Defining Settlement Houses

What Makes a Settlement House? Blogging SSAWW 2009

After our panel presentations yesterday, Voices from the Settlement House an interesting question was posed by University of California, San Diego professor Nicole Tonkovich about whether or not settlement houses were exclusively an urban phenomenon. The discussion that evolved during the Q&A period and then after lunch showed that this not a easily answerable . . . .

Sarah Lock, a professor from Weatherford College, who presented on the panel, offered a really nice explanation about other contemporary (Progressive Era, 1880-1920) institutions that fulfilled same functions but in different locales. “Settlement houses”or “social settlements” bearing that specific moniker do seem to be largely urban, most likely because of the concentration of money and people that are needed to offer the breadth of resources to a mass of people. Moreover the social settlement is also a institution in space, a building or a series of buildings, not just a collection of services.

However, as Lock pointed out, there are examples of other organizations that offered many of the same programs that were associated with African American schools in the south, thus they are not exactly urban (or in the north) but they are institutional in organization and had a community of people to serve and from which to draw resources. I suggested that some of the work that was conducted at or by asocial settlement did on occasions get taken up by women’s groups, thus extending the borders of one institution across the nation. The example I was thinking about was when a group of women at Hull House were reforming child labor practices and in an effort to document incidences of child labor they sent out a call to women’s groups across the country asking them to begin documenting incidents that they saw firsthand in their own communities of children working. This call was met by women who were awakened to the reality of child labor in their communities and then their results were brought into the larger work of the activists based in the urban (northern) social settlement.

Another question that arose from this conversation was posed over lunch by Judith Ranta. Ranta works on women and girls who labored in the New England textile mills and she delivered the third paper on our panel. Her paper discussed Jennie Collins (1828-1887) and Boffins’ Bower, which was an institution that helped find work for women and offered a myriad of much-needed services to the poorest women of Boston. Over our Chinese food, Ranta asked if we thought Boffin’s Bower was a settlement house. Obviously, I thought it fit enough to include her paper on the panel, but when we started to discuss it many questions about category distinctions arose.

Boffin’s Bower was established in Boston’s East Side in the 1870’s, many years before Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House. Boffin’s Bower was started by Jennie Collins who was not a college-educated reformer, but who already lived in the southside neighborhood in which she established her organization.

Ranta noted that the wealthy women of Boston who engaged in philanthropy were suspicious of Collins and Boffins’ Bower. However, these same philanthropically-minded women did, a few years later, give money to the college-educated women who arrived in Boston to do reform work. Ranta’s work on Collins is fascinating, and she has edited and written an introduction for a new addition of Nature’s Aristocracy: A Plea for the Oppressed (1871) by Jennie Collins that will be released in May 2010 by University of Nebraska Press.

Some of the questions that we identified that might be pertinent to the question of what distinguishes a settlement house from something else might include:

Is a social settlement defined by the fact that educated middle-class women (and men) establish it or provide the services to the neighbors?

Does it need to be located in an urban environment? Is there something particular about social settlements that mean they are defined by the structure that they take in relation to the surrounding neighborhood?

Are there types of services that are included in a number of social settlements that can be used to define them?

I imagine that there are other questions that I will come upon that will flesh out this discussion, but these are my initial thoughts. None of us could think of any texts that have defined settlement houses or taken on this question. Obviously social settlements began in England, so perhaps looking to the origin of the name and the institution there would be a place to start. I imagine that in the U.S. the use of the term social settlement or settlement house began after Addams and Starr returned from London, which is why Jennie Collins didn’t call Boffins’ Bower a settlement house. Of course other American reformers may have imported the term as well.

Perhaps another place to look for information about the question of locale and the kinds of work that was done in social settlements might be on the little bit of scholarship that links the black missions of the south to the settlement houses of the north.[1] I think it is significant to this relationship that Victoria Earle Matthews, named her settlement the White Rose Mission. Matthews was a African American journalist, who’d been born into slavery and eventually move to New York City and opened a social settlement after the death of her teenage son.

[1] See Luker, Ralph E. “Missions, Institutional Churches, and Settlement Houses: The Black Experience, 1885-1910.” The Journal of Negro History 69.3/4 (1984): 101-13. I haven’t yet found any more recent work that addresses this issue.

2 thoughts on “Defining Settlement Houses

  1. The question of whether or not settlements must be urban phenomena is a fascinating and important one. Here are my thoughts on the question, coming at the issue from a British settlement perspective.

    First: some geographical ‘facts’/thoughts about the settlement movement in Britain.The first British settlements – Toynbee Hall and Oxford House – were located in London’s densely-populated East End, arguably amongst the most ‘urban’ areas in London. Other early settlements were located in such urban locations, across London, but also in other major British cities.

    However, this changed in the interwar period, in response to the construction of new suburban housing estates and problems in the ‘Special Areas’ during the depression. The Docklands Settlement in East London expanded its activities into Dagenham (E London/Essex) in the 1930s, creating a settlement outpost to serve the new Becontree Estate community. The Becontree Estate was the largest housing estate in Europe at the time (however, it was not public housing at that point), and housed socially-mobile East Londoners. This was important because Dagenham – then as now – was not well-designed in terms of how streets, shopping areas were laid out in order to get people circulating and socialising. Likewise, settlement personnel had long been involved in housing developments, from Henrietta Barnett and the Hampstead Garden Suburb project through E. St John Catchpool and the new Welwyn Garden City of the same period. Certainly the suburbs and the outlying new towns were seen as a legitimate site for settlement activities.

    The settlements were also involved in the set up of new settlements in the ‘Special Areas’, pockets of intense unemployment and underemployment. Particular areas – like North East England and South Wales – were heavily reliant upon single industries such as coal-mining, and these were particularly hard hit during the depression in the 1930s. Although they were industrial areas, it didn’t follow that they were necessarily urban – coal mining was often based in rural villages. The Pilgrim Trust – a major funder of social initiatives – encouraged the foundation of settlements in these areas, as a means of engaging the unemployed and keeping up morale – such as the Spennymoor Settlement in Co. Durham (N E England, The Society of Friends also supported settlements, such as Maes-yr-Haf in South Wales ( The Educational Settlement Movement is another phenomenon that expanded and innovated upon the settlement ideal – I recommend checking out the work of Mark Freeman at Glasgow on the ESA (

    So… how does this contribute to our definition of a settlement? The most important first point is that a settlement is self-defined as such by those involved in it. This is particularly important in the context of C19 London, where settlements were active cheek-by-jowl with a wide variety of missions and parishes, which likewise parachuted middle class people in to impoverished areas and undertook similar activities – often the difference lay in whether the aim of the institution was to proselytize or to effect social change… or to learn more about social conditions. The settlements took a more sociological and political turn than the missions, and soon identified themselves as radical social institutions.

    They were predominantly middle-class institutions, but I would be hesitant to call the British ones solely middle-class institutions. There is evidence to suggest that working-class women in particular found settlements useful: they were not just the users of settlement services.

    What this all taps into is the way in which settlements were protean bodies who adapted to the needs around them. This can be seen in the ‘pioneering’ years from 1884 – 1914, but it is a major feature of the British settlements in the period after 1945. The advent of the British welfare state meant that many ‘traditional’ settlement activities were taken over by the state, and potential settlement staff could find alternative employment with the NHS etc. Although settlement staff and trustees were concerned about being put out of business, they were in a superb place to react quickly to new challenges that were not served by the state. For example, free legal advice grew as people had to deal with a rapidly expanding bureaucracy and all that entails; although the NHS provided care for chronic ailments, it didn’t provide for the social needs of sufferers and carers… so settlements were able to provide services for the parents of disabled children. In all cases, in all times, settlement services were determined by local needs… thus whilst there were similarities between settlement youth work in London and Chicago, these were inevitably given distinct shape by the young people who used them and the (often not much older) people who ran them, and the conditions and needs of the local neighbourhood.

    Anyway, these are post-British reading week (autumn recess) mini-break thoughts – comments and debate welcome!!

    • Kate, many thanks for your comments. I think that you are spot-on when you note the importance of self-definition. Moreover, like in Britain, questions of the name of the institution were often linked to whether or not there was a religious component (i.e. missions vs. settlement). I think in the US there was sometimes a difference, at least in nomenclature, when the institution was affiliated with a historically African American establishment (like one of the southern educational institutes) or was built in, run by, and met the needs of an exclusively African American community. For example, I am thinking of Victoria Earle Matthews White Rose Mission.

      Most of what you note about the historical trajectory of British social settlements seems to coincide with what I know of the trajectory of the American social settlement. I suppose that in my original posting I should have mentioned that the three of us who engaged in this conversation more or less limit our research to the pioneering period you mention.

      Thanks again for your generous contribution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *