Toynbee Hall circa 1902. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

University and social settlements and social action centres: What are settlements and social action centres doing today? How did they develop from university and social settlements, and educational settlements?

contents: introduction · Toynbee Hall and early British settlements · developments in the United States · educational settlements · the disappearance of residence and the rise of social action · current provision in Britain · further reading and references · links

A simple idea lay at the heart of the first settlement: that all should share in community. If men and women from universities lived for some time among the poor in London and in other cities, they could ‘do a little to remove the inequalities of life’ (Barnett 1884: 272). They would share ‘their best with the poor and learn through feeling how they live’ (op. cit.). Through working for friendship based on trust, and government inspired with ‘a higher spirit’, ‘everything which is Best will be made in love common to all’ (ibid.: 273).

A settlement is simply a means by which men or women may share themselves with their neighbours; a club-house in an industrial district, where the condition of membership is the performance of a citizen’s duty; a house among the poor, where residents may make friends with the poor. (Barnett 1898: 26)

It was in this spirit that the Samuel and Henrietta Barnett established the first university settlement, Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, in 1884.

Toynbee Hall and early British settlements

Influenced by social idealists such as Green, Ruskin and Carlyle (Picht 1914: 9), Christian Socialists such as Maurice and Kingsley (Kelly 1970: 239) and social reformers such as Octavia Hill (Meacham 1987: 29) three key needs were identified. These were for scientific research concerning poverty; the furthering of wider lives through education; and an enhancement of leadership in local communities (Pimlott 1936: 11). Toynbee Hall was able to make significant progress on all three fronts. It attracted a number of very able and committed settlers, many of whom became deeply involved with social inquiry and the development of thinking and policy around the alleviation of poverty. It gained a reputation as a ‘training ground for bright, young, reform-minded civil servants’ (Meacham 1987: 85). The residents list reads like a roll call of key figures in the making of the welfare state: William Beveridge, R. H. Tawney, Clement Atlee, and Kenneth Lindsay all spent time there.

The settlement and its residents also made a considerable contribution to working class education: providing a great range of evening and extension classes, and debates and discussions; and facilitating a significant number of cultural clubs and associations. Part of Barnett’s initial vision placed the settlement as the core of an east London ‘working man’s university’. Elementary and vocational classes were seen initially as a temporary phenomenon – they would fade away as other provision emerged, allowing Toynbee Hall to become a university college. But it was not to be. The numbers attending extension lectures began to drop from the mid 1890s. At the same time alternative forms of provision such as polytechnics and evening schools developed. Indeed, with the re-organization of London evening schools in 1913 it was decided to phase out elementary and commercial courses. However, a major contribution had been made, both in the scale and quality of the provision – and the innovations made. Barnett made. This included the development of tutorial classes and the History School (under the direction of R. E. S. Hart in 1898) and working with Albert Mansfield (a former student of Toynbee Hall) to establish the Workers’ Educational Association in 1903. The settlement also provided the Association with an office, and organized its library to serve as a central library for the WEA.

Lastly, Samuel Barnett, like Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the Fabians, ‘saw the immense possibilities of local government’ (Pimlott 1935: 106) and believed that settlements could provide some civic leadership. This was to be achieved through the education and stimulation of electors; and the participation of residents with local people in local government. This concern for ‘practicable socialism’ led to considerable activity (ibid.: 106 – 127).

Not all settlements followed this pattern. What emerged varied considerably according to local circumstance, individual character and religious and social orientation. Some, like Oxford House (established in 1884), were strongly denominational and emphasized different aspects of the work e.g. on work with boys and young men. The Passmore Edwards Settlement (now Mary Ward House) pioneered playwork and set up the first play centres in London (Trevelyan 1920; Trevelyan 1923: 187 – 206), it also established a model school for children with physical disabilities Sutherland 1990: 215 – 229). The Bermondsey Settlement founded the Guild of Play to teach children under ten folk songs and dances (Vicinus 1985:235. The idea of ‘friendship’ was interpreted in contrasting ways – with settlers attempting to control more directly the various clubs and organizations they initiated or came in contact with. Women’s settlements were also established and were later to outnumber the men’s in both Britain and the USA. The Women’s University Settlement (now Blackfriars) began in 1887 with the objective of promoting welfare and giving women and children ‘additional opportunities for education and recreation’ (quoted by Barrett 1985: 2). Such organizations were to prove to be particularly attractive to those women wanting to develop their role in public life. As Vicinus (1985: 213) has argued, the large number of charitable organizations by women, and the vast numbers involved in philanthropic and similar work, laid much of the groundwork for settlements. However, not all settlements were single sex. Kingsley Hall, established in 1915 by Muriel and Doris Lester and particularly oriented to the needs of children and young people, was sexually mixed. Residents had to agree to the sharing of responsibilities, housework and income after the fashion of an ashram (Muriel Lester had been Gandhi’s guest at Ahmedabad- and Gandhi himself stayed at the settlement for three months in late 1931 while conducting negotiations with the British over the future of India – Chada 1997: 306 – 317).

