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Passmore Edwards Settlement

Also known as Mary Ward Centre/Mary Ward Settlement


It began in 1890 as one of the first “settlements” run by socially-conscious middle-class educators for the benefit of local working people and their children

It was modelled on Toynbee Hall, which was founded in Whitechapel by the local clergyman Samuel Bennett in 1884 in memory of the Oxford academic and social reformer Arnold Toynbee, who had died in 1883 at the age of thirty

In such Settlements young professional men, many of them lawyers, became residents of the Settlement building and in return for board and lodging offered classes in academic and practical subjects to poor adults and children living in the immediate area

The Passmore Edwards Settlement was named after the self-made newspaper magnate John Passmore Edwards, the main benefactor of the purpose-built Settlement building which opened at 36-37 Tavistock Place in October 1897

It had its origins, before his involvement, in rooms taken in February 1890 in University Hall in Gordon Square

The prime mover of the University Hall Settlement was Mary Ward, niece of Matthew Arnold and a bestselling novelist who published under the name Mrs Humphry Ward

On the Committee were several prominent Unitarians associated with University Hall, including the Rev. James Martineau, who lived at 35 Gordon Square, and J. Estlin Carpenter, son of William Benjamin Carpenter, a former Warden of University Hall (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923)

The first Warden of the new Settlement in University Hall was the Unitarian minister Philip Wicksteed, who gave lectures on Dante (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923)

Though there was provision for eighteen residents – young professional men who would offer classes in return for board and lodging – only eight took up residence at first (John Sutherland, The Mary Ward Centre 1890–1990, 1990)

The Settlement was non-sectarian, but Mary Ward and Philip Wicksteed emphasised their desire for moral and religious instruction, which caused friction with some of the young residents, who wanted to do social work and reach out to the local poor by offering more entertaining fare than lectures on religion and Dante (John Sutherland, The Mary Ward Centre 1890–1990, 1990)

Led by the lawyer Alfred Robinson, these residents also took a small hall on Marchmont Street – the centre of a densely-populated poor area to the east of Gordon Square – in February 1891, in order to extend the social activities associated with the Settlement, and reach more working-class people (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923)

Marchmont Hall, though “ill-built, ill-ventilated, insanitary, and inconvenient” in the words of one helper, attracted larger numbers than those attending University Hall (‘The Associates’, in the Passmore Edwards Settlement magazine, The Associate, no. 1, October 1898, LMA 4524/K/02/001)

The Boys’ and Girls’ clubs started at Marchmont Hall were popular; no religion was preached, and the evening concerts included programmes of songs dedicated to democracy and working people, including Robert Burns’s ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’, and poems in praise of labour by William Morris (‘Marchmont Hall Songs’, University Hall Committee Papers 1890–1895, LMA 4524/M/01/004)

The working men and women who became “Associates” felt more at home here than in the more middle-class University Hall with its serious mission to teach morality

Mary Ward recognised that she needed to compromise with the Marchmont Hall people, not least because the rent at University Hall, £300 a year, was more than its income from donations and the small fee charged to attend lectures (letter from Mary Ward to the Duke of Bedford, 19 March 1896, Bedford Estate Papers NMR 11/14/2)

In 1894 she began to raise money for a new Settlement building to be found or built in order to accommodate the large numbers from Marchmont Hall

In May 1894 Mary Ward secured a promise of £4,000 towards a new building from John Passmore Edwards, who subsequently raised his donation to £14,000 (John Sutherland, The Mary Ward Centre 1890–1990)

Using her persuasive skills, Mary Ward cajoled Herbrand, 11th Duke of Bedford, into looking for a suitable site on his estate and to rent it to her at a favourable rate

After signing a contract in March 1895 for a site on the corner of Tavistock Place and Little Coram Street, which proved to be too expensive because its lease had not fallen in and its current residents wanted compensation which Mary Ward could not afford, an empty site on the far side of Tavistock Square was offered by the Duke of Bedford (correspondence with the Bedford Estate Office 1894–1898, Bedford Estate Papers NMR/11/14/2)

The new site, on the north side of Tavistock Place, covered the area of a house previously occupied by the astronomer Francis Baily, who had measured the earth’s density here in 1838–1842 with a grant from the Royal Astronomical Society, and more recently by the architect Matthew Digby Wyatt

At the back the site adjoined the garden of the recently demolished Tavistock House, where Dickens had lived from 1851 to 1860

The Passmore Edwards Settlement, as the building was known until 1921, was designed by two young Bloomsbury architects, Cecil Brewer, born in Endsleigh Street and a resident of University Hall, and Arthur Dunbar Smith; Smith and Brewer had won a design competition judged by the architect Norman Shaw (Letters to Mary Ward 1895, LMA 4524/M/02/003)

Their Arts and Crafts building, which paid meticulous attention to details both practical and symbolic (such as the tree outlined in bricks on the east side of the building and the egg-shaped decorations on the front), has won universal praise from architectural historians; Adrian Forty described the building as an “inspired moment in British architecture”, and a “wonderful example of a social ideal being expressed in architecture” (‘The Mary Ward Settlement’, Architects’ Journal, August 1989)

The site was taken on a 999-year lease from the Bedford Estate from Christmas 1895 at a rent of £195 per annum (‘Particulars for the consideration of His Grace the Duke of Bedford, KG, and the Trustees of His Grace’s Settled Estates in respect of the proposed purchase of Freehold Estate at Mary Ward Settlement and Invalid Children’s School’, February 1940, Bedford Estate Papers NMR 11/14/2)

