Review of Henrietta Octavia Rowland Barnett's Canon Barnett: His Life, Work, and Friends, April 9, 1920


↑Atlantic article

April 1920↓

The capacity for growth, for hospitality to new ideas, for regarding opposition as but a stimulus to greater resource and ingenuity, may account for the spirit of adventure which runs through the many vivacious pages of "Canon Barnett, His Life, Work and Friends." Certainly his life grew constantly as did his plans and the doctrines behind them and no one can so charmingly trace this vigorous and beneficent growth as his comrade and fellow-worker who was also his wife.

Mrs. Barnett is, in fact, entitled to a record of her own, not only for the multitude of good works in which she aided and abetted her husband, for the dozen thriving philanthropic undertakings which she herself inaugurated, but for her own distinct achievement of a Garden City Suburb at [Hampstead] Heath, which is becoming almost a model for the new housing schemes which at present are being discussed throughout the length and breadth of England. ↑(↓This comes about not only through Mrs. Barnett's membership on the Parliamentary Commission for Housing, but because of the national determination to provide beauty as well as comfort for workingmen's families.↑)↓

Mrs. Barnett is, indeed, introduced to us early in these two volumes through her interest in better housing for the poor, for it was when she was serving under Octavia Hill as a "lady rent collector" that she met the young Curate who had recently refused [page 2] a living near his beloved Oxford that he might take a parish in the neglected East End of London. The love story is charmingly told, the gradual recognition on the part of the gifted and accomplished girl of the worth and charm hidden under awkward manners so unlike the drawing room variety she was accustomed to see in her father's ample house in the West End. The wonderful discovery once made, it became her joy through many years to interpret her husband to others, to supplement his amazing initiative by what she was pleased to call her lesser gift for carrying on, to so fuse her energy and enthusiasm for social reform with his that in the Vicarage of St. Jude's, in Toynbee Hall, in the Canon's House in Bristol, or in the close of Westminster Abbey, it is difficult to separate their achievements one from the other.

The book in a sense is a history of modern social movements, at least so far as England is concerned and of their underlying forces, largely revealed through the character of those in whom the forces found expression. It divulges these methods ↑movements↓ through what might be called the case method, in an East London Parish where Samuel Barnett and his gifted wife lived and which they so heroically insisted should not be separated from the rest of the Nation.

For many years, in their efforts to alleviate the harshest poverty, they worked through The Board of Guardians, The Charity Organization Society, The University Extension Movement, The Mutual Benefit Associations, the Trade Unions. One of Canon Barnett's best qualities was his ability to throw his ideas into a common [page 3] stock and work in harmony with men of many shades of opinion. But he was a fervent, if, at the same time, a cautious reformer and as he pursued his independent way into ever more accurate and sympathetic knowledge of the poor he threw aside many established methods as inadequate, even designating some of them as soul destroying for the very people whom they were designed to serve.

While always a daring individualist and thus in fundamental agreement with Mr. C. S. Loch, with whom he worked for the abolition of Outdoor Relief, Canon Bartlett ↑He↓ gradually parted company with the C.O.S. group on his road to ↑reached a↓ "Practical Socialism" which came to mean to him the responsibility of the Government and the Municipality to provide a minimum of education, recreation and of comfort for the whole population; to give to all citizens the basic opportunity for a civilized life, even although it might require for some of them insurance against unemployment and pensions for old age. The Barnetts were much too pragmatic, too absorbed in the actual demands of the neglected East End, to tie themselves to any one theory of social reform and they also saw with increasing indignation the havoc of character, the sordid shifts and struggles for which large public funds and the competition of charitable and religious agencies were responsible. They therefore longed to bring into East London not, primarily, schemes or funds, but sympathetic people ready to make friends with the poor and to draw them out of their narrow environment. [page 4]

The number of their reforms and undertakings is much too long to be enumerated. Perhaps two of the humblest appeal especially to a citizen of Chicago; the first concerns their effort to rid the district of slaughter yards, not only for the familiar reasons, but because almost the only contact the children had with animal life came through their efforts to push along the harried beasts brutally driven through the streets; an adventure which often incited the older children to deeds of ingenious cruelty. ↑(↓It illustrates once again the fatal tendency of our city streets to twist even chivalric and generous impulses into vicious and tawdry expressions, for doubtless many times the older children were, at least in their own minds, protecting the omnipresent babies from trampling hoofs. Such a situation as this hurried forward ↑developed↓ the plan -- as yet unheard of -- for systematically sending children into the country for Holidays. It is perhaps significant that one of the observation questions prepared for them by Mrs. Barnett as to which pair of legs a sheep uses first when he gets up from the ground was accompanied with the admonition that the observation cannot be made if the sheep is scared.↑)↓

