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Jul 13

From London to the world: a history of collective action to end poverty


Julian Corner, the Chair of Toynbee Hall’s Trustees, takes us through the history of the Settlement movement to the present day, as the European office of IFS returns to its birthplace in London.

In 1873, Samuel Barnett, a vicar, and his wife Henrietta moved to London’s East End to work in the poverty stricken parish of St Jude’s. From their church in Whitechapel, they developed and ran adult education programmes, art exhibitions, a housing company to improve access to affordable housing and started an organisation to take local children on country holidays. Through links with Oxford University academics, they encouraged graduates to come to stay in the area. This coincided with increased public awareness of the poverty in East London and a new understanding that for poverty to be solved, there needed to be a real understanding of what created it. This all led to the suggestion of developing a university settlement in Whitechapel.

Canon Barnett wrote in 1898:

“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.”

Toynbee Hall early 1900s

Image: Toynbee Hall, early 1900s

The settlement movement began with the establishment of Toynbee Hall in 1884 by the Barnetts. Its development stimulated an international movement, with further settlements beginning to open in the same year. Toynbee Hall became known as the ‘Mother of all Settlements’ and visitors came from Europe and America to learn about the organisation and replicated it in their own country when they returned.

Toynbee Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in Toynbee Hall, painted by Hubert Herkome

Image: The Barnetts

In April 1920, the first Conference of Residential Settlements of Great Britain was held at Toynbee Hall, with 53 of the 61 British Settlements in attendance. Here, a Federation of Residential Settlements (now Locality) was established and Toynbee Hall’s Warden, J.J. Mallon, was made President. After a tour of America in 1921, Henrietta Barnett was given the honourable role of President of the USA’s National Federation of Settlements. This was the starting point of a formal association between the federations of settlements in the UK and USA. When Jane Adams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, visited Toynbee Hall soon after Mrs. Barnett’s return, the UK’s Federation took the opportunity to hold a conference to discuss the idea of organising an international conference of settlements in 1922. The first international conference of settlements was held at Toynbee Hall in July 1922, chaired by Mrs Barnett. 300 delegates from twenty-one different countries congregated. Four years later, a second conference was held in Paris and the International Association of Settlements (later the IFS) was established.

I am very proud of the part Toynbee Hall has played in the establishment of such a powerful network of social action and community organising centres across the world. We have been a member of what is now Locality since the beginning, with the organisation based at Toynbee Hall for a while, and we continue to support their work, uniting and leading community organisations across the UK. As we move closer to the centenary of Locality and the IFS, it seems appropriate for the IFS European Office to becoming back to the UK, and to London no less.

As recent events have demonstrated, London continues to mix the best with the most challenging aspects of city life. Its multi-national population struggles to understand why Brexit is happening and what it means for them, deep poverty and extravagant wealth sit alongside each other breeding a corrosive sense of injustice, and faced by the threat of extremism its communities must resolve again and again to stand strongly together. Now, more than ever, we need organisations that can build bridges, create platforms for less powerful voices, shine a light on hidden misery, galvanise the talents and strengths of all community members. Toynbee Hall welcomes the opportunity that the IFS European Office brings to London at this crucial time to share learning and inspiration, show solidarity in an uncertain world and celebrate our collective strength.

Read more about Locality’s international roots here.

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