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

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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

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