Toynbee Hall, Commercial street, Whitechapel, 1921. Jane Addams of Chicago (aged 60) is visiting Europe. She is in conversation with a young Whitechapel schoolteacher while preparing for the arrival of four other eminent educators.
If I may ask, Miss Addams, are you a teacher?
In a manner of speaking I am, but not quite in the sense that you are. In fact I nearly became a medical doctor as I had formed a plan of working with the poor by practising medicine. At about your age I enrolled at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia but had to abandon my medical studies soon after because of a serious spinal difficulty.
Did you not return to your studies?
No, I could not and I was then all at sea in terms of my life’s purpose. I had a great desire to really live in the world rather than in some shadowy reflection of it but I had no plan of action.
I was one of those cultivated young people who have no recognised outlet for their faculties. They suffer from a sort of ‘shock of inaction’. They know about the great problems of their society; the sickness, suffering, idleness, ignorance and want, but they have no way to bring about change and their uselessness hangs heavily on them.
Indeed, I sometimes wonder myself if I am doing any good with the children in my care.
You are doing one of the most important jobs there is. Believe me, you must not be in any doubt that you are doing good. Tell me, have you read Tolstoy?
No. Well, I know he is a Russian.
If you read nothing else, you must read Tolstoy, he is an inspiration. In one of his writings he describes what he calls “the snare of preparation” by which he means the ways we find of entangling young people with inactivity at the very point when they are most longing to make a better world.
Canon Barnett, who created this settlement here at Toynbee Hall recognised this need of an outlet for the young men of Oxford and Cambridge universities. He built on this impulse to share the lives of the poor, to be of service to others. He understood that man’s action is found in his connection with his fellows.
Have you been in England many times?
A few, but it was my first visit that I remember most vividly – in 1883. One incident in particular; I witnessed the late Saturday night sale of decaying fruit and vegetables by auction down a dingy street off the Mile End road. There was a huge mass of pale ragged people bidding their farthings for one vegetable at a time which the auctioneer would fling scornfully at the successful bidder. I saw a man devour a raw, unwashed cabbage on the kerbside as soon as he had won it.
I don’t believe life has improved that much for those ragged people.
That is how I received an ineradicable impression of the wretchedness of this so called ‘submerged tenth’ of society. Myriads of hands; empty, pathetic and workworn, clutching for food which was already unfit to eat. For the rest of that first visit, all huge London seemed unreal save the poverty of its East End.
Did you visit Toynbee Hall in its early days?
It wasn’t until a later visit in 1888 that I was able to come here. Once I understood what a settlement was, I became confident that although life itself might contain many difficulties, my period of mere passive receptivity had come to an end and I had at last finished with the everlasting ‘preparation for life’.
You decided to take action?
In America we have more democratic instincts and fellowship comes more naturally but our educated young people also felt the need to put theory into practice very keenly. I was one of them. I very much wanted to be useful.
So what did you do?
I returned to Illinois and, together with my friend Ellen Gates Starr, we created a social settlement in a place called Hull House in Chicago. And 30 years later it’s still open.
Inspired by Chapters 3 and 4 of ‘Twenty Years at Hull House’ by Jane Addams (1910)
Barack Obama community organiser (May 2014)