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21st January 2015

Dr Terry Powley (1964, Modern History) publishes history of London’s youth

Dr Terry Powley (1964, Modern History) has published a history of London’s youth groups: Getting On With It: A History of London Youth (Federation of London Youth Clubs, 2014).

The following article by Dr Powley elucidates on his research and the links between London youth clubs and Oxbridge colleges.

Victorian Philanthropy, Colleges and Boys’ Clubs, by Dr Terry Powley

I have recently written a history of what is now called the Federation of London Youth Clubs. Its origins can be traced back to the formation of the Girls’ Club Union in 1880 and the Federation of London Working Boys’ Clubs and Institutes in 1887. What struck me forcefully was how much, in an era of Victorian philanthropy, Oxbridge colleges were instrumental in the evolution of boys’ clubs.

The commitment of the Victorian pioneers of the new youth organisations of the late Nineteenth Century was to the established values of the existing social and political order, and their mission was to offer the benefits of their background and culture to working class youths.  Upper class adults saw it as their role to transmit their values to working class young people.

The strength of the Victorians’ attachment to the transmission of what they saw to be the advantages of a better education and tone was equalled only by their conviction that the natural order of things was under threat. The process of industrialisation and the concentration of the masses in large towns and cities led to the fear that the existing social order was endangered. From this apprehensive perspective, the organisers of the first youth clubs were motivated as much by thoughts of self-preservation as by pangs of conscience and compassion. It is clear from contemporary accounts that the Victorians saw a social threat in the increased recreation which had become more available to the working classes, if it was not channelled constructively. Much of the drive which motivated the Victorian philanthropists came from an urgent search for a viable counter-attraction to what Maude Stanley, influential in the development of girls’ clubs, called the ‘larking folly’ of the music hall, street corner or public house. Another contemporary observer portrayed the horrors of the street culture in concrete and graphic terms:

“I object to the life in the streets for the young, there is nothing worth doing to be done there, not even pitch-and-toss. The flaming lights of the corner ‘pub’, the smell of the fried-fish shop, the discordant yells of street vendors, and the general outrages of their elders require some antidote to be provided for the young.” (‘An Eton Playing Field’, E.M.S. Pilkington, 1896.)

The antidote was to be found in the virtues of improvement and elevation which young people were to gain from their membership of boys’ and girls’ clubs. This insistence on the need for moral improvement reflected a certainty that the character of young people was deficient and that the values proclaimed by the founders of the new clubs were inherently superior to the values of those who were invited to join.

It was against this background of philanthropy that the origins and inheritance of the Federation of London Working Boys’ Clubs and Institutes can be unearthed. The first annual report of 1890 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’. Neumann, another recorder and practitioner of the period (he opened a club in the hall of the New College Chapel in north-west London in 1887), was quite clear in his view that boys’ clubs should reflect the moral values which he associated with colleges and public schools:

“If we look upon it (the club) as an educational enterprise of almost incalculable importance, we shall recognise that the first condition of success is to make it something that is in advance of what the average boy would risk and plan. In this last case, the model will be not a municipal ward, or a limited company with an astute directorate, but a public school or college.” (‘The Boys’ Club’, B.Paul Neuman, 1900.)

The early clubs to affiliate reflected the seminal influence of the universities and public schools in establishing the tradition of boys’ clubs in London. The Harrow Mission, set up by Harrow School, established a boys’ club in the Notting Dale area of London in 1883. 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. The Repton Boys’ Club was founded in 1884 by Repton School with the support of Oxford House, and remains in existence to this day, acquiring a reputation nationally and internationally as the ‘home of boxing’. Fairbairn House in Canning Town started up in 1892 and was the youth section of the settlement, Mansfield House, connected with Mansfield College, Oxford. The Devas Institute had close associations with University College, Oxford, though it was not directly founded by the 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, Oxford, 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. John Stansfeld matriculated at Exeter College in 1886 and went on to be trained as a doctor. He was then invited to lead the medical mission and its associated social work activities. Stansfeld returned to Oxford in 1912 as Vicar of St Ebbe’s and later bought 20 acres of land in Headington to give children from the slums of St Ebbe’s the chance to camp in the countryside at weekends. The site is known today as the Stansfeld Outdoor Centre. (Stansfeld would seem to be Exeter’s only connection with the boys’ club movement in these early years, though ‘Exeter College: The First 700 Years’ records that from 1938 the JCR lent support to an unspecified boys’ club ‘both financially and through the voluntary contributions of the time of willing members’.) Cambridge University Mission, founded in 1907, was also the idea of a group of evangelicals, associated with Ridley Hall, an Anglican theological college. Though Eton College had run a mission in Hackney Wick from the 1880s, its boys’ club, the Eton Manor Boys’ Club, was formed in 1909.

Much of the impetus behind the early developments of youth organisations sprang from deep-seated feelings that working class young people should be introduced to the values and mores of the upper classes. But there is less attention in the literature of the times about how the young people themselves regarded the aims and motivation of the club 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, particularly football and other organised games, 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 Harrow Club declared that ‘it is not the mixing of ‘classes’ that is needed, but the oblivion of class, if only for one hour in the week, in the light of a common humanity’. Similarly, 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 and rapport with club members, and gaining insights into the conditions of life of deprived communities. W.MG.Eagar makes the point that the founders and supporters of clubs learned much from their deepening knowledge of working class communities and used that knowledge to add their voice to social change:

“Boys’ Club men made a notable contribution to the knowledge which broke down the complacent views of Early Victorian times that poverty was inevitable and the proper lot of those who did not rise above it…In the long term their great achievement was to bring home to the mind and conscience of the nation that it should do comprehensively and methodically what they were doing experimentally and partially.” (‘Making Men’, W.McG.Eagar, 1953.)

Of course, the accounts of the early years of youth clubs represent the recorded history of youth work in its organised form during this period. There may also have been an unrecorded, hidden history built on working class patterns of organisation which put a higher value on co-operative, participatory forms of youth work.  If working class organisation and planning produced insurance societies, co-operatives and working men’s clubs, then it is also possible that localised and spontaneous youth work sprang from the same source.

Dr Terry Powley (1964, Modern History)

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