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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Recruitment Genius: Partner Manager - EMEA

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partner Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Sales Manager - OTE £100,000

£45000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Sales Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company provides IT support...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green

We all have a problem with drink, not just Charles Kennedy

Simon Kelner
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific