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Timeline :: First University settlement established

Toynbee Hall

The first university settlement house was established at Toynbee Hall, in London in 1884, and it became a model for others across Britain and the United States. The settlement was founded by Rev Samuel Barnett, a Church of England vicar, and his wife Henrietta, as its website states, 'in response to a growing realisation that enduring social change would not be achieved through the existing individualised and piecemeal approaches'.

The plan was to create a place where the future leaders of the country might live and work as volunteers in London’s East End, 'bringing them face to face with poverty, and giving them the opportunity to develop practical solutions that they could take with them into national life'.  So students from Oxford and Cambridge universities were given the opportunity to live in the settlement house in the East End of London, providing a range of educational and social services to the neighbouring community and its residents, including clubs and societies, conferences on social problems, University Extension lectures and recreational activities. Within 15 years of Toynbee Hall starting, over 30 other settlements had been started, with settlements for women students as well as men (see Bamford, 2015).

Scotland (2007) notes that some time before Toynbee Hall was established, a number of public school and univeristy 'missions' were already in existence in parts of London; for example, Uppingham School started a school mission in the east end in 1869, and Winchester College set up a mission at Bromley in 1876, while Christ Church Oxford did so in Poplar in 1881. What was new about Barnett's idea was the residential component - that the rich might learn from living amongst the poor. Bamford (2015) agrees. Writing about Barnett's approach, he reminds us that it was significant for two related reasons. Not only did it fly in the face of the individualising and blaming of other approaches including that of the Charity Organisation Society (COS), but Barnett believed in 'starting where the client is'; he argued that only by living and working alongside those living in poverty would we be able to fully understand 'the nature and impact of poverty on the human spirit'. And only through this might we begin to 'build on the strengths of the community' (p12)

Many of those who came to Toynbee Hall as students – including Clement Attlee, William Beveridge and Charles Booth – went on to bring about radical social change while maintaining a lifelong connection with Toynbee Hall. Practical training was, for them, a precursor to another profession – often the law or the church or politics, not an end in itself. But for middle-class women, such training was 'an occupational end in itself' (see Parry and Parry, 1979).

Toynbee Hall still helps the East End community in London today. The archives from its Victorian beginnings up to the present day are available at Toynbee Hall and at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Edinburgh University established its settlement in 1905.

Source: Toynbee Hall website,

Bamford, T. (2015) A Contemporary History of Social Work, Learning from the Past, Bristol: Policy Press.

Parry, N. and Parry, J. (1979) ‘Social Work, Professionalism and the State’, in Parry, N., Rustin, M. and Satyamurti (eds) Social Work, Welfare and the State, London: Edward Arnold.

Scotland, N. (2007) Squires in the Slums. Settlements and Missions in Late-Victorian London, London: I.B. Tauris.