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The Settlement acted as a magnet to local people who paid their small annual membership fee not only to pursue intellectual interests and learn practical skills, but to be part of a social and community network that included interest groups such as music, debating and chess societies, and self-help groups like the coal club, boot club, and mother and toddler groups. Young university graduates lived as Residents in the Settlement and shared their skills and knowledge. Many of these Residents were training in the law and a “poor man’s lawyer” service, training facilities for the unemployed and domestic economy classes soon became part of the programme.The Settlement represented the beginnings of the play centre movement, with gymnastics, dance, and singing on the children’s curriculum, while the facilities for adults included free legal advice, classes in academic subjects, chess, art, and cookery, a library, and access to lectures in the Great Hall. There was a coal club and a mother-and-toddler club. In 1899 the Settlement opened the first school for disabled children in the country.
“education, social intercourse, and debate of the wider sort, music, books, pictures, travel… 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 (1851 – 1920)
“A settlement is nothing if not a place for ideals, a place for enthusiasm... There are a hundred conquests and pleasures and opportunities that civilisation brings or develops that for such a long time fall 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 distirbuted far and wide... And it is for the equalisation, for the distribution of these that Settlement are especially meant"
The Settlement Movement began in the early 1880s as a response to the urban poverty and social problems caused by industrialisation. Settlement Houses were established which offered social services to the urban poor and campaigned for social justice and equality. At the request of Mary Ward In 1894 John Passmore Edwards, a publisher and philanthropist, offered a considerable sum towards the building of a new Settlement. The Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land in the Bloomsbury area, was approached and agreed to grant land on Tavistock Place, which was considered suitable as it was on the edge of an area of great poverty, Saint Pancras. Architects Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer won a competition to provide the design of the building and construction began in 1896. 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’s declared aim was to give access for all to ‘the hundred pleasures and opportunities that fall mainly to the rich’. She described this open access to education where people from all backgrounds work and learn alongside each other as “equalisation”.