Oxford House (settlement)

Oxford House in Bethnal Green, London was established in September 1884 as one of the first "settlements" by Oxford University as a High-Anglican Church of England counterpart[1] to Toynbee Hall, established around the same time at Whitechapel.

Oxford House



Arising out of the Philanthropic and Social movement of the mid-Victorian age which had found support at the University of Oxford and from the Tractarianism (or Oxford Movement) of the High Anglican Church, the settlement movement sprang up primarily from the work of the Barnett’s (Samuel, rector of Whitechapel and his wife Henrietta) who’s pioneering view saw the first steps to establishing Toynbee Hall. This was considered by some at Oxford, led by the Warden of Keble College, Edward Talbot, “not sufficiently religious enough”[2] and it was this group of Oxford men who looked to provide a more ascetic, denominationally religious, settlement in the East End of London. The first premises used under the Oxford House name was the National Day school of the parish church of St Andrew at Bethnal Green, which provided lodgings for three or four graduates to reside and work in the local neighbourhood, providing help and assistance to the poor and dispossessed of the surrounding area through a variety of activities including Boys clubs, A “Talk and smoke” club for working men, and Sunday afternoon Bible lectures.[3]

The appointment of Arthur Winnington-Ingram as Head of the Oxford House in 1889 and the ever-widening popularity of the programmes being run by the Oxford House necessitated a move to more substantial property. In a substantial fundraising effort, along with several Oxford luminaries, including Henry Scott Holland’s rallying-cry, “come and be the squires of East London”[4] and Winnington-Ingram’s plea to Oxford men that “if they would not come and live in Bethnal Green, they must at least supply a house for those who would.”[5] the appeal raised enough capital to purchase the land on which Oxford House now stands and construct a solid red-brick 5 storey building. The building itself was designed by the renowned architect Sir Arthur Blomfield and opened by the Duke of Connaught in 1892. It was designated an English Heritage Grade II listed building in 2011.

Oxford House continued to provide a hub for the community of Bethnal Green and began expanding by purchasing other properties to run the various clubs and activities associated with the work of Oxford House. These included the Excelsior hall and swimming baths at Mansford street, University Club buildings in Victoria Park square, and recreation grounds for sporting clubs further east at Walthamstow.

Similar University settlements also started in London (Cambridge House 1889, Bermondsey 1892, Docklands, Mansfield 1890) and other major cities in the UK (Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol) and abroad (New York, Chicago, Helsinki). Some were specifically established to address Women and Girls like St. Margaret’s and St. Hilda’s (both 1889) nearby.

The start of World War I curtailed much of the House’s activities, many Oxford graduates entering the army leaving a shortage of resident volunteers. The building was temporarily used as a shelter from Zeppelin air raids during 1917.

After the war the House struggled to return to the pre-1914 levels of residents and volunteers, although it manfully kept a number of Boys clubs and societies for working men going. Relations with the local clergy were fraught at times as it was “felt that the boys clubs were a counter attraction to their parochial ventures”. Throughout the 1920s and 30’s Oxford House, despite severe financial constraints, continued to work providing charitable support to the local community throughout the depression, where Bethnal Green had one of the highest unemployment rates in London. The House established links with Berkhampsted, Repton and Chigwell schools primarily through sports such as football and cricket, in an attempt to bring boys of different social backgrounds together.

In 1931 on his visit to Britain Mahatma Gandhi gave an impromptu speech at Oxford House which attracted a crowd of 3,000 people outside to cheer him. And from 1933 the East End found itself the target of Anti-Semitic hatred through the activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The Head of Oxford House sent letters to the local paper and the Times complaining of the disturbances caused by the “Black shirts”.

With the outbreak of World War II many of the buildings associated with Oxford House were requisitioned by the war office for use by the army. Oxford House itself had a new Head: Guy Clutton-Brock and his wife Molly. He set about a programme of opening up the house to the local people and, for the first time, running several clubs for Women and Girls alongside the Boys ventures. He also offered employment to many conscientious objectors who found work as volunteers of several of the activities and programmes Oxford House ran during the war.

The Victorian building itself was used as an air raid shelter during the "blitz", housing upwards of 600 people.[6] Local children were evacuated to Wales where the House had acquired property enabling it to set up residential schools for 5-14 year olds and under 5’s (with accompanying mothers) providing shelter and respite from one of the heaviest bombed parts of London. After the initial bombing many people returned to the area only to find that the V1 and V2 rocket attacks in 1944 forced them to move out again. At the end of the war Guy Clutton-Brock took a job in post-war Germany and later founded a non-apartheid farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The war had broken down many social barriers and Oxford House saw itself more as a mainstay of the community, than an outside settlement dropped into the local area. Increasingly the direction of the House passed to non-Oxbridge people and Laity and the links between the University, Church of England and the House became less pronounced.

