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At Toynbee Hall

August 18, 2014
by the gentle author

Arnold Toynbee was the Economic Historian who coined the phrase “Industrial Revolution” to describe the transformation that came upon this country in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of technological advance. As early as the eighteen-seventies, he recognised that the free market system disadvantaged the poor, and he came to Whitechapel from Oxford to encourage the creation of trade unions and public libraries, as a means to give practical expression to his social beliefs.

When Toynbee died from exhaustion at the age of thirty in 1883, his friend Samuel Barnett, working in partnership with his wife Henrietta Barnett, established an experimental university settlement in the East End founded upon these ideals and they named it Toynbee Hall. Opening on Christmas Eve 1884, it attempted to recreate a collegiate environment where the educated intellects of Oxford & Cambridge might live and work among the poor. Already, Samuel had been vicar of St Jude’s in Whitechapel since 1873, while his wife Henrietta had worked with Octavia Hill on social housing projects and counted John Ruskin as a personal mentor.

Residents were encouraged to place citizenship above self-interest and dedicate themselves to relationships that overcame class barriers. Barnett believed that educational and social projects undertaken by the students encouraged a social conscience among future generations of political leaders. It was an ethos that became manifest when Clement Attlee who had been secretary at Toynbee Hall became Prime Minister in 1945. Thus the entire project of the Welfare State and attendant modern notions of Social Welfare in Britain can be traced back to their origin in the work begun in Commercial St – which explains why more recent Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair came to launch his campaign to end child poverty at Toynbee Hall in 1999 and David Cameron chose to announce his Welfare Reforms here in 2011.

True to his belief in the social value of culture, Samuel Barnett founded the Whitechapel Gallery round the corner, that opened its doors in 1901, and Henrietta Barnett created Hampstead Garden Suburb in 1907, as the embodiment of her notion of humane housing for Londoners.

Despite damage by wartime bombing and the accretion of more recent buildings, the core structure of Samuel & Henrietta Barnett’s Toynbee Hall remains today. Built in the nineteenth-century Elizabethan style by Elijah Hoole, with gables, tall chimneystacks, mullioned windows and diamond-paned casements, and embellished with magnificent old fig trees, the dignified collegiate atmosphere prevails. At the heart of it are the oak-panelled Lecture Hall and the Dining Room (now the CR Ashbee Hall) with its original low table, conceived as a means to encourag those sitting around it into a more relaxed inter-relationship.

CR Ashbee, who later founded the Art Workers Guild in Bow, came here after graduating from Cambridge in 1886 and applied the principles of John Ruskin directly, by setting to work with his students to redecorate the dining room in the Arts & Crafts style. His tree of life design in relief upon the gilded plaster rondels became the symbol of Toynbee Hall. These medallions once punctuated murals painted by his students and early photos show his famous table surrounded by Morris’ Sussex chairs. Tantalisingly, murals in both of these major rooms have been painted out and, apart from the table, none of the original furnishings survive. Yet this sturdy old table, scratched and worn, evokes the presence of those who have gathered round it and the passionate discourse that has passed across it for over a century.

To visit Toynbee Hall is to be reminded of the origin of the notion of a modern compassionate society, the importance of universal education, and the duty of government to temper the excesses of the free market for the public benefit – and to recognise that these are ideas still worth striving for today.

Samuel Barnett with graduates of Oxford & Cambridge at Toynbee Hall c.1903-5

The Lecture Hall, c. 1900

Samuel Barnett

Henrietta Barnett

Painting a mural in the Lecture Hall in the nineteen-thirties

In the Lecture Hall today

Crests of Oxford and Cambridge colleges line the walls of the CR Ashbee Hall today

Busts of former luminaries – this one is John Profumo

The famous low table in sections designed by CR Ashbee as part of the room, to encourage a more relaxed relationship among those who sat around it

Rondels by CR Ashbee depicting the tree of life that became Toynbee Hall’s symbol – although a paint scheme based upon the original colours was introduced in the eighties, these walls were once painted with murals under the supervision of CR Ashbee

Sketch of the CR Ashbee Hall showing original furnishings including Sussex chairs by William Morris

Students’ common room

A scientific experiment

Elevation on Wentworth St

Original facade onto Commercial St

Bomb damage to the Commercial St facade

The clock tower of 1893

Bomb damage seen from the internal courtyard

The view from Commercial St once the bomb damage was cleared away

The view from Commercial St today

You may like to read about Toynbee Hall resident

Captain Shiv Banerjee, Justice of the Peace

15 Responses leave one →
  1. August 18, 2014

    Thank you for this great piece. It was the perfect setting for the East London Suffragettes festival 2 weeks ago.

  2. August 18, 2014

    Thanks for the article about Toynbee Hall, one of my favourite places when I grew up nearby. Valerie

  3. August 18, 2014

    How very inspiring. What a massive difference these people managed to make. How impressive.

  4. August 18, 2014

    Thank you so much for this illuminating article – I had no idea this was the birthplace of the Welfare State. Great piece!

  5. Sonia Murray permalink
    August 18, 2014

    Do any of the photo groups have ID’s on the back? Gran’s brother, Hector Suffling, was an assistant teacher at Millfields School and an honorary associate at Toynbee Hall, teaching art and typing – a record shows him at Toynbee Hall in 1905. He applied to Inner Temple in 1913 and became a barrister in 1919. I’d love to have a picture of him. Sadly, Gran’s photo albums were lost after she died.

    I visited Toynbee Hall in the 1980’s and the furniture in the dining hall was lovely, not the chairs in the photograph today.

  6. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    August 18, 2014

    been past it many times but never been inside ! Wonderful pictures

  7. August 18, 2014

    Fascinating historical research, thank you.

    The rooms and courtyard arragement are certainly better than they look today how ownderful to recreate this once again or something similar?…in a contemporary design of similar qulaity craftsmanship and detail.

  8. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    August 18, 2014

    I believe I played pool at Toynbee Hall in 1977 with my Camdentown boyfriend, Wm. “Kenny” Kennedy.

  9. liz allen permalink
    August 19, 2014

    The notion of a compassionate society is worth striving for and this quick trip through the history of Toynbee Hall helps us to see that the people who have gone before have laid down the foundations for this.
    The photos have really come out well especially the old ones they look better than the originals they came from!
    Look forward to other articles.
    Liz working in the Archive at Toynbee Hall

  10. August 19, 2014

    A marvellous place.

  11. Hetty Startup permalink
    August 19, 2014

    Thanks, Gentle author. The Passmore Edwards (Mary Ward) Settlement has many debts to Toynbee Hall. It is a rich seam this settlement stuff. Hetty

  12. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    August 22, 2014

    On the other hand, maybe it was at the bar in the Whitechapel Polytechnic?

  13. Molasses permalink
    August 28, 2014

    Admiring the beauty in both meaning and prose of sentence below….

    ” is to be reminded of the origin of the notion of a modern compassionate society, the importance of universal education, and the duty of government to temper the excesses of the free market for the public benefit – and to recognise that these are ideas still worth striving for today.”

  14. m.hardie permalink
    February 16, 2015

    Used to go to the cubs and scouts in the 1950’s.
    Ist Stepney

  15. November 25, 2019

    Thinking of Toynbee Hall as the 40 years’ labor John Profumo put in there is being commended to Prince Andrew.
    Thanks for this. How great were the Victorians. How mighty the bombs. How glad I am to see this institution surviving under the good name of Arnold Toynbee.
    Why were the murals painted over? They look very Bloomsbury/Roger Fry/Omega Workshop.

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