North American developments

American observers of Toynbee Hall and the other early settlements were critical of some elements, while appreciating the nature of the ‘experiment’. For example, Stanton Coit wanted to emphasize neighbourhood organization and the ‘instinctive philanthropy’ of the working classes (quoted by Carson 1990: 37). His experiment, the Neighbourhood Guild in New York’s lower east side (founded in 1886) was later to become University Settlement. Initially it looked to bring together relief, education and recreation, ‘with the ultimate goal of developing the neighbours’ consciousness of their common needs and interdependence’ (op. cit.).

A number of different models of settlement organization and orientation appeared. The College Settlement in New York City, founded in 1889 by Jane E. Robbins and Jean Fine looked to a network of women’s colleges to provide committee members. Robert Woods established Andover House in Boston in 1891 (later known as South End House) as a non-denominational that looked not just to the seminary but to others who might join the association as settlers and workers. Woods, like Coit, saw the neighbourhood as an engine for social change. However, it was Hull House in Chicago (established in 1889) that was to define for many the work of an American settlement house. It was to centre on providing social and educational services, often for immigrants and refugees. There was possibly a reaction to what could be seen as the ‘feudal tradition’ expressed by the British settlements, and the extent to which in the act of attempting to traverse social inequality, they asserted it (Carson 1990: 7). This may well have led to a more overt and active concern for social change in some. As Jane Addams, the influential founder with Ellen Starr of Hull House put it:

The educational activities of a Settlement, as well as its philanthropic, civic and social undertakings, are but differing manifestations of the attempt to socialize democracy, as it is the very existence of the Settlement itself. (Addams 1910: 453)

She looked to the settlement as an attempt to ‘express the meaning of life in terms of life itself, in the forms of activity’ (quoted by Carson 1990: 106). As such she argued against an analytical disposition and the use of the settlement as a ‘sociological laboratory’ for the gathering of facts. Instead she saw the settlement spirit as ‘synthetic’. It was a place ‘where acquired knowledge might be tested and, if valid, employed’ (Carson 1990: 106).

Settlement houses had become a formidable force with some 56 in Britain by 1926 (41 of them in London) and approaching 400 being established in the United States by 1910. Some focused on the needs of children and young people (see, for example, the discussion in Addams 1910); others retained a concern with all those in a particular neighbourhood. However, there were  common characteristics. Perhaps the most significant in terms of practice was the use of the club or association. Learning through being part of an association, working so that members of groups gain satisfaction from their activities and relationships, were central aspects of the work.

Educational settlements

While there was a strong educational content in settlement work, it had to compete with the development of medical and legal services, social casework and attempts to alleviate poverty. Partly as a reaction against the emphasis in many of the older residential settlements in Britain upon ‘remedial social service’ (Peers 1958: 128), there was a move to establish educational settlements. These non-residential institutions had their roots in the Adult School movement (Pole 1816; Rowntree and Binns 1903) and in Quaker social action. Many of those involved wanted to develop a more direct response to local need, to cut through the complications of residence, special buildings and equipment (Hall 1985: 50). The first non-residential settlements in Britain opened in Leeds and York in 1909. Some settlements appeared via different routes, For example the Bristol Folk House was started in 1917 as part of the Temperance movement. By 1939 there were 27 affiliated to the Educational Settlements Association (established in 1920) (see Martin 1924 and Hall 1985). They were intended, according to Drews and Fieldhouse (1996: 261) as ‘centres for adult education in an atmosphere of friendship’. This was an aspiration shared by many residential settlements, but the focus was much more clearly upon education. In some, such as the nine pioneering settlements established in the Welsh valleys between 1927 and 1937 education programmes were augmented by a strong emphasis on mutual aid and social action (Jones 1985).

