Picture: Toynbee Hall logo with a satellite dish by John Keogh. Sourced from flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

Toynbee Hall, adult education and association. The setting up of the Worker’s Educational Association is often portrayed as Toynbee Hall’s key contribution to adult education. Mark K. Smith suggests it is something else – developing the learning that arises out of the life of an association.

Contentsintroduction · settlements of university men · on clubs and associations · smoking conferences and popular lectures · liberal education and the tutorial method · references · links

When Toynbee Hall and adult education are linked it is often with regard to an event that took place on July 14, 1903. It was on this day that the Provisional Committee of what became the Workers’ Educational Association, ‘consisting entirely of Co-operators and Trade Unionists’ assembled at Toynbee Hall for their first meeting (Mansfield 1920: 12). Four years earlier, at the Oxford University Extension summer meeting, Albert Mansbridge had proposed that there should be closer links between the extension movement and worker’s organizations such as trade unions and co-operative societies (Fieldhouse 1996: 166). In 1903 this proposal was set out in three influential articles in the University Extension Journal (reprinted in Mansbridge 1944). Encouraged by the response, and ‘cheered on’ by his wife Francis (Mansbridge in Harrison 1959: 262), he, decided in his words, ‘to take action by becoming the first two members of “An Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men,” and at that symbolic meeting by democratic vote I was appointed Hon. Secretary pro tem)’ (Mansfield 1920: 11-12). The Workers’ Educational Association as it became known two years later, looked to deepen working class involvement in education beyond the ‘hard veneer’ of elementary education (Mansbridge 1944: 1-12). It set its sights on ‘university standards’ and saw voluntary and democratic organization as its means.

It was no accident that the meeting took place at Toynbee Hall. Mansbridge had worked close by as a clerk in Leman Street in the tea department of the Cooperative Wholesale Society beginning in 1896. Introduced to the settlement by his mother (who was one of the earliest members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild at St. Judes), he had been an intermittent extension student from 1890 to 1896; and often spent part of his lunchtime at the art exhibitions (Pimlott 1935: 147). More significantly he was a great admirer of the Barnetts and it was to Canon Barnett that he turned, among others, for support and advice about the formation of the Association. The Settlement had also a significant history of university extension work and educational innovation around working class education. However, I want to argue that it is not the WEA and formal educational endeavour that is the defining contribution of Toynbee Hall to adult education. Rather, I want to suggest that it is the learning that arises out of the life of an association. As Barnett once wrote of Toynbee Hall:

(It) seems to be a centre of education, a mission, a polytechnic, another example of philanthropic machinery; it is really a club and the various activities have their root and their life in the individuality of its members (Barnett 1898: 20)

To illustrate this I want to focus briefly on four key moments. The first was on November 17, 1883 when Barnett read his paper on ‘Settlements of university men in great towns’ at St John’s, Oxford (Barnett 1884). The second came in 1884 when the Toynbee Shakespeare Society arose out of the ashes of the East London Shakespeare Society (which itself began in 1881). The third came at a similar time – the initiation of the famous Toynbee ‘Smoking Conferences’ or ‘Tobacco Parliaments’ and the development of the popular lectures (on Saturday evenings). The fourth moment was in 1898 when the ‘History School’ was established. These events were significant not just for Toynbee Hall, but also for what we have come to know as the particular character of adult education in settlements.

Settlements of university men

It isn’t just that a ‘settlement enables men to live within sight of the poor’ (Barnett 1894: 270), the duties that settlers perform entail friendships. Settlers are not to be missionaries seeking to convince those around them of their vision. Rather, they are to share and learn: ‘[A] settlement of university men will do a little to remove the inequalities of life, as the settlers share their best with the poor and learn through feeling how they live’ (ibid.: 272). ‘He who has, even for a month, shared the life of the poor can never rest again in his old thoughts (ibid.: 270). Here we can see that the work of the settlement as an educational experiment is to be with the settlers or residents themselves as well as with those that take part in the activities and classes they organize. The latter is often afforded attention in the textbooks of adult education, however, the former is of fundamental importance. The experience for R. H. Tawney, for example, ‘gave him categories of experience which clarified his mind’ (Terrill 1973: 31). Barnett’s concern for the contribution and development of individual settlers, and the tolerance for diverging opinions that he and the residents were able to cultivate were central to the realizing and drawing out of learning from the experience of residence. Some, like Tawney, may well have grown to question Barnett’s particular vision, but what they could not deny is that if they embraced the idea of sharing and learning they would be changed by their encounters. G. M. Trevelyan’s description of process at the Working Men’s College, London as ‘friends educating each other’ (quoted in Yeaxlee 1925: 157) could equally be applied to the aspirations of many early Toynbee settlers.

