From ‘slumming’ to solidarity.

The evolution of responses to urban poverty and inequality.

Part 2. From London to Chicago and back again

Two selective and interlinked chronologies:


1884: Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel was founded by Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936).

1889: Charles Booth published the first edition of Life and Labour of the People in London while working at Toynbee Hall and with the help of Toynbee Hall residents, School Board visitors and other researchers, including Beatrice Potter who later married Sidney Webb.

1889: Mansfield House in Plaistow was established by students of Mansfield College, Oxford. This settlement pioneered an early version of free legal aid ‘The Poor Man’s Lawyer’, organised orchestras, choirs, dramatic and leadership development, ‘brotherhood and civic societies’ encouraging participation in politics. It’s first warden Percy Alden was also a Fabian and a councillor on West Ham Borough Council and later became MP for Tottenham, first as a Liberal and then for Labour.

1892: The associated Canning Town Women’s Settlement was established. Its first warden was Rebecca Cheetham, serving until 1917 and also active in public life. From 1903 to 1939 she was a co-opted member of the Education Committee of West Ham Borough Council, England’s first Labour controlled council (from 1898), overseeing the rapid development of new schools and colleges.

1903: William Beveridge joins Toynbee Hall and works with Barnett on unemployment relief.

1905-1909: Beatrice Webb and Charles Booth serve on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law with Webb producing a minority report advocating minimum levels of welfare.

1910: Clement Attlee becomes Toynbee Hall secretary for a year, and wrote on ‘The teaching of citizenship in public schools’ for the Toynbee Record. His 1920 book ‘The Social Worker’ drew on his experience at Toynbee Hall.


1888: Jane Addams visited Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel having previously been to London in 1883 and been deeply shocked by the poverty she saw in East London.

1889: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House, ‘a community of university women’ in the Near West Side of Chicago, an ethnically diverse community of recent European immigrants; Italian, German, Jewish, Greek, Irish, Polish etc. The aims of Hull House were: to focus on the causes of poverty through Research (gathering information, mapping inequality), Reform (eg: through campaigning, legislation or local government) and Residence (living and working within the community).

Hull House helped to establish the first juvenile court, the first public playground, bathhouse and public gymnasium and influenced legislation on child labour, work safety, unemployment pay and immigrant rights and campaigned on women’s suffrage. The settlement also organised a day-care centre and kindergarten as well as a public dispensary, equivalent to today’s food banks.

By 1920 there were around 400 settlement houses across the U.S. drawing inspiration from Hull House.

1939: Saul Alinsky started community organising in the Back of the Yards district in Chicago. He helped to create an overarching community organisation, The Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council (BYNC), made up of representatives of community groups providing strength in numbers and solidarity for collective bargaining and to win agreed demands.

1940: Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) which promotes community organising across many urban areas of the U.S.

1985: Barack Obama worked as a community organiser with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side.

1996: Obama was elected as an Illinois state senator, a U.S. senator in 2004 and U.S. president in 2008.


1942: The Beveridge report identified the Five Evils of: Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease and proposes substantial welfare reforms.

1989: Citizens Organising Foundation, now Citizens UK, was formed by Neil Jameson who was trained with the IAF.

1996: The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) was formed at an assembly of over 1,300 representatives of 30 member organisations as a chapter of Citizens UK. Successful campaigns include that for the London Living Wage, Community Land Trusts, Safe Havens, Refugees Welcome and organising regular interventions aimed at holding elected politicians to account.

While there are far fewer university settlements in London today than a century ago, Toynbee Hall is still active in advocating against poverty and for social change. Its vision is of a future free from poverty:

“Our mission is to support people and communities to break down the barriers that trap them in poverty. We act with ambition, integrity and with the courage of our convictions, using evidence-based social action to shape what we do and give us an authoritative voice to challenge, influence and make a difference. Inquisitive and collaborative, we seek out relationships with people, communities and partners to develop, as well as to share our knowledge and understanding; facilitating and supporting them to design their own solutions to tackling poverty. We are open-minded, inclusive and transparent; learning from what we do; seeking fresh and alternative perspectives to shape and influence our practice.”

Different perspectives?

Although there is a continuity of values and approach in the various traditions of urban social action, the practitioners did not always highlight it themselves.

George Lansbury knew the work of Toynbee Hall well but never worked there himself, unlike Clement Attlee, his successor as Labour leader. In his autobiography, Lansbury remarks: “The one solid achievement of Toynbee Hall has been the filling up of the bureaucracy of government and administration with men and women who went to East London full of enthusiasm and zeal for the welfare of the masses and discovered the advancement of their own interests.” He hadn’t always been so critical, but the scorn was real.

Alinsky had similar criticisms of Hull House. A more ‘professionalised’ Hull House was still active and influential in Chicago when Alinsky started community organising. He frequently criticised the methods of the settlement houses. In a 1983 interview, Sidney Hyman who worked with Alinsky in the BYNC and whose sister had been a Hull House resident summarised his objections: “Going to work for Jane Addams at Hull House was a romantic thing to do for young, sensitive women. [Their noble purpose] was to help, but it was always the Lady Bountifuls who were doing the helping. Now Saul comes along and turns it around and sort of sets the whole Hull House idea on its head. He says he doesn’t want the ‘hellfare’ worker, he doesn’t want the Lady Bountiful; he wants people to help themselves and that became a very romantic idea.”

Addams and Alinsky can be characterised as representing opposite poles on the spectrum of social engagement. Addams offers a more fluid, responsive, non-ideological approach, open to the possibility of different paths to success while not against confrontation when deemed necessary. She talks in co-operative, relational terms, always seeking connections between the private and public spheres. Alinsky sees every campaign as a competition or a confrontation; a battle to be won by ensuring that your side builds its collective power. He speaks in goal-oriented terms and uses the language of warfare with ‘tactics’ and ‘victory’ against an ‘enemy’.

Alinsky’s tactics are rooted in his understanding of a ‘real’ world of constant struggle and his tactics can appear ‘stronger’ as well as more pragmatic. Addams herself was very critical of well-meaning but ineffective charity work which was not based on an understanding of the needs of the community.

Both emphasise the need to listen and learn from people and to give the disenfranchised a genuine voice and both were absolutely determined to bring about a fairer, more just world. Alinsky’s privileges confrontation whereas Addams sees the choice of less antagonistic means as prefiguring a shared vision of a better world; the way we get there is part of creating the kind of destination we want.

Barack Obama’s reflections on his time as a community organizer in Chicago seems to bridge this gap:

“Be open with the issues. Include the community instead of going behind their back, sometimes you need to include people you don’t like. You’ve got to bring people together. If you exclude people you’re only weakening yourself.”

Obama was one of the two major progressive politicians who went on to lead their countries and regarded their first-hand experience of community work as formative and decisive, whether in London or Chicago:

“The social service movement of modern times…has arisen out of a deep discontent with society as at present constituted…It is the expression of the desire for social justice, for freedom and beauty, and for the better apportionment of all things that make up a good life.” Clement Attlee

“It’s by working with this organisation and this community that I found my calling…The measure of my life would be public service.” Barack Obama.

The role of education

Hull House always had a strong educational purpose, organising plays, free concerts and lectures and discussion circles (eg: the Plato Club), classes in language, literature, history, art and domestic activities as well as cultural events and clubs for children and adults. It took its research role very seriously, producing the ‘Hull House Maps and Papers’ which researched demographics, including ethnicity, housing, working and sanitation conditions with the same concern for accuracy and comprehensiveness as that shown by Booth in his maps of London poverty.

Hull House had strong links with the ‘Chicago School’ of Sociology and became the urban branch campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago and is still maintained as a museum by the university.

There are parallels in London in the educational work of Toynbee Hall, Mansfield House and other settlements. They can also be seen in the development of the urban studies think tank, the Institute of Community Studies, founded in 1954, now known as the Young Foundation and actively involved in social innovation.

Citizens UK established an Institute for Community Organising in 2010 as part of its Centre for Civil Society to train community organisers. TELCO has many educational institutions in membership and many of its key activists come from schools, colleges or universities. For a few years, Queen Mary University of London offered a Masters in Community Organising and a central mission of the University of East London (UEL) is to be London’s leading university for civic engagement:

“…extending an invitation to all our students and staff to participate in the ‘living lab’ that east London represents, becoming ‘best in class’ in confronting the very challenges that our students face, providing them with the opportunity to become change agents who help to transform their own communities, working with our communities to deliver applied and sustainable solutions to the societal and environmental challenges that we face, empowering our students and staff to become ambassadors and active citizens for the long term benefit of their communities.” (UEL corporate plan)

The many challenges which face us require this kind of educational response, one where the connection is made between learning, reflecting and acting and which should have at its heart the public university and a network of other civic institutions. Such a network might combine the best practices and traditions of a University Settlement, a Danish Folk school, an Extramural Department or Adult Education Institute, a Further Education College, a Community Centre and a ‘Think-and-Do Tank’.

Such a co-ordinated response needs to draw on community involvement, equality and trade union campaigning as well as on the best of rigorous research and teaching. This local engagement is not about single-issue indoctrination but needs to be anchored in core values of equality, democracy, solidarity and mutual respect while not shying away from differences and debate.

At our college ‘Obama Day’ in 2009, I asked the audience to imagine what we could do for ourselves and our community if every one of us became community organisers, even for just one hour a week. What could we achieve with nearly 2,700 hours of concerted community activity per week; the equivalent of approximately 80 full time community workers?

Community activity could become a central part of our educational culture. Instead of simply encouraging our students to engage in occasional volunteering or charity projects we could embed Service Learning in all our school, college and university programmes. The educational and social impact of making Service Learning part of the educational experience of all young people and adults would be phenomenal. Education could place itself at the heart of building greater social cohesion and responding to community needs and could support a renaissance in social and community development.

This is the second of 2 posts based on a talk given to the East London History Workshop on 19th January 2017.

See also:

From Toynbee to TELCO – via Chicago, part 1. From settlement to social activism

Barack Obama community organiser

Jane Addams and 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)

‘Community Organizing: Addams and Alinsky’ by Maurice Hamington

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
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