Skip to content

Henrietta Barnett & The Workhouse Children

September 21, 2021
by John Walker

John Walker author of Out of Sight, Out of Mind – Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children’s Workhouse, 1854-1907 explores the forgotten achievements of Henrietta Barnett

Photograph by Henrietta Barnett


Aspects of the work of Samuel & Henrietta Barnett as social reformers are well-documented. Samuel is remembered for founding Toynbee Hall and the Whitechapel Gallery, while Henrietta is celebrated chiefly for establishing Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Yet new evidence reveals Henrietta’s humanitarian achievements in fighting to ameliorate the plight of tens of thousands of workhouse children. Her work easily matches her husband’s in improving conditions for Whitechapel’s poor.

Henrietta Rowlands married the recently-ordained Samuel Barnett in 1873 when she was just twenty-two. They were both from comfortably middle-class backgrounds tinged with significant elements of social concern and reforming zeal. They sought a new parish, away from subrban London, where they could pursue their missionary ambitions. The Bishop of London posted them to St Jude’s, Spitalfields, which he described as “the worst parish in my diocese, inhabited largely by criminals.”

Much of the credit for their subsequent achievements is given to Samuel, his status enhanced by a two-volume biography written by Henrietta. By contrast, Henrietta’s autobiography remains incomplete, an unpublished manuscript gathering dust in the London Metropolitan Archives. If she been as assiduous in publicising her own achievements, perhaps the story that follows would have been appreciated more widely?

One of Samuel’s first actions, on arriving in Spitalfields, was to get himself appointed to the Board of Guardians which was responsible for the large workhouse on Vallance Rd. The Poor Law regime at the time, encouraged by local Guardians, offered no cushion in the form of welfare payments or ‘outdoor relief’ for those who fell on hard times. Destitution meant the workhouse and Whitechapel had one of London’s largest.

In the eighteen-fifties, Whitechapel’s Guardians built a children’s workhouse in Forest Gate to separate the youngsters from what they regarded as the feckless behaviour and bad example of their indolent parents. Many of the buildings survive today and can almost be seen beside the railway line between Forest Gate and Maryland from trains passing from Essex towards Liverpool Street.

This ‘school’ soon housed as many as nine hundred pupils from the ages of two up to fourteen or fifteen years old. Within a few years Whitechapel was subletting places to the Guardians of Hackney and Poplar to accommodate their children. In the second half of the nineteenth century, an estimated fifty thousand East End youngsters passed through.

Conditions were harsh. Children were forcibly taken from their parents and would be lucky to see them for two hours in three months. On arrival at the school, most were separated from their siblings, never to see them again until they left. They were shaven, given soulless uniforms and subsisted upon inadequate diets.

For the first fifty years, the establishment was run by ex-military personnel, whose focus was on discipline and cost-saving rather than child care. Classes of up to ninety pupils were taught largely by unqualified teachers. All activity was undertaken in silence and the dormitories were overcrowded. In modern terminology, it was a ‘total institution’ from which children were permitted no escape. In all but name it was a prison, yet the inmates’ only crime was being born into poverty.

The Forest Gate District School, as it was officially known, was an institution of the kind sometimes called industrial schools, promoted as establishments that taught children trades to keep them from poverty in adulthood. But this was one of many lies. The average age of children was a little over ten years and official reports condemned the ‘industrial’ training as inadequate. In reality, children were employed as free labour – scrubbing acres of floors, peeling tons of potatoes and mending tattered garments – to save staff wages.

After witnessing the conditions at the Forest Gate School, Samuel arranged for Henrietta to become a Poor Law Guardian, as only the second woman to do so. She was immediately appointed an unpaid governor of the school, as the first woman in England to hold such a post. And there she remained, as the only female governor, for the next twenty years.

Henrietta set out to humanise the system, particularly for girls, emphasising that a caring upbringing would have beneficial effects on their own children. Yet her pleas for reform were ignored, met with hostility and dismissed in the words of one patronising school inspector as ‘sentimental follies.’

