Mary Ward History

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Born into a family of influential writers, educators, and thinkers in Hobart, Australia on June 11th, 1851, Mary Ward enjoyed from birth the blooming intellectual environment which she would one day work tirelessly to extend to the unschooled working classes of the United Kingdom.

The family’s move back to England in 1856 would bring her to a country vastly different from the one we know today, in which the societal strains of mass industrialisation had created an overworked, undereducated, and unvalued lower class. It was the campaign against such injustices which would go on to define Mary Ward’s life.

Educated from ages 11 to 15 at various Shropshire boarding schools, Mary would return to her family’s Oxford home with a profound in learning. Her scholarship made her familiar with French, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Greek, and awoke within her both a deep interest in social change and a desire towards creating her own literary work.

In her own era, it was the latter aspiration which was to pave the way to prominence, and she is today still principally remembered by her penname of Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Starting with her first published novel in 1881 – a children’s book entitled Milly and Molly ­– Mary Ward would continue to foster an influential reputation within the literary field, culminating in the 1881 publication of Robert Elsmere. The work secured her cultural position, quickly selling millions of copies across the world – possibly more than any other novel of the nineteenth century. While solidifying her eminent position within the arts, her writing career also granted Ward the financial independence necessary to tackle the societal problems analysed in her literary work through real-world applications.

Like the majority of her work, the intensely popular Robert Elsmere tackled both religious doubt and progressive social policy. Concerned with an Oxford clergyman who stressed the importance of working directly with the underprivileged through ‘settlements’ based in areas of extreme poverty, its ideas ignited debate across the country, and helped to stir up the conscience of its readers.

Mary Ward was strongly encouraged to found a settlement herself in order to apply the ideals of her novel in practice. It was this inspirational backing which led to the planning and building of what is today referred to as Mary Ward House.


The Settlement Movement

The settlement movement with which Mary Ward’s life would become so entwined resonated strongly with her compassionate social ideals. It responded to an industrialised nation which had placed the working class into repetitive jobs, or else impoverished them entirely. Those lucky enough to find work also tended to find themselves replaceable, and subjected to long hours for low wages, while unemployment rose rapidly. By the late nineteenth century, nearly 3 million Londoners were without work, and almost 30% of the city’s residents rested below the poverty line.

The settlement movement which found a figurehead in Mary Ward was a reformist movement which sought to alleviate poverty by getting the rich and poor to live more closely with each other, breaking down the physical and educational boundaries between classes in order to proliferate the fruits of privilege amongst those not blessed enough to be born to them.

Reformists held ‘settlement houses’ as the answer. Established in poverty-stricken urban areas, they would be lived in by volunteer ‘settlement workers’ of the middle class, who would then expose their low-income neighbours to knowledge and culture. Appalled by the conditions of working class life, these middle class professionals rejected the materialism of the age, and attempted to provide an escape from the brutal mechanisation of work. Education, day-care, and healthcare would be provided to both tackle and reverse the root causes of poverty.

Motivated to extend the ideology of her work into the real world, Mary used her considerable powers of persuasion to arrange for both a donation of land from the Duke of Bedford and a £14,000 bequest from the noted philanthropist John Passmore Edwards in order to form a settlement community of her own.


John Passmore Edwards

Unlike Mary Ward, John Passmore Edwards was not of a family which boasted wealth, culture, or influence. Born in 1823 in the small Cornish village of Blackwater, Passmore Edwards was the son of a carpenter, but rose to become one of his era’s greatest and most selfless proponents for social change.

Initiating his career as a Manchester representative of London’s Sentinel newspaper, Passmore Edwards parlayed his journalistic expertise and entrepreneurial spirit into several successful publishing ventures, eventually amassing a considerable fortune from the burgeoning newspaper industry.

He became a Liberal Member of Parliament for Salisbury, and, like Ward, is now remembered as a lifelong champion of the working class. Much of his time was dedicated to social reform, campaigning for such causes as the abolition of capital punishment and flogging, as well as the suppression of the oriental opium trade. A lifelong proponent of pacifism with a marked distaste for conflict, he attended various peace conferences as a delegate from the London Peace Society, publicly opposed the Boer War, and twice refused knighthood.

In addition to his donation to Mary Ward’s settlement program, Passmore Edwards granted bequests which directly led to the establishment of over seventy major buildings, including hospitals, schools, convalescent homes, hygienic drinking fountains, art galleries, and twenty-four separate libraries. He also donated substantially to the Workers' Educational Association – which, like the Mary Ward Centre itself, continues to offer opportunities for adult education to this very day.

A natural advocate of the settlement program, Edwards offered a considerable sum towards the establishment of such a building within London. It was a move which was to bring him into direct contact with Mary Ward, and one which was to improve the lives of thousands of the city’s citizens.


The Passmore Edwards Settlement

As Mary Ward stated in 1897:

‘There are a hundred conquests and pleasures and opportunities that civilisation brings or develops that for a long time fell mainly to the rich, and yet if the State is to grow healthy they must in time be brought down into the market place, and distributed far and wide. And it is for the equalisation, for the distribution of these that Settlements are especially meant.’

It was towards this goal that her project would aim, and, after long discussions with John Passmore Edwards, Tavistock Place was judged as the ideal location for such a social enterprise. Close to the edges of the poverty which then marred the area of Saint Pancras, the building would act as a fitting representation of Ward’s intense desire to ‘break down the local and geographical barriers that separated rich from poor’.

Initially named the Passmore Edwards Settlement in honour of its primary benefactor, Ward opened the building in February 1898, defining its purpose as providing ‘education, social intercourse, and debate of the wider sort, music, books, pictures, travel’. Giving practical life to Ward’s vision of an equalised society, the building was soon thriving with activity which reached across the old, ingrained divisions of class and wealth. Suddenly, local residents were enjoying the benefits of modern society previously reserved exclusively for the upper class.

The settlement became chiefly valued as the centre of a thriving social and community network. Intellectual interests were actively pursued through music, chess societies, and debates. Concerts were held frequently, while lectures were provided by such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb, and Keir Hardie.

Practical skills were also developed within dedicated retraining facilities, while legal aid was delivered by a poor man’s lawyer service. However, it was the progressive approach to education which was to become the settlement’s most influential legacy.

Ward remained heavily involved with the facility throughout the rest of her life, and it was the importance of learning which she continued to champion most passionately. In 1899, she saw the settlement extend to include the Invalid Children's School - one of the country’s very first day schools for the physically disabled.

In 1902, a Vacation School was opened to keep neighbourhood children off the streets during the summer holidays, an educational innovation which developed into afterschool clubs, and finally into the play centre movement which persists to the present day. Ward and her daughter Janet were instrumental campaigners for the expansion of these activities, eventually securing grants from the Board of Education which allowed for the opening of 40 such play centres across the city by the 1930s.

A School for Mothers was founded to provide modern pre and ante-natal advice, while the training of teachers, social workers, and domestic classes aided in the employment of local citizens. During the First World War, Ward produced propaganda at the behest of Theodore Roosevelt to help involve America in the effort against Germany – even going so far as to visit the war-torn British trenches for herself. The settlement responded to the conflict by opening its doors to both Belgian refugees and the Red Cross, while still continuing to attend to the needs of the local community.

As Ward remembers it:

‘The charming hall of the settlement is well attended every winter week by people to whom the beautiful music that the settlement gives is a constant joy; the Library, dedicated to the memory of T. H. Green, has 400 members; the classes and popular lectures have been steadily held even during this devastating war; the Workers' Educational Association carry on their work under our roof; mothers bring their babies to the Infant Welfare Centre in the afternoon; there are orchestral and choral classes, boys' clubs and girls' clubs.’

The settlement’s influence was resounding, and was soon international thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, who resided in the building during its initial period of expansion. During the Presidency of her husband – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – seven charitable buildings were constructed across the United States, each of which took the Passmore Edwards settlement as its physical and spiritual model.

Its example is now acknowledged as a bold step forward towards the welfare state which flourished in the latter half of the twentieth century. Community centres and social outreach programs which took the place of private settlements and similar charitable institutions continue to owe much to the tireless convictions of people such as Mary Ward and John Passmore Edwards.

Ward herself is still remembered as an important and influential nineteenth century novelist, and has become increasingly acknowledged for her role in the development of social work and community outreach. She was later made a CBE, and, in 1919, was asked to become one of the country's very first female magistrates. However, her health had already begun to deteriorate due to years of overexertion.

Mary Ward passed away in London in March 1920, at the age of 68. She was interred at Aldbury, near her cherished country home. After her death, the settlement’s Council of Management – after consulting with the estate of John Passmore Edwards - voted to change the name of the building to The Mary Ward Settlement.


The Architectural History of Mary Ward House

One of the greatest surviving examples of the Victorian Era’s Arts and Crafts School of Architecture, the Mary Ward House serves as a physical symbol of the ideals which it was to espouse.

The contract was won by Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, two young architects who lived in the settlement themselves, and were well placed to grasp the building’s purpose. They proved a fitting choice, choosing to create an idealistic architectural response to the strains which mass industrialisation had placed upon the working class.

The Arts and Crafts style which they adopted advocated traditional craftsmanship and simple forms, eschewing common mechanised production methods. The plain brick façade and stone entrance way were accented with fine stone detailing, segmental arches, and stone eggs were displayed to symbolise creation and rebirth.

Considered a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, Mary Ward House stands today as an intriguing Grade I listed building, attracting international visitors and playing host to a wide variety of events within its storied interior spaces.

By 1929, Mary Ward House had become a dedicated women’s settlement. Social work continued during the 1930s and 1940s, with more and more attention being paid to the provision of adult education and training. A legal advice centre was subsequently opened during the 1940s to provide both legal assistance and financial advice to low income individuals.


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