The Barnetts also abolished a dust destroyer which apparently necessitated the spilling of much West-End refuse from ill made carts constantly rumbling through the streets, so that the little cleanliness possible to Whitechapel householders became still more difficult of attainment. I was reminded of Mary McDowell's long campaign in Chicago against "the dumps" in the neighborhood of the [page 5] University of Chicago settlement, my own early office as city garbage inspector, and could but wonder if all over the world at a certain stage in city development, it was inevitable that the waste in the comfortable amounts of the well-to-do must be carried through and into the districts inhabited by those who are constantly reproached for their lack of cleanliness. In this of "uninhabitable habitations" they purchased some of the worst tenement property, remodeling it into houses for both artisans and unskilled laborers. The East End Dwellings Company finally emerged from this effort, as did open spaces and playgrounds in slowly increasing numbers. They inaugurated flower shows for the East End, the Art for Schools Association and many improvements in the board and parish schools themselves, from school breakfasts and play classes to the introduction of hand work in the St. Jude's Schools, which daring innovation cost them their government grants.

↑(↓Many of these efforts were designed for the ill-prepared teachers in the district and for those who were as yet "pupil teachers." They were lured by travel, by lectures, by reading parties and study rooms to their further enlightenment. Such experiments were the forerunners of the Compulsory Continuation Schools which Mr. Fisher is now pushing so vigorously throughout England.↑)↓

↑But↓ For it was, after all, the daily life of the sodden hopeless adults which they found most heartbreaking. Because of his passionate devotion to education and to the affairs of the mind [page 6] Canon Barnett carried on an unceasing effort to make University Extension teaching more sympathetic and to devise new methods of imparting modern thought and culture to those so absolutely shut off from access to them. He welcomed the erection of mosaics -- copies of great pictures -- in the fronts of public buildings which might suggest "thoughts and hopes to passersby", as Watt's beautiful mosaic in the front of St. Jude's had done for many years; he arranged traveling parties to the great historic spots in England and on the Continent; he constantly secured oratorios and picture exhibits for the poorer parts of London; he used all the suggestions of a fertile intellect to make the National holidays more truly recreative. It was largely due to his unceasing efforts that a permanent Art Gallery was established in the East End and a free library on Mile End Road. Many of these larger enterprises were consummated after the establishment of Toynbee Hall and could not have been procured without the help of a group of public spirited citizens living in the district.

The Settlement was but a natural outgrowth of Canon Barnett's long experience in an East End Parish. In his many visits to Oxford he told the men that the English parish system which had assumed people of sufficient leisure and ability to carry through the administration of civil affairs and to contribute to the education and social welfare of the whole had broken down, at least in East London. Every parish in the poorer areas was inhabited only by the very poor. All of those who had obtained [page 7] better positions in the world had incontinently fled to other districts. He did not ask the Oxford men to go into East London with him in order to patronize the poor people for whom life was already overburdened, nor primarily to teach them. He asked them to go there in order to become the normal organs without which crowded cities are unable to keep the forms of civilization. He expected them to take up the social and civic duties which must be undertaken by someone if cultural forces are to find channels and instruments through which they can reach those who have every right to their beneficence. He found that the very theory of city-government is challenged in a district deserted be all save the most helpless of the poor.

↑(↓Perhaps Canon Barnett's greatest achievements came through the power which he possessed of setting men into right spiritual relation to one another, and certainly this is what he attempted to do from his very first advocacy of the Settlement, stoutly insisting that the human gains would be reciprocal. He reminded the young churchmen of the method by which the Son of God himself saved men; the political aspirants, that only through knowledge of the majority could they hope to weld classes into a nation.↑)↓

↑)↓Sidney Ball, in his own rooms in Wadhams which had belonged to Arnold Toynbee and still constituted a center for much spirited, philosophic and economic talk, once told me of those stirring days in Oxford when he and his friends "swam on the crest of a sanguine adventure." It was in these rooms that the plans [page 8] for the First University Settlement were determined upon in November, 1883. The discussion of the plans was softened and deepened by the fact that Arnold Toynbee, who had so persistently turned men's thoughts and faces toward industry and its problems, had died in March of the same year, so shortly after he had given himself "from the political economy of the school to the democracy of the street." It certainly endeared the undertaking to many Oxford men that the Hall was to bear his name and the scruples of many others were set at rest when Jowett gave his sympathetic sanction to the cause, and the hall of Balliol became the scene of one of the most successful of the many meetings in which Mr. Barnett made an earnest appeal on behalf of those masses of people "who live without knowledge, without hope and almost without health." Doubtless the generous young men eagerly responded, but hesitated to actually go to live in what one of them described as "the strange and dim outer world of East London."↑)↓

It is nearly at the end of the first volume that Mrs. Barnett describes the opening of Toynbee Hall at Christmas, 1884, and until the duties of war scattered the residents in 1914, the succession of University men never failed, including some of the most distinguished men in England.

To know the history of Toynbee Hall, or for that matter, the development of the English Social Movement during the three stirring decades when it was most rapid, the two volumes must be [page 9] read. Quite surprisingly interesting reading they make, without a touch of the pious memoir, illustrated by anecdote and personal contact not only with many men of brilliant intellect and resourceful purpose, but with all sorts of people, from Royalty itself to the tramp "with tightened belt and frightened soul," whom they found sleeping on the Lambeth Embankment close to the very palace of the Primate.

The dockers' strike, the crisis of unemployment, the episode of "Jack the Ripper," the careful research into conditions of labor by the Toynbee Commission and a hundred other public matters are presented with unfailing vivacity and interest. In quite a wonderful way the book clearly portrays the character of the warden of Toynbee Hall in the midst of this varied activity. He constantly urged "requisite knowledge" and at moments even deprecated "doing as a deadly thing", he pointed out from time to time the irreparable mischief men of good will had done through their ignorance, the social schemes which had made no appreciable difference to the dwarfed and mutilated life in the East End. And yet no one could decry his idealism because of the remarkable combination in him of the idealist and the practical man, because of his astonishing ability as an organizer and administrator. It was said of him, "He carried his visions into committees; they never disturbed the business, but they made men feel that the business was worth doing."

Throughout the record of the years we are also kept in [page 10] touch with a life of charming domesticity, of vacations and travels, hospitalities and friendships, the stimulus of changing environment with the inevitable difficulties of adjustment, the latter, curiously enough, never quite overcome in the house on the Little Cloisters of Westminster Abbey. There are many touching episodes connected with the cottage on [Hampstead] Heath where Mrs. Barnett's invalid sister and old nurse made a nucleus of family life -- to this and to a neighboring house awkward little girls were sent who needed more training before the Society for Befriending Young Servants could recommend them. Old women invited by the Toynbee Guild of Compassion to take a holiday from the impersonal bleakness of the work-house wards also came. To each one hospitable inquiry as to her tastes regarding sugar in her tea meant a return to a half forgotten world of individual concern and affection. Deficient and invalid children were often added to the group in line with Mrs. Barnett's protest against a household limited to those of one age or special handicap. It is as if the sub-foundations of the beautiful Garden Suburb afterwards built at [Hampstead] Heath has been laid in deeds of loving kindness and of simplest human relationships.

↑(↓Its eighteen hundred houses obviously shelter people of varied economic resource, but the artisan's cottage is quite as beautiful as the Manor House, its august neighbor, each has its appropriate garden and they are all surrounded by skillfully designed open spaces ↑& plantings.)↓ [page 11]

Although I saw Canon Barnett many times in London, among the recollections of him that came crowding into my mind as I read the two volumes, perhaps the most vivid was a conversation with him at Bristol during a time he was in residence there as Canon of the Cathedral. We had gone to walk in Nightingale Valley, where the exquisite quality of sylvan beauty which seems to belong [preeminently] to the English woodland was heightened by the long-enduring twilight and the multitude of homing birds, hushing their insistent twitterings as if they too were listening to the song of the nightingale who was at the moment sustaining the traditions of the valley with transcendent success. I was moved to ask Canon Barnett concerning his reaction "to all this" in contrast to Whitechapel. He replied that while as Canon of Bristol he had three months of "this" a year, that he has also been appointed a Curate to St. Jude's that he might serve the East End for the remaining nine months and perhaps even yet realize the plans in which he had uninterrupted faith. He counted much upon the relationship he might be able to establish through this humbler capacity in the parish where he had so long served as Vicar. He set forth his faith in salvation through loving kindness, in strength through understanding with such humility, such piety, such yearning to know more fully the hard lot of the poor, that I had a sudden conviction that the beauty of holiness is a real thing, that to walk humbly with God is a human achievement, so beautiful as to be congruous even with the song of the nightingale [page 12] and with evening light shining through the boles of trees. I was further convinced that it was not inevitable that we should always experience a peculiar disappointment, a sense of conspicuous failure when human nature inadvertently measured itself by a moment of poignant beauty in the outer world.

