Reuniting the nation: can the Victorians show us how to settle a segregated society?

The terms ‘divided’, ‘segregated’, and ‘separated’ have increasingly been used to describe British society in recent months after the divisive campaign over whether to remain in the EU. Journalists now speak with louder voices about a geographical divide between North and South; London and the rest of the Britain; rural and urban. Prior to Brexit, Alan Milburn talked of a generational divide which will see British Generation Y poorer than their parents. Nationalism in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales reminds us of the fragility of ‘British’ culture. It would seem, too, that identity politics have torn asunder the British nation. Diversity is now understood by some as a divisive and negative force.

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 Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or, the Two Nations. first published 1845.
The whirlwind of feelings and anxieties described above is not new, however. Victorian commentators also spoke of a divided nation. In the 1840s the novelist and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed that England was really two nations. As his famous quote from Sybil, or, the Two Nations proclaimed, ‘Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.’  These ideas were picked up nearly forty-years later by the historian and social commentator Arnold Toynbee, who felt that the middle classes had abandoned the urban poor.

Even though Victorian politicians and social commentators were largely interested in geographical and class division, a consideration from the historical point of view of religion, gender, ethnicity and sexuality confirms that the nineteenth-century British nation was not divided into two but rather into many parts.

But, if the Victorian nation was divided, then there were also serious attempts to reunite it. Perhaps – in this moment – we should re-consider the ways and means of reuniting our divided nation. Universities offer a unique place to think about how we can reconnect. Many universities pride themselves on being community facing. University websites and strategic plans brim with a language that seeks engagement with their cities and communities.

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Rev. Samuel Barnett with some of the men who also joined him at Toynbee Hall. 
They also have history on their side. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the university and social settlement movement was founded to reconnect rich and poor. On the 13th November 1883 the Reverend Samuel Barnett, vicar of St. Jude’s parish, spoke about his passionate idea for university settlements in great towns. He proposed that students and graduates should come to live in purpose-built houses in the poor districts of towns and cities to bring the classes together.

While Disraeli spoke of a nation divided, Barnett confirmed that localities were divided from one another; city – suburb – slum. The settlement house, he proposed, should become the hub of community life, places where the poor and rich could meet one another and build cross-class friendships. It would be in settlement rooms that settlers, as they were to be called, would get to know and understand their less privileged brothers and sisters.

By October 1884, Britain’s first settlement house, Oxford House, had opened in Bethnal Green. Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, Barnett’s envisaged settlement, welcomed its first settlers on Christmas day in 1884. Both these settlements ran social and leisure clubs, and offered educational classes and lectures. Both assisted Charles Booth in his study of East London poverty. Indeed Booth’s assistant, Ernest Aves, a civil servant and social investigator, lived at Toynbee Hall, becoming its sub-warden in 1890, a role he undertook for seven years.

The university settlement movement caught hold of an ethos that had been awoken by studies of poverty and slum life in the early 1880s. It was felt that student and graduates could no longer abandon the poor for their Clubs, or moon around the West End leisure district. Instead, they needed to become active leaders and citizens in their community. It was at Toynbee Hall, for instance, that both William Beveridge, founder of the NHS, and Clement Atlee, one of the twentieth-century’s greatest Prime Ministers, came into touch with the realities of working-class lives.

The university settlement movement was not tied exclusively to students and graduates. Staff – especially arts and humanities staff – played a pivotal role in the movement: Professor Samuel Alexander at the Ancoats settlement in Manchester; Professors Reginald Burrown in Cardiff; and Glasglow’s Janet Anne Galloway are all examples.

Prior to the First World War, up to 40 university and social settlements had been founded. By this time the movement was no longer confined to universities. Religious and social groups also took up the cause of bringing privileged individuals into contact with the poor. Increasingly these movements started to study their communities and to think more about the provisions their neighbours needed.

Many of these settlements still survive today as community centres. Their work continues to impact upon their communities. They offer much needed services and educational programmes to disadvantaged groups. We might do well to return to these organisations once again and to learn the lessons of the late Victorian period, ‘Not to give money but yourself’, as the novelist Walter Besant proclaimed at the opening of one London settlement.

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One of the families from the BBC’s Victorian Slum programme. This wonderful picture was taken by Tony Richards. See more here:
Television programmes like the BBC’s Victorian Slum and Channel 5’s Slum Britain rouse sympathy in viewers much. But what we need, as Barnett argued over 130 years ago, is direct knowledge and understanding of social exclusion. We privileged few have too often cocooned ourselves in digital echo chambers where we only hear others like ourselves.

I do not propose a straight-forward reproduction of the Victorian settlement movement. At the time, users commented on the priggish natures of settlers, while settlers felt that they struggled to be the experts their users’ needs. We learn as much from their errors as we do from their successes.

But, face-to-face engagement is needed if ‘elites’ are to hear what different communities want, need and aspire to. Politicians, journalists and the public at large would do well to avoid clichés and pitching groups against one another. In the spirit of the settlement movement we need to sit together, to talk, and to learn from one another. Not to change minds or viewpoints, but to understand. If we did, we might realise that we share similar hopes, fears and dreams.

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