Samuel Barnett: University settlements

Toynbee Hall
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Samuel A. Barnett’s review of the possibilities of settlement life first published in W. Reason (ed.) (1898) University and Social Settlements, London: Methuen.

A settlement is simply a means by which men or women may share themselves with their neighbours ; a club-house in an individual district, where the condition of membership is the performance of a citizen’s duty; a house among the poor, where the residents may make friends with the poor.[Page 11]

FOURTEEN years ago a paper published in this Review suggested “University settlements in our great towns.” There are now Toynbee Hall, Oxford House, Mansfield House, the Bermondsey Settlement, Cambridge House, Caius House, Chalfont House, Newman House, Browning Hall, the Passmore Edwards Settlement, the Southwark Ladies’ Settlement, the Women’s Settlement in Canning Town, and Mayfield House in London. There are settlements in Glasgow, Bristol, Manchester, and Edinburgh. There are hull House in Chicago, Andover House in Boston, besides perhaps twenty others in different cities of America.

The paper was an expression of what was in many minds and of what others’ work had prepared. The movement which followed its publication was an indication of a strong stream of thought already running.

After fourteen years, therefore, the question to be asked by those who would estimate the value of settlements is not, “What did the paper say?” but, “What did it mean, and how far have existing settlements carried out the meaning?”

Fourteen years ago there was a stirring in the waters of benevolence which are for the healing of the weak. Men and women felt a new impulse towards doing good,


Paper reprinted in W. Reason (ed.), by kind permission, from the Nineteenth Century, with a few alterations to date. [Page 12] and that impulse took shape in the creation of these Halls and Houses. What was the impulse? Why has ‘‘the plan of settlement ” extended?

Three causes may be suggested.

I. Distrust of Machinery.—-Many people become distrustful of the machinery for doing good. Men at the Universities, especially those who directly or indirectly felt the influence of T. H. Green, were asking for some other way than that of institutions by which to reach their neighbours. They heard the “bitter cry ” of the poor; they were conscious something wrong underneath modern progress; they realised that free trade, reform bills, philanthropic activity, and missions had made neither health nor wealth. They were drawn to do something for the poor. Charity organisation societies had taught them not to give doles; they had turned from preachers who said, “Give up your business and live as monks”; they were contented with reformers who came saying, “Change the laws, and all will be well,’’ nor philanthropists who said, ” Support our charity to it the need, nor with religious teachers who said, “Subscribe to our church or mission.’’

They felt that thy were hound to be themselves true to the call which had summoned them to the business and enjoyment of life, and they distrusted machinery. The poor law, the chief machine, seemed to have developed pauperism, fostering the spirit Which ‘‘bullies or cringes.” Societies had become empty shells, occupied only by officials, who had found pleasant quarters in the forms created by the life gift of the founders. Missions in making proselytes seemed sometimes to corrupt men.

Philanthropy, indeed, appeared to many to be a sort [Page 13] of mechanical figure beautifully framed by men to do their duty to their brother men—made with long arms, so as to reach all needs, and with iron frame, so as to be never tired. It saved its inventors all further care beyond that of supplying it with money. Drop in a coin, and the duty to a neighbour was done. But duty so done proved often more harmful than helpful. A society acting by rules sometimes patched “hearts which were breaking with handfuls of coals and rice.” The best-devised mechanism can have neither eyes nor feeling. It must act blindly, and cannot evoke gratitude.

Thus it came about that a group of men and women at the Universities distrusted machinery for doing good. They were between two duties. On the one side they were bound to be true to themselves and do their own work. On the other side they were bound by other means than by votes and subscriptions to meet the needs of the poor. They welcomed, therefore, tile proposal for a settlement where they might live their own lives and also make friends among the poor.

II. Demand for more Information.—Alongside of this distrust of machinery was a demand for more accurate information as to the condition of the people, as to their thoughts and their hopes. The sensational descriptions of the ill-housed, the ill-paid, and the ignorant had roughly awakened easy-going citizens, but those descriptions did not give assurance that they represented facts or their meaning. A generation which had breathed something of the modern scientific spirit was not content with hearsay knowledge and with sentimental references; it required facts and figures—critical investigation into the causes of poverty and personal knowledge of the poor. Thus it [Page 14] was that many men and women received with favour a proposal that they themselves should go and live in a neighbourhood where they would come into contact with the industrial classes, see with their own eyes their houses and surroundings, and hear from their own lips how they lived.

III. Growth of the Human Spirit.—The human spirit is always growing in strength. It bursts traditions as the life in a tree bursts the hark which protected its tender age. It strains to reach beyond class distinctions, old habits, party lines, and anything which hinders man from helping man. Nowhere is the growth of this human spirit more evident than at the Universities.

Fourteen years ago there was a clear recognition that old forms of benevolence were often patronising in character, that charities and missions often assumed a superiority in their supporters and that sectarian philanthropy often developed party bitterness. Many men and women, therefore, anxious to assert their fellowship with the poor, resented the ways in which in the name of love made their brothers humble themselves to take gifts. They did not want to appear as “benefactors” or as “missionaries.” They had no belief in their nostrum as a Morrison’s pill for the cure of all evils. Their desire was, as human beings, to help human beings, and their human feeling protested against forms of help which put the interest of aclass or of a party before that of individuals, reaching outhandfuls of gifts across impassable gulfs and making party shibboleths the condition of association.

Working people, onthe other side, under the influence of the same human spirit, had come more and more to resent exclusion from the good things enjoyed by other [Page 15] classes. They wanted to know mote of what their richer neighbours did, and, at any rate, before heaving a brick at an aristocrat, they desired to find out something about him.

Thus it was that a way was prepared for a suggestion that members of the University might live as neighbours of the poor, and, without affecting the superiority of an ascetic life, or claiming to have come as teachers, or having any sectarian object, might form the friendships which are channels of all true service.

The establishment of settlements is the work of those who believe that the gifts to modern times are good; that culture is gain, not loss; that cleanliness is better than dirt, beauty better than ugliness, knowledge better than ignorance—Isaacs not to be sacrificed. Settlements stand as an acknowledgement of the claims of all the citizens to a share in these good things, and as a protest against meeting those claims by the substitution of philanthropic machinery for human hands and personal knowledge. They express the desire on the part of those “who have” to see, to know, and to serve those “who have not.”

How far have Settlements succeeded? — Settlements are not to be judged out of the mouths of their critics or supporters. Both try them by measures used for weighing and testing things seen and felt. They fasten, therefore, on what is done for education, for relief, or for entertainment, and they give praise or blame. They compare the lists of classes, the results of examinations; they count up the number relieved or converted; they get out accounts of entertainments, and say, “How small,” or “How great.” It may be, it probably is, the case that much of the strength of settlements has gone to such objects, and that some of [Page 16] the Houses and Halls have become identified with special methods and special objects. But my claim is that settlements are not fairly judged by such standards.

A Settlement as it seems.—Toynbee Hall, for example, is not what it seems. The visitor who, Baedeker in hand, is shown over the lecture-room, the library, and the classrooms, and hears that there are 1000 or 1500 students, imagines that the sitting-rooms and bedrooms are occupied by men who give up their time to teaching and lecturing. All the residents are, I suppose, professors,” is a frequent American comment. Such visitors are apt to go away regarding the place as a centre of education.

If, however, the visitor happens to be told that most of the residents concern themselves with other objects, makes up his mind that this object must be “temperance” or ‘‘conversion.” He asks, “What is the effect of the work on the criminal population?” “Are the lowest people attracted? ” “What is the spiritual outcome of the movement?” He gets, perhaps, as an answer, ‘‘that spiritual results are not visible,” “that the residents have friends and acquaintances of all sorts,” ‘‘that there is no common action which could lie called the work of the place.” He feels that his questions may have been impertinent, and he goes away somewhat confused, but on the whole assured that the place is a sort of a mission.