As we emerged from the ravine into the hard streets of Bristol Canon Barnett pointed to a large house outside the city looming distantly through the night and told me that the man who lived there spent all his time hunting, ranging from birds in Scotland to big game in Africa, that he cared nothing for the cottages on his estate which had so shocked me that morning. Canon Barnett then added, "from my point of view, his lack of social responsibility is as much of a disgrace to me a servant of the Church, as were ↑are↓ the wretched homeless men, who used to sleep in the Commercial street doorways; because they were unemployed through no fault of their own, or the long hours of grinding toil that result in absolute destruction of the human mind; or the stupidity and hardness of heart that proclaim a willingness to settle the problem of capital and labor by bullets."

The same evening I heard him talk with a group of Bristol dockers, amiably agreeing with them, that to abolish the Canons might well be the first step in "democratizing the Church" but no man there doubted his love for that church, nor his faith in her future, when he said to the men in almost the exact same words I find recorded in the book, that he would be most willing to see [page 13] working men ruling her if they would but be fed by her.

I was on my way back from the Paris Exposition where I had served as a juror in the department of Social Economics. My mind was full of a book much read in France in the summer of 1900, "L'Imperieuse Conte", whose author I have now forgotten, but whose contention that the passion to serve mankind may be as imperative as any other and sufficiently powerful to inhibit egotistic impulses and ambitions, seemed to me amazingly exemplified in this man. It is doubtless fairer to give his own explanation by quoting from one of the many letters the book contains; "For thirty-four years my wife and I have been engaged in social experiments. Many ways have been tried and always the recognized object has been the religion of the people."

It is said that Canon Barnett's greatness lay in his sense of direction so that those who knew him well knew that they could steer by him as if he were a spiritual instrument. There is an inherent danger in continuing to follow the advice of those who are no longer in touch with the living world, but it is a testimony to the sound understanding which Canon Barnett possessed that at this moment when new social problems are emerging, or rather when those to which he devoted so much thought and energy, are assuming new shapes and insistently pressing for solution, his advice is still sane and vital. [page 14]

A case in point is the present tendency to regard as obnoxious and to subject to prompt repression, all divergence from the orthodox political faiths or social creeds. We are glad to remember that Canon Barnett declared himself unequivocally against government by repression. One of his most scathing descriptions of the East End was, "This police controlled district, where education by mother and by school master, by policemen and by opinion is education by repression. * * * It is no wonder that men and women are dwarfed, ugly and worn." Although often a sharp disciplinarian and quite willing to have the poor suffer from the results of their own folly, the discipline element in the administration of relief, at times, gave him grave doubts. He once wrote to his brother, "more and more I come to see that man has no call to punish man. He always fails in the attempt and his claim destroys him. Man must educate man but never assume the superior place of a condemner."

Another contemporary situation, for which we may seek spiritual direction from him, is the current tendency to label large bodies of men with obnoxious names and then to treat ↑the men↓ themselves as the public thinks the doctrines indicated by the labels deserve to be treated. It is as if our societal judgment were insensibly falling back into those ancient categories which once divided men according to the race or religion, whereupon they were harshly judged by men of other races or religions who applied [page 15] their widely differing standards with much self-righteousness, but with no sympathy, no desire for understanding or power of interpretation. Canon Barnett stated over and over again that the only genuine service to men was to give each one the chance of helping himself by the power of that which was best within him; and that the discovery and training of this power must come through the knowledge and sympathy of personal friendship and could come in no other way. This position is the very antithesis of what we in the United States are allowing ourselves to drift into; the condemnation of masses and groups without taking the pains to establish personal relationship or to know the individuals of whom they are composed. It is part of our present tendency to fear the spread of false doctrine even more than we fear a curtailment of freedom in the expression of opinion and the fatal extinction of those variations with which new growth begins. Canon Barnett joined the fight waged in 1877 by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for the right of free publication although he deplored their views and differed with them absolutely as to the value of their teaching. To quote from his wife, "he yet felt the danger of a gagged press to be so grave that he advocated freedom. But then in all matters he trusted in God more than he feared the Devil -- and so was fearless of spreading opinion." In one of his own lectures we find, "It is the old tale, as soon as a man learns to speak, he learns also to lie; but then it is good to learn to speak." Even such simple [page 16] statements of the fundamental requirements for social progress are valuable to us now in this period of fumbling hesitation and social confusion.

