From Toynbee to TELCO via Chicago.

The evolution of responses to urban poverty and inequality.

Part 1. From settlement to social activism

Living and working in East London, I am interested in how our part of the city has been shaped by its past, how today’s inequality and social relations have grown from yesterday’s and how our history is intimately connected with that of other parts of the world. My interest also stems from having worked with The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) while at Tower Hamlets College in the late 1990’s and again more recently with London Citizens and Newham Citizens in Newham.

In early 2009, we ran an ‘Obama Day’ at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. I gave a short presentation to students on ‘Barack Obama – community organiser’ making the links between the East London settlement movement in the 19th century and the development of community organising in Chicago in the 20th century and back to London again via London Citizens.

The settlement movement in East London has played an important role in the development of social action to raise and address issues of poverty and inequality. This has been enriched by a transatlantic dialogue with similar settlements in the United States and both moved well beyond their paternalist and philanthropic roots.

We can trace the development of community action and community organising in East London from the university settlements created in the late 19th century via the urban settlement houses in the US which they inspired, back to East London with the community organising of (TELCO), now part of London Citizens.

Any historical account is partial and selective and this particular one is a narrative which links apparently contrasting responses to social inequality; following the thread from the 19th century through to the 21st.

I am aware that both the settlement movement and community organising have sometimes been critiqued as inadequate or apolitical responses to inequality, addressing symptoms rather than causes. Here I am taking a broad historical overview and touching on the class, gender and power relations which come into play when the better off choose to help the worse off.

This post sets the context and introduces the main characters and organisations. In the second post, I give a chronology of the main developments and some of the debates. I also look at the role of education and educational institutions in mapping and studying poverty, supporting, empowering and bettering people, promoting social change and social mobility and I suggest that a public education system which tries to address the needs of its local community could contribute to genuine urban and civic renewal in the 21st century.


The starting point is the desperate poverty in London and Chicago in the late 19th century; these two major industrial and trading cities both experienced rapid economic and social change leading to a massive concentration of both wealth and poverty, overcrowded, insanitary housing conditions, exploitation, malnutrition, poor health and low life expectancy.

The high levels of poverty in parts of both cities increased the cultural and geographical distance between people of different classes. The settlement movement can be seen as an early effort to bridge the social chasm between rich and poor, building on the philanthropic traditions of ‘visiting’ and charity work. For the well-to-do volunteers, this ‘slumming’ or ‘poverty tourism’ could also be dangerous and regarded as transgressive and subversive of the established order.

Charity and philanthropy are based on an asymmetry of power and privilege, they may also have religious ‘missionary’ roots, but they also involve compassion and genuine feelings of solidarity, often expressed in gendered terms as sisterhood / brotherhood or sometimes as ‘fellowship’.  Women in 19th century England had little power and their desire to make a difference to others were seen by many as undermining or threatening the very unequal ‘givens’ of Victorian society – the status quo in terms of women’s roles, family structure and the bigger social structure. The settlement story is often one of ‘new women’, often single, finding ways to respond to social inequality and testing the limits of the social order.

Key people and organisations:

Some of the key figures in the lineage are Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) and Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Other characters include: Charles Booth (1840-1916), Rebecca Cheetham (1852-1939), George Lansbury (1859-1940), Beatrice Webb (1859-1943), William Beveridge (1879-1963), Clement Attlee (1883-1967) and Barack Obama (b. 1961).

Rather than a sharp change from paternalism and charity to egalitarianism and campaigning, this is a story of a progression from philanthropy to solidarity, from the Barnetts at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel via Jane Addams at Hull House, Chicago, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in the US and back to Britain with Citizens UK.

The aims of Toynbee Hall were described by Henrietta Barnett as: To learn as much as to teach; to receive as much as to give.

The aims of Hull House were: to provide a center for a high civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago. Jane Addams advocated close co-operation with the neighbourhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and persistent pressure for reform.

Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation sees community organising as a power struggle to gain rights for marginalised communities.

Citizens UK organises communities to act together for power, social justice and the common good…We develop the leadership capacity of our members so they can hold politicians and other decision-makers to account on the issues that matter to them…Community organising is democracy in action: winning victories that change lives and transform communities.

This is the first of 2 posts based on a talk given to the East London History Workshop on 19th January 2017. The second is: From slumming to solidarity

See also:

Barack Obama community organiser

Jane Addams at Toynbee Hall

Women and the Settlement Movement  by Katharine Bentley Beauman (Radcliffe Press, 1996)

Slumming – Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven (Princeton, 2006)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s