The Many Faces of Toynbee Hall

Installation artist Geraldine Pilgrim’s newly commissioned work emerges from and responds to Toynbee Hall and Studios, and their dynamic history. Her piece TOYNBEE: Fragments of Other Lives and Times will be performed from Tuesday 10 – Sunday 15 December as part of our Winter Festival. Find out how the activities which have taken place within the Hall have reached beyond the walls of the building.

Toynbee Hall was founded in 1884 by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett as a place where people could live and work as volunteers in the community, tackling issues like poverty and social injustice. The people who initially lived in the Hall were students from Oxford and Cambridge who came to see deprivation first-hand and who volunteered their time to try and form practical solutions to help those living in the borough.

Here the idea of the ‘settlement’ was born; the building would provide a residence for those wanting to tackle social issues within the community.


Toynbee Hall in 1902

Legend has it that the modern Olympics Games was founded after Pierre de Coubertin was inspired by the diversity of people working together and helping each other at Toynbee Hall. Whitechapel Art Gallery is also an offspring of Toynbee Hall having grown out of the art exhibitions curated by Henrietta. The Gallery was instated in 1901 and has since premièred works by artists including Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and Picasso.

Guernica by Picasso was first shown at Whitechapel on its first and only visit to Britain.

Guernica by Picasso was first shown at Whitechapel on its first and only visit to Britain.

After narrowly escaping a bomb in March 1941, in May of the same year a bomb destroyed the library, Warden’s Lodge and several bedrooms. Miraculously, the main building of Toynbee Hall managed to be saved. Around this time, the Hall was delivering a number of creative sessions, the most popular being art, drama and ballet. Ballet was so in demand that classes were held 4 nights a week, and some students were so dedicated that they even attended the class when parts of the building were still on fire!

After the war, and having witnessed the popularity of drama sessions, a children’s theatre was installed along with the strict rule that ‘No adults may attend a performance unless accompanied by a child’. (p.134)

Toynbee Hall in 2013

Toynbee Hall in 2013

Now over a hundred years old, Toynbee Hall continues on its charitable mission by working across four programme areas: Advice, Youth & Community, Financial Inclusion and Wellbeing. They work with primary schools as do we, including Canon Barnett Primary School, and take the children on fun days out to try canoeing, archery, and rock climbing. This touches upon an important part of Toynbee Hall’s history; since its inception, a major strand of its work has been to provide opportunities for urban residents to leave the city and enjoy the fresh air of the countryside.

From Tuesday 10 December to Sunday 15 December, Geraldine Pilgrim will be presenting her new site-specific work exploring the vibrant history of Toynbee Hall and Studios. Commissioned by Artsadmin, TOYNBEE: Fragments of Other Lives & Times will transform the space with music, performance and visuals to create a multi-sensory experience which responds to the history of the building.

To book, please visit our website.
Tickets from £5.

Further reading:

Briggs, Asa, and Anne Macartney. Toynbee Hall: the First Hundred Years. New York: Routledge, 2013.


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