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The supernanny who built her own suburb - and much, much more

PUBLISHED: 12:41 29 January 2007 | UPDATED: 14:25 07 September 2010

Bridget Galton looks at the life of social reformer Dame Henrietta Barnett ON MAY 2, 1907, Dame Henrietta Barnett cut the first sod of her radical housing experiment, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Almost a century on, Alison Creedon s thoroughly researched, if rather ponderously worded, work on Barnett s life is a timely investigatio

ON MAY 2, 1907, Dame Henrietta Barnett cut the first sod of her radical housing experiment, Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Almost a century on, Alison Creedon's thoroughly researched, if rather ponderously worded, work on Barnett's life is a timely investigation of the making of a social reformer.

Creedon, who believes Barnett has been "too long confined to the margins of history", tellingly documents debates about do-gooders and the underprivileged which rage on today.

As a passionate advocate of helping the poor to help themselves, Barnett strayed into the sensitive area of parenting advice when preaching about child rearing and nutrition in

her 1875 book, The Making Of The Home.

The latter-day supernanny, who died childless, was also guilty of denigrating working-class "extravagance" on items she disapproved of and berating

poor women for not scouring

their homes.

Her vision, including her plans for the suburb, rested on the assumption that the working classes would be civilised by aspiring to her own bourgeois values.

For the suburb, tenants may well have wanted a pub or a football pitch. But the teetotal Barnett imposed tea rooms and cricket on her idealised "beautiful gold green scheme".

However, Creedon is always fair in balancing Barnett's high-handed condescension against her positive traits - championing unfashionable causes including the rights of homeless children, the disabled and prostitutes.

And she illustrates how Barnett's bulldozing personality contained the very persistence, courage and irreverence for convention that allowed her to achieve so much in defiance of contemporary limitations on women.

Barnett was born Henrietta Rowland on May 4, 1851, the eighth child of an entrepreneur father who made his money from plugging the benefits of macassar oil as a hair restorative.

She was educated at home in a large mansion in Lewisham until 16 when she attended boarding school in Dover. There her zeal for social reform was kindled while teaching orphaned and abandoned children in a type of Ragged School.

Her infuriation at social inequality and refusal to accept traditional limitations of class and gender led to her volunteering for the St Mary's Relief Committee in Marylebone, a branch of Octavia Hill's newly founded Charity Organisation Society.

The society provided relief for neglected children, thieves, fallen women and drunks while piously trying to correct their behaviour. It was a project the idealistic, energetic and earnest 18-year-old threw herself into with vigour.

She soon met her future husband, the young curate of St Mary's in Bryanston Square, Samuel Barnett. A fellow COS worker, the bearded, balding but adoring Barnett shared her ideals and won her heart.

The pair were married at St Mary's in January 1873 and moved to Whitechapel where Samuel had been appointed vicar of St Jude's.

The squalor and poverty of the East End surpassed the Barnetts' previous experience. Creedon describes the steep learning curve of the idealistic couple among the rookeries, filthy streets, dens of vice and bloody slaughterhouses where Jewish and Irish immigrants, dockers, and prostitutes, fought and drank.

The experience ignited Barnett's lifelong belief in environmental determinism - that social values are formed by people's physical surroundings and the poor are brutalised by their squalid environment.

Nicknamed the Vicaress, Barnett, who believed that indiscriminate charity perpetuated the "terrible life" of the poor and ensnared them in "chains of idleness, carelessness and despair", set about improving their lot. She tirelessly ran classes for adults and children, organised flower shows, concerts, nurses to pay home visits, and founded "mothers meetings" at which she discussed home-making and family morals.

Her notion that, in addition to good food and warmth, children need love, security, play and stimulation, was certainly ahead of its time. But Creedon points out that despite The Making Of The Home's pious concern about domestic hygiene and exhortation to cook plain, wholesome food such as tripe stew, Barnett failed to understand the difficulties for slum women with multiple children and minimal cooking facilities.

Several years into her social work, Barnett had personally observed the effects of poor housing on families. "The disadvantages of no copper, no oven, no sink, no water tap, no lavatory, no cupboards, no coal cellar, no bath, drunken neighbours, noisy children, a common staircase, a boltless front entrance, windows which would not open, doors which would not shut, and partitions which admitted every sound."

She bravely paid weekly visits to the women incarcerated in Whitechapel Infirmary's VD ward by a society that wanted to draw a veil over its human effluent.