Perhaps in a special sense the residents in contemporary settlements need at this moment to direct their course by his findings. Settlements have long passed the prophetic stage and have now fallen under criticism. It is openly suggested that they have fulfilled their mission and their best friends agree that they have shown their limitations. But this less [caring] enthusiasm is in a sense the result of success and not of failure. Settlements have become part of the established order of things and as such partake of the inevitable flatness of the commonplace. Nevertheless, the assumption that they shall go on and be supplied with people qualified to do the work which Canon Barnett hoped for them, has become part of our sense of social obligation, recognized in England in the training courses at Barnett House in Oxford, the London School of Economics and elsewhere; in all of the schools of Civics and Philanthropy in the United States and in the sociological courses in many of the colleges and universities.

The Settlements did not embody a mere passing mood as their first critics asserted, for the conditions which induced Canon Barnett to call so desperately for help to the men of Oxford, still persist. It was given to him to see the method of social [page 17] work which he devised and developed, permanently established as part of a normal program of social reform in the great cities of England and America. But it is well for us still residing in settlements, to read this life with care lest we forget that, although Canon Barnett belonged to a generation which, knowing the triumph of machinery, was impatient for a machine to deal with poverty, he was never content with institutions nor with the established philanthropic routine but was always ready to lead a revolution if need be against his own past successes. He developed the faculty of feeling the moment when a movement is outworn, when the method must be changed.

[written in the margin left of this paragraph] ↑3↓ Something of this characteristic of his is embodied in Barnett House, the memorial erected to his memory in the midst of the old established colleges at Oxford ↑2↓. There is a great vitality about it. ↑This is↓ expressed through the large groups of working men who come to utilize its library and its tutorial classes, through the vigorous Workers Educational Association whose Oxford headquarters for the groups scattered throughout the British Isles are housed there. It is all vaguely reminiscent, as the cap and gown dimly suggests the monk's habit, of the demand for knowledge, the breaking into sacred precincts by another class which years ago created the University itself. Is the present generation of Oxford men a little uneasy at times as their medieval predecessors had been in the presence of those minds "who find their [page 18] happiest exercise not along the beaten track but in self-guided speculation and inquiry"? ↑[illegible]↓ One finds no trace of such uneasiness in Barnett House, only a readiness to help forward every inquiring mind self-trained though it be, as if Canon Barnett's belief that "the revelation of God to our time comes by knowledge" was the orthodox creed of the House bearing his name, or was at least accepted as the dictum of a pious founder.

↑(↓I first saw Barnett House in 1915 and was taken from basement to attic by Sidney Ball who for twenty-five years had constantly introduced new Oxford men as candidates for residence to the warden of Toynbee Hall, and who had much to do with the plan for this Oxford memorial. Last June, meeting with the little group with whom I am an "associate", I could share with them their sense of loss his recent death had brought to the new undertaking.↑)↓ As I came away from the house in company with Mrs. Barnett, she suddenly asked me, with that charming ability of hers to pass from grave to gay, "Do you think that when it grows into a real college that they will say prayers for him as they do in the old ones and add a petition for 'Henrietta his wife'?" I promptly replied, "They certainly will if they remember his history." That Barnett House does remember his great spirit is evinced in many ways and perhaps one can say nothing more accurately of the future of Settlements than to quote from its last statement:

"The war has changed no branch of social service so much as it has affected the Settlement movement. * * * On the other hand, changes in economic and industrial [page 19] conditions, and the greater leisure now available for those engaged in industry, have created a new and urgent demand for the closer union which neighborhood affords and therefore more Settlements will probably come into existence."

A beautiful memorial tablet to Canon Barnett has been placed in Westminster Abbey, ↑(↓although his request was carried out that his funeral "be as cheap and simple as possible with the service in St. Jude's Church."↑)↓ The bronze repeats the advice so dearly familiar to his friends, "Fear not to Sow because of the Birds." In high relief at the right end of the tablet stands forth a sower, the free gesture in the sweep of his arm reminiscent of Millet. Through the dress of a British farmer one recognizes the figure and head of Canon Barnett as if careless of ecclesiasticism even in the beloved Abbey itself and eager to give the hard English soil one more sowing. While I stood looking at it on last Whitsunday, stirred by its message and its beauty, yet daring to question a little the admixture of portraiture and symbolism, a woman waiting near the organ loft to lead home her blind son kindly explained the tablet to me, concluding with the words: "You see he had lived for years with the poor in Whitechapel before he came here; it made him different from the others and all the people working round the Abbey and Close liked him the best."

To those of us in America to whom he was once the background and strong support of "Settlement life which is so curious [page 20] a mixture of hope and frivolity, of casualness and constant endeavor," this record of his Life, Work and Friends, is a precious and inspiring possession. We echo the words spoken in Toynbee Hall at the memorial service: "He served God, he served mankind, he served the State, he served us, his remote followers."

Jane Addams.