Mary Ward and the Passmore Edwards Settlement

Mary Ward - Wikipedia pd

Mary Ward – Wikipedia pd

An innovative settlement founded by Mary Ward that developed play centres, special education and a range of other programmes.

Mary Ward and the Passmore Edwards Settlement (now Mary Ward House), 9 Tavistock Place WC1. The original settlement began as University Hall in Gordon Square in 1890. Soon Marchmont Hall in Marchmont Street was also used for various clubs, lectures and concerts. The settlement was founded by Mary Ward (1851 -1920) a grand daughter of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and niece of Matthew Arnold. She was Secretary to Somerville College Oxford (1879-1881) before moving to London (in 1872 she had married Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose College and a member of the staff of The Times).

Mary Ward wrote a number of novels that often had romantic/spiritual themes. An early example, Robert Elsmere (1888) caused some controversy and centred around a ‘modern priest who could no longer believe in miracles who founded a sect in the East End which preached a melange of Christianity, Positivism and the social gospel (Briggs and Macartney 1984: 10) . The novel’s success, it is said, led her to found the largely Unitarian settlement. John Passmore Edwards – who financed a number of philanthropic efforts in London – offered to finance a new building – and this opened in 1897 as the Passmore Edwards Settlement (renamed in 1921 after Mary Ward’s death). Designed by A. Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, (who were also residents of University Hall), the building is distinctly art-nouveau in style.


The settlement was the site for a number of interesting developments and innovations. Two in particular stand out. Mary Ward was a strong advocate of the enhancement of schooling for children with disabilities. As a result, the settlement housed the first fully equipped classrooms for children with disabilities living in the community. The model school opened its doors in 1898 and received funding (rate aid) from the London School Board the following year. It provided course work, physical therapy and meals (Young and Ashton 1956: 203). The quality of the results was used to pressure the London County Council to establish similar schools (Vicinus 1985: 234-5).

A second, crucial, innovation was the development of a play centre for children. Mary Neal had begun a Saturday ‘playroom’ for children in Marchmont Hall – and Mary Ward realized that there was considerable potential in the work. With the opening of the new centre, considerable effort was put into developing the work. By 1902 over 1200 children were coming to sessions (the most the building could hold) (Sutherland 1990: 225). The centre provided a place of warmth and safety; the opportunity to help children to develop their play; and the opportunity for comradeship and play in common in a situation where people have an equal chance and where bullying could be contained. (This was how Mary Ward herself described the qualities of a play centre in the prefatory note to her daughter’s discussion of the first 25 years of play centre work: Trevelyan 1920). It is a testament to Ward’s ability to lobby and to publicise that there was a major expansion of play centres in London (attendances at playcentres in London totalled 1.7 million in 1918/19).

Interestingly, given these social welfare initiatives, Mary Ward was anti-suffrage and the first President of the Anti-Sufferage League in 1908. She lived at 61 Russell Square during the 1880s (on a site now covered by the Imperial Hotel).

The Centre now houses the National Institute for Social Work. The institution known as the Mary Ward Centre has moved to 42 Queen Square WC1 (by Great Ormond Street).

See, also, The Barnetts and Toynbee Hall.


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

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

Trevelyan, J. P. (1920) Evening Play Centres for Children. The story of their origin and growth, London: Methuen.

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

Vicinus, M. (1985) Independent Women. Work and Community for Single Women, London: Virago.

Young, A. F. and Ashton, E. T. (1956) British Social Work in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


The Mary Ward Trust have an interesting website that provides a virtual tour of the house plus material on some of the key people involved:

Acknowledgement: Photograph of Mrs Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward) (1851 – 1920). Novelist and Social Worker is believed to be in the public domain – wikipedia commons –


© Mark K. Smith 1997.