Visionary and Pioneer
Mary Ward’s outlook was shaped by her family and in particular by her mother. In 1888 she published her novel Robert Elsmere. In this a church of England minister disillusioned with the church, moved to the east end of London and together with others she assisted various people in their difficulties. Together they formed a self-help group in which each member revealed their hidden strengths and abilities. In the novel one asks what they should call their enterprise and they decided it should be called a settlement.
A settlement was a community in which young professionals would agree to spend a number of years living among a disadvantaged community to befriend and assist them with a transfer of knowledge, skills and general encouragement. The novel met with tremendous success and resulted in widespread debate as to whether such utopia could be realised. At the time there was widespread poverty. Children were abandoned in the street, which lead to the setup of Children’s Home. There were no schools generally, no means of education for the poor. Bloomsbury, at that time, was on the margins of the abject poverty and squalor of Somers Town and the relative affluence of the ‘Bloomsbury set’.
Mary Ward was persuaded to try and realise the dream of the novel and she succeeded beyond her expectations. Many of the things we take for granted today were shaped by her vision and energy. She pioneered free legal aid, the education of blind and disabled children. Through her innovative work with children showed how the most disturbed and traumatised could be rehabilitated fully and enjoy a happy life.
She obtained a donation of £12,000 (£1.2 million today) for the building from Passmore Edwards. She drew up an extensive design brief detailing the needs of the community insisting on the building being unpretentious, welcoming, warm, well-lit with no dark spaces anywhere. Each room was to be unique. She held a competition for the design of the building and it was won by two young architects, Smith and Brewer.
The design aroused major debate in architectural circles and famous architects of the day, notably William Lethaby and Charles Voysey, became enthusiastic supporters and their influence is evident in the building’s finishes, particularly in the fireplaces.
Mary Ward House has been described by Pevsner (the famous architectural historian) as the most beautiful building of its period in London. Many people pass by without noticing it but we constantly meet people who are stuck by its uniqueness and stop to look and photograph its unusual facade.
Large buildings of the period had great doors as a statement of their importance.
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