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.

Tom AllenThe 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. 

Fairbairn Hall

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.



By David Wilson, T...

This is such an evocative article. In the 1950's, the Oxford and Bermondsey Club's chairman(?) was Peter Marindin, a gentleman bachelor in his early 50's. He came to Trinity to recruit helpers, and bagged Tony (A.D.) Wood and me. We did, I think, 3 years at the OBC summer camp at Hall's Green in Sevenoaks Weald. The boys certainly weren't pampered; and one full night was given to a map-reading exercise over the Weald, at the end of which, if you had got to the right destination (that was Tony's and my job), Peter would be waiting in his VW van with a much-needed breakfast.

The boys, for the most part, were an inspiration. One 11-yr-old in particular strove to keep up with the best of the others, despite drawbacks. He completed one assignment quickly and accurately, then said "Look, I've finished; and I'm ESN" (educationally subnormal - no beating about the 'special needs' bush in those days).

Thank you for reminding me of those days.

By Brian Seaton ...

I was born and brought up in Canning Town and for a while was a member of Fairbairn House Boys Club. We knew little - and cared even less - about "the Oxford connection". Canning Town was solidly lower working class. Both my grandfathers were dock labourers and my father just made it to the dizzy height of dock foreman. Oxbridge was far too "snotty" for the likes of us. My ambition was to get a place at University College, London - considered to be about as high as anyone from that part of the world could aspire to. Until, that is, Mansfield College found funds to provide for some Canning Town pupils to spend time in the College during the Easter break, revising for their forthcoming GCEs. I was lucky enough to get a place and, working in the lovely College library looking out over the quad and chapel I fell in love with Oxford and aspirations to get to UCL fell by the wayside.
But there were problems. Hostility from some peers and teachers who thought it was "social mobility a step too far". More of a problem - because nobody, but nobody, ever went to Oxbridge from that part of London none of the schools had curricula which met Oxbridge entrance requirements. So I had to take extra subjects in the Sixth Form. But with generous support from parents, teachers, friends and Mansfield College itself, I was eventually able to matriculate and had a wonderful time reading Chemistry+Biochemistry at Mansfield (though I did have to learn to switch back to East-London cockney from a more "Oxford" accent to avoid being called a "toff" when I went home during the vacations).
So far as I have been able to discover, as a result of the egalitarian vision and generosity of those who made the Easter Vacation project possible, I was the first from that part of London to beat the social divide and make it to Oxford. And I am delighted that, as a result of the continued outreach of Mansfield and other Oxford colleges I have not been the last.

By Timothy Gee

As a Univ graduate who was a member of the committee of the Devas Club for more than forty years, I read Terry Powley's record of the work of youth clubs associated with Oxford colleges illuminating and encouraging. The Devas Club was fortunate in not being situated in the east end of London. Many of the clubs that were located in the dockland area did not survive the double blows of the blitz and the post-war decline of shipping coming to the London ports.
The intention of Jocelyn Devas in starting the club that bears his name in Battersea was, among other things, to encourage his Univ friends to teach work skills. Early publicity draws attention to members who have passed the entrance exams for jobs in the Post Office; carpentry was also on offer. This strand of job-related training lingered on as late as the 1950s when the club was offering boot repairing at, no doubt, competitive rates.
Among Jocelyn Devas' Univ friends was Arthur Baxter. He moved to live in Battersea (not then the desirable residential area it has since become) in order to act as the club manager; he was instrumental in obtaining registration for the club with the Charity Commission in 1901 following the death of Jocelyn's father, Thomas. He was also one of the group who set up the London Federation of Working Boys' Clubs in 1888 and became its first secretary. The name was later changed to the London Federation of Boys' Clubs, generally referred to as 'the Fed'.
Shortly before I joined the Devas Club committee in 1960 it had been decided to start the Devas Girls' Club in order to be able to open the facilities to girls whilst remaining in membership with 'the Fed'. A die-hard clique was resisting all moves to allow clubs with girls in membership to join. Those clubs with a more progressive outlook had to resort to devices of this kind in order to be able to take advantages of 'the Fed's facilities.
These facilities include leagues for football and boxing, insurance cover and two out-of-London estates with excellent opportunities for both indoor and open air activities. With the right leadership, these can still provide admirable opportunities for adventurous young people. As Terry Powley rightly observes, the underlying inspiration remains that of the public school. The youth club movement may need to look at more domestic needs. One parent families and broken homes are becoming increasingly commonplace with consequent stress on adolescents, both in their behaviour and their emotional development. These problems may require a more positive approach from youth clubs than they are currently receiving.

By Bruce Sharpe

An excellent article.

There are many examples of Oxbridge colleges founding settlements in London,as well as Clergy
devoting themselves to the East End in Victorian London and other cities as well.
Many books of these are easily available, and many churches are the results of their sacrificial
giving to poor areas.

By John Hudson

A notable case of the experience changing a person's life is Alexander Paterson, a Greats man, who went to the Medical Mission in Bermondsey and kept contact with a man who had murdered his wife throughout his imprisonment. He was invited by Churchill to organise support for discharged prisoners, became responsible for the development of the Borstal system and ultimately Prison Commissioner. He commented in the 1930s that the US prison system was going in the wrong direction, argued that sentences of over 10 years serve no useful purpose and declared that ‘Men come to prison as a punishment, not for punishment.’

By Richard Kent

Another great example is the "OK Club" (Oxford Kilburn Club). Founded in Kilburn in 1961 by Christians from Oxford, it has been continually supported over the years by OICCU (the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) with many generations of Oxford graduates living in the adjacent Christian Holt House, and helping run the club on a part-time basis (as I did form '85 to '87). An excellent history of the club can be found at: The club is still thriving, and maintains its strong connections with Oxford Christians.

By Louise Rainey (...

I was born in Stratford, London in the 1950's but moved first to Chichester and later to Oxford where I live today. Reading this article reminded me so much of my dear dad Dennis Burgess who did so very much to help many young people in the East End during the sixties. Dad was born in Canning Town. After wartime service in the RAF he became a Youth leader in the East End. He had put aside his aspirations to become an architect and decided to dedicate his life to helping young people in the East End move forward to enjoy fulfillment in life through service to others. He opened the Tom Allen Club in Stratford. Princess Margaret came to visit the club at dad's invitation. This was an exciting time for many of the East Enders who came to visit the club that day. After many years of fund raising dad was finally able to build a chapel within the club. I was Christened there by the Rt rev David Sheppard who was my Godfather along with his dear wife Grace, my Godmother. Dad worked with Uncle David on various projects within the East End including the Mayflower Centre. I was only a young child when we lived there but I do remember life was very hard and young people faced many problems. There was gangland and violence but dad stayed true and strong to his Christian belief to help others and I saw and learnt so much from his good work there. We were happy there. No one had much but everyone was in the same boat so it really didn't matter. In 1966 we moved to Chichester where dad accepted a post leading another club. But not before we saw Bobby Moore holding the World Cup on the bus coming through the streets of West Ham when England won the World Cup. I was only 7 and couldn't see above the crowds but dad put me on top of his old Ford car to see the bus coming and said "You will always remember this day". I do remember this but moreover I remember the Tom Allen Club and my wonderful dad who gave his life to helping others. Thank you for reading this.