Toynbee & Oxford CollageThe Original Settlement Houses
Left: Toynbee Hall; Right: (The New) Oxford House



Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883) was an Economic Historian and zealous believer in social reform who worked tirelessly to help improve the lot of the poor.  It is believed that his death at a young age was the result of exhaustion caused by over work.

Arnold-ToynbeeArnold Toynbee

In 1877, Mr. Toynbee visited the Barnetts at Whitechapel and soon began to direct much of his energies here.  Amongst his numerous achievements was to help establish public libraries for the working-class in the area.  He was a strong advocate of educating the working classes and reducing the division between social classes.


Inspired by the teachings and activities of Arnold Toynbee, the Barnetts founded the first University Settlement in 1884 and named it Toynbee Hall in his honour.

Toynbee-HallToynbee Hall was designed by Elijah Hoole in vicarage-gothic style
and was built adjacent to the church of St Jude, Whitechapel, which was demolished in 1927
The building was designated a Grade II listed building in 1973.

The Barnetts believed that enduring social change would never be achieved by the continued application of existing policies, which involved individualised and piecemeal approaches.  Their radical vision was to create a place where future leaders would live and work as volunteers and allow them to see and experience poverty at first hand.  The Barnetts believed that by giving the students the opportunity to develop practical solutions to the problems that they encountered while at TheSettlement,  they could hopefully apply them in their future work.

The Settlement received great support from university students not only from Oxford and Cambridge, but also from those studying at London, Glasgow, Manchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol.

Early Students with the BarnettsEarly residents of Toynbee Hall with Samuel and Henrietta Barnett.  From the Toynbee Hall Archive

Toynbee Hall quickly became a model for other Settlements  throughout the U.K. and the U.S. and, by 1900, over one hundred such Settlements had been established in Britain.


In addition to their activities at Toynbee Hall, the  Barnetts were associated with


The Vision of Toynbee Hall was, and remains, to eradicate all forms of poverty and the specific aims are to:

  • increase financial inclusion;
  • increase access to justice;
  • improve people’s well-being, opportunities and social networks;
  • build a strong local community; and
  • build a strong and sustainable organisation.

Young University Students - at Toynbee Hall (ANU)University Students at Toynbee Hall
Reproduced from the Ph.D. Thesis of Emily Duthie, School of History, Australia National University

Click here to watch the video, Toynbee Hall: building a future without poverty

Many of the students that spent time at Toynbee Hall as young men and women went on to bring about radical social change and to maintain a lifelong connection with the organisation.

Notable alumni include:

  • William Beveridge (1879-1967) who is best known for his report, Social Insurance and Allied Services (known as the Beveridge Report), published in 1942, and which served as the basis for the post-World War II Welfare State that was introduced by the Labour Government (1945-1951);
  • Clement Richard Attlee, First Earl Attlee (1883-1967) who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1945-1951) and the Leader of the Labour Party (1935 to 1955).  Between 1906 and 1909, he was manager of a charitable club for working class boys in Stepney.  Apparently, seeing the poverty and deprivation in the area, he came to the realisation that private charity would never be sufficient to eradicate poverty and that only direct action and the redistribution of income by the State could achieve this.  Following this, he took up a position at Toynbee Hall and remained there until 1911 when he was employed by the Government of the time.

Mr. Attlee CollageTop Left: Mr. Attlee with Stepney Boys during the 1930s; Bottom Left: with children in 1945
Right: Attlee House, part of Toynbee Hall and built on the site of the old Library

Jane_Addams 1924Jane Addams, 1924

Click here to hear about the history of Hull House

  • John Profumo (1915-2006) was politician and was a well thought of member of the Conservative Party and as a member of the government led by Harold Macmillian.  Unfortunately, he resigned his post and withdrew from politics as a result of a scandal that resulted in the fall of the government in 1963.  During these times and afterwards, Mr. Profumo was supported by his wife, the former actress, Valarie Hobson (1917-1998).  Following his fall from grace, he and his wife, went to work as volunteers at Toynbee Hall in 1963 until his death in 2006.  Mr. Profumo eventually became more involved in the activities of The Hall and became the driving force in a number of projects. In 1982, he became Chairman of Toynbee Hall and in 1992, President.

John Perfumo & Queen Mother, 1970sMr. Profumo with Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (1900-2002 during a visit to Toynbee Hall in the 1970s


Toynbee Hall still provides a range of programmes and activities to the populace of the East End.  These include those for youth, the elderly, financial inclusion, debt, advice, free legal advice and community engagement.  Over 400 volunteers are involved in the deliver of these charitable services.


Those interested in offering their services to Toynbee Hall, should

 Click Here

to find out how this may be achieved.



As a child, I am sorry to say that Toynbee Hall did not stand out as anything special.  I was born in an old part of London that was rich in fascinating people and places, and although I remember liking the architecture of The Hall, I have to admit that it was but one of many sights of interest to me.  Later I was to learn that it was indeed a place of distinction.


I was born in Borough of Bethnal Green, but lived and was brought up on the border with the Borough of Stepney at Cambridge Heath Road where it joins the Mile End Road.  This is Mile End Gate where, apparently, a Toll Gate once stood.  I went to school at Sir John Cass Foundation School on Dukes PlaceAldgate and was just inside the City of London.  During my school life at Sir John Cass School, I often walked to school from Mile End Gate.

Mile End Gate 1866

For those interested in the past, Whitechapel is choc-a-block full of places of historical interest.  However, to me, as a child, the area was a treasure trove filled with colourful characters and numerous stalls and shops that know longer exist.  In those days, the place was a mass of colour and smells that seemed completely normal to me since I knew nothing else.  Of course, today, although the people are not the same, it is still a mass of colour and smells.

Some of the sights of my route included:

  • Sidney Street, site of The Siege of 1911;  click here to watch a short video where the details of The Siege may be learned;
  • The Blind Beggar Public Housewhich amongst other things, was the site of General William Booth’s first sermon that led to the foundation of The Salvation ArmyBlind Beggar Reduced
  • the huge brewery of Mann, Crossmann, Paulin; the brewery closed down and is now partly used as a Citizen’s Advice Bureau;Mann's
  • The Royal London Hospital and the shop where The Elephant Man, Joseph (John) Merrick was once displayed; the area in front of the Hospital and extending back to Mile End Gate was known as The Waste and was, and still is, a street market; the smells of the area were often the result of rotting fruit and blocked drains!The Royal London Hospital
  • Whitechapel Underground Station, part of the East London Metropolitan Line; there was a Mission and Lecture Hall adjacent to the Station, which I visited often, as I was friendly with the son of the caretaker; Whitechapel_tube_station_entrance
  • the Davenant Foundation Grammar School for Boys; the school apparently moved location in 1965;Devant Foundation School
  • adjacent to the School was the massive Salvation Army Mission & Hostelwhich was rebuilt, I believe, in the 1970s, and renamed as Booth House.Booth House - rebuilt hostelGeneral Booth opened a Soup Kitchen and Mission on Mile End Road not far from Mile End Gate. william boothToday, a statue of The General has been placed close to the site of The Mission, thanks to the generosity of American Members of The Salvation Army;
  • a large Jewish Immigrant Population who had come to London from Russia, Poland and Germany either before the Second World War or just after lived in the area when I was a child; this was the centre of Jewish Life in London; I remember seeing scores of Hasidim and less religious Jews in Whitechapel;  as a result, the area was home to a large number of Kosher Butchers etc and Religious Bookshops, which I found of great interest; further along Whitechapel High Street, were a number of tailoring establishments where many of the local populace worked;
  • the Whitechapel Bell Foundry where Big Ben and The Liberty Bell, amongst others, were struck;Whitechapel Bell Foundry
  • the Whitechapel Art Gallery; I was never fond of this establishment!  This was as a result of one of the mean guards who accused me of touching a drawing.  Aldgate_East_stn_northeast_buildingI was at The Gallery with my parents and was POINTING to a drawing when this dreadful man came running up and was screaming at me NOT TO TOUCH THE DISPLAYS.  My parents had brought me up to respect the property of others and not to touch anything in a museum or art gallery.  I tried to explain that I had not touched the drawing, but the guard would not listen and continued to complain.  Although my mother and my father said that I had not, the guard continued to bellow and not listen!  I remember that other visitors to The Gallery soon began to look at me and I began to feel embarrassed, like a VILLAIN!  Eventually my parents had enough of the guard’s abusive manner and told him, once more, that I had not touched the painting and then we walked out.  We never returned to The Gallery again;
  • Bloom’s Restaurant & Delicatessen; a wonderful restaurant that is sadly missed;Bloom's
  • Gardiner’s Corner where the large Gardiner’s Department Store stood and marked the joining of five roads including Commercial Streetand
  • On the North-East corner of Gardiner’s Corner, and the start of Commercial Street, stood what I used to believe was Aladdin’s Cave ………..  Woolworth’s!   Woolworth’s, during my childhood days was every schoolboy’s idea of a magical kingdom, as it used to sell (almost) everything that could possibly be of value to such clientele:  cheap, tooth-rotting boiled sweets, little metal model cars and aeroplanes, cardboard masks, balloons, etc etc etc.  In addition, this branch of F.W. Woolworth Limited, had doors on both Commercial Street and Whitechapel High Street.  This meant that chasing games could be played in The Store since both sets of doors offered escape roots.  HoweverThe Store was constantly patrolled by Floor Walkers who were nasty young men in suits with no sense of humour and who had forgotten that Woolworth’s belonged to us and spent their time trying to catch young boys and hurl them out into the street!

Woolworth at Gardiners CollageTop: F.W. Woolworth Limited at Gardiner’s Corner during the 1950s
Bottom: the building more recently

  • Not far from Gardiner’s Corner, on Commercial Road (one of the five roads that met at The Corner) was the Grand Palais, a Yiddish Theatre, which was still there during my childhood.Grand-Palais-Collage
  • close to the union of Commercial Road and Gardiner’s Corner is Proof House, home of The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers;Proof House red.
  • Middlesex Street-Petticoat Lane, one of the streets leading off Whitechapel High Street, is a Sunday Street Market that has existed since well over a hundred years; the market extends to Wentworth Street, which is a six-days-a-week market (see below); and
  • For many years, at the union of Coulston Street and Whitechapel High Street stood the stall of Tubby Issacs where shellfish and Jellied Eels were sold.  My father used to prepare both hot and jellied eels and meat pies in the shop we once had at Mile End Gate.  The Tubby Issacs Stall opened in 1919, but sadly closed down for business in June 2013 after ninety-four years of business ……. a sad loss of yet another link to the old East End!Tubby Issacs


Commercial Street is another street of interest and was filled with many places of note.  During early Elizabethan Times, the area was home to a number of theatres, however following their closure, they moved to the South Bank.  I read recently that the area was now the site of excavations in order to locate the sites of the theatres.

Further along the Street is the entrance to Wentworth Street, which was and still is a street market.  When I was a child, the market was filled with stalls and shops owned by Jewish venders.  My mother loved Jewish food and we often came here to buy tasty foods and would always get a Salt-Beef Sandwich.  My mouth waters at the thought!  Of course, English Salt-Beef Sandwiches were much smaller than those served in the U.S., but nonetheless, very, very tasty!

A little further along Commercial Street is the entrance to Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, which was still in use as a major centre of distribution when I was at school.

old-spitalfields-marketCommercial Street Entrance to Spitalfields Market

Opposite the entrance to Spitalfields Market is the Christ Church Spitalfieldsnow a Grade I Listed Building, but during my childhood, was rather the worst for wear.  Seemingly, The Church underwent major restoration in 1976 and has been returned to its former glory.  I can not say that this church was one of my favourite, which perhaps is due to my Grandmother, my mother’s mother.  She insisted that Jack the Ripper used to cut off the heads of women and put them on the spikes of the railings surrounding The Church.  I have since learned that she over-exaggerated the number of murders actually committed by Jack!  My Grandmother never really liked me and predicted that I would spend much of my life in prison!

Christchurch SpitalfieldsChristchurch Spitalfields


On the East side of Commercial Street was, to my childhood eyes, a church-like brown building that I always liked.  This was Toynbee Hall.  During those days, I never quite understood WHAT those that worked at The Hall actually did!  Why would I since I was fortunate enough to have enough food to eat and a warm, dry home to live in, unlike many children and adults in the area.



It was not until I was a little older that I learned about one of the services offered at The Hall.  Things had changed and we were now about to join the troubled of society: sadly, we were on the verge of being evicted from our shop.  I remember that my parents became more and more desperate as to where we were going to live!  Rented accommodation was at a premium in Bethnal Green and Stepney during the early 1950s since little new home building and restoration had been done  since before the War.  I remember, one afternoon, after school had finished, my mother took me to Toynbee Hall to seek Legal Aid in the hope of avoiding the inevitable.  After speaking to a number of representatives, we left The Hall.  Later my mother said that although the people she spoke to tried to be helpful, since these were the days of Slum Lords where Landlords had total power over their housing and no decent Rent Acts were in place, they were unable to offer help except to give her the addresses of local Hostels, which my mother was not eager to accept.


Over the years, I used to pass Toynbee Hall whenever I went to the East End.  I was pleased to see the new building and especially pleased to learn that one of these had been named in honour of Mr. Attlee.


I am glad to see that the institution is still there for those in need, but it is disturbing to note what appears on their website:

Child Poverty is at 49% in Tower Hamlets – the highest in the U.K.

Just imagine what it would be if there was no Toynbee Hall!


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  1. Paul Bland

    Hello Charles. What an enjoyable read this is. I confess ignorance of the Settlement Houses until I looked at this. I had heard of Toynbee Hall, and many of the individuals to whom you refer, but I did not know of, or appreciate, the framework which pulled these strands together. As usual, you have woven an intricate tapestry of fact, experience and context which, however has great clarity to provide a logical series of images. I have enjoyed a salt-beef sandwich from Blooms and used to travel up and down the Mile End Road in the 70s. Sadly, it is much changed as the Jewish population has largely moved away, to be replaced by individuals of a less inclusive and aspirational kind!


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