If a visitor with more time or perseverance arrives in the evening, he finds, perhaps, the lecture—room filled by Dr Gardiner’s history students or Mr Rudler’s geology students, the class-rooms occupied by small groups studying English or foreign literature, the principles of science or economics, the laboratory in the hands of a few practical workers, the library in the use of its quiet readers, [page 17] the club-room noisy with the hum of talk about excursions, entertainments, and parties to be undertaken by the Students’ Union. He is told that the distinction of all the educational work is that it is for the encouragement of knowledge which is not saleable, that lectures and classes aim at adding joy to life rather than of pence to wages, that their object is the better use of leisure time rather than of work time. He then determines that the place is a sort of polytechnic, with “university” classes in place of “technical” classes; he wonders so much is done without endowment; he criticises or admires. But when, the next moment, he goes into tin drawing-room to find a party of Whitechapel neighbours or of East London teachers in the hands of a host with whom they are making merry, and passes by the tennis-court, which is occupied by an ambulance corps, into the dining-room, to find a conference of trade unionists, co-operators, or friendly society members discussing with leading thinkers and politicians some matter of policy or economy, he is again confused, but still fits in what he sees to his conception of the place as a charitable institution.

Or, once more, if a visitor comes to stay for a few days, and gets into conversation with the residents, he will probably be surprised at the new knowledge he almost unconsciously acquires. He will, as he listens to some casual talk, shape for himself a new idea of what is done by guardians or vestrymen ; he will discover the part which local government plays in life, and learn how trades unions, co-operative societies, and friendly societies are worked; he will get new light on clubs, and be set thinking about measures of reform and development. Further and more private talk with individuals will put him in possession of [Page 18] strange facts and figures, clothed in humanity by reason of the narrator’s intimacy with the lives of his neighbours. He will feel the importance of such knowledge to all who speak, write, vote, or legislate. He will no longer wonder atmistakes in philanthropy or legislation while such ignorance exists as to the hopes and needs of the poor. He will go away thinking that Toynbee Hall is a sort of bureau of social information.

A Settlement as it Is.—Toynbee Hall seems to its visitors to be a centre of education, a mission, a centre of social effort. It may be so; but the visitors miss the truth that the place is a club house in Whitechapel occupied by men who do citizens’ duty in the neighbourhood. The residents are not as a body concerned for education, teetotalism, poor relief, or any special or sectarian object. Each one leads his own life, earns his own living, and does his duty in his own way. Catholic, Churchman, Jew, Dissenter, and Agnostic, they live together and strengthen one another by what each contributes to the common opinion. There is no such thing as a “Toynbee Hall policy,” and it is never true to say that “Toynbee Hall” favoured one candidate in an election, or that it stands for any special form of religion. A few men with their own bread to earn, with their own lives to enjoy, with their own sense of social debt, come to live together. No one surrenders what he has found to be good for his own growth; each man pursues his own vocation and keeps the environment of a cultured life. There is no affectation of equality with neighbours by the adoption of mean or dirty habits. There is no appearance of sacrifice. The men live their own lives in Whitechapel instead of in West London, and do—what is required of every citizen—[Page 19] citizens’ duties in their own neighbourhood. If those duties seem to a man to include the preaching of his own faith, he delivers his own soul and tells his gospel when he visits in a club or teaches in a class. There is no limit put on any form of earnestness so long as it is the man, and not the place, who is committed.

The same impulse which has created settlements has led many men to take lodgings and, alone or with one or two friends, live in East London. They have thus found duties to their hands and made links with their neighbours; but, notwithstanding striking examples of success, my present judgement favours the plan of a community. In a settlement no resident loses his individuality, but the criticism of his peers keeps up his standard of order and cleanliness, while it checks the development of fads and of sloth. A place like Toynbee Hall may offer what seems to be more comfort than is possible in East End lodgings, but it requires what is often a greater sacrifice— the surrender of self-will and of will-worship. Moreover, although no man loses his individuality in a settlement, each is stronger as a member of a body in touch with many interests than as a lonely lodger; he gets strength by what his mates are, and he gives strength by what he is. In fact, true individuality survives, I think, better in a settlement than in lodgings, where eccentricities are often cherished, and where useful conventions succumb to the influences of East London.

