Residential settlements and social change

Toynbee Hall circa 1902. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Residential settlements and social change. Luke Geoghegan explores the importance of the residential concept; its past, present and potential future with reference to Toynbee Hall.

contents:  historical context · the residential concept · the relevance today · developments at Toynbee Hall · references · Luke Geoghegan

The creation of residential communities to achieve social change is not new; for example, it might be argued that many religious communities aim to fulfil this brief. But the model developed by Reverend Samuel and Henrietta Barnett marked a significant new development. They established a residential community at Toynbee Hall in 1884. The aim was to bring the most privileged – the future elite – to live in the poorest area of London; a privilege for which they had to pay. Critics derided this approach as essentially colonialist; an attempt to civilise the poor. But this was not the view of the Barnetts. The future elite came ‘to learn as much as to teach; to receive as much to give’.

This concept became known as ‘a settlement’; and the movement it gave birth to, ‘the settlement movement’. Toynbee Hall, although headed by a clergyman, did not require residents to be Christian; or indeed to subscribe to any particular ideology. Other settlements though might set particular criteria for their residents; thus there were women’s settlements, Jewish settlements and explicitly Christian settlements.

The term settlement has acquired a much wider use in contemporary society; this is because original settlements have expanded and/or changed their function but have retained the term settlement in their name. Thus settlements can be another term for a fairly modest community centre, or one of the main welfare providers for Chicago’s city government. This article shall use settlement in its original, narrower meaning, a community of people who live and work together to achieve positive social change.

The settlement approach had a profound impact both nationally in the United Kingdom and internationally. For example; within some 50 years of Toynbee being founded ex-Toynbee residents had an effective grasp of the national levers of power and are recognized with establishing the foundations of the British welfare state. Individuals included Clem Attlee; British Prime Minister from 1945, William Beveridge; architect of the welfare state, William Temple; Archbishop of Canterbury and R. H. Tawney; the social philosopher.

The concept also had great resonance beyond the United Kingdom too. The settlement concept quickly spread over the globe; e.g. to Chicago in 1898 (Hull House) and Japan in 1901.

But what was the concept behind such a model?

The residential concept

Everyone makes a difference. However, not everyone goes on to be a politician, an influential academic, a top civil servant, a journalist, a head teacher or a doctor; in short leaders in their chosen field. In the jargon these groups can be called ‘opinion formers’; by their position and power they determine the direction not only of the institutions they lead and manage but also have a powerful influence on the wider society.

Society was, and is, characterised by a profound separation of the rich and poor, the privileged and the marginalised, the powerful and the powerless. There are a number of solutions to address these problems. One is to influence the future leaders and opinion formers for the better. The intellectual analysis of the problems of society is clearly important; but it needs to be supplemented by some experiential knowledge. Undertaken in the right spirit such experience can be transformed into genuine solidarity; a recognition that what binds us together in society is stronger than what divides us. This is what the settlement movement is about; supplementing head learning with heart learning and thus creating a genuine solidarity. So in the settlement tradition the residential experience is not merely an add-on; it is crucial to achieving positive social change.

This model has been a subject of criticism. Criticisms are remarkably consistent throughout the history of Toynbee Hall as well as other settlements and usually go along these lines: it is essentially elitist, further, there are many ways of achieving social change other than the settlement approach. A criticism that is specific to Toynbee Hall is that it focuses overly on London. These arguments need to be examined one by one.

  • Elitism. The reality is that society is predominantly controlled from the top. This is not a statement about whether this is right or wrong; it is merely a statement of fact. To deny the possibility of positive change at the top of society is to deny the possibility of positive change at all levels of society. If society is to be a better place all levels of society must be involved in the change process; rich and poor, powerful and powerless, privileged and marginalised.
  • There are many ways of achieving social change, the settlement approach cannot claim any monopoly on effective methods of achieving social change. This is absolutely correct. There are many mechanisms of achieving positive social change; nor does the settlement approach denigrate them; either implicitly or explicitly. But like any other organization or association there has to be a focus and a concentration of effort and resources to achieve it; the settlement approach is thus one approach among many.
  • Toynbee focuses overly on London; whereas social need is most widespread outside the capital. The location of Toynbee Hall was chosen with great care by the founders. Located in one of the poorest areas of the capital it was within easy reach of the levers of power; in Government, the church, and the City. This geographical rational still holds true. However, the model could equally work in other cities both in the United Kingdom and abroad – which, of course, is reflected in the national and international expansion of residential settlements in the early years.

Does all this have any relevance for the future?

The arguments for a residential settlement still hold true today. After a long gap Toynbee Hall will be returning to the residential model from September 2001. The residential community will start with a small group and build to some 80 residents by 2003.

Toynbee’s aim is to take potential opinion formers and to equip them to be more effective agents of positive social change. Toynbee will do this by providing subsidized high quality accommodation close to the centre of London. Residents will join us for approximately a year while they work or study. In exchange, they will undertake to do a fixed amount of voluntary work a week in a range of innovative and challenging projects and take part in a development programme.

Toynbee will aim for a diverse community; residents will be of all political persuasions and none; all religious groups and none; and all income groups. They will reflect the diversity of the society that we live in.

What residents will hold in common will be a sense of where they are going, a desire and capacity to make a difference to the wider society; as well as an ability to demonstrate this. It is envisaged that Toynbee residents will be mainly (but not exclusively) young.

Historically, many positive initiatives have emanated from Toynbee and made society a better place. Toynbee Hall hopes to stand in this tradition again.

Residents’ development – timescale and progress.

Toynbee Hall has identified several key ingredients to make the model work. These are:

  • High quality accommodation. Toynbee already has an extensive campus close to key centres of employment (eight minutes walk from the City, 12 minutes by Tube to Whitehall, short journeys to many key universities) with space for 80 residents. Building refurbishment will start in February 2001.
  • High quality volunteering experiences. A range of voluntary experiences already exist. Toynbee is currently working to widen and deepen the quality of these experiences. Residents will be able to specialise in a ‘subject’ of their choice or rotate through a range of voluntary experiences.
  •  A development programme. Toynbee already has excellent links with opinion formers in a range of fields. A programme will allow residents to make links between their immediate experiences and national perspectives and issues.
  • In certain sections of the market employers are increasingly looking for employees who can demonstrate a range of ‘soft skills’; e.g. lead teams, work with difficult clients, take the initiative, have a high degree of emotional maturity, can achieve difficult tasks in an appropriate manner. Toynbee’s aim is to ensure that through the programme residents will strengthen their existing skills and develop new aspects.

An alumni network; so that Toynbee residents can sustain their links after they have moved on.

Join us?

Might you be interested in living at Toynbee and joining us in our aims; or know of someone else who might be? We will be recruiting from summer 2001; for an informal chat e-mail me in the first instance at

Key texts and references.

The two publications listed below are sadly out of print. However, they are often available in some university libraries:

Barnett, H. (1991) Canon Barnett His Life Work and Friends by his Wife, Houghton Mifflin Co. The insider account.

Briggs, A & McCartney, A (1984) Toynbee Hall: The First Hundred Years, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, The classic study; emphasizes description over analysis.

More recent publications include:

Wilkinson, A (1998) Christian Socialism: From Scott Holland to Tony Blair, London: SCM Press. Helpful for understanding the Barnetts and the foundation of Toynbee Hall as it explains the links between Christianity and social reform in the UK.

Meacham, S; Toynbee Hall and Social Reform 1880-1914, Yale University Press. Good thematic review and analysis.

Timmins, N. (1996)The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State’, Fontana Press. A good overview of social change in the UK and Toynbee’s role. Part 1 gives a good overview of Beveridges contribution while chapter 13 gives a perspective on the Child Poverty Action Group; a more recent Toynbee offspring.

See, also, Barnett’s 1898 reflections on the development of settlements: university settlements, and a review of the development of settlements and social action centres

Acknowledgement: Picture: Toynbee Hall circa 1902. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Luke Geoghegan was Warden of Toynbee Hall and Barnett Fellow at the University of Oxford. Luke originally qualified as a social worker before working in a range of social initiatives including education, economic regeneration and crime reduction. He is a clergyman in the Church of England. You can contact him at
© Luke Geoghegan 2000.