The peak of the movement was in the mid 1920s when there were 56 settlement houses in Britain, 41 of which were in London. The decline set in post Second World War. As with the ascent, there are many explanations for the waning. Four are relevant to the current context; lesser demand for residency; the welfare state assuming the settlements’ role; the contraction in funding; the retreat to marginalised groups.

The numbers of people volunteering at settlement houses had been known to fluctuate due to factors such as war service and the availability of space – it was not uncommon for settlement houses to have been damaged by bombing during the war. From the 1950s on the practice of ‘residence’ began to decline. There were new avenues for the young to serve: social research in the universities, opportunities for service abroad with organisations like Voluntary Service Overseas, and a general professionalisation of social work that accompanied the advent of the welfare state. For many settlements recruiting and supporting residents proved difficult as they were far more focused on simply trying to keep the buildings open and maintain the various programmes on offer. At many settlements residence was no longer a central aspect of the work and in some cases where it was still offered it became essentially a form of subsidised student housing.⁠1

Whether or not a settlement could still be labelled a settlement after World War II essentially depends on whether or not the institution referred to itself as such. Residence was the key issue when it came to defining a settlement. Beginning in the interwar years paid workers played an ever-increasing role in the day to day running of settlements. This together with the declining rate of residence led to some settlements feeling compelled to change their name to ‘community centre’ or something similar.⁠2

After the First World War many settlements worked with local government on a number of issues such as women and children’s health provision. During World War II settlements helped to organise relief efforts in areas of London that were bombed. Much of the work conducted by settlements was taken over by the welfare state after 1945. Settlements that managed to survive and maintain their ethic did so by successfully adapting to the changing needs of their local communities – particularly those needs which were not being adequately addressed by the state.⁠3

Government programmes of slum-clearing and council house construction that accompanied the creation of the welfare state led to a growing assumption in British society that poverty had gone away. The challenge for settlements was to figure out what their role would be going forward. Assumptions about poverty made their fundraising efforts all the more difficult. Those settlements which continued to exist in largely the same form looked for or were found by new constituencies such as single mothers, mentally unwell people, new immigrant groups, formerly imprisoned people or ‘at-risk’ youth.

In some cases work was conducted entirely by charitable sector while in others they worked with the Home Office, the NHS, or local government. Welfare was and continues to be a mixed economy. The ‘moving frontier of welfare’ – an expression coined by Geoffrey Finlayson meaning the ever-changing activities and responsibilities of welfare providers (charitable or state bodies) – was evident throughout the twentieth century. While the non-state sector was eclipsed by the welfare state it could still be innovative and imaginative, beyond the areas of mainstream health and social security, even if its funding was precarious.⁠4

The ‘moving frontier’ of welfare accurately captures how the mixed economy of welfare fluctuated: while the responsibilities and activities of local authorities increased this did not mean that voluntary groups were necessarily excluded from the provision of services or that particular roles and responsibilities were not the subject of continuous negotiation between all the parties involved. As Katherine Bradley has aptly put it: “the development of British welfare was not a linear evolution but a complex process of negotiation and mediation at all levels.”⁠5

Before the establishment of the NHS in 1948 settlements provided health and allied services in poor urban communities. They had been an important part of the public health movement of the late nineteenth century. As the slums were cleared and the NHS grew it took over almost all the healthcare work undertaken by settlements, which adapted to the new situation with a shift in focus to underserved groups such as single-parent families, families with disabled children, the elderly, and others at risk of social marginalisation.⁠6 The settlements programme for older people was mainly focused on preventing loneliness and tackling issues consequent on a population who did not know their entitlements or were too proud to claim them.⁠7

As the role was being usurped, traditional funding streams dried up. Between the wars, as professionalisation gathered steam, fundraising efforts were increasingly geared towards specific activities and projects.

This challenge of fundraising was brought about due to the deaths of many of the earliest and most passionate patrons of the settlement movement. They now had to figure out how to appeal to different, younger people in a different situation. Traditional methods of raising money such as donations, covenants, and membership subs declined. New means of fundraising had to be explored like media appeals on BBC radio or Alexandra Rose Days. This trend continued beyond the Second World War. They also tried to raise money through high-profile events such as a production of Othello in 1966 organised by John Profumo, now seeking refuge at Toynbee Hall after his fall from grace in 1963, and calling on his links with high society.

Settlements and other entities in the private, voluntary sector strove to be experimental and innovative with their projects but the viability of these projects ultimately depended on the willingness of the state or major funders to back them.

Free legal advice and advocacy became a growth area for settlements. This work was prominent before 1945 but increased thereafter. Disputes between tenants and landlords, employees and employers were common throughout the twentieth century. The continued growth and intricacies of the welfare state meant there were new demands for legal aid to help people navigate the state bureaucracy. The welfare state typically led to a decrease in relevance for settlements but this was one area in which the opposite was true.

Where previously there had been an emphasis on juvenile offenders or those at risk of offending, after 1945 the focus shifted to rehabilitation of adult prisoners. Charitable groups were not pushed away from working with children; rather they were simply looking to work with under-considered groups.⁠8 The settlements responded to changes in the law and attempted to capitalise on the funding opportunities that accompanied it. Unfortunately the funding streams were unstable and unreliable. This was a common theme in the post-war activities of settlements. Funding came from groups such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, the Gulbenkian Foundation, and the Nuffield Foundation.  While some programmes were both successful and innovative the state did not commit to providing long-term funding.⁠9

The role of settlements was greatly diminished when the welfare state was founded. They went from being major providers of some services to being more focused on helping those who were underserved by the new state bodies; such as the elderly and the disabled. Naturally their work was now overshadowed by the state and local authorities but they still had an important, if reduced, role in providing supplemental services in their communities.

Most morphed into organisations excelling in these supplementary specialities. Pembroke House came close to extinction several times, most recently in the 1990s. But it survived.


1 Mark Smith, University and social settlements, and social action centres, The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, infer.org/mobi/university-and-social-settlements/

2 Katherine Bradley, Poverty, philanthropy and the state, Charities and the Working Classes in London, 1918-79, Manchester, 2009, p.11

3 Ibid. p. 2

4 Ibid p. 14

5 Ibid p. 17

6 Ibid pp. 50-52

7 Ibid p. 83

8 Ibid pp. 123-124

9 Ibid. p. 147