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A philanthropist who cherished the individual

12 June 2015

As the Church commemorates Samuel Barnett, priest and social reformer, Adrian Leak celebrates his legacy


Slumming it: Barnett tackled the alienation caused by social deprivation

Slumming it: Barnett tackled the alienation caused by social deprivation

SAMUEL AUGUSTUS BARNETT (b.1844) grew up in a wealthy home in Bristol. He was ordained in 1867, and served his title at St Mary's, Bryanston Square. From the start he became involved in social welfare, and during his 20 years' incumbency at St Jude's, Whitechapel, he and his wife, Henrietta, exercised a remarkable ministry among the poor and the outcasts.

He founded the Oxford University Settlement (Toynbee Hall) as a centre of education and "practicable socialism" in the East End, and was closely associated with the inception of the Workers' Educational Association. He encouraged the enjoyment of music and art in worship, and founded the Whitechapel Gallery. After his death, Barnett House, Oxford, was founded in his memory, to be a centre of social studies and training. He died in 1913. The Church commemorates him and Henrietta on the anniversary of his death, 17 June.


SAMUEL BARNETT's father's family fortune was based upon the mass production of iron bedsteads; his mother's upon shipping; and his wife's upon the manufacture and retail of macassar oil, a popular hair conditioner - indications of the degree to which Victorian philanthropy was funded by the rewards of manufacture and trade.

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett could not have succeeded in their social-welfare projects in the slums of Whitechapel without their inherited wealth, nor without the network of contacts which came with it. But neither would their remarkably innovative ministry in the East End have achieved what it did without their vision - a vision that saw poverty and deprivation not as a social problem to be solved, but as an affliction suffered by men, women, and children, each to be cherished as an individual rather than treated as a case.

Barnett recognised that the evil effect of social deprivation was the alienation it created between the social classes. Where better, then, to start to bridge the gap than with the nation's future leaders among the undergraduates of Oxford? He and Henrietta took lodgings there during Eights Week in 1875. Soon, among the strawberries and champagne, they had gathered a group of young people, among them Arnold Toynbee, keen to experience at first hand life in the slums.

"Let university men become the neighbours of the working poor," wrote Barnett, "sharing their life . . . and learning from them . . . and offering in response the help of their own education and friendship."

From these conversations grew the idea of establishing a settlement - later Toynbee Hall - where generations of students and parishioners took part in programmes of classes, music, and entertainment. Among the students who benefited were R. H. Tawney, William Beveridge, and Clement Attlee.

"Pictures are preachers, and their message is to the world," Barnett wrote. "How will anyone who regards the message justify the solitary confinement of the preacher?" Pictorial art, like music, is God's gift, and should be shared by all. He persuaded artists, and those among his acquaintance with private collections, to lend their treasures for an annual exhibition in the parish school. At the first exhibition in 1881, more than 26,000 people came to see works by G. F. Watts, ceramics by De Morgan, and fabrics by William Morris. By 1886, the net had widened to include paintings by French artists such as Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Daubigny, as well as by leading contemporary English artists.

"I've got every catalogue since the show first opened [five years ago]," one parishioner said. "I read them aloud in the winter to remind us."

In 1901, Barnett opened the Whitechapel Gallery and appointed a permanent art director.

"Grand music heard in church seems to help many whom sermons fail to touch." He persuaded choirs and professional singers to give their performances free, among them Dame Clara Butt. His innovative use of music, secular readings, and themed services breathed life into the church's worship. A century after his death, we enjoy the fruit of his work in our flexible liturgy, while for the most part being unaware of its seeds.

Toynbee Hall continues to serve; Barnett House flourishes as the centre for social studies at Oxford University; and the Whitechapel Gallery plays a vital part in London's cultural landscape. Canon Barnett would be amazed and overjoyed; and would ascribe the glory to God.


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Honorary Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in the diocese of Guildford.

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