There was always something maverick, dominating, Roman about her, which is rarely found in women, though she was capable of deep feeling.
Henrietta’s work left an indelible mark on the social history of London. She was a woman who – despite the obstacles of her time – accomplished so much for poor communities all over London. Driven by her determination to confront social injustice, she was a social reformer, a philanthropist, a teacher and a devoted wife. A shrewd feminist and political activist, Henrietta was not one to shy away from the challenges posed by a Victorian patriarchal society. As one Toynbee Hall settler recalled, Henrietta’s “irrepressible will was suggestive of the stronger sex”, and “there was always something maverick, dominating, Roman about her, which is rarely found in women, though she was capable of deep feeling.”
The Early Years
Dame Henrietta Octavia Weston Barnett was born on 4th May 1851 to a wealthy family in Clapham. Despite being financially comfortable as a child, Henrietta had her fair share of barriers to overcome. Her mother, who had born eight children in the space of ten years, died sixteen days after giving birth to her and the young Henrietta was prone to bouts of illness. She was also born into a society where women, even wealthy ones, were viewed in many ways as second class citizens, with little opportunities in education and the workplace.
As a young child Henrietta was excluded from lessons with the children’s governess, perhaps due to her ill health, or because her “Aunt Sophie… did not agree with girls being educated.”2 It was only through her own determination that Henrietta was even allowed to sit in on the lessons. Later on in life, Henrietta became a staunch advocate of educating girls in order to give them the chance of a better future. One of the biggest examples of this is Henrietta Barnnet School which she founded in Hampstead Garden Suburb, North London, which is still running today.
In 1867 Henrietta attended a boarding school in Dover for three terms. The school was run by the Haddon sisters, whose brother-in-law was the social and moral philosopher, James Hinton. The principles of social altruism taught by such figures and the school’s involvement in social work, including organised visits to the local workhouse, obviously influenced the thinking of young Henrietta. In her own words: “A fourth sister had married Mr James Hinton, the aurist and philosopher, whose thought greatly influenced Miss Caroline Haddon, who, as my teacher and my friend, had a dynamic effect on my then somnolent character.”3 After meeting the housing and social reformer Octavia Hill in 1870, Henrietta became actively involved in the social housing and welfare projects that Octavia had set up. By the age of nineteen, Henrietta was already a member of Octavia’s local Charity Organisation Society Committee and had even been allotted her own district, Barnett Court, to work in. Octavia also introduced her friend to the works of her own patron and mentor, John Ruskin, one of the leading philanthropists and social critics of the time.
A fourth sister had married Mr James Hinton, the aurist and philosopher, whose thought greatly influenced Miss Caroline Haddon, who, as my teacher and my friend, had a dynamic effect on my then somnolent character
The Beginnings in East London
Henrietta met Samuel Barnett for the first time when they sat together at a birthday party hosted by Octavia Hill. Although Samuel and Henrietta went on to form “one of several partnerships of husband and wife which has contributed so notably to English public life”, it was not love at first sight. As both reflected on their first meeting, Samuel was wondering, “what this ‘child’ with brown curls down her back, handsome furs and a Tyrolese hat… could be doing among this set of pioneer philanthropists” and Henrietta, knowing that he was a clergyman, was, “thinking half-contemptuously of him as a member of that fraternity.” Three years later, at the age of twenty-one, Henrietta married Samuel on 28th January 1873.
The whole parish was covered with a network of courts and alleys... In some, the houses were three storeys high and hardly six feet apart, the sanitary accommodation being pits in the cellars... in many instances broken windows had been repaired with paper and rags, the banisters had been used for firewood, and the paper hung from the walls which were the residence of countless vermin
The Barnetts moved to the parish of St Jude’s in Whitechapel in the same year. The area made a strong impression on Henrietta: “The whole parish was covered with a network of courts and alleys… In some, the houses were three storeys high and hardly six feet apart, the sanitary accommodation being pits in the cellars… in many instances broken windows had been repaired with paper and rags, the banisters had been used for firewood, and the paper hung from the walls which were the residence of countless vermin.
But rather than letting it overwhelm her, Henrietta faced the challenge of helping her community head-on. Whilst she worked tirelessly with her husband to improve life for all members of the community, Henrietta was especially committed to assisting and educating the two most vulnerable and disadvantaged sectors of society at the time: women and children.