Henrietta Barnett, née Rowland (1851-1936), grew up in
an affluent home in Clapham, and was educated mainly at home. At an
early age, she became interested in the plight of the poor, and
devoted herself to social work. On her marriage to the Revd Samuel
Barnett, she moved to Whitechapel, where she and her husband
laboured for 20 years, initiating housing, welfare, and educational
projects. In 1903, she founded the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust.
She was appointed DBE in 1924. The Church remembers her and her
husband on 17 June, the anniversary of his death in 1913.
ACCORDING to Beatrice Webb, Henrietta was "pretty, witty and
well-to-do". According to her detractors, she was a misguided
philanthropist, consumed by an "overpowering middle-class
What her critics could not deny was that this lady, with her
commanding presence, stubborn will, and doughty courage, went where
few had gone before. She and her husband lived for 20 years among
the poorest, most vicious, and most downtrodden members of society.
She was autocratic, certainly, and not infrequently the target of
spitting and stone-throwing by resentful parishioners, but she took
the trouble to know them as individuals, and to learn how desperate
their lives were.
Henrietta learnt from her weekly visits to the "Lock" ward of
the Whitechapel workhouse that the syphilitic women incarcerated
there - most, but not all, prostitutes - were the helpless victims
of poverty, contrary to the common perception that saw them as
The grinding poverty of many of the parishioners was exacerbated
by the appalling housing conditions. More than 80 per cent of the
population of Whitechapel lived in condemned properties. These
foul, unventilated, lightless dens, rented for eight pence a night
by a shifting population of workless men and their families, were
the breeding places of violence and despair.
Henrietta and her husband setup various projects in Whitechapel.
Not all were successful; some were disastrous. They persuaded the
Home Secretary to visit. As a result of what he saw, he introduced
the 1875 Artisans' Dwellings Act.
The intention was to authorise the demolition of condemned
housing, but delays in rebuilding meant that 4000 casual labourers,
costermongers, and dockworkers were made homeless. The Barnetts
were described as "over-zealous muddle-heads".
Henrietta persisted, learning from mistakes. She now advocated a
programme of patching up rather than pulling down. She cajoled her
friends, and raised £36,000 to buy properties. In 1879 she
reported: "About 1000 people are now living in houses under the
control of those whose object is the tenants' real good. . . The
rents collected by eight ladies who spend two days a week among the
Later, she adopted a less interventionist policy. It was wiser,
she learnt, to allow tenants to live their lives as they chose, so
long as they paid the rent, and to give them a greater say in the
management of their housing.
Henrietta worked hard to find employment for those teenagers
whom she called her "wild girls", to save them from prostitution.
She found them work. Many of her "rough and lawless maidens" keptin
touch, and she treasured their letters. Inevitably, some did not
take to the disciplined life of employment, and rebelled.
Henrietta was undoubtedly bossy, and could be fierce, but she
wasalso fun. There was in her workwith young women what one recent
biographer has described as "a chaotic jumble of warmth, hilarity
and exuberance . . . and their guffaws of delight as Henrietta
mimicked their accents and manners" (Alison Creedon, Only a
Woman, Phillimore, 2006).
In 1903, she founded the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, to
create a community where different classes of people would be
Changes in society, not least those in the housing market,have
dimmed that vision, andmuch of her social policy is now outdated,
but one thing about her cannot be denied: "She walked the
The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement,
Priest-in-Charge of Withyham, in the diocese of Chichester.