Educational settlements are often overlooked – they were neither numerous nor financially strong (Kelly 1970: 265). However, they were innovative, and represented a major restatement ‘of the belief that had led fifty years before to the foundation of the working men’s colleges, namely that adult education, to be successful, must have both a home and a spirit (op. cit.). Many have subsequently closed, or transformed themselves into community associations. Some remain, such as Percival Guildhouse in Rugby, and have been ‘an outward thrusting influence’ with members deeply involved in local cultural and civic life (Stewart, Reynolds and Elsdon 1992: 310). What is more, the direction and shape of many of the educational settlements has a familiar and contemporary resonance in many of the social action centres associated with BASSAC.

The disappearance of residence and the rise of social action

The idea of ‘residence’ took a knock in many settlements from the 1950s on. Before that the numbers presenting themselves went up and down, for example, through the impact of war service; and the availability of rooms (with war damage etc.). However, alongside changing social mores, alternative opportunities emerged for social research (e.g. in the universities), service (e.g. Voluntary Service Overseas), and work (through the development of state welfare organizations). For some settlements, the work involved in recruiting and supporting settlers was simply too much – there were more pressing needs in terms of keeping the buildings open, and the programmes in operation. Residence ceased to be a central feature of the work – and where it was offered was essentially a cheap form of student accommodation (Rose and Woods 1995: 66). As a result, many settlements such as Manchester, finally gave up the theory and practice of residence in the 1960s. Today only a handful still have residents, for example The Mayflower (Canning Town), Mansfield House (Plaistow/Lambourne End) The Salmon Centre (Bermondsey), and Toynbee Hall, (Whitechapel).

One of the models that has emerged in Britain out of the move away from residence is the settlement as social action centre. Some, such as Katherine Low in Battersea, are still remaking themselves as this. However, this process has been in train since the late 1960s. With the encouragement of a ‘newly active’ British Association of Settlements a significant number turned to a more explicitly community development role (Richies 1975: 144) At Blackfriars, for example, we see the development of community development and community action activity under the directorship of Jim Radford in the early 1970s (Barrett 1985: 45 – 52) and Cambridge House and Talbot as a development agency. They also became heavily involved in the development of initiatives around adult literacy. At the same time new agencies were entering the field – some growing out of community campaigns such as those around the problems of high rise blocks (Community Links); others from various ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ initiatives (Bath Place Community Project). A further impetus came from the growth of unemployment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Agencies like NEW-TRAC have sought to provide and resource educational courses, projects and social activities for people who are unwaged and on benefits (more recently gaining lottery money for a ‘learning for living’ programme). Older organizations such as Cambridge University Mission (originally a medical mission, then a youth organization – now know as the Salmon Youth Centre) looked more strongly to their communities and to models of practice emerging in social action centres. Alongside this significant (and some radical) innovations in practice and in analysis emerged out of government-sponsored initiatives such as the Educational Priority Areas and the Community Development Projects. The British Association and Settlements moved to extend it’s membership to reflect these shifts in the field and changed its name accordingly (in 1974). What was meant by ‘social action’ remained vague. There were attempts to explore the meaning of social action for adult education (e.g. Ashcroft and Jackson 1974). However, in this sector at least, social action and community development appear to be used fairly interchangeably (e.g. Cannan and Warren 1997: 1).

Current provision in Britain

Today many settlements and agencies describe themselves as community organizations. For example, Barton Hill Settlement describes itself as ‘a multi purpose community organization which people can use and get involved in, meet other people and learn new skills’. It has services for older people, children and families, a range of courses and learning opportunities, and community work and advice services. Settlement programmes still have a significant adult education component – although it often takes the form of clubs, informal activities and work with groups. Within this area there is still significant innovation. Some formal work continues – often in the areas of basic education and development opportunities for those with disabilities and learning difficulties. Perhaps the major orientation in the work within older settlements is toward work with youth (see, for example The Bede Anti-Racist Youth Project), although there is a significant body of work with older people (e.g. at Time and Talents). In recent years there has been a renewed interest in volunteering and in volunteer training (helped by Lottery funding arranged through BASSAC).

Further reading

Addams, J. (1910) Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes, New York Macmillan. Entertaining account of the work of Hull House that provides an insight into Addam’s approach.

Barnett, S. A. (1884) ‘Settlements of university men in great towns. A paper read at St John’s, Oxford on 17th November 1883’, Oxford: The Chronicle Company. Reprinted in J. A. R. Pimlott (1935) Toynbee Hall. Fifty years of social progress 1884 – 1934, London: J. M. Dent. Pp. 266 – 273.

Carson, M. (1990) Settlement Folk. Social thought and the American settlement movement, 1885 – 1930, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Outstanding study of the early days of the American settlement movement.

