The early development of group work

Illustration from "Children of the Poor" Jacob Riis 1908, 1892. Solurced from Wikimedia Commons and said to be in the public domain.

We examine the emergence of group work in British work with young people and adults during the nineteenth century. In particular we review the contribution of ragged schooling, boys’ and girls’ clubs, settlements and adult education to the development of theory and practice.

Contents: introduction · ragged schooling · boys’ clubs and girls’ clubs · settlements · adult education · conclusion · references · how to cite this article. see, also: the group work pioneers series and the group work arena

The emergence of the group as a focus for intervention and work within social work and informal education in Britain was a slow process and initially largely wrapped up with the response of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, to the social conditions they encountered in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. Examples here include Hannah More and Robert Raikes and Sunday schooling; John Pound and Quentin Hogg and ragged schooling; George Williams and the YMCA; Arthur Sweatman and Maude Stanley in boys’ and girls’ club work. Their motives were often a complex mix of concern for others, the desire to bring people to Bible truths and values, and worries about the threat to order that the masses posed. Out of this innovatory forms of working emerged and were fertilized by developments in other fields. As we will see university settlements played an important role in developing youth work and adult education, and ragged schools were a model for many boys clubs (and transformed themselves into adult education provision – see Quentin Hogg and the Youth’s Christian Institute).

While many of the key figures were middle and upper class we ignore at our peril the level of mutual aid activity that developed during the nineteenth century especially around chapels, meeting houses, working mens’ clubs and in the field of adult education (see, for example, Smith on the making of popular youth work; Rose 2002). As the century progressed more catholic and secular traditions of thinking and practice developed. Within club work, for example, we look to the work of Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick; similarly many of the settlement pioneers influenced by the idealism of Green and the Christian socialism of Thomas Kingsley, Frederick Dennison Maurice and others could not be conventionally described as evangelical.

In this article I focus on work in four, early, connected British traditions – ragged schooling, boys and girls clubs, settlements and adult education. Sunday schooling was also an important tradition – but I have tended to deal with it here as a ‘feeder’ tradition into the other four. At the end of the century we also begin to see the development of uniformed work for example, through William Smith and the Boys’ Brigade), and subsequent significant innovation in method by Robert Baden Powell around scouting. In north America we could also mention the development organized camping and the interest in woodcraft by Ernest Seton and others. I have chosen these four particular traditions of practice as exemplars.

Ragged schools

The ragged school movement grew out of a recognition that charity, denominational and dames schools were not providing for significant numbers of children in inner-city areas. Working in the poorest districts, teachers (who were often local working people) initially utilized such buildings as could be afforded – stables, lofts, railway arches. There would be an emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic – and on bible study (the 4 ‘R’s!). This mix expanded into industrial and commercial subjects in many schools. It is estimated that around 300,000 children went through the London Ragged Schools alone between the early 1840s and 1881 (Silver 1983: 20).

As the schools developed, many gained better premises and broadened their clientele (age wise), they began to open club rooms and hostel and shelter accommodation, and added savings clubs and holiday schemes to their programmes of classes. A good indication of the widening of the work is given by S. E. Hayward’s illustration The Ragged School Tree (an illustration in Montague 1904). Along the branches we find coffee and reading rooms, Bands of Hope, Penny Banks, refuges, men’s clubs and sewing and knitting classes. This stood in stark contrast to the narrow focus on the 4 ‘R’s that remained, for example, in the voluntary National Schools.

Why did this happen? First, the workers in these schools quickly recognized that there were all sorts of other things wanted and needed by participants. The primary concern was less with education as with enabling people to have more fulfilling lives – and so they were disposed to look at other possibilities. Second, there was a particular recognition of the social. For example, Solly the champion of working men’s clubs wrote, ‘I was coming to the conclusion that a much larger amount of recreation and provision for social intercourse than these Mechanics Institutes afforded was required to meet the wants of working-men’ (quoted in Eagar 1953: 152). Third, there was some concern with self-help; furthermore, the organizations were voluntary and thus required people’s participation and commitment. Fourth, in workers like Solly and Christian Socialists like Maurice, there was a strong commitment to brotherhood. For example Solly, defined a working mens’ clubs as:

Societies of working men formed to promote social intercourse, innocent amusement, mental improvement and mutual helpfulness embodying the conception of a Brotherhood for the completest possible culture of its members as human beings – for their whole development as men. (Solly quoted in Eagar 1953: 157)

Some of the ragged schools developed into Evening and Youths’ Institutes – such as that established by Hogg, Pelham and others in Long Acre, London in 1870. (Pelham was very active in developing boy’s club work.) Other Institutes developed from scratch. Early Institutes like the one established in Dover in 1858, utilized a mix of opportunities for reading, recreation and education. Sweatman (1863: 42) argued that they could provide for young men’s ‘peculiar wants’ for, ‘evening recreation, companionship, entertaining but healthy literature, useful instruction, and a strong guiding influence to lead them onward and upward socially and morally’.

Boys and Girls Clubs

What we have come to know as youth work grew, in significant part, out of the activities of people trying to develop schooling initiatives. In particular, we can look to the growth of Sunday schools (see Hannah More and Robert Raikes), and the development of ragged schools and evening institutes in the mid-nineteenth century. Eagar (1954), for example, looks to the latter as a key feature in the emergence of boys clubs – but the same could be said of girls clubs. Girls workers such as Maud Stanley (1890) used a mix of formal schooling and recreation – and this can be seen as running on from her earlier work around Five Dials (close to Covent Garden, London).

What is of particular interest here is that these workers looked to the group. This stands in contrast to the activities of many philanthropist who looked to working with individuals and families. Within the boys’ club movement we can look in particular to the work of Tom Pelham and Charles Russell.

In his (1889) book Pelham charts the development of boys’ club and institute work – especially noting the expansion of work in London (over a period of twenty years the number of parochial institutes and clubs had expanded from not more than 20 to over 300). Pelham was a strong advocate of ‘small, local Institutes, which should never be allowed to outgrow the personal influence of the workers’ (quoted by Eagar 1953: 240). ‘Personal influence’, he stressed, ‘is one of the first conditions of success’. This concern with relationship echoed the work that he had experienced with Hogg and others in within ragged schooling. He believed that clubs and institutes should be open every week-night and should be held in premises that were made bright and comfortable. Unfortunately, too many clubs were held in rooms that, according to Pelham, were too much like third-class railway waiting rooms. As Eagar (1953: 241) comments, it may be assumed that Pelham’s emphasis on personal influence ‘implied some criticism of the recently founded Manchester Clubs with their membership rolls of several hundreds (this was an implied criticism of the large clubs advocated by Russell and others – see below). He also looked to a varied programme and to the availability of night schools. Pelham was also a strong advocate of encouraging boys and young men to participate in the running of the club arguing for the development of members’ committees initially to organize and oversee various programme elements and then to take over the running of the whole club. In this we can see the beginning of an important interest in the working to develop the functioning of groups in order that they could achieve associational tasks.

Charles Russell came from a strong business background and was opposed to the significant involvement of boys and young men in the running of clubs. He looked to larger units managed and run by workers who knew what young men needed (and wanted to some extent) – and who were committed and able to ensure that they could enjoy it.

Within the girls’ club tradition there were similar tensions. For example, Maude Stanley could be seen as more in the Russell tradition while there were many others who looked to relationship, smaller clubs and to involvement. One of the more interesting examples here is the work of Emmeline Pethick and Mary Neal in helping to set up co-operative ventures. They were also involved in developing ‘holiday work’ using camping and a hostel that Pethick set up with Lily Montagu.


A simple idea lay at the heart of the first settlement: that all should share in community (see settlements and social action centres). 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’ (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.

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). The Barnett’s began with 16 settlers – and out of their efforts grew a significant social welfare and education programme. This has included adult education provision; youth work; various social work initiatives; housing; health provision and economic development. A number of associations began their lives there: the Worker’s Education Association (1903); the Worker’s Travel Association (1921); the Youth Hostel Association (1931); Community Service Volunteers (1962); and National Association of Gifted Children (1981). 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 , it also established a model school for children with physical disabilities (See Mary Ward). The Bermondsey Settlement founded the Guild of Play to teach children under ten folk songs and dances.

In terms of the development of groupwork, four aspects of the settlement experience can be highlighted. First, there is the emphasis upon friendship (and the associated concerns for community and fellowship). Relationships between people were to be based upon mutual concerns, respectful and elevating. There was an interest in the ‘social’. There was a concern to move beyond old models of philanthropy:

To woman the enjoyment of University life brought home a knowledge of the infinite power and force that lie in the idea of association… [of] fellowship with those associated with us in study, but differing from us in experience, in the object of their work, and in the destinies that await them… If this fellowship were of value in a life of study, would it not be of infinite service in social work, in the efforts directed towards making society a better society, and especially in that particular effort of Settlement work – to raise the standards of social work among the poor (Ethel Hubbard, Principal of Bedford College, London quoted in Vicinus 1985: p. 221).

Friendship and fellowship was interpreted in contrasting ways – with some settlers attempting to control more directly the various clubs and organizations they initiated or came in contact with. However, there were many who sought a more equal and informal relationship.

Second, and linked to the above, most settlements (including Oxford House) embraced the idea of the club. There was (and is) a considerable emphasis on animating group and club life – la vie associative). In many respects ‘the club’ came to represent settlement life. As the American settlement pioneer, Robert A. Woods, used to argue, the settlements’ true mission lay in fostering ‘every helpful form of association, from neighbourhood improvement groups to labour unions, that would strengthen their tendencies toward co-operation and mutual tolerance (quoted in Carson 1990: p. 118). For many the ‘club’ was a natural medium in which safe and ‘rational’ recreation could develop.

Third, they made use of groups (especially in the States with activists such as Jane Addams) to develop programmes of cultural awareness within communities (e.g. Greek, German, Jewish culture) and formed groups to study art, literature and science.

Fourth, particularly in North American settlements, the notion of experience was central to the way many workers described their educational approach. Certainly Jane Addams looked to it. She sought to ‘work out a method and an ideal adapted to the immediate situation’ (Addams 1910: p. 436) and to educate ‘through use of the current event (Addams 1930: pp. 380 – 413). In this she was influenced by her friend John Dewey and his belief that the ‘business’ of education could be defined as ‘an emancipation and enlargement of experience’ (Dewey 1933: p. 340).

Adult education

A fourth element I want to look at here is the development of method and orientation within adult education. Here we can highlight two particular sets of institutions: adult schools and the tutorial classes linked to the emergence of the Workers’ Educational Association.

Adult schools have a long history but the way they evolved into educational institutions that valued fellowship and participation in the second half of the nineteenth century was significant. With an emphasis on democratic ways of working, a concern with discussion as well as teaching, the personality of the teacher, and some attention being paid to the group and the way it functioned, adult schools were an important influence on the way that adult education developed in the early twentieth century. They were also a major force behind the establishment of educational settlements in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Tutorial classes were one of the defining features of the adult education movement in Britain. Perhaps the best known and influential of the early efforts were the classes run by R. H. Tawney in Rochdale. These classes involved teaching and discussion, and a more equal relationship between the teacher and the group. Their organization had roots in the settlement movement, university extension and, to some extent, in the ways of working that had emerged within church institutions such as adult schools. Kelly (1970: 254) argues that tutorial classes comprised:

  • 24 two hour meetings in each of three successive years.
  • around 30 students, mainly men and largely working class.
  • students who came in search of knowledge not certificates
  • and whose interest was principally in political and social subjects.

The original classes were enthusiastically received, and soon spread. What we see is the development of an adult education movement – especially through the formation of organizations such as Workers’ Educational Association.

However, it was as theorizing about the process of adult education began to develop that the significance of the group and group process began to be recognized. In Britain it was the work of Basil Yeaxlee that was of some importance in this matter, in the United States Eduard Lindeman. Lindeman is of particular importance here as he both wrote an early book on the group and the adult education ‘classic’ – The Meaning of Adult Education (1926). As Kenneth E. Reid (1983: 100) has identified, ‘two important ingredients of adult education were the use of the group process and the direct participation of the student in the learning experience’.


In all this we can see the increased use of groups and associations in work with young people and adults. There was a growing appreciation of group process and sophistication in approach within adult education. In the settlements there had been an emphasis on social investigation, a concern to deepen methodology and a wish to connect this with wider developments in the social sciences. Club work with boys and girls had established a great store of practice wisdom about the organization and functioning of groups which had begun to be reflected in the literature.

However, much of the running in the development of thinking and practice about working with groups now shifted across the Atlantic. The growing impact of psychology and developments in thinking about human relations, the emergence of psychoanalysis (from around 1910), and a developing literature about the group and the crowd. Within sociology researchers such as Charles Horton Cooley were developing what might be called ‘small group theory’ and, in particular, the idea of the primary group – small informal groups such as families and play groups that gave members a sense of solidarity and mutual identification. Robert McIver was especially concerned with inter-group relations and the nature of community; and George Herbert Mead had highlighted the notion of the social self. Within education we can see the growing influence of more ‘progressive’ methods – and in particular the development of thinking by pragmatist such as Dewey and Kirkpatrick. The social education movement, from the turn of the century on, began to mark out their territory. The ground was set for a development in the theory of practice. [See Kenneth E. Reid – Social group work: formulation of a method, 1920-1936].


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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.

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

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

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

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Acknowledgement: Illustration from “Children of the Poor” Jacob Riis 1908, 1892. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons and said to be in the public domain.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2004) ‘The early development of group work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 2004

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