The Cost of Dining at Toynbee Hall

I spent this weekend working on my conference paper for ‘Devouring: Food, Drink and the Written Word, 1880-1945‘. I decided that it was time to go through the Annual Reports of Toynbee Hall. Anybody who knows me will know that ‘Lucie doesn’t do numbers’. As a cultural historian I have tended to shy away from figures and percentages. However, this weekend I decided to bite the bullet and finally find out how much Toynbee was spending on dining in the period 1888-1913. I needed to delve into the Annual Reports because I haven’t found any records or menu cards on what people actually ate in the settlement house.

More importantly dining at Toynbee was imbued with philanthropic intentions and I wanted to know more about the cost and expenditure of eating in this institutional space. Food philanthropy was an important part of Toynbee’s settlement work and, according to the Rev. Samuel Barnett, it evoked the Christian spirit of hospitality. When Barnett proposed that Oxbridge men should come and reside in the poor districts of Britain’s great cities, he contended that the working class suffered not only from economic disadvantages but also from, what he termed, as a ‘poverty of life’. The university settlement house, for Barnett, was understood as a place where working men could experience beauty, truth and culture. It was also as a space where the ‘two nations’ could be reconnected. The dining table therefore served as a place where the rich and poor could meet and converse with one another.

For me Toynbee Hall was designed to be an alternative domestic space for both the Oxbridge graduate and the working classes. This not only demonstrates the important role domesticity played in Barnetts philanthropic writings but also how new spaces were created to rectify the experiences of what it meant to be poor. Barnett and his wife Henrietta encouraged settlers to make friends with the poor. The idea was that they would cerement their friendships by inviting them to dinner. These specially chosen diners would then mingle with West end guests, social commentators and Oxbridge lecturers.

This practice expands our understanding of food philanthropy by centralising middle-class dining practices over the need to provide substance to the very poor. Barnett actively discouraged giving food to his parishioners. He did not believe in soup kitchens or food banks. During the Dockers strike he allowed 6 children from his parish to be fed at the settlement house as long as it was under the supervision of a settler but he refused to feed their parents.

Yet he placed a strong emphasis on the idea that settlers and working men should break bread with one another. But how much did this type of food philanthropy cost? The table below gives some indication of what Toynbee spent on dining and entrainment.


* Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1245 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, [accessed 16/02/2013]. Using 2012 data.

These figures only include the expenditure of edible provisions. They do not include costs of running the settlement house such as maintenance, coal and oil or the wages of the House’s domestic servants. Toynbee Hall, unlike Oxford House, was not teetotal so these figures do include beer and wine. Settlers paid for all drinks (beer, wine and mineral water) on top of their rent. They were also allowed to entertain friends in their bedrooms with tea, which was charged at 1d for the tea, milk and the use of crockery. Their rent included a warm breakfast, lunch and dinner. 17 settlers resided in Toynbee at anyone time. Lunch and dinner could be provided for guests as long as their meals were paid for. West end guests paid for their own, the cost of feeding an East end guests was usually covered for by the Entertainment Committee. A ticket was placed underneath a guest’s wine glass to let the domestic servant know who had paid for any guest’s meal. Toynbee also held yearly parties and the figures above include these events.

I suppose what immediately strikes me is just how much the House spent on dining and that this was certainly an elite form of food philanthropy. I need to find out more about other institutions and what they spent on food. Do let me know if you have touched on this area in your research or know of any secondary readings I should look at. But it certainly raises interesting questions about how we understand ‘philanthropy’ and it is one that I will certainly be pondering for a while.


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