On societies and associations

One of the most remarkable features of the early life of the settlement was the societies that made it their home. ‘They always enjoyed the support and encouragement of the warden, and there is no doubt that the high degree of erudition and enthusiasm of the best of them would have done credit to any university’ (Pimlott 1935: 60). The Toynbee Shakespeare Society was the first of the groups to appear. It had started life as the East London Shakespeare Society, the result of some extension lectures delivered by Sidney Lee in 1881(Pimlott 1935: 60). In 1884 it was reorganized and brought into the Toynbee fold. Various clubs followed. The student’s union, the publication of the Toynbee Record, and involvement in the great range of entertainments that took place, also enhanced corporate life.

This mix of clubs, courses, discussions and social engagement. mirrored the experience of adult schools (see Rowntree and Binns 1903). Both had ‘wide ideals’ as educational and social centres and, like Toynbee Hall, both looked to education for life, not for a living (Pimlott 1935: 142 and 143). In many respects ‘the club’ came to represent settlement life (Smith 2000). ‘Clubs are the ground on which human contact with the working-class is most completely achieved with the limits of Settlement work’, wrote Werner Picht (1914: 64). Others, like Robert Woods the influential American settlement worker (and former Toynbee resident in 1890), argued that a settlements’ true mission lay in fostering ‘every helpful form of association, from neighbourhood improvement groups to labour unions, that would strengthen their tendencies toward co-operation and mutual tolerance (quoted in Carson 1990: 118).

Picht lists a fascinating array of clubs in his study of Toynbee Hall. In 1913 there was a natural history society, a current events club (students’ discussion circle), a workmen’s travelling club, a rambling club, the Shakespeare Society, and an art students’ club. There were also various school clubs, boys clubs and girls clubs (although interest in them had ‘seriously fallen off’ at the time of Picht’s study ibid: 73). As he notes, these made a significant contribution to popular education.

The ‘life’ of the association – the friendship and community involved, and the commitment to learning for all – is arguably the central characteristic of the ‘settlement approach’ (Smith 2000). Toynbee Hall’s contribution was to experiment with, and develop, what James Hole (1860) had earlier called the ‘educative tendency’ of associations. This idea is still difficult to grapple with in English. In some respects, this tradition of thinking has been more fully formed in relation to adult education in France. La vie associative is, according to another Toynbee (Bill – 1985: 33), a difficult term to translate into English – the “life of the associations” or the “associative life” are inadequate translations.

One cannot reduce adult education to a series of regular activities consisting of modules which have now become ritualized in the form of courses. The very participation in the life of an association, being conscious of what one is doing there (such as the running of a centre) is, in itself, a form of education. And the life of the association sometimes constitutes a springboard for taking on other responsibilities at a local or national level. (Ormessano quoted in Toynbee 1985: 10)

One of the striking features of current work in settlements and social action centres is the continuing emphasis on the club, group and association – and this runs through the various areas of work they are involved in (Smith 2000).

Smoking Conferences and popular lectures

Prior to the establishment of Toynbee Hall the Barnetts had established popular lectures and a discussion society (which was to develop into the Smoking Conference). At Toynbee both became famous institutions. The former became a regular Saturday night feature, attracting hundreds of listeners (there were also popular lectures on some other evenings).

Classes and systematic Lectures make demands on the time and perseverance of those attending them to which not every one can respond. Their aim is to teach people to think and to lay a solid foundation of knowledge. As to their scope they are limited to a fixed number of defined subjects. By this their powers of attraction are marked out: they never reach the large mass of people, and they at most teach indirectly how to consider the questions of the day more conscientiously. (Picht 1914: 56)

As Pimlott (1935: 66) has noted the lectures were conducted by ‘lecturers of the highest distinction’ including in 1889 the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Sidgwick and Leslie Stephen. The Smoking Conferences or Tobacco Parliaments were weekly debates ‘in which after a visitor had opened the discussion the audience were able to express their own views, which they customarily did with considerable animation and equally considerable reiteration’ (op cit). In the same year the openers included Ben Tillett, Asquith, Haldane and Sidney Webb. Smoking Debates were still a strong feature of the work when Picht visited in 1912, although he was less sure of their educational value: ‘Public speaking is, above all, for the untrained mind which has no self-control, a temptation to the opposite of what is aimed at i.e. superficiality’ (1914: 57). The Smoking Conferences appear to have been abandoned in the late 1920s owing to ‘the regular attendance of a few agitators’ (Pimlott 1935: 231-2).

