Exploring social action: Grace Kimmins and playwork

Roz Black: Grace Kimmins and her Chailey HeritageGrace Kimmins nee Hannam (1871-1954) is probably best known for her contribution to the development of specialist education provision for children with disabilities – in particular, at Chailey Heritage in Sussex (see Black 2017). However, she also made a considerable contribution to the development of playwork and of settlement work and social action – first at the Methodist West London Mission and then at Bermondsey Settlement.

Bermondsey Settlement had a particular concern for children’s play. Mary Ward (at the Passmore Edwards Settlement) had pioneered the development of play centres and playgrounds during the early years of the twentieth century and had advocated and organized around better schooling provision for those with disabilities. Workers at Bermondsey also developed provision and had strong links with a number of geographically close and related initiatives at Passmore Edwards, West London Mission (run by the radical Nonconformist leader, Hugh Price Hughes 1847-1902) and some organized by the feminist  Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867 – 1954), Mary Neal (1860 – 1944) and others.

Grace Kimmins helped to set up The Guild of the Poor Brave Things when working at West London Mission (as Sister Grace) in 1894. It sought to promote the use of alternative pedagogies – including play – in the education of those with disabilities. The Guild was to be based at Bermondsey Settlement for some time.

Grace Kimmins joined Bermondsey Settlement in late 1895 and lived in ‘a spartanly furnished working-class flat in Rotherhithe’ (Koven 2004). With other workers at Bermondsey settlement she set up the Guild of Play. Grace Kimmins argued that education should not be confined to school timetables and scheduled hours but it should, ‘invade all public playing-spaces, parks and open places as well as halls of entertainment, and even the streets and alleys of towns and cities’ (Brehony 2001). She described the purpose of the Guild of Play as that of the provision for ‘little girl children’ of, ‘vigorous happy dances for recreative purposes on educational lines’ (op. cit.). Koven (2004) suggests that Grace Kimmins was influenced by John Ruskin’s ideas about the redemptive power of beauty and that she ‘viewed children’s play as a vital moral agent in the transformation of individuals and society, and as a way to examine the history and ethnography of nation, race, and empire’. She explored these themes and the experiences of children in the slums in her novel: Polly of Parker’s Rents (1899).

In 1898 Grace Kimmons married the child psychologist Charles William Kimmins (1856–1948), a London county council inspector of education, and resident at the men’s branch of the Bermondsey settlement. Both were deeply committed to improving the welfare of poor and disadvantaged children and this bore fruit in a further innovation the Heritage Craft School and Hospital. Established initially in 1902 in a derelict workhouse at Chailey in Sussex not far from where she was born, this residential centre had the aim of enabling those with disability who showed a particular craft talent to train and if possible become self-sufficient. Helped by Alice Rennie and supported by Scott Lidgett, the Heritage School and Hospital was to be the centre of Grace Kimmins work for the remainder of her life. It became major therapeutic centre. (See Kimmins 1948).


Black, R. (2017). Grace Kimmins and her Chailey Heritage. Reigate: Arbe Publications.

Brehoney, K. (2001) A “socially civilising influence”? Play and the urban ‘degenerate’, http://www.inrp.fr/she/ische/abstracts2001/BrehonyP.rtf

Kimmins, G. (1948). Heritage Craft Schools and Hospitals, Chailey, 1903–1948. Baynard.

Koven, S. (2004). ‘Kimmins , Dame Grace Thyrza (1870–1954)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34315, accessed 4 Aug 2008]

A number of booklets by Grace Kimmins were published by the Guild of Play and are available at the Internet Archives

Article published 2008, updated 2017.

© Mark K Smith 2008, 2017