Toynbee Hall is not what it seems. Imitators who begin by building lecture-rooms and by starting schemes for education and relief, make the same mistake as those who followed our Lord because He made the sick man take up his bed, and not because He forgave sins. True [Page 20] imitation is when half-a-dozen men or women set on social service go and live among the poor. They may take a house or occupy a block in an artisans’ dwelling, and they may begin without a subscription list or an advertisement. Out of their common life various activities will develop, and the needs they discover they will meet.

Toynbee Hall 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.

Test of Settlement’s Success.—It is as an effort of the human spirit t do human work that a settlement must be judged. Its classes, its social schemes, are not so true a test of its success as its effect in establishing friendship between man and man.

If from this point of view I were asked what Toynbee Hall has done, I should answer (1)It has tended to mitigate class suspicion ; (2) it has helped to inspire local government with a higher spirit.

1. It has tended to mitigate class suspicion. East London and West London suspect each other. The poor, when they hear of a rich man’s philanthropy, say, “Does he serve God for nought?” They reckon up the activities of the clergy with the reflection that they work to make converted or for promotion, and they imagine that public men seek their votes in order to get place for themselves. The rich on their side suspect the poor: they are half afraid they may rebel; they think an act of politeness is a sort of begging; they see vindictive designs in their policy, and imagine that because they [Page 21] have no stake in the nation, they have no common interests with themselves.

Toynbee Hall has puzzled its neighbours, who had such opinions. For a long time all sorts of motives were put to its credit. “Wait a bit,” it was said, “and the people who go there will be called to a prayer meeting”; or, “you will see it is a dodge of Tories—of Liberals—of Socialists to get votes.” It was five or six years after its opening that a speaker at a meeting of a friendly society confessed that up to that time his society had held aloof, suspecting sonic design to steal from people their independence. Up to the present time many neighbours remain unconvinced, and any appearance of special sympathy at times of crisis would be sufficient to get the place classed as Tory or Radical, Church or Chapel.

But on the whole the policy of the last thirteen years has shaken old prejudices. When in the same house is found both a Moderate and a Progressive member of the London School Board, when one resident is known as a Tory and another as a Radical, when at the dock strike service was rendered and no credit taken, when at times of distress the place has not been used as a centre of relief and when it is realised that the residents give their time from a sense of duty, the belief is encouraged that it is not to advance any party interest that the place is established. When, further, it is realised that earnest believers in different creeds work together in friendship—remain true to themselves and yet push towards the same ends—another idea of the meaning of religion is developed.

A shake has thus been given to the habit of suspicion; [Page 22] but, more than this, individual friendships have been formed, along which currents of good feeling run from class to class. At first men have met their neighbours as members of a committee; they have, perhaps, taken part ii the administration of relief, or joined in a game at a club, or spoken in a debate. They have made acquaintance naturally on an equal footing, and in some cases acquaintance has ripened into friendship. Two men born in different circumstances, educated by different means, occupied in different work, have in such meeting felt themselves akin. They have become friends and sharers in each other’s strength. And because they are friends their eyes have been opened to see the good in their friend’s friends. Poor men have seen that the rich are not what they are pictured by orators, and the rich have found that the poor have virtues not always expressed by their language.

There are few parties which have left happier memories than those at which some resident has received together friends made in the West and in the East. All the guests have felt at their ease. They have come with different pasts and different hopes, but the common intimacy with their host provokes such trust that they enjoy theirdifferences. Many are the testimonies received as to the pleasure experienced in forming acquaintances in a new class.

It would obviously be absurd to expect that twenty men living in Whitechapel should make any evident mark on the public opinion of half-a-million of people, but for my part I am convinced that, as a result of their settlement, there is an increase of good-will.