The building was opened in October 1897 by Mary Ward, and the public opening, presided over by John Morley, MP, took place in February 1898 (The Times, 14 February 1898)

The Settlement was a great success, attended by hundreds of children and working adults from the crowded area to the east of Tavistock Place and the Peabody Buildings built on Little Coram Street in 1884, south of Tavistock Place

Activities included lectures, readings, concerts, cookery classes, billiards, dance evenings, gymnasium sessions, mother and toddler groups, a coal club, sessions for free legal advice, Saturday morning outings for children to museums, the Zoo, Westminster Abbey, and other places of interest (R. G. Tatton, ‘Our First Year. By the Warden’, The Associate, No. 1, October 1898, LMA 4524/K/02/001)

In February 1899 Mary Ward opened the first school for invalid children in the country in specially equipped ground-floor rooms here (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923); 35–40 children between the ages of five and fourteen attended every day (‘The Invalid Children’s School’, The Associate, no. 3, April 1899, LMA 4524/K/02/001)

Mary Ward acquired a horse-drawn ambulance to transport the children between home and school and persuaded the London School Board to provide equipment and a qualified teacher (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923)

Evening Play Centres were inaugurated in the local schools, Manchester Street School and Prospect Terrace Board School, in the poorer Bloomsbury districts to the east of Tavistock Place, including the slum area around Derry Street, between Gray’s Inn Road and Sidmouth Street, where families, many of them Irish, lived in single rooms in multi-occupied tenements (C. Carwen, ‘The Derry Street Play Centre’, In Memoriam: Mrs Humphry Ward and the Passmore Edwards Settlement, 1921, LMA 4524/N/01/002; Janet Penrose Trevelyan, Evening Play Centres for Children: The Story of their Origin and Growth, 1920)

After reading an account of American Vacation Schools in Harper’s Magazine in June 1902, Mary Ward opened her own Vacation School, the first in the UK, in Tavistock Place at the end of July 1902, attracting 500–600 children a day (Speeches regarding the Passmore Edwards Settlement 1898–1906: LMA 4524/M/02/010)

The London School of Ethics and Social Philosophy was also based in the Settlement in the 1890s

The Passmore Edwards Settlement, managed with energy by Mary Ward until her death in March 1920, was renamed the Mary Ward Settlement in 1921

Its name was changed to the Mary Ward Centre in 1970

It continues to offer classes in a wide range of subjects, academic and practical, to local residents and others, as well as providing legal advice and acting as a hub for local social activities and events

It still has an avowed mission to provide educational opportunities to “who have been traditionally excluded from mainstream education, and who may have a negative experience of formal education”

The original Settlement building at 36–37 Tavistock Place is now privately owned, and is known as Mary Ward House; it is frequently used as a filming location because of its unique architecture

What was reforming about it?

It was founded to bring working-class adults to classes, concerts, clubs, and other activities in the evenings and weekends, and to offer after-school recreation and instruction to poor children during the hours of 5-7.30 pm, when their parents were still at work

It also pioneered schools for disabled children, vacation schools modelled on the American system, and evening play centres for children of poor local families

Where in Bloomsbury

The original Settlement occupied rooms in University Hall rented from Dr Williams’s Library from February 1890, after Mary Ward had held a meeting of interested parties in her home, 61 Russell Square (Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923)

This was then supplemented by activities in Marchmont Hall, until a purpose-built Settlement was opened in Tavistock Place in 1897

A further building, also designed by Dunbar Smith and Brewer, was opened next door in 1903 for the children

The Settlement (later the Mary Ward Centre) continued its activities in Tavistock Place until 1982, when, staying loyal to Bloomsbury, it moved to 42–43 Queen Square for its main teaching activities

Its legal centre moved in 2011 to 10 Great Turnstile, Lincoln's Inn.

Website of current institution

www.marywardcentre.ac.uk (opens in new window)

The purpose-built Passmore Edwards Settlement building, Tavistock Place

Books about it

Mrs Humphry Ward, The Passmore Edwards Settlement, 1901

Janet Penrose Trevelyan, Evening Play Centres for Children: The Story of their Origin and Growth, 1920

In Memoriam: Mrs Humphry Ward and the Passmore Edwards Settlement, 1921

Janet Penrose Trevelyan, The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, 1923

John Rodgers, Mary Ward Settlement (Late Passmore Edwards Settlement): A History, 1891–1931, Passmore Edwards Research Series no. 1, 1931

Adrian Forty, ‘The Mary Ward Settlement’, Architects’ Journal, August 1989

John Sutherland, The Mary Ward Centre 1890–1990, 1990

Peter Baynes, John Passmore Edwards & Mary Ward: A Beneficial Relationship, 1991


The Settlement’s archive, containing administrative records, Committee and Council minutes, correspondence about the founding and management of the Settlement, photographs, pamphlets and magazines associated with the Settlement, and papers relating to its architecture, has been deposited in London Metropolitan Archives, ref. LMA/4524; details are available online via LMA’s online catalogue (opens in new window)

Records of the negotiations with the Bedford Estate for the two sites, the aborted one on the south side of Tavistock Place and the corner of Little Coram Street, and the site eventually purchased on the north side of Tavistock Place, are in the Bedford Estate Office at Woburn Abbey

This page last modified 18 November, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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