The Industrial Revolution created an increase in the middle classes who were both well off and politically powerful, but it also created a huge influx of job seekers to cities. London’s population grew six-fold in the century between 1800 and 1900; sanitation and housing could not keep up with the revolution’s progress. Many people worked in poorly paid, unstable labouring or factory jobs. As Charles Booth’s Survey of London showed, poor communities lived in the shadow of rich ones, untouched by the optimistic progress of the Victorian era. In the late 19th Century, reformers tried to improve conditions by breaking the segregation between rich and poor neighbourhoods – and more importantly, by giving a neighbourly hand up, not a condescending handout. This neighbourly help came from settlement houses – community centres – that relied on live-in volunteers to organise, provide services, and lead courses. These volunteers were usually privileged young people, who gained the opportunity to live and work in urban communities and broaden their horizons. Settlement volunteers and users alike shared their skills and knowledge to help improve the communities they shared.
A number of Southwark’s settlements were founded specifically to meet women’s needs. While poor women faced dire living conditions, many better-off Victorian women (expected to be decorative, obedient, and largely confined to their homes) found their skills and education going to waste. In 1887, a group of women, led by Mina Gollack of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded an organisation to help these young women of education and leisure use their ‘time and talents’ to help others – this ideal was so important that it gave the organisation its name.
Time and Talents London settlement moved to Bermondsey Street in 1899. It offered classes in arts, crafts, cooking, reading, and writing, a library and canteen, clubs for young people, and from 1913, a hostel even provided girls with a safe, supportive place to live. It remains a vital community centre for Rotherhithe today.
Other settlements sought to harness the time and talents of other groups of women. The Women’s University Settlement began in 1887 in Nelson Square: Octavia Hill was one of its founders, and Helen Gladstone (daughter of the Prime Minister) was the first warden.
The Settlement gave female university students the opportunity to live independently as they provided educational and youth services to one of the poorest areas of London. It offered mother-and-baby clinics, youth clubs, and workshops providing employment opportunities for disabled people. After the Second World War, its work expanded to other areas of the community, which prompted its renaming to the Blackfriars Settlement in 1961. Blackfriars Settlement is still an important hub for the community and beyond, located in the heart of Blackfriars.
The Union of Girls’ Schools Settlement (better known later as the Peckham Settlement) was founded in 1896 and first operated from Calmington Road, Camberwell. By the early 20th century, the Union of Girls’ Schools for Social Service as it then became, had expanded to include hundreds of schools all over the country: this made the Peckham Settlement one of the biggest in London. Its wide base of support allowed it to provide funds to other organisations, and pioneer social welfare: the Settlement’s savings club was a model for the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1935, it opened London’s first nursery school, and a government sponsored job club – the first in a charity – in 1987. The settlement had royal approval, being supported by Princess Margaret until her death in 2002 and then the Countess of Wessex until 2012. Although the community centre closed in 2012, the Peckham Settlement continues to fund local charities and communities.
We have mentioned a few of Southwark’s historic settlements in this blog but we have a range of reading material on the history of many others. If you would like to visit Southwark Archives to view this material, please book an appointment by emailing email@example.com.