During the 1950s and 60’s Bethnal Green was being rebuilt and the slum clearances which had begun before the war accelerated with many housing estates being erected in the area leading to the formation of Community Associations in which Oxford House became closely involved. There were no longer the numbers of University graduates coming to reside and learn by gaining experience of working in the community and financially the House continued to struggle. Eventually this resulted in a three month period of closure in 1972.

Throughout the 1970s and 80’s Oxford House emerged from the problems surrounding itself and through a succession of Heads, under the Chairmanship of Peter F. Scott CBE. In 1984 the House was able to celebrate the Centenary of its founding with HRH The Princess Royal acting as patron.

The Charity continued to provide projects for a diverse set of needs among the changing local communities. In the 1990s it found a home for Somali groups resulting from the Diaspora of the civil war in that country, as well as Community Health projects, Pensioners clubs, Youth work and Art workshops.

Chapel on third floor

The restoration of the original Blomfield-designed third floor Chapel was completed in 1997.

In 2003, funded through Arts council lottery money, a new Arts centre extension was opened providing Gallery space, a Theatre and a Dance studio.

Current programmes

Oxford House is now home to many third sector and social enterprise groups who are active in providing a range of programmes for young people, families, adults, and older people, each of which aim to meet the needs of local people, and enable communities to fulfil their potential.

Regular events taking place include: - Yoga, Pilates, Aikido, Callanetics, Slimming world, Dance classes.

Oxford House provides the use of a 130-seat theatre, a fully equipped Dance Studio, Café and Art Gallery, as well as a number of meeting rooms of various sizes all available for Hire.

Notable people and organisations associated with it

Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram – Bishop of London 1901-1939

Hugh Richard Heathcote Gascoyne-Cecil, 1st Baron Quickswood (1869–1956), styled Lord Hugh Cecil until 1941. Chair of Oxford House 1923-1937

Lord Rupert Ernest William Gascoyne-Cecil (1863–1936) Bishop of Exeter from 1916 to 1936.

Revd William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930) – Oxford Don

Hugh Richard “Dick” Lawrie Sheppard (1880–1937) - founder of the Peace Pledge Union, Head of Oxford House 1909

Frederic Thesiger, 1st Viscount Chelmsford – British Statesman, Viceroy of India 1916-1921

A. J. Webbe – Captain of the MCC 1885-1898

Sidney Herbert, 16th Earl of Pembroke, (1906–1969) British peer

Dame Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982) - Author

David Gawen Champernowne (1912–2000) English economist and mathematician.

Guy Clutton-Brock (1906–1995) – Social worker, Head of Oxford House 1940-1944

Sir Wyndham Deedes - (1883–1956) British Brigadier General

Roland Erasmus Phillips (1890–1916) – Founder of Boy Scouts in Bethnal Green

Henry Scott Holland (1847–1918) - Regius Professor of Divinity at University of Oxford. Had Holland Hall at Oxford House named in his honour.

Peter Goldsmith, Baron Goldsmith (1950- ) former Attorney General for England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (1925 - ) former MP Brent North


Slumming – sexual & social politics in Victorian London. Seth Koven. Princeton university press 2004. ISBN 691-11592-3

Life of Canon Barnett - Henrietta Barnett 1901 ISBN 978-1113640451

The Oxford House in Bethnal Green. T.Brakell ltd. 1948

The Oxford House in Bethnal Green “100 years of work in the community”. Mandy Ashworth 1984 ©Oxford House

Squires in the slums: settlements and missions in late-Victorian Britain. Nigel Scotland 2007 ISBN 978 845113360

Learning about Community – Peter Kuenstler 2003. ISBN 0-9548943-0-8

100 years of work in the community – Ian Bradley 1984

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green - T.F.T. Baker (Editor) 1998 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22754


  1. ^ Koven, Seth (2004). P229 Slumming – sexual & social politics in Victorian London. Princeton university press. ISBN 691-11592-3. 
  2. ^ Barnett, Henrietta (1901). Life of Canon Barnett. ISBN 978-1113640451. 
  3. ^ The Oxford House in Bethnal Green. T.Brakell Ltd. 1948. 
  4. ^ Ashworth, Mandy (1984). Oxford House in Bethnal Green - 100 years of work in the community. Oxford House. pp. 9. 
  5. ^ Scotland, Nigel (2007). Squires in the slums: Settlements and missions in late-Victorian Britain. ISBN 978-845113360. 
  6. ^ Kuenstler, Peter (2003). Learning about Community. ISBN ISBN 0-9548943-0-8. 

External links

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