I recently had the opportunity to visit Toynbee Hall, the world’s first Settlement House, located in the East End of London. As you may know, Toynbee Hall was the prototype for the entire late 19th century settlement house movement in the United States. As a professional social worker, I most certainly was well aware of this. Social Work education largely credits Toynbee Hall with providing much of the foundation for what have become the core values, tenets and principles of our great profession. However, as a practitioner here at Kingsley House for the past 25 years, I did not fully appreciate just how closely our historic organization replicated the Toynbee model. That is, until the moment my wife Luanne and I stepped foot onto that legendary campus!
Throughout my career, I’ve known several fellow social workers who’d visited Toynbee Hall and listened intently as they reflected on that experience. Which is why, from the moment we got on the London Tube at Piccadilly Circus to make the trek to the Aldgate East station in Tower Hamlets Borough, where Toynbee Hall is located, my head was abuzz with anticipation.
I couldn’t believe I was on my way to the place where it all began for community-based social work 135 years ago, the progenitor for Kingsley House and every other settlement house in the U.S. and throughout the world! The “social experiment” founded in 1884 by Canon Samuel and Dame Henrietta Barnett. A place where university students from Oxford and Cambridge could live and work among, and help improve the lives of the poor, and then, upon completion of their studies, assume positions of leadership and use those formative experiences to enact the social policy and structural changes needed to end the scourge of poverty. The place whose formation was deeply influenced by the work of Charles Kingsley, the great 19th century English social reformer. Yes, the very same Charles Kingsley revered by Reverend Beverley Warner, the 19th Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church and founder of Kingsley House. Reverend Warner admired Kingsley’s transformational work so much that he named his own child after him and then, after his son’s untimely passing at an early age, bestowed that great name on our agency to continue his legacy in perpetuity.
As we passed through a narrow walkway from Commercial Street to get to the main entrance area, all of these thoughts continued swirling around in my head. And, suddenly, there it was, Toynbee Hall, just like it was pictured in the first social welfare history textbook I read in graduate school some 35 years ago. I cannot begin to describe the emotion I felt at that moment. As we stood in the courtyard taking it all in, my wife and I looked at each other and simultaneously exclaimed, “It looks so much like Kingsley House!”
Jim Minton, Toynbee’s Chief Executive, was kind enough to give us the grand tour. The main lobby area was resplendent with pictures depicting its rich history. There was even a statue of dedication to Jane Addams, who was so moved by what she saw on her visit to Toynbee Hall in 1888, that she returned home to Illinois and, together with Ellen Gates Starr, established Hull House in Chicago the very next year. The same Jane Addams who mentored and guided the pioneering work of Eleanor McMain, Head Resident of Kingsley House from 1901 to 1934, and who affectionately dubbed our agency “the little Hull House of the South.”
Everywhere we went throughout Toynbee’s historic campus reminded us of Kingsley House – from its beautiful wood paneled auditorium, to the warm and inviting senior well-being center and open and welcoming holistic program spaces for children and families. There is even a nearby school named for Samuel Barnett, just like the Eleanor McMain Secondary School here in New Orleans! And, much like in the early days of Kingsley House, all of Toynbee’s staff lived in residences on the second floor of the campus until the latter part of the 20th century. In fact, Jim Minton told us that they recently refurbished some of the original apartments and now have several staff members once again living in Toynbee Hall.
In addition to the remarkable facility and programmatic resemblances with Kingsley House, over the past several years, in order to serve even more of London’s most vulnerable and at-risk children, families and seniors, Toynbee has been undergoing a major capital expansion project on property directly adjacent to its historic campus. So similar to our recently completed Patrick F. Taylor Campus expansion! Moreover, much like the Lower Garden District area surrounding Kingsley has evolved and changed over the years, so has the Tower Hamlets district around Toynbee Hall, with a growing bevy of businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes.
Yet, despite the considerable progress and growth of the nearby areas to our two organizations, one critical variable remains constant in both London and New Orleans – persistently high rates of children and families living in poverty. Equally vexing are the continued social and economic inequalities and injustices that continue to besiege both cities. Which is why Kingsley House and Toynbee Hall continue to be beacons of hope and powerhouses for change in our respective communities, providing life transforming programs and services, while simultaneously working to tear down societal and structural barriers to success in order to build a future without poverty
Thanks for allowing me to share my reflections and I hope you enjoy the photos.
Keith H. Liederman, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer