Samuel and Henrietta Barnett

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett

Today the Church remembers two important figures of social reform:

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Henrietta Barnett is, perhaps, best known for the development of Hampstead Garden suburb, but she – with Samuel Barnett – was an important social reformer. Their most notable innovation was the university settlement – but they were also active in other arenas. 

Dame Henrietta Octavia Weston Barnett (née Rowland) (1851-1936) was born in Clapham, London. Her mother died soon after her birth and she was raised in some comfort by her father. She was educated at home until aged 16 when she spent several terms at a boarding school in Dover run by the Haddon sisters. Significantly, the sisters had a strong commitment to social altruism (Koven 2004). After her father’s death in 1869 Henrietta moved with two of her two sisters to Bayswater. She became involved in parish visiting and began to commit a significant amount of her time to helping the social and housing reformer Octavia Hill. Hill was at this time developing her distinctive approach to housing provision and community-building (having begun in 1864 with three slum properties bought for her by John Ruskin).

It was also through Octavia Hill that Henrietta was introduced to Samuel Augustus Barnett (the curate of St Mary’s,Bryanston Square and another co-worker of Hill). While they were different in temperament, their commitment to social action and reform drew them together. They were married in 1873 and went to live and work in the troubled and deprived parish of St Jude’s, Whitechapel.

Henrietta Barnett quickly turned again to parish visiting, and to developing work with women and children. She was an energetic and determined organizer and soon managed to attract a group of women to help her. Along with many other Victorians, Henrietta Barnett valued the role women played as mothers and ‘women’s distinct moral gifts as peacemakers capable of diffusing class war’ (Koven 2004: 1024). She also became a woman guardian for the parish (1875) and a school manager for the poor law district schools in Forest Gate (1876). Around the same time, Henrietta Barnett began a series of social initiatives including helping to set up the Metropolitan Association for the Befriending of Young Servants (1876), and experimenting with sending local slum children for country holidays. These efforts were later to grow into the Country Holiday Fund (established in 1877). By 1884 Henrietta and Samuel Barnett were working hard to set up the pioneering university settlement that became known as Toynbee Hall.

For much of her later life (from around 1903 onwards) Henrietta Barnett concentrated upon creating the Hampstead Garden suburb. Henrietta and Samuel Barnett had moved to Hampstead in 1889 (Heath End House on Spaniards Road). Building on her experiences of working with Octavia Hill, and in east London, and looking to the work of Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker with regard to Letchworth Garden City, Henrietta Barnett wanted to create a community that was organic, mixed and that had housing and social amenities that allowed for a healthy life for all. She had a strong vision of what she wanted – and as she grew older (and after Samuel Barnett died) she became more driven and didn’t brook opposition.

Alongside all this activity, Henrietta Barnett also produced a significant number of books and essays. These included books on domestic economy (The Making of the Home 1885), physiology (The Making of the Body 1894), and social reform (Practicable Socialism 1888, Towards Social Reform 1909 – both with Samuel Barnett). 

Samuel Barnett died in 1913. Henrietta continued to be focused on her work in Hampstead, but she also supported Barnett House at Oxford (1914) which was named in memory of Samuel (and was the centre for social work and social policy education at the university).

The Barnetts were never to have children of their own. Henrietta, however was the legal guardian of her elder sister Fanny (who was brain damaged) and Dorothy Woods (an adopted ward). Henrietta Barnet died in her Hampstead home in 1936

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