Culture, Philanthropy and the Poor in Late-Victorian London  book cover
1st Edition

Culture, Philanthropy and the Poor in Late-Victorian London

ISBN 9780367356767
Published June 5, 2019 by Routledge
310 Pages


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Book Description

2018 Choice Outstanding Academic Title


The Late-Victorian cultural mission to London’s slums was a peculiar effort towards social reform that today is largely forgotten or misunderstood. The philanthropy of middle and upper-class social workers saw hundreds of art exhibitions, concerts of fine music, evening lectures, clubs and socials, debates and excursions mounted for the benefit of impoverished and working-class Londoners. Ginn’s vivid and provocative book captures many of these in detail for the first time.

In refreshing our understanding of this obscure but eloquent activism, Ginn approaches cultural philanthropy not simply as a project of class self-interest, nor as fanciful ‘missionary aestheticism.’ Rather, he shows how liberal aspirations towards adult education and civic community can be traced in a number of centres of moralising voluntary effort. Concentrating on Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, the People’s Palace in Mile End, Red Cross Hall in Southwark and the Bermondsey Settlement, the discussion identifies the common impulses animating practical reformers across these settings.

Drawing on new primary research to clarify reformers’ underlying intentions and strategies, Ginn shows how these were shaped by a distinctive diagnosis of urban deprivation and anomie. In rebutting the common view that cultural philanthropy was a crudely paternalistic attempt to impose ‘rational recreation’ on the poor, this volume explores its sources in a liberal-minded social idealism common to both religious and secular conceptions of social welfare in this period. Culture, Philanthropy and the Poor in Late-Victorian London appeals to students and researchers of Victorian culture, moral reform, urbanism, adult education and philanthropy, who will be fascinated by this underrated but lively aspect of the period’s social activism.

Table of Contents

List of figures



1 A good young man in a shiny top hat

2 Sources and explanations

3 Social work, sweetness and light

4 One by one in Whitechapel

5 An impossible story in Mile End

6 Social duty in South London

7 Places, spaces, audiences

8 Uniting sentiment, common feeling

9 The gift of culture, properly understood

Additional bibliography


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Geoffrey A. C. Ginn teaches modern British history and heritage studies at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland, Australia. His research focuses on urban history, historical museology and public history, with particular interests in the Victorians, colonial cities, the history of religion, and public culture.



Modern historians have dismissed many prominent, late-Victorian, social reform movements as frivolous, pompous, or wrongheaded, according to Ginn (Univ. of Queensland, Australia), who argues that negative judgments on sharing fine art, music, poetry, literature, outings, and other aesthetic riches with the urban poor have been mired in a general misunderstanding of the benefactors’ principles. The efforts of those such as Octavia Hill and the Kyrle Society; Samuel and Henrietta Barnett of St. Jude’s Church, Whitechapel, later founders of Toynbee Hall; and Walter Besant and Sir Edmund Currie of the Beaumont Trust, which built the People’s Palace at Mile End, were attempts to provide color and pleasure to the dingy, monotonous lives of the inner-city poor, establishing connections and friendships between the haves and the have-nots while recognizing that the poor were not automatically hungry nor were they heathens. Morality and Christian values were to be fostered by “diffusive Christianity” that provided positive intellectual and cultural stimulation through close association rather than pontification, with evening classes, reading rooms, and entertainments allowing variety and cooperation to ameliorate drab utilitarian environments while strengthening a sense of community among social classes. --E. J. Jenkins, Arkansas Tech University, USA

Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries.