Dr Kate Bradley: How do-gooders invaded the Victorian East End

Related Topics

In 1888, the East End of London was one of the poorest areas of the capital. Although it was located next to the extremely wealthy City of London, residents of the East End – then roughly equating to what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets – lived cheek-by-jowl with factories, workshops and breweries in cramped, insanitary housing.

Without a welfare state as we would know it to fall back on, families did the best they could to survive on limited means – resorting to charitable handouts or midnight "flits" to avoid rent collectors, to give but two examples. Some – such as those women who were murdered by the so-called "Ripper" in 1888 – were on the real margins of society, living a chaotic hand-to-mouth existence.

Philanthropy was huge in the slums of east London, from the provision of alms and Bibles by visiting societies through to the fare provided by the university settlements. By being so close to the City of London and good transport connections, it was easy for the well-to-do to make trips to the East End in order to do voluntary work. Some undertook voluntary work as part of a sense of religious duty; others enjoyed the opportunity to escape from the confines of polite society and to explore the "dangerous" side of the city.

One such initiative which combined all these motives was the university settlement movement. This was founded in 1884 by an Anglican priest, the Reverend Samuel Barnett, who brought young male graduates from Oxbridge to live in the East End and to spend their spare time undertaking voluntary work.

His "settlement", Toynbee Hall, aimed to provide for the intellectual and social needs of east Londoners through such activities as adult education classes, trips for dockers to Oxford, summer holidays for needy children, art exhibitions and debates on the issues of the day; they also undertook research into social conditions in the East End. Although the extent to which the young men attached to the settlement addressed the actual needs of the poor was limited, time spent at a "settlement" became de rigueur for those who wished to enter into careers in politics or administration.

Although the East End has been described as a "working- class city" by the criminologist Dick Hobbs, it is clear through the extent of philanthropic activities that members of the middle and upper classes of London moved through this area on a regular basis, attempting to address needs of various kinds or to learn more about life on the margins of society. The East End was a central part of the Victorian imagination – a place of anxiety as much as a place of social exploration.

Dr Kate Bradley is a lecturer in social history at the University of Kent. This is taken from a lecture she is giving tomorrow at the Museum in Docklands in London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant

£12024: Randstad Education Leeds: Teaching Assistant September 2014 start - te...

Physics Teacher

£130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's letter: Summer holidays are here... so what to do with the children?

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

The daily catch-up: knitting, why Ed wants to be PM and a colloquium of Indy-pedants

John Rentoul
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn