Samuel Barnett was vicar of St Jude’s Church in Whitechapel. He and his wife Henrietta developed the idea of a settlement, in his words a form of university extension, in her words a place ‘to learn as much as to teach, to receive as much as to give’.

Barnett outlined the idea in a lecture to Oxford undergraduates in 1883. Toynbee Hall the first university settlement was established the following year.

The lecture can be accessed here. Here are the reflections from the reading group of staff and residents at Pembroke House.


Context

A post-Dickens world. A lot of pamphleteering, the blogging of the day, but much less engaging with the issue. It was a time of poverty tourism.

Barnett was a little awkward, not a great speaker. But his language was direct, unsentimental, and delivered at the right time. The country had ‘ears ready to hear’.

Everything was different then. Universities were exclusive. Absolute poverty was rife in East End. The Church was strong and respected. The audience comprised the male, privileged classes.

Everything was the same then. Universities were exclusive. Drawn today, Charles Booth’s map of poverty in the East End would likely produce similar patterns. The Church is strong and respected and well attended by selected sub-groups. The conversation about change is still largely restricted to the privileged classes.

Definition

Friendship and relationships at the heart of the settlement proposal. It was an empathy born of close neighbourhood. These ideas are re-emerging today. Why did they not catch hold in between times?

Class and space. The Barnetts were the first to speak about the abolition of the space that divides rich and poor. They wanted to destroy the West End, home to civilised society. They wanted to save the rich from themselves. They sought to create spaces to connect rich and poor.

Saturnalia. The reversal of privilege -the rich will become poor. A foreshadowing of the eternal reversal of fortune: the meek will inherit the earth.

From Mission to Settlement

There was a long history of missions to bring god to the godless (or simply to supply opportunities to pray in rapidly expanding urban environments short of churches and vicars).

Toynbee Hall was the first of the university ‘settlements’. A place to which people could move and make their home. A student asked what mission work he could do. Barnett said none. ‘This is a settlement’.

This had consequences: From God to Fellowship. From devotion to parties. Pembroke House was established as a Mission but it behaved like a Settlement. In 2018, its legal status was changed to Settlement, and the leadership changed from a (religiously trained) Warden to a (religiously trained) Chief Executive.

Legacies

There was the work in the settlement, in the East End, and there is the legacy of the movement. A greater role for women.  The National Union of Women Workers. Fresh Air Society. The Whitechapel Gallery. The Garden Cities. Housing Associations…..


21st Century Settlement

There are still residents at and wanting to join Pembroke House. What is the pull? To be part of a village. The culture of ‘open house’. To help and be helped. To learn and to teach. A good part of the Barnetts’ work was recovery of character, of the character of rich people. The virtues of authenticity. Of plurality. A recovery of fellowship. Barnett’s lecture evokes Adam Smith’s observation that the right context allows us to hear ‘the soft voice’ of virtuosity.