She helped to get them discharged and embark on a better lifestyle - even penning an (unpublished) report on her work.

But Creedon implies that Barnett's short-sighted campaign to close Whitechapel's brothels made the area's working women more vulnerable to attack by the likes of Jack the Ripper in the summer of 1888.

More successful campaigns included a scheme to provide city children with rural holidays - which spawned the worldwide Children's Country Holiday Fund that exists today.

Barnett also raised awareness of improvements in management of schools for homeless youngsters. In 1884, she and Samuel founded Toynbee Hall, an educational institution which ran boys' clubs, provided legal aid, organised lectures and debates, art exhibitions, concerts and classes from the practical - book-keeping, maths, shorthand and carpentry and sewing - to the improving - philosophy and literature.

The couple's first foray into housing came when Barnett sold her inherited jewels to buy a notorious Whitechapel slum and used her savings to acquire sites for building new homes.

Other philanthropists, who were building model dwellings or refurbishing old slums in the East End, came on board to form the East London Dwelling Company.

They built better homes for the area's cleaner-living families and involved them in managing their own dwellings.

In 1889, the Barnetts bought Heath End House on Hampstead Lane (which they renamed St Jude's Cottage) and used it as a weekend retreat from the stresses of Whitechapel.

It was the planned extension of the Northern line to Hampstead and Golders Green that sparked Henrietta's fears that the area would become blighted by

"rows of ugly villas such as disfigured Willesden".

To prevent the ruin of "the most beautiful open space near London" she mobilised a Heath Extension Council and raised £22,000 to buy 80 acres owned by the Eton College trustees. (This land was later handed to London county council "to be kept for an open space at all times".)

Taking the lead from Cadbury, Leverhulme and Rowntree, who had built attractive housing in semi-rural settings for their factory workers, she conceived the idea for a garden suburb next to the Heath Extension.

It would be an attractive, healthy environment where all classes could live in architecturally designed houses with landscaped gardens "in right conditions of beauty and space" where residents were not "topographically divided by an arbitrary division depending upon their rate-paying powers".

She set about securing the remaining 250 acres from Eton College but the trustees would grant an option of purchase only if she had a "few men" behind her.

She battled on, assembling high-profile worthies to her cause, appointing architect Raymond Unwin, the builder of the first garden city at Letchworth, as chief architect, and embarking on lecture tours to promote the project.

By 1906 the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust Company was formed, the land purchased and Unwin's plans completed, including gently curved roads and cul-de-sacs of artisans' cottages delineated by hedges, evoking

the random grouping of houses in old hamlets.

One critic, TWH Crosland, described it as a "specious, vulgar and undesirable movement pandering to pathetic lower middle-class aspiration". But Henrietta hoped the clean air, open space and picturesque homes and gardens would generate a sense of belonging as "the best security against temptations".

The scheme provided housing for the disabled and smaller homes for widows, single women and pensioners, with shared cooking facilities and communal gardens.

Land was set aside for a chapel, church, library and social club in the Central Square designed by distinguished architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Recreation was confined to tea rooms, allotments (Barnett quickly founded the HGS Horticultural Society) and gentler sports such as tennis and croquet.

The church was the central focus with shops a considerable distance on the outer edge of the suburb. In keeping with the "purest principles of temperance reform" the selling of alcohol

was banned within the suburb's boundaries.

By 1918 the suburb had achieved international acclaim. It had three places of worship, the Institute running lectures and classes, a hospital for war veterans, a council school, homes for war widows and myriad houses of diverse size and design equipped with gas lighting.

Creedon points out that there were damp problems in the aesthetically pleasing open-plan cottages and they were expensive to heat. And pretty soon the residents rebelled against the suburb's "patriarchal government". The ungrateful wretches formed the suburb's Residents' Association in October 1911 which proceeded to confound Henrietta's expectations of the ability of her poorest tenants to articulate their needs.

Henrietta sold St Jude's Cottage after Samuel's death in 1913. She spent her final years in South Square and travelled in a chauffeur-driven Rolls as she supervised the continued development of the suburb and harangued its trust board.

She was publicly active until 1931, continuing campaigns against inferior post-war housing, modern parenting and the detrimental effect of comics and films.

But her health declined and she died peacefully on June 10, 1936. Her funeral, conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was at Westminster Abbey, and she was buried at the foot of the Sussex Downs beside her beloved Samuel.

Only A Woman is published by Phillimore and Co, price £20.

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