Heritage: Hampstead Garden Suburb founder Henrietta Barnett went from frail girl to defender of poor

Henrietta Barnett, founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb

Henrietta Barnett, founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb - Credit: Archant

In the latest of our series series exploring the lives and times of those who have been celebrated with commemorative plaques across the capital, Adam Sonin explores the life of Dame Henrietta Barnett, founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb.

A blue plaque commemorating Dame Henrietta Barnett. Picture: Nigel Sutton

A blue plaque commemorating Dame Henrietta Barnett. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

It is impossible to quantify “fighting spirit” or where it comes from, but Dame Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936), founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb, appears to have been made of the stuff.

Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Picture: Polly Hancock

Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

When questioned about the key ingredients to vitality, the then 80-year-old replied: “Early rising, very little food, and a sense of humour.”

She continued: “The strange thing is that I am really a very delicate woman and always have been. I have had pneumonia seven times, but hard work is often the best cure for ill-health.”

Born to considerable wealth, the youngest of eight children, she lost her mother when she was just 16 days old and was not expected to survive infancy. But tough starts in life can often aid those determined to achieve.

Her siblings were educated at home, then in south London. However, due to her weak health, Henrietta did not attend classes and was left to play with her brain-damaged sister Fanny. “Yetta,” as Henrietta liked to be called, was furious and demanded to be included in lessons, proving to be very able in mental arithmetic.

Her diary even shows a year-end pocket money balance of “2d too much”!

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She had a love of the outdoors, was fond of riding and hunting, and learned about gardening from her grandfather but was terrified of the sea.

Aged 13, Henrietta went for a walk on the pier at Brighton where the family often spent winters. She said she then “walked underneath and conquered my fear”.

This early determination to overcome barriers, fears or obstacles illustrates the type of character she would grow into.

Three “glorious terms” were spent as a boarder at a school in Dover where the girls were encouraged to engage in social work.

Groups paid visits to a local workhouse but it was when some of the orphaned boys visited for tea that Henrietta noticed their behaviour.

“My girlish heart ached, and my ignorant mind revolted against the social injustices made evident by boys, odorous of institutionalism, dulled into inanity,” she said.

She had found her calling and began working at St Mary’s parish in Marylebone for the social reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912).

At a birthday dinner in 1870, hosted by Hill, Henrietta met Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) and the two struck up an immediate friendship based on their shared beliefs and ideas.

The clergyman instantly fell in love with the attractive yet headstrong young woman and in 1873 the two were married.

He was a forward-thinking man who supported the cause for female equality, writing that women “should have the same liberty as men to follow any calling and to vote at any election”. These beliefs provided a basis for an equal partnership not just in marital values but in the pursuit of their combined social work.

After they were married, the couple opted to work in London’s East End among the poorest of the city.

Here they based themselves in the parish of St Jude’s in Whitechapel, where they worked tirelessly to help support those less fortunate, not just financially but academically and culturally.

One Sunday, Samuel returned home to find a mouse had drowned in his rice pudding. These squalid living conditions made the couple yearn for clean country air.

In 1889 they purchased Heath End House by the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, renaming it St Jude’s Cottage. Many weekends were spent here, often with invalids from Whitechapel as house guests.

At the turn of the century, Henrietta discovered that there were plans to build a Tube station between Hampstead and Golders Green and bought up the adjacent land, incorporating it into Hampstead Heath, thereby making it impossible to erect any buildings.

The station, North End, was never opened but the platforms were completed and it is technically the lowest point on the entire Tube network. Apparently Winston Churchill (1874-1965) attended a cabinet meeting there during the Battle of Britain.

The idea of a perfect suburb most likely came from the time the Barnetts spent in the dank, polluted East End.

It was to be an antidote to everything they had experienced and in 1906 Henrietta formed a trust which bought up land, then owned by Eton College, which would be the site for the development.

Hampstead Garden Suburb was a huge success, offering affordable housing for mixed classes. In 1920 Henrietta travelled to Canada and the United States to give lectures on her social work.

At first she was “very nervous” of public speaking but she later said “to my surprise I delighted my audience”.

During her stay she was introduced to Joseph Kennedy (1888-1969) and his wife.

The Kennedys told her that her lecture tour had been a great success and “had done untold good in awakening listeners to ideals and to face their national duty of considering the terrible condition of their slum dwellers”.

In Detroit Henrietta stayed with Henry Ford (1863-1947) and his family and was taken on a tour of their factory.

“We saw the beginning of a motor car with a plate and a screw and then we ourselves rode in it out of the ‘fluid’ yard, all in readiness for the road.” She added: “The noise in the factory was infernal.”