A Pioneer Philanthropist, July 1920



Canon Barnett, by S. A. Barnett, 2 vols., Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1919.

A book entitled "Canon Barnett, His Life, Work, and Friends," reminds us all once again of the close connection between the first university settlement established in East London and the English universities themselves. For, although Canon Barnett was known as Vicar of St. Jude’s Whitechapel, as Canon of Bristol Cathedral and afterwards of Westminster Abbey, it is as Warden of Toynbee Hall that he most notably achieved the aims, [page 2] set forth the principles, and lived the life that is so graphically recorded by his wife in these two volumes. An enthusiastic Oxford man, living for years in the midst of that residue of helpless poverty accumulated in the east end of London, he came back from time to time to urge: “the responsibilities of the universities in the matters of social progress; the harm that tends to result from class isolation and class ignorance; the need of comradeship and of association between those whose opportunities had differed in kind.”

Years ago when we used to lecture upon the beginnings of the settlement movement, it was customary to refer to that spasm of pity and remorse evoked in the early 'eighties by a little book called "The Bitter Cry of Outcast London." The pathos of it touched Oxford at a remarkable moment, for the university had for some time been driving towards the social problems of the great cities through the teachings of Thomas Hill Green and others. Certainly years ago when I visited Oxford, under the kindly guidance of Mr. and Mrs. Barnett, I had the sense of a widespread background for Toynbee Hall. Balliol College seemed much identified with it, not only because Jowett’s advice to young men “to make some of your friends among the poor” was much quoted, because Mr. Caird, who was then master, was most sympathetic with Canon Barnett’s current plans, but because the beautiful bas-relief of Arnold Toynbee had been placed in its library, as if the college were proudly cherishing the memory of her son who had deserted quiet cloisters for the noisy streets of London.

But as if other colleges would share the honor of this background, I was shown a window in Christ’s Cathedral embodying Burne Jones’s early work, which keeps alive the memory of Edward Denison, who charged with pity for the poor, had settled alone in East London, although he, dying young could only predict that which Mr. Barnett’s plan completed. Sidney Ball took us to visit his old rooms in Wadham where the idea of the university settlement had been so eagerly discussed by a group of men whose outlook on the world was not limited to the circle of academic interest but stretched beyond to the eternal problems of ignorance and poverty.

So far as the university settlement may be designed as one of [page 3] the Oxford movements, this book is an authoritative record of it and bears constant witness to the enormous importance its founder attached to education and his increasing resourcefulness in bringing it to “the dwarfed and mutilated existence in the East End,” through conferences, smokers, lectures, reading parties, music, pictures, [traveler’s] clubs, and many another device. For the inauguration of all these he did not ask for allegiance to any [program] of reform. He put his faith in men rather than in measures, and considered personal contact with poverty as the indispensable method of approach. Although he gave much time and effort to remedial legislation, he believed that the value of laws to a community lies not so much in their intrinsic merits as in their administration, and that this in turn depends upon personal qualities. He therefore urged Oxford men to live in the East End and to qualify for such humble offices as Poor Law Guardians, Board School Visitors, and Inspectors for tenements and factories.

Toynbee Hall built in Whitechapel next to St. Jude’s Church, around a quadrangle reminiscent of Oxford, as was also its library, its commons, and general appointments, was opened at Christmas time in 1884. Canon Barnett made no appeal to self-sacrifice, or perhaps it was that he made it completely. I recall that one of the early Toynbee men once said to me, “The warden insists that we must sacrifice the very feeling that we are sacrificing.”

Perhaps it was the apathy of the disinherited which disturbed him most, the lack of meaning and the joylessness in life. He wrote once, “When work ceases, the one resource of the poor is excitement; anxiety consumes their powers in pleasure as in work.” He begged the residents to keep alive their imaginations, to remember that education involves trained perceptions and insights, the capacity for varied and increasing enjoyment. He was much pleased with the erection of two students' houses, Wadham and Balliol, for young workingmen of studious habits, as in line with his hopes.

