Toynbee Hall’s Olympic Heritage: Pierre de Coubertin


Today, Coubertin is most known for his role in the revival of the Olympics, but he described himself first and foremost as an educational reformer and it was this work that brought him to Toynbee Hall.

By Shahana Subhan Begum

In June 1886 a young French gentleman in his twenties, with an impressive moustache, visited Toynbee Hall. The Frenchman was Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), who in 1896 revived the Olympic Games in its modern form.

Pierre Frédy de Coubertin was born in Paris in 1863 to an aristocratic family. He turned his back on the military career planned for him, in order to engage with social issues and pursue educational reform in France. Following France’s demoralising defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1, Coubertin like many of his contemporaries believed that there was a need to revive the French nation. He believed that education and the development of the individual was the key to the future of society.

Coubertin’s interest in education and sport led him to England where sport had become an integral part of the curriculum in several leading public schools. During his first visit to England in 1883, Coubertin toured a number of leading English educational institutions including Harrow, Eton and Rugby schools and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He was impressed by the curriculum at the public schools, where study was divided between intellectual subjects and physical education.

This, he felt, was something needed in the French educational system. In particular, Coubertin was inspired by the headmaster of Rugby school, Thomas Arnold. Arnold’s educational theories had a profound impact on Coubertin and it helped him realise the potential of physical education in general educationIt was during these visits that Coubertin first heard of Toynbee Hall. Toynbee Hall was founded by Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta Barnett in 1884, in memory of their friend Arnold Toynbee (1852- 1883).Before his untimely death, Toynbee had been a young Oxford historian who had devoted his time working with the poor of the East End of London. The Barnetts believed that to tackle the problem of poverty the privileged classes of society needed to engage directly with the poor. Thus, they pioneered a new movement for social reform that emerged in the form of University Settlement.

The idea was to bring young male graduates of Oxbridge to live amongst and work with London’s poorest inhabitants. This idea caught on fast and in the next two decades it inspired countless other settlements in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett with Toynbee Hall's first residential volunteers, circa 1885
Samuel and Henrietta Barnett with Toynbee Hall's first residential volunteers, c. 1885
On Christmas Eve of 1884, the settlement opened its doors to its first two residents and soon Toynbee Hall achieved a reputation for its significant social welfare and education programmes.

Many of the original residents went on to lead the world in social reform and research. At the beginning of the twentieth century it became the powerhouse for new ideas of social reform and the leading reformers of the day were closely associated with Toynbee Hall. Among key historical residents were the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883 – 1967) and William Beveridge (1879 – 1963) the British economist and the author of the 1942 Beveridge report, which formed the basis of the modern Welfare state.

One of the main activities of Toynbee Hall in its early years was in educational reform and this is what attracted the young Coubertin to the Hall. In September 1887, an article written by Coubertin entitled ‘Toynbee Hall’, appeared in the journal La Réforme Sociale. Here, Coubertin described his visit of the previous year. The visit was prompted by his interest in the work of the Oxbridge graduates, who were involved in the work of Toynbee Hall. He described the area of Whitechapel and the work carried out by the residents and the activities that took place at the Hall.

While at Toynbee, Coubertin assisted a debate arranged by the Debating society on underage marriage. This debate took place in the Lecture Hall on the ground floor. Coubertin remarked on the passion of the speakers, their ‘original intelligence’ and the seriousness of the ideas expressed by the workers.