallery. In 1911 she founded the Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden suburb, and in 1924 received a knighthood, becoming Dame Henrietta Barnett.
In 1875, Oxford University historian Arnold Toynbee paid the first of what would be many visits to the Barnett’s Whitechapel parish. A British economist socially committed to improving the conditions for England’s working class population, Toynbee was influential in the establishment of several public libraries throughout London’s East Side. Toynbee also maintained a prominence in England’s labor union movement, helping to organize industrial trade unions and cooperatives.
In 1883, Toynbee succumbed to a sudden death at the age of thirty. One year after his death, the Barnetts would name London’s first settlement house Toynbee Hall in honor of their friend and colleague.
The Toynbee Hall settlement house has attracted many of London’s best and brightest, including a large number of graduates from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Formers residents include former British prime minister Clement Attlee, economist William Beveridge and politician John Profumo, who all remained associated with Toynbee Hall throughout their later professional careers. Toynbee Hall also served as a basis for the development of further social reform throughout Great Britain, including the 1903 founding of the Workers Educational Association, the 1949 Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the 1965 Child Poverty Action Group.
Nobel Prize winner Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the first radiotelegraph system, also spent time at Toynbee Hall, demonstrating from London’s East End the United Kingdom’s first wireless telegraph. Artist Charles Robert Ashbee, an early resident of the settlement house, is credited with the design of Toynbee’s "tree of life" logo which continues to represent the organization today.
In it earliest years, residents of Toynbee Hall, surrounded by large populations of both Jewish and Irish immigrants, campaigned for the rights of minority immigrants, and later argued against the rise of British fascism. The settlement house has also devoted much of its efforts to developing and improving adult education, collection social data, and evaluating local and national industrial conditions. Toynbee hall also offers a free legal advice center, financial aid for invalid children, various substance abuse programs, and elderly welfare services. Among its entertainment offerings, Toynbee houses both a children’s and adult’s theater, a lecture hall, and offers its services to various social and cultural associations throughout London. While working at Toynbee Hall, Charles Robert Ashbee created his guild of Handicraft which, more or less directly, led to the founding of the neighboring Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Visitors to Toynbee Hall have included those who have gone on to establish similar social settlements, such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, and others who were inspired by the work they observed there. Pierre de Coubertin, founding member of the modern Olympic Games organizing committee, visited Toynbee Hall in his study of English educational institutions, finding the mixture of people working together an inspiration. Toynbee Hall is also believed to have housed the 1926 meeting to end the United Kingdom’s general strike.
Toynbee Hall is also home to the Barnett Research Center, a unique library and collection of archives both free and open to the public. The center houses a collection of more than four thousand books, historical writings and artifacts relating to the international settlement movement, and provides a detailed history of social and economic policy on both the local and national levels. Toynbee Hall also provides a platform for public speakers to broach current event topics including political and social reform.
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