As a contribution to popular education the lectures and debates were not particularly innovative in themselves, we can find plenty of examples of both in different institutions. However, they were done extremely well – and they involved a number of people who were, or became, influential in terms of educational policymaking. What is of particular interest to us here is the way that they fitted into, and in some ways expressed the life of the association. The focus on debate, questioning and argument, the informal atmosphere, the commitment, and the sheer entertainment they afforded fed into, and in many respects grew from the life of the association.

Liberal education and the tutorial method

From the outset, Barnett had looked to Toynbee as ‘a kind of East London College’ with a focus on higher, not basic, education; and on general rather than vocational or professional education (Briggs and Macartney 1984: 28).

Toynbee Hall was not primarily established as a centre of education, but to bring together the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, to make a social peace, to raise up men of low estate and to bring down the haughty. While other systems aimed at enabling people to possess more of the good things of life, our system aimed at enabling people to enjoy more of such good things; other systems aimed at enabling people to get, our system aimed at enabling people to give. (Barnett quoted in Pimlott 1935: 142)

In the early days the programme of extension lectures and classes attracted considerable numbers of students. In 1886-7, for example, there were evening classes in languages, literature and moral philosophy; natural science; music and art; and handicraft (these were Toynbee’s division of subjects). Attendance at university extension lectures was also high (at around 500 students). However, as alternative forms of adult education developed in the 1890s, especially in polytechnics and evening schools, it did not set out to compete and numbers dropped significantly (Pimlott 1935: 142). Toynbee’s wider aims appear to have taken the work in a different direction. However, it did continue to innovate.

One of the criticisms that could be laid at the door of much university extension work according to Barnett was that it failed to provide for the needs of individuals. ‘The students must have not only the direction of the professor but the constant care of the tutor’ (Barnett 1919: 335). In 1898, a ‘History School’ was begun with R E S Hart as tutor. It was to provide ‘a course of guided study extending over two years. The students were pledged to spend three or four hours a week in study and to produce written papers from time to time’ (Kelly 1970: 241-2). In this experiment, Toynbee was to set the scene for the tutorial class movement, described by Kelly (1970: 252) as ’one of the great English contributions to the practice of adult education’. Tutorial classes were to become the mainstay of the Workers’ Educational Association following the development of the approach by R. H. Tawney in 1908. The tutorial class as it appeared then comprised of 24 two-hour meetings in each of three successive years involving around 30 students. It was non-certificated and tended to be focused around political, historical and social subjects (ibid.: 254).

It is, arguably, this area of endeavour that forms a direct line to that meeting on July 14, 1903. It is an area of formal educational endeavour, but it draws upon the group, and it does not look to the overriding concern with certification and accreditation that charactizes much formal educational endeavour in the UK today. Ask what is the legacy of Toynbee Hall for the educational activities of other settlements, and more lately, social action centres – and it is the concern with association that really stands out. As Pimlott (1935: 144) comments, it may have been fortunate that Barnett’s vision of Toynbee Hall as a university college was never realized as ‘the result would have been the loss of an invaluable spontaneity and capacity for experiment’. Today with residents again about to become a key feature of Toynbee Hall, the lessons of association need to be learnt anew.


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Smith, M. K. (2000) ‘Settlements and adult education’ in R. Gilchrist and T. Jeffs (eds.) Settlements, Social Change and Community Action: Good neigbours, London: Jessica Kingsley.

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Yeaxlee, B. (1925) Spiritual Values in Adult Education. A study of a neglected aspect. Volumes 1 and 2, London: Oxford University Press.


Visit the Toynbee Hall website. 

This piece is the text of a talk given at the Toynbee Hall History Seminar: September 16, 2000.

Acknowledgement: Picture: Toynbee Hall logo with a satellite dish by John Keogh. Sourced from flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jvk/418876554/

© Mark K. Smith. First published September 2000.

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