Toynbee Hall inspired Beveridge and introduced Lenin to muffins – but it is not a place of the past

As the hall reopens after a £17m upgrade, Adam Lusher finds the east London building’s history, rooted in the poverty of the Victorian era, is repeating itself

Thursday 11 October 2018 14:57
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The early residents of Toynbee Hall, with Rev Samuel Barnett sitting to the right of his wife Henrietta
The early residents of Toynbee Hall, with Rev Samuel Barnett sitting to the right of his wife Henrietta

It stands where gastropubs now jostle beside the old East End of Petticoat Lane market, where streets are overshadowed by the gleaming towers of the modern City of London. Amid such bustle, it is easy to overlook the lower rise, altogether more modest Toynbee Hall, and still easier to miss its significance. Yet this is the place that provided formative experiences for two key architects of the welfare state, William Beveridge and Clement Attlee.

This is the place that can claim a pivotal role in the creation of social justice initiatives such as the Child Poverty Action Group. It is where the Poor Man’s Lawyer scheme started in 1898, and where free legal advice is still offered today – along with debt counselling, investigation of social problems and many other community services.

More than a century after Toynbee Hall opened in 1884, it remains a place of pilgrimage for researchers and innovators the world over, seeking out the institution where so much began, and where so much is still being done. And now, after a £17m restoration and redevelopment, chief executive Jim Minton is determined the reopening of the Grade II listed building should be marked by an exhibition showcasing Toynbee Hall’s history as a “powerhouse for social change” and suggesting what it could do in the future.

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