In response, Henrietta abandoned governors’ meetings and sought to effect change by direct action. She took great delight in ensuring that the matron – the inappropriately named ‘Miss Perfect’ – address all the girls by their first names, rather than by numbers or the all-purpose ‘girl.’ She knew that subjecting girls to whole days polishing a floor or washing uniforms was not adequate training for the occupation most would face on leaving – domestic service. She and Samuel opened another home in Hampstead, where they took a dozen girls at a time and trained them in domestic service skills, in preparation for future employment.

Henrietta acknowledged the hazards girls might face when placed into service as young as fourteen. She was at the forefront in establishing the Metropolitan Association for the Befriending of Young Servants in the eighteen-seventies. Girls were visited annually in their places of employment, until the age of twenty-one, to ensure they were not physically or sexually abused or exploited, and were assisted in moving to new positions if necessary.

She led Sunday walks across Wanstead Flats and encourage her middle-class friends to visit and read with the children, bringing books to the library and supplying toys. She promoted a London-wide scheme to fund pictures for the bare walls of District Schools. She established the Children’s Country Holiday Fund, obtaining royal patronage in order to raise funds to send children on camping holidays in Essex.

Incrementally and almost by stealth, Henrietta Barnett humanised the conditions, particularly for girls, during her first fifteen years as a governor. But it was in the final five years of her governorship that she was to have her greatest impact on the school and the conditions of all workhouse children.

On New Year’s Eve 1890, twenty-six boys died in a fire in the school and the incident drew national condemnation, leading to changes in fire regulations for workhouses. Henrietta befriended one of the heroes of the fire, Henry Elliott, a porter who rescued other boys from the smoke-filled dormitories.

Although there was an inquest at which the superintendent of the school was praised for his swift action in minimising fatalities, it only later transpired – revealed in Henrietta’s writings – that the children had been locked in their dormitories so the staff could go out to celebrate New Year.

Worse followed three years later when an outbreak of food poisoning swept through the school, killing two children and seriously affecting up to a hundred-and-fifty others. At the inquest, Henry Elliott, hero of the fire, condemned the management for substituting fresh meat with the maggot-ridden meat which caused the poisoning. The governors suspended him as a trouble-maker and, even though his whistle-blowing was proven to be accurate, they fired him.

When the corrupt behaviour of the management which led to both the fire and food poisoning went unpunished, Henrietta Barnett drew upon her personal connections to effect change. Her brother-in-law, Ernest Hart, was editor of the British Medical Journal. Working with Henrietta, he undertook a two-year campaign against what became known as Barrack Schools, and the Forest Gate establishment in particular, which gained traction and attention in decision-making circles.

As her second line of attack, Henrietta provoked a Parliamentary Inquiry into Barrack Schools, led by former Liberal Minister, Anthony Mundella. His 1896 report was condemning, calling for closure and replacement with more child-centric, parent-led institutions. The force of the accumulated evidence was such that the President of the Local Government Board, the government department with oversight of Poor Law establishments, had no choice but to accept the recommendations.

Henrietta’s governorship at the school ended when the Mundella Report was published. But as she left, two of the country’s first working-class guardians and workhouse school governors arrived to complete her work.

They were Poplar’s Will Crooks, a former workhouse boy, and George Lansbury. Both later became Labour MPs but each cut his public service teeth, battling locally and nationally to get the Forest Gate District School shut down. Their plan was to move the children to more suitable accommodation in separate houses run by houseparents in Brentwood. Although cricitised for their extravagance, the homes they established later gained acclaim and royal patronage, becoming the model for twentieth-century children’s homes.

Henrietta Barnett deserves to be credited for this change. Frustrated by years of slow reform, she realised that the abolition of Barrack Schools was the only solution. She pursed the cause with a dedication and determination that changed the lives of tens of thousands of children for the better in East London and far beyond.

In a collection of essays published in 1933, Henrietta summarised what she found at Forest Gate and why it had to change.

“Children in the schools soon develop a stigma. … The whole life is too much like that of a prison or a convent. … the children who are brought up in such dread and artificial surroundings are ill-prepared to fit into a world where growth and change are universal laws.”

The abolition legacy is hers.


Photograph of boys at the Forest Gate District School in the eighteen-eighties by Henrietta Barnett

The Forest Gate District School

Images of the fire at the school from the Illustrated London News, 1891

Hutton Poplars, the replacement for the Forest Gate District School

Henrietta Barnett

You may also like to read about

At Toynbee Hall

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    September 21, 2021

    Thank you so much for this. It’s horrendous how these children were treated – and the terrible part is that this kind of abuse still goes on in poor areas around the world. As for Henrietta – what a lovely, soft, kind face. You can feel her warmth.

  2. September 21, 2021

    What a story! Have never heard of Henrietta (of course), but can really identify with her committee methods! What a tremendous ‘do-gooder’ – we need to reclaim that phrase. I feel a badge coming on at the very least. Thank you GA!

  3. Eve permalink
    September 21, 2021

    Thank goodness for Henrietta’s ‘sentimental follies’ in reforming the young lives of the poor & cleaning up the corrupt charitable workhouses of the time. Bravo!

  4. September 21, 2021

    Truly a shocking report on existing facts of history. The work and personal commitment of Henrietta Barnett deserves the highest honour.

    The book “OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND” by John Walker seems so important to me that I will treat myself to it.

    Love & Peace

  5. September 21, 2021

    Wonderful woman. Any idea what happened to the heroic Henry Elliot?

  6. Annie Green permalink
    September 21, 2021

    When I hear people smugly talking about Victorian Values, my fists clench. Such widespread and vicious cruelty towards the totally innocent. Thank heavens for her courage and determination. My grandmother was brought up in a similar – but not nearly so appalling – cottage home, which trained her for service at 14. She never spoke of it. I only found out a few years ago by guesswork and the census.

  7. September 21, 2021

    What a sobering, shocking read but thank you so much for sharing Henrietta’s so called ‘sentimental follies’ which were far from short sighted…. but so ahead of her time and inspirational.
    Such an amazing woman given the restraints she faced. Bravo Henrietta.

  8. Philippa Smith permalink
    September 21, 2021

    “By contrast, Henrietta’s autobiography remains incomplete, an unpublished manuscript gathering dust in the London Metropolitan Archives.”

    I can offer reassurance that Henrietta’s autobiography is not literally gathering dust! It is being carefully stored together with other archives to do with the Barnetts and Toynbee Hall at LMA:

    LMA/4063 Dame Henrietta Barnett’s ‘Autobiographical Memoirs’ together with autograph letters and other papers in manuscript and typescript by Henrietta and her friend and literary agent Marion Paterson.
    ACC/3813 records of Hampstead Garden Suburb.
    A/TOY records of Toynbee Hall founded in 1884 by Rev. Samuel Barnett.
    F/BAR family papers gathered by Henrietta Barnett for the purpose of recalling events in her own life and of writing the life of her husband Canon Barnett published in 1918.

    These are feely available for research. Access information and a link to the catalogue may be found here:

    Philippa Smith
    Head of Collections
    London Metropolitan Archives

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 21, 2021

    Thank you, John Walker, for introducing me to Henrietta Barnett. Like others, I’d sadly never heard of her.

    After reading about all Henrietta did for the children, I am not surprised to see her face glowing with intelligence and love. I want to read the book and learn more about this incredible woman.

  10. September 21, 2021

    It’s easy to forget the postive – and, in this case, almost invisible- impact Victorian philanthropy had upon the lives of the poor. Of course, some were stuffed-shirt do-gooders, who liked to be seen supporting the ‘deserving poor’ but the legacy of women like Henrietta is so important.

  11. September 21, 2021

    Clearly Mr Walker paints a fascinating & informative picture for which the reader may wish to use as a window to view into history,I remember the alarming phrase children should be seen but not heard being used in the 60s & 70s when I was a child

  12. September 21, 2021

    Newham Bookshop have copies in store.

