By Jo Till
Barnett himself was described as a shy and modest man, who looked older than his years. His future wife, Henrietta Barnett, admitted that she was surprised when he proposed to her, as, although he was only 27 at the time, she had previously viewed him as “a kindly, elderly gentleman”, with “a bald head and shaggy beard”, who she said “dressed very badly” and always wore “a tall silk hat which… never fitted, tilted over his forehead or rammed on at the back of his head”.
He was an unlikely pioneer, but by the time of his death in 1913, he had become a respected public figure, whose ideas and influence extended well beyond the doors of Toynbee Hall. He was also involved in many other groundbreaking charitable projects. He helped to establish the East End Dwellings Company, which built the first ‘social housing’ for workers, Dunstan Buildings; one of their first blocks still stands in Stepney Green today.
He was also a founder member of Tower Hamlets Pensions Committee, which, in 1877, started an innovative pension scheme for local residents. Barnett’s work and lobbying in this area was instrumental in the eventual passing of the first national Pensions Act in 1908.
The future French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, described Barnett as “one of the greatest men [he] met in England” and, in 1913, in recognition of his tireless charitable work, as well as his experience as a cleric, Barnett was
appointed sub-dean of Westminster Abbey.
He is commemorated by a memorial in the Abbey, but he always maintained his connection with Toynbee Hall and continued his work there until the end of his life. Settlements based on his model have been established all across the world, in places as diverse as Tokyo and Edinburgh.