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Henrietta Barnett - A Philanthropic Hero

Portrait of Henrietta Barnett

Henrietta Barnett

Heroes Conference at the Royal Geographical Society 3-4 October 2015

There are few examples of female heroes appearing at the ‘Heroes Conference’ in October 2015 (we use this term instead of heroine as we might use the term actor). Charlotte Hopkins presents the idea of a philanthropic hero in the form of Henrietta Barnett. An extract of the discussion is included below.

Henrietta Barnett: A Philanthropic Hero (1851-1936)

The aim of this paper is to look at how an individual might have achieved a heroic status and how we can use surviving archives to re-tell a story of a life and to investigate aspects of heroism through their work.

There have been few studies of female heroism and as John Price states in his book on Everyday Heroism: “…for men a certain type of heroism has tended to dominate.”  This has been in the form of that of a military hero or one that represents adventurism. The hero can be classified through the actions of a notable individual and affirmed through their real or metaphorical journey to heroic status. John Price refers to the characteristic of the everyday hero as having a ‘self-sacrificing devotion to our common race’. He goes on to say that, ‘courage for a man is heroism for a girl’. There are gendered scales of heroism and domestic ideology has made women appear more remarkable but less heroic than acts undertaken by men. This is of particular interest in the case of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett in their quest for social reform and how they might be placed against one another in the paternalism of the nineteenth century.

The elevated hero has untouchable qualities and in this context we can use the definition of the hero as being, ‘admired for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’. In some cases, they have or have had the power to mark an historic moment or make an historical change in society.

Henrietta Barnett was a dynamic woman who helped to contribute in reforming social conditions in London in the absence of a welfare state. The Liberal philanthropic movement believed that the lower and working classes needed to be culturally and spiritually educated if they were to fully participate in modern society. This was part of what we might refer to as a civilising mission. Therefore, it raises the question: can the creation of the middles classes be considered as heroic?

Other figures such as Octavia Hill were implementing and improving social housing in the latter end of 19th century. I would like to suggest that Henrietta is not as widely known as Octavia Hill, particularly outside London, Hill’s involvement with the National Trust may have assisted in the promotion of her reputation.

Today, many people have heard of the name ‘Henrietta Barnett’ as a result of the high performing girls school in Hampstead Garden Suburb, which she founded in 1911 to enable poor girls to the same level of education. Her husband the curate, Canon Samuel Barnett, may not be a familiar name to many now although he was instrumental in the establishment of Toynbee Hall along with Henrietta in Whitechapel. Both advocates of social reform they jointly wrote, amongst other publications: “Practicable Socialism: essays on social reform” in 1888. Henrietta and Samuel moved into the parish of St Jude’s, Whitechapel after their marriage in 1873. The creation of Toynbee Hall was not just charity work, this was socialism.

Henrietta’s words still resonate today: 

“It should be a matter of a man’s free will alone that determines which life he lives. Social conditions over which... he has no power, now too often determine for him, for there are forces in and around society which crush down the individual man.”

In documents held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), which is the main repository for archives relating to Henrietta Barnett, we can trace her work through her involvement in the Settlement movement at Toynbee Hall, as the first female Poor Law Guardian and to the foundation of Hampstead Garden Suburb “where all classes could live in neighbourliness together”.

Over 186 letters of correspondence form the majority of the Barnett archive. There are also many records relating to Henrietta across different collections at LMA including in the archives of Toynbee Hall and the Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Further information

02 October 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018