Davis, A. F. (1984) Spearheads for Reform. The social settlement movement and the progressive movement 1890-1914, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press. 326+xxiv pages. Classic exploration of the development of settlement houses in Chicago, New York and Boston, and the contribution that workers made to progressive era. Includes chapters on the settlement idea; progressive education; playgrounds, housing and city planning; relationships with political processes and so on.

Gilchrist, R. and Jeffs, T. (forthcoming) Settlements Today, London: Jessica Kingsley. Very useful collection reviewing the development of settlements and their current situation.

Crocker, R. Hutchinson (1992) Social Work and Social Order. The settlement movement in two industrial cities 1889 – 1930, Univiersity of Illinois Press.

Pimlott, J. A. R. (1935) Toynbee Hall. Fifty years of social progress 1884 – 1934, London: Dent. Detailed review of the development of Toynbee Hall with some very helpful appendices concerning residents, provision and Barnett’s path-breaking talk.

Vicinus, M. (1985) Independent Women. Work and community for single women 1850 – 1920, London: Virago. Includes a substantial chapter on women and settlements plus other useful contextual material.

Awaiting annotation

Addams, J. (1910) The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, New York: Macmillan.

Addams, J. (1930) The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House September 1909 to September 1929 with a record of a growing world consciousness, New York Macmillan.

Arnold, M. (1869) Culture and Anarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1970 edn.

Ashworth, M. (1984) The Oxford House in Bethnal Green, 100 years of work in the community, London: Oxford House.

Barnett, S. A. (1894) ‘University settlements’ in S. A. Barnett and H. O. Barnett Practicable Socialism 2e, London:

Barnett, S. A. (1898) ‘University settlements’ in W. Reason (ed.) University and Social Settlements, London: Methuen.

Barrett, G. (1985) Blackfriars Settlement. A short history 1887 – 1987, London: Blackfriars Settlement.

Beer, R. and Pickard, C. A. (1987) Eighty Years on Bow Common, London: Fern Street Settlement.

Bradley, I. (1984) Oxford House in Bethnal Green. 100 years of work in the community. A short history, London: Oxford House.

Briggs, A. and Macartney, A. (1984) Toynbee Hall. The first hundred years, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Cannan, C., Berry, L. and Lyons, K. (1992) Social Work and Europe, London: Macmillan.

Cannan, C. and Warren, C. (eds.) (1997) Social Action with Children and Families. A community development approach to child and family welfare, London: Routledge.

Cann, R., Haughton, R. and Melville, N. (eds.) (1985) Adult Options. Three million opportunities, Goudhurst Weavers Press.

Champion, A. (1976) Pilgrim’s Progress Boston 1945-1975. 30 years of university adult education in a market town, Boston: Richard Kay.

Dadzie, S. (1997) Blood, Sweat and Tears. A report of the Bede Anti-racist Detached Youth Work Project, Leicester; Youth Work Press.

Drews, W. and Fieldhouse, R. (1996) ‘Residential colleges and non-residential settlements and centres’ in R. Fieldhouse and associates A History of Modern British Adult Education, Leicester: NIACE.

Elsdon, K. T. with J. Reynolds and S. Stewart (1995) Voluntary Organizations. Citizenship, learning and change, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Elsdon, K. T. with Stewart, S., and Reynolds, J. (1993) Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations. Volume 3: case studies 16 – 30, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education.

Further Education Funding Council (1998) Blackfriars Education Centre. Inspection of FEFC-funded provision in external institutions, Coventry: Further Education Funding Council.

Gordon, P. and White, J. (1979) Philosophers as Social Reformers. The influence of idealism on British educational thought and practice, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fieldhouse, R. and Associates (1996) A History of Modern British Adult Education, Leicester: NIACE

Hall, W. A. (1985) The Adult School Movement in the Twentieth Century, Nottingham: University of Nottingham, Department of Adult Education.

Harris, J. (1989) ‘The Webbs, The Charity Organization Society and the Ratan Tata Foundation: Social policy from the perspective of 1912’ in M. Bulmer, J. Lewis, and D. Piachaud (eds.) The Goals of Social Policy, London: Unwin Hyman.

Harrison, J. F. C. (1961) Learning and Living 1790 – 1960. A study in the history of the English adult education movement, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jones, E. (1985) ‘Education as a response to social stress. The South Wales educational settlements’ in R. Cann, R. Haughton and N. Melville (eds.) Adult Options. Three million opportunities, Goudhurst: Weavers Press/Educational Centres Association.

Kelly, T. (1970) A History of Adult Education in Great Britain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Kett, J. K. (1994) The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties, From self-improvement to adult education in America, 1750 – 1990, Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press.

Knapp, J. M. (1895) The Universities and the Social Problem, London: Rivington, Percival and Co.

Lasch, C. (1966) The New Radicalism in America 1889 – 1963, London: Chatto and Windus

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education (1989 edn), Norman: University of Oklahoma.

Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe, London: Routledge.

Mansbridge, A. (1944) The Kingdom of the Mind. Essays and Addresses 1903 – 37 (Selected and introduced by L. Clark), London: J. M. Dent.

Mansbridge, A. (1920) An Adventure in Working-class Education. Being the story of the Workers’ Educational Association 1903-1915, London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Martin, G. Currie (1924) The Adult School Movement. Its origin and development, London: National Adult School Union.

Meacham, S. (1987) Toynbee Hall and Social Reform 1880 – 1914. The search for community, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nijenhuis, H. (ed.) (1986) Hundred Years of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres in North America and Europe, Uttrecht: GAMMA.

Picht, W. (1914) Toynbee Hall and the English Settlement Movement, London: G. Bell and Sons.

Pole, T. (1814; 1816) A History of the Origins and Progress of Adult Schools, Bristol: C. McDowell and J. Richardson. (Republished by A. G. Kelley (New York) and Woburn Press (London) 1969).

Reason, W. (ed.) (1898) University and Social Settlements, London: Methuen.

Reason, W. (1898) ‘Settlements and education’ in W. Reason (ed.) University and Social Settlements, London: Methuen.

Riches, G. (1975) ‘Settlements as agencies for social change’ in D. Jones and M. Mayo (eds.) Community Wok Two, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Richmond, M. (1922) What is Social Case Work? An introductory description, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rochester, C. (1989) Cambridge House. The first hundred years, London: Cambridge House and Talbot.

Rose, M. E. and Woods, A. (1995) Everything Went On At the Round House. A hundred years of the Manchester University Settlement, Manchester: University of Manchester.

Rowntree, J. W. and Binns, H. B. (1903) A History of the Adult School Movement, London: Headley Brothers.

Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: Norton.

Simpson, J. A. (1989) ‘Sociocultural animation’ in C. J. Titmus (ed.) Lifelong Education for Adults. An international handbook, Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Stewart, S., Reynolds, J. and Elsdon, K. T. (1992) Adult Learning in Voluntary Organizations. Volume 2: case studies 3 – 15, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Adult Education.

Stocks, M. D. (1956) Fifty Years in Every Street: the story of the Manchester University Settlement (2nd. edn. with additional chapter on the years 1945-1955 by B. Rodgers), Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Stubblefield, H. W.and Keane, P. (1994) Adult Education in the American Experience. From the colonial period to the present, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sutherland, J. (1990) Mrs Humphry Ward, Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trevelyan, J. P. (1920) Evening Play Centres for Children, London: Methuen and Co.

Trevelyan, J. P. (1923) The Life of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.

Wald, L. M. (1915) The House on Henry Street, New York: Henry Holt and Co.

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


Key figures

Jane Addams
Biography, bibliography + links from the Nobel Prize site.

Samuel Barnett Entry in the Dictionary of National Biography


Twenty Years at Hull House Celebration of Women Writers

The subjective necessity for social settlements: Jane Addams’ important Lecture to Ethical Culture Societies delivered in the summer of 1892.

Jane Addams Collection – The Jane Addams papers of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

Philanthropy, voluntatism, and innovation: settlement houses in twentieth -century America: paper by Paul H. Stuart.

Social Settlements: useful US bibliography from Swarthmore.

Links to some settlements

International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres

British settlements:

Barton Hill Settlement

Toynbee Hall

Mary Ward House: history prepared by NISW

American settlement houses:

Jane Addams Hull House Association

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum Home Page: useful historical and biographical detail.

Northwestern University Settlement House

United Neighbourhood Houses New York

University Settlement – America’s First Social Settlement

Educational settlements

Bristol Folk House

Letchworth Adult Education Settlement

Percival Guildhouse

Acknowledgement: Picture: Toynbee Hall circa 1902. Believed to be in the public domain (sourced from Wikimedia Commons and said to have been first published in The World Today Magazine April 1902.

© Mark K. Smith 1999.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (1999). ‘University and social settlements, and social action centres’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

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