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Mary Ward with one of her daughters, 1885-1890

Mary Ward with one of her daughters, 1885-1890.

​Katharine Short, an archivist in the Collections team at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), describes the archive of the Mary Ward Settlement which she has recently finished cataloguing. The archive documents the important part played by Mary Ward and the settlement she founded in promoting public education and social reform in 19th and early 20th century London.


Author Mary Ward was born Mary Augusta Arnold in 1851, and married journalist Humphry Ward in 1871. Her highly successful novel “Robert Elsmere” was published in 1888. It featured a young Anglican priest who decides that if faith is to be effective it must meet the needs of the community through good works; in his case through involvement with the “New Brotherhood”, a settlement in the East End of London. The idea caught the attention and conscience of many readers, encouraging Mary to found a Settlement which would give practical expression to the ideas in her novel, along the lines of Toynbee Hall in East London. Premises in Gordon Square were rented and named the “University Hall Settlement”, with the aim of providing “improved popular teaching of the Bible and of the history of religion”, and to secure for residents of the Hall “opportunities for religious and social work”. Residents would receive accommodation in the Hall in return for their participation in the community work done by the Settlement.

The history of the settlement

There were some religious disagreements among the residents of the Hall and in 1891 a small group secured a separate building east of Tavistock Square, called Marchmont Hall. They ran programmes and clubs for local men and boys, including talks, debates and concerts. These clubs proved more popular than the Biblical and religious lectures at University Hall, and Mary decided to launch an appeal to provide a more spacious building which could accommodate the activities of both institutions. In 1894, John Passmore Edwards, a publisher and philanthropist, offered a considerable sum towards the building. Mary approached the Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land in the Bloomsbury area, and he agreed to grant land on Tavistock Place. This location was considered suitable as it was on the edge of an area of great poverty, Saint Pancras, where social work was needed. Architects Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer won a competition to provide the design of the building, a design which has been lauded as a masterpiece of late Victorian architecture. Construction began in 1896, and the building was opened in February 1898, named the Passmore Edwards Settlement after its main benefactor. In her speech at the opening of the Settlement Mary Ward defined its purpose as providing “education, social intercourse, and debate of the wider sort, music, books, pictures, travel”. She continued: “it is these that make life rich and animated, that ease the burden of it, that stand perpetually between a man and a woman and the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

Mary Ward House (c.1950s)

Mary Ward House, c.1950s

​The work and activities of the Settlement expanded to include provision of a day school for physically disabled children, one of the first in England; a Vacation School and Evening Play Centre to keep children busy during the summer holidays and after school; youth clubs for teenagers; the Coram’s Fields playgrounds on the site of the former Foundling Hospital; a School for Mothers providing pre and ante natal advice; a nursery; training for teachers and social workers; a Legal Advice Centre offering legal aid and financial advice; clubs for unemployed men; a Dramatic Arts Centre and musical concerts; and adult education classes including formal courses, lectures and debates.

Mary Ward died in 1920 and in 1921 the name of the Settlement was altered to the Mary Ward Settlement in her honour. In the 1930s the Settlement felt that the increasing gentrification of the Tavistock Place area meant that their original purpose of outreach to the poor was not being met. It was decided to sell the lease of Mary Ward House and move to a new centre in South Islington, which was considered an area of greater social deprivation. The Second World War interrupted these plans and the move did not take place, and the Settlement was required to rent Mary Ward House, finding it necessary to share the building with the National Institute for Social Work Training in order to keep costs down. The arrangement was unsatisfactory and cramped, and in 1982 the Settlement moved into nearby 42/43 Queen Square, in the former Stanhope Institute. The Settlement, known as the Mary Ward Centre since the 1970s, still occupies the Queen Square buildings and runs a wide variety of adult education courses and community outreach programmes.

Girl’s Club Keep Fit Class at the Settlement, 1933.

Girl’s Club Keep Fit Class at the Settlement, 1933.

The archive collection​

The collection (reference LMA/4524) includes records relating to the foundation of the University Hall Settlement, Marchmont Hall and the Passmore Edwards Settlement, including Mary Ward’s correspondence with supporters and benefactors and several of her speeches and talks. There are a range of administrative files including Council and Committee minutes; papers relating to the daily running of the Settlement and the maintenance of Settlement property, and papers of the Wardens (principals) of the Settlement. These latter particularly relate to the challenges facing the provision of adult education in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The papers reveal the constant financial struggle faced by the Settlement, and include files relating to fundraising appeals and applications for grants.

There are also a large number of records relating to the activities of the Settlement including prospectuses and syllabi outlining the various adult education courses; papers of the many clubs and societies run by the Settlement; press cuttings, posters, student magazines, pamphlets and other printed items, and photographs. The collection also includes some personal papers of Mary Ward’s daughter Dorothy Ward, who was closely involved with the Settlement throughout her life, particularly the Coram’s Fields playgrounds.

The collection is complemented by the Mary Ward House Trust collection (LMA/4532), which relates to the efforts of the National Institute for Social Work to preserve and restore Mary Ward House. This collection includes a large amount of architectural information including detailed plans and drawings, condition surveys, and many photographs.

Further information

You can search the catalogues of the collections mentioned above using the following references:

  • LMA/4524 - The Mary Ward Settlement.
  • LMA/4532 - The Mary Ward House Trust collection.

LMA also holds the following related collections

For more information about the history of the Mary Ward Settlement and the work of the Mary Ward Centre today, visit their website at

You can discover more about the vast array of collections held at LMA on our collections pages.

16 May 2012
Last Modified:
01 February 2013