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Learning from mistakes

13 June 2014

Adrian Leak reflects on the example set by Henrietta Barnett

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 condescension".

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 wilful sinners.

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 tenants."

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 housedin proximity.

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 talk."

The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement, Priest-in-Charge of Withyham, in the diocese of Chichester.


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