2. In the second place, I think Toynbee Hall has [Page 23] helped to inspire local government with a higher spirit. It is a true instinct which makes people distrust machinery, but it is obvious that if humanity is to operate effectively in raising society it must be by means of organisations and officials. Local government is in East London the most effective of such organisations, and is gradually absorbing many of the functions of the Church and of charity. It more and more has under its care the schools of the children and the classes of the adults; it provides for health and recreation, for the relief of the weak and the training of the strong. School managers are making the Board Schools delightful by the new interests they introduce. District Councils secure health by means of clean streets and sound houses; they open spaces, build libraries, and put public halls within easy reach of their constituents. Guardians are making their infirmaries model hospitals, their workhouses training homes, and their methods of relief a stimulus to exertion. People who are weary with the competition of charities, with the constant appeals and advertisements, turn with relief to the municipal system. They are pained by the quarrels of Church and Dissent, by the exaggeration arid depreciation of efforts, and they more and more depend on Boards and Councils. Local Government is, indeed, the hope of East London, but the hope grows faint under pressure of the thought that East Londoners are too busy or too crushed to serve on boards and councils.

No one lives in East London of his own will. Its inhabitants are either striving to move out of it or unable to do so. The wonder, indeed, is that local government is as good as it is. But it is not good, and in some cases it is bad. It is often wanting in knowledge, and [Page 24] is therefore unconscious of abuses which would not be endured in West London ; it rarely understands economy —the economy of wise expenditure or of business control—and it is wanting in the public spirit which breaks from old traditions. The faults are accidental, not inherent. If the abuses of swells, smoke, dirt, and noise are pointed out, they are recognised; if the needs of the people are put alongside of the old customs of the Board, they are often allowed; if someone appears who has knowledge of accounts, and shows faith in his policy, his lead is accepted.

Local government in East London needs the presence of a few people who will formulate its mission. To some degree this has been done by the residents of Toynbee Hall. Some of them as members of boards, all of them as neighbours have shown something of what is not done and of what might be done. Whitechapel has been moved to get a library; political parties have been induced to adopt a social programme; the police have been encouraged to enforce order in back streets.

A new spirit is moving over local government. It is obviously impossible to put its presence to the credit of Toynbee Hall; but it is fair to say that its residents have contributed by the share they have actively taken as members of various boards, as well as by the influence they have exerted. What is still wanting to the efficiency of the boards is the business power which understands economy. Grants in aid of rates have developed a policy which doles always develop. Local legislators become more concerned in getting money to spend than in economical management. If business men, with the capacity winch has created great private establishments, [Page 25] would come as residents, they might make local government strong enough to prevent some threatened evils.

A settlement, by bringing into a neighbourhood people whose training makes them sensible to abuses, and whose humanity makes them conscious of other needs, does what machinery as machinery cannot do. It fits supply and demand; it adapts itself to changing circumstances; it yields and goes forward; it follows or guides, according to the moment’s need; it turns an organisation which might be a mere machine into a living human force. Above all, it brings men into touch with men, and, by making them fuller characters, enriches their work.

Thus up to a degree, taking Toynbee Hall as an example, settlements have put something human alongside the necessary machinery. But the end is far off; settlements are too few, and they have too often yielded to the temptation to rival other organisations with a show of their works.

It is a surprise to some of us that settlements are so few, and the question is sometimes asked, whether it is because the life is so interesting that it appeals to no sense of sacrifice, or whether it is because the sacrifice of leaving “a West End society” is too great.

I have written this paper believing in neither of these reasons, but believing rather that men do not understand the meaning of a settlement.

There is as much good-will to day as there was fourteen years ago; there is more knowledge. Men and women, conscious of other needs, are more conscious that machinery fails. They are anxious to avert the ills which threaten society, and are ready themselves to do their [Page 25] part. It is because settlements seem to be “a fad “—an experiment of “cranks”—or another mechanical invention, that they keep aloof.

I have, therefore, written this paper to show that a settlement is simply a means by which men or women may share themselves with their neighbours ; a club-house in an individual district, where the condition of membership is the performance of a citizen’s duty; a house among the poor, where the residents may make friends with the poor.


For a brief assessment of Barnett see The Barnetts and Toynbee Hall

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.