Throughout these two volumes Mrs. Barnett unfolds the growth and development of Toynbee Hall so charmingly and indirectly, as it were, that the reader is carried along with a sense of participation in its many activities. The list of these, educational, artistic, and recreative, is bewildering in its variety [page 4] and number. The men who lived there or those who came to teach and to lecture, include some of the foremost names in English political life. A large list of the membership in the House of Commons, who testified to the “valuable sympathy,” was led by the names of Mr. Asquith and Mr. Balfour. It was with the help of such men that careful investigation into the life and conditions of labor in the East End was undertaken, that remedial measures were discussed and later turned into legislation. Mrs. Barnett tells us of all this and of much more, of the vacations and travels undertaken so joyously by her husband and herself to India, the United States, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most graphic description of these is that of their winter in Egypt with the difficult Herbert Spencer. Through it all she records their unceasing effort in all sorts of ways, trivial and great, to make the living conditions in East London more reasonable. Their mutual endeavors, their insight into actual conditions, did much to change the whole course of philanthropy and to direct it into fuller channels. Their activities, of course, constantly broke out of the philanthropic field, and one tried experiment after another was handed over to “the cheerful taxpayer.”

To the very end of his life the founder of Toynbee Hall remained a student. It has been said that his constant and passionate demand for more knowledge for the working people was based upon the same religious motive that created Oxford and Cambridge centuries ago when learning was shared with the laity.

Be that as it may, Barnett House established at Oxford as a memorial and opened by Lord Bryce in June, 1914, inevitably suggests a new college, founded as the older ones had been in order to minister to the genuine needs of those demanding knowledge. It exists according to its own statement to provide a [center] for the advancement of knowledge of modern social and economic problems, to promote the work of university settlements, of the Workers’ Educational Association, of the tutorial classes, and of other bodies which are dealing with the problems of adult citizen education. Last June, at a reception in Barnett House given to Mrs. Barnett and myself, I found the rooms crowded with scholars and trades unionists, a combination which we ought easily [page 5] to find in the United States but which in point of fact is more often seen in England. The fine white head of the Poet Laureate rose above the shaved head of the resolute young miner who had come up for a term at Ruskin College and was a little too determined not to be frightened by anything Oxford might offer.

I envied for our universities the friendly discussion, the fine library to which almost every scholar there had contributed, and above all the young workingman in charge of the Workers' Educational Association who had his office on the top floor of Barnett House. At the lunch in the beautiful dining hall of All Souls, in the garden of Balliol, where the genial master urged us to pluck mulberries, either from the tree planted by Queen Elizabeth or from the two daughter trees, according to one's preference in centuries and mulberries, I was constantly teased by the thought that, of course, Oxford must be superior to us in tradition and beauty, but why did we allow it to eclipse us in friendly relations to workingmen, in freedom of discussion, and in daring experiments in adult education? A small group of “Y” girls and a larger one of American soldiers -- sightseeing students from the London School of Economics -- who had joined their comrades in Oxford for the day, came with us as the master of Balliol led us from one portrait to another hanging on the walls of the Commons, and the brown rafters rang with their free laughter as he told the famous stories about Bishop Temple whose portrait was so misleadingly correct and ecclesiastical. Would these young people perhaps bring back to America an enthusiasm for that which was so carefully stated in the Barnett House “Aims” under the caption “Promoting educational conferences and inquiries with reference to adult education in political, social, and economic questions”? How sorely do we need such promotion in the United States! How may we stir the American scholar to discontent that so much of our current education on these questions is derived from partisan newspapers, misinformed reporters, unbalanced propagandists, and homesick refugees? Even at that moment, however, I had had my first reading of the Canon Barnett book, of the “life which,” in the words of the Archbishop of York, “was with a singularly beautiful community of mind and spirit, shared, understood, and interpreted by his wife”; and I knew that a wide reading of it “at home” would do much [page 6] to restore our faith in those qualities set forth on every page: trust in God, an unresting search for knowledge, tolerance, and [persistence], and above all courage and good will. Without them [perhaps] no problems of any sort may be solved.