Hugh went to Toynbee Hall in the autumn of 1888, on the encouragement of his mentor Dr. William Barry, a theologian at Oscott, where he went to school, soon after leaving Oxford. The university settlement of Toynbee Hall was then only two years old. It was the unique idea of the Rev. Samuel Barnett who with his wife Henrietta, had dedicated his life to the improvement of social conditions in the East End and in the working classes generally, see Toynbee Hall More information on conditions in the East End and the setting up of Toynbee will be posted at a future date. When Hugh first arrived he acknowledges that he was one of the ‘top hat’ brigade, but in the space of three months he became totally committed to social reform.
It was a time, says Hugh, when socialism was beginning to attract serious attention in England and had already become a topic of conversation at the dinner tables of the West End. Hugh was initially attracted to socialism from religious motivations, he had even considered going into a religious life, but, he says, fortunately, friends who were familiar with clerical life talked him out of it.
“I think it would be very difficult for anyone not brought up in the Roman Catholic Faith to understand fully our attitude of mind, but it was I think a strong reaction to Medievalism and an attempt to dissociate Catholic Christianity from the trammels of Roman Clericalism. The movement was very humanist as was becoming to the period. Changes have been so rapid since then that it is difficult to realise the extraordinary state of Roman Catholic thought at that time, and indeed of Society in which I lived. Perhaps the change is well indicated by the saying of a Roman Catholic about me when I went to live at Toynbee Hall – a saying which has been quoted in print – ‘Well he has not actually left the Church but he has gone to live in the East End.”
When he started at Toynbee, Hugh was sent to work with the Charity Organisation Society (COS) Committee in Burdett Road, Stepney, then being run by T H Nunn. His job was to assess cases and this served as his apprenticeship in social work. The COS dominated thinking and practice in the distribution of assistance and relief and was extremely harsh in its judgements of who constituted the ‘deserving poor’, namely those who could be given relief. The ‘undeserving poor’ were those deemed unlikely to benefit longer term from aid, and were therefore refused it. In fact the COS set up the framework of ‘case work’ which is still used by many organizations today. Visiting these poor families gave Hugh his underlying understanding of what poverty meant to people. He did retain an approach that assistance given should always be in an effort to help people to improve their own circumstances, though as master of his own estate, his dealings show a more flexible and less judgemental character, seeking always to encourage co-operation towards better ends. Like Canon Barnett, Hugh retained the view that the giving of aid should always be to enable improvement, but they also both came to believe that the poor could not help themselves unless structural obstacles to their ability to do so were removed.
At Nunn’s suggestion he also went one day a week to take Poor Law cases with one of the relieving officers. Apart from this, he was generally set to tracing “homeless” cases. The work meant going into coffeehouses and common lodging houses in Shadwell, Limehouse and Stepney. Also working with him on the COS committee was his cousin Fanny Charlton. She lived in the West End and used to come down and take him off to West End houses and dinners. Slumming was chic, he says, and socialism was dinnertime conversation. There was a story within the Cholmeley family, which came through Fanny, that Hugh would go to COS meetings with a mouse in his pocket. At some point he would let the mouse go, just to see all the ladies jump up on their chairs and shriek. “Oh, Mr Cholmeley, you are awful!”.
On Sundays, he took a Sunday School class for Barnett for half an hour in the afternoon. This consisted of 8 or 10 boys, impish and mischievous, he says and ‘a rowdy set’. He tried to make friends with them and got them to come and see him on weekday evenings when he would read historical stories and old legends to them. When he left Toynbee, he said that Barnett said he had done them good, but Hugh goes on to say “…so I may have achieved something, but I didn’t feel I had made much progress. They weren’t bad fellows but it was rather a hopeless task in the circumstances…” He was glad to change for the club of boys which his friend Laurie got together after Hugh and his friends moved to Beaumont Square.
Whilst at Toynbee, during the elections for the first London County Council held in 1889, Hugh was sent to canvas for the Progressives, Lord Rosebery in particular, in a block of model dwellings in Whitechapel which was chiefly tenanted by Jews. He writes later that he never forgot the appalling smells he had to encounter. He remembered one occasion when he had a long conversation with a resident, whilst it was as much as he could do to prevent himself being sick and as soon as he could, he ran downstairs and outside to recover and to prevent himself from being physically sick. He also found the neighbourhood streets intimidating but in time got used to them and was able to walk the back ways from Toynbee to Burdett Road in Mile End, where the COS held its meetings. The streets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Mile End were among the poorest in Charles Booth’s 1889 poverty map, and were feared by many. In the course of his work, Hugh had to visit houses, tenements and coffee houses, which then were meeting places for all kinds of nefarious transactions and activities, including prostitution – far from the Costa Coffee’s of today.
Toynbee courtyard exterior & Commercial St. showing Toynbee Tower.
(The Tower was destroyed by a bomb during WWII)
Hugh was not happy living at Toynbee Hall. He found it physically uncomfortable having only a ‘cabin-like room’ with only room for his portmanteau and his bath, next to his bed, and it was only separated by a partition wall from the next cubicle. He said there were many discordant and diverse elements among the residents. Some were christian and some were not, some were liberals and some conservatives and some socialists. Some of them “…hoped to redeem the slums, by the graceful superiority of their presence.” He says. These wore top hats and West End dress and patrolled the slums at night to overawe the roughs. There was another set who looked ‘seedy’ and were ‘smug’, he says, and a third set who affected a ‘democratic’ dress and represented the advanced wing of social reform. Hugh says there were ‘good fellows’ in both the extreme categories. Initially he says, he belonged to the ‘top hat’ brigade, but eventually, he cast in his lot with ‘advanced’ party.
Charles Robert Ashbee another resident, founded the Whitechapel Guild of Handicraft. There was a quarrel between Ashbee and Barnett, which, though he does not go into the nature of the quarrel, Hugh used as a lever to persuade Ashbee and three of his friends, Hubert Llewellyn Smith, Arthur Pillans Laurie and Arthur G. Rogers to move out of Toynbee with him and set up on their own. Education at Toynbee in the early days was aimed at general improvement, rather than practical or vocational and it could have been that differences over this which lay at the bottom of the divide, certainly, Hugh and his friends were very much of the view that practical education was needed, not just cultural improvement.
Whilst he was at Toynbee in the Spring of 1889, Hugh read England’s Ideal by Edward Carpenter. The work of Carpenter made a great impression on him with regard to ideals on how to live – basically a very simple life. It drew him further towards Socialism. Later in Brandsby he was to follow Carpenter’s ideas in building a house for himself according to the principles of simplicity and self-sufficiency which Carpenter promoted. Hugh blames his Roman Catholicism for making himself resistant to the ideas of Canon Barnett, who he later recognized was a really great man. He felt he could have derived more benefit from Barnett had he not felt the need to guard himself from Protestantism, but in the event, his life does show that Barnett’s ideas underpinned his own life’s work, ‘practical socialism’ being his prevailing aim.
This ideological move, following Carpenter, was soon to be accompanied a physical move, when he, Ashbee and three friends from Toynbee Hall to to took an independent house at 49 Beaumont Square in Mile End. These friends were Hubert Llewellyn Smith, Arthur G. Rogers and Arthur Pillans Laurie. A further change which happened in April 1889 was that his father died and he then, as Squire, became responsible for the family estates in Yorkshire.