  13. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 21, 2021

    Thank you for this article, GA. Henrietta Barnett is one of the unsung heroes we were never taught about in school. I, too, wonder what became of Henry Elliot. Without more information about him – his age at a given time – it would be hard to find out through censuses and death records.
    There was so much cruelty in those days. But people are still sleeping on the streets of London.

  14. September 21, 2021

    Archives aren’t dusty.

  15. John Campbell permalink
    September 21, 2021

    What an amazing lady. Her work should be known and her legacy honoured. The changes she brought to these awful environments must have meant so much to these poor kids.

  16. Claire D permalink
    September 22, 2021

    Henrietta was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1917 and a Dame of the same order in 1924. Those are significant honours of recognition.

  17. Micky Watkins permalink
    September 22, 2021

    I have written a biography :-
    ‘Henrietta Barnett, Social Worker and Community Planner’ by Micky Watkins.
    Obtainable for £10 from
    Micky Watkins,
    Hampstead Garden Suburb Archives Trust,
    862 Finchley Rd.,
    NW11 6AB

    I am certainly going to buy John Walker’s book which is evidently very well researched.

    Henrietta had immense energy and was the creator of Hampstead Garden Suburb, the very antithesis of life in the East End, a place where children could be happy

  18. Cherub permalink
    September 22, 2021

    The children on the photos look like concentration camp victims. You can keep Victorian values in the past as far as I’m concerned. I read Charles Booth’s London in the early 90s and whilst it was fascinating it was also deeply disturbing in parts.

  19. September 24, 2021

    Such inhumane treatment. It makes my heart bleed reading such reports and stories as this. Thank heavens for the Henrietta’s of this world, and those who followed in her footsteps

  20. October 6, 2021

    A pupil at Henrietta Barnett School and daughter of Peter Barraclough, the minister of the Free Church, Central Square, NW11, I grew up within the sight of the school founded in Henrietta’s name. My parents continued her work both in education, social housing and other philanthropic activities. She was at the fore front of women’s emancipation and led by example. Proud to have been a pupil.

  21. Ronit Zwebner permalink
    October 8, 2021

    As a graduate of Henrietta Barnett School I am so proud to have been part of the school & have even more respect for our founder. Thank you for enlightening us. I will always remember her portrait in the school hall where her eyes followed us wherever we were seated.

  22. Judi Barrett permalink
    October 11, 2021

    A fascinating article. I went to Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden Suburb and so knew something of her reforming achievements but her work to improve the lives of these poor children in the East End is on another level.

    It was under Elizabeth I (yes, “Good Queen Bess”!) that poverty was in many ways made a crime and it is dreadful that this attitude persisted for so long. There are still traces of it today in the way people are treated.

  23. November 30, 2021

    I agree with Judi. Perhaps laws making poverty a crime are the reason for such appalling cruelty seen not only in ‘homes’ such as these but also in schools and hospitals right through into the 1950s and 1960s. I cannot imagine that children would ever have been treated so cruelly in countries like Italy or Spain.

  24. Heather Rohrer permalink
    December 13, 2021

    I too attended Henrietta Barnett Junior School in Hampstead Garden Suburb, from 1948 to 1951.
    I never knew of the amazing attributes of our founder and never thought to ask my mother why
    she sent me there. It dawns on me, all these years later, that her reason may have stemmed from the fact that she herself was raised in Stepney, in the East End and must have known the poverty –
    first hand, being one of eight children whose father was a chimney-sweep.

  25. Alexandra Rook permalink
    January 4, 2022

    I have the great privilege of living in Waterlow Court built 1909, another prescient part of HB’s vision for a socially inclusive, healthy place to live, designed specifically for single professional women who were then seeking emancipation in the post-Victorian era, living independently, earning their own living. It is a collegiate building which was then well staffed with communal dining room in which they had to spend 6/- a week. The women entertained themselves & others with theatrical & musical performances. Every summer they hosted a charabanc of East End children to a picnic & games in the extensive grounds. We still have the original croquet set, altho’ our lawns are less well tended now to make much use of it sadly.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS