Many Oxford colleges started boys' clubs to help the underprivileged of Victorian London, particularly in the East End. They provided recreational activities, education and welfare. Terry Powley tells the story of Tom Allen, head of Trinity College's mission in Stratford.
Above: Trinity College, which founded a mission in Stratford, East London
by Terry Powley
It is 100 years since Tom Allen, the Head of the Trinity College Mission in Stratford, was killed at the front in the First World War. Allen (below) died at the age of 27 after only three weeks on the front line. Until the War, he was responsible for starting and managing the mission's boys’ club in London's East End. His role epitomises the extent to which Oxford colleges were instrumental, in an era of Victorian philanthropy, in the development of boys’ clubs in the 1880s and the formation of the Federation of London Working Boys’ Clubs and Institutes in 1887.
The strength of the Victorians’ attachment to the advantages of a better education was equalled by their conviction that the natural order of things was under threat. Industrialisation and the concentration of the masses in cities led to the fear that the existing social order was endangered. One contemporary observer, portraying the horrors of the street culture (‘there is nothing worth doing to be done there’), objected to the life of the streets and demanded that some ‘antidote’ be provided for the young.
The antidote was to be found in the ‘superior’ virtues of improvement and elevation which young people were to gain from their membership of boys’ clubs. It was against this background of philanthropy that the first annual report in 1890 of the Federation of London Working Boys’ Clubs presented a model of boys’ clubs, in which they ‘could be in some degree to the poor what the public schools and universities have been to the rich’.
The early clubs to affiliate reflected the seminal influence of the universities and public schools (Harrow School, Repton School and Eton College were among the early pioneers) in establishing the tradition of boys’ clubs in London. Oxford’s involvement was exemplified in a number of initiatives. The Webbe Institute, which opened in 1888, was the boys’ club linked to Oxford House in Bethnal Green, associated with Keble College and founded in 1884 as one of the first university settlements in the East End. Fairbairn House in Canning Town started up in 1892 and was the youth section of the settlement, Mansfield House, connected with Mansfield College. The Devas Club had close associations with University College. It was established in 1884 by Jocelyn Devas, a graduate of the college, who hired a room over a tavern in Battersea to provide a ‘wholesome alternative to the streets and the public house’ for working boys. In 1885, he died from a fall while climbing in the Swiss Alps. In his memory, his father offered a substantial endowment, if friends of his son, also graduates of University College, would carry on his work. The Oxford and Bermondsey Club was started as an off-shoot of the Oxford Medical Mission which was set up in 1897 by supporters of the Oxford Pastorate, an evangelical response to the High Church affiliations of the Oxford Movement.
Above: Fairbairn Hall in Canning Town was started up in 1892 by Mansfield College
These early initiatives were exclusively for boys. Indeed, alongside the impulses of conscience and compassion which prompted Oxford colleges and their graduates to become involved in the clubs as founders and volunteers, there was a perceptible strain of misogyny. In 1912, the manager of the Eton Manor Boys’ Club formed a Junior Bachelor Society, in which members promised not to ‘walk about with girls’ until they reached the age of 18! Moreover, some may well have been motivated by a latent or overt sexual interest in boys. Yet there were girls’ clubs which developed in parallel with boys’clubs (the Girls’ Clubs Union was formed in 1880), though their origins owed more to the individual efforts of aristocratic women rather than institutions.
There is less attention in the literature of the times about how the club members themselves regarded the aims and motivation of the Oxford founders and managers. The fact that the boys’ clubs were successful suggests that most members bought into the values and approved of the offer of the club. Others may have adapted what the clubs had to offer to their own requirements for physical activity and social interaction, without any particular regard to those underlying values and motivations. Yet others strived to assert a common humanity that obliterated class differences: the Oxford and Bermondsey Club stated that ‘the OBC was no longer Oxford’s effort to save Bermondsey, but a fraternal association of Oxford men with Bermondsey men and men-to-be, which had completely overcome barriers of class and education’. Certainly, many of the philanthropists transcended class differences, developing an understanding with club members, and gaining insights into the conditions of life of deprived communities.
Above: The Devas Club in Battersea, founded by University College, is still thriving
Whatever their motivations, it is clear that the founders and supporters of clubs learned much from their deepening knowledge of working class communities and used that knowledge to resist the prevalent Victorian view that poverty was inevitable and to add their voice to social change. The Oxford link persists to this day in the form of those graduates who continue to be associated with the Oxford and Bermondsey Club and the Devas Club in Battersea.