Rebecca Halley Cheetham (1852-1939) - first warden of Canning Town Women's Settlement

Thursday 7 March 2024

In this, the third and final chapter on her series on the Canning Town Women's Settlement, Aldersbrook resident and historian, Jane Skelding, considers the career of Rebecca Cheetham, who was the mainstay, and in many ways synonymous with, the active and influential reforming community that did so much to transform the lives of many in the southern part of Newham in the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century.


CTWS Fourth Annual Report (1895)

Rebecca Halley Cheetham, was the first warden of the Canning Town Women’s Settlement (CTWS). She was from working class roots and took the role of Warden for an annual salary, making her quite different from many the women in the philanthropic sphere at this time. Taking up her post in 1892, when the settlement opened, she would dedicate her life to the people of the area, working tirelessly in local government positions and on committees. She retired as Warden in 1917 but stayed at the settlement house, where she died in 1939, aged 87.


Born in Manchester on the 27th May 1852 she was from a working class, protestant non conformist background, her grandfather had been a minister. Her mother, Rebecca Sloman Cheetham (nee Halley), although a boarding-house keeper and working woman, was involved in local causes in Manchester. She was Secretary for the Ladies Manchester Association for the care of Friendless Girls, a similar organisation to the ones her daughter would become so involved in for the CTWS. Rebecca trained as a teacher and was mathematics mistress at Manchester High School between 1888-1891  (This was the same school that the famous Pankhurst children attended but before their time there. However, given Sylvia Pankhurst’s work in East London it would be probable that their paths crossed later on).

Move to Canning Town

In 1892 she became first Warden of the Canning Town Women’s Settlement. This was a time of constant development to the area, in 1904 she wrote in her annual report:

 “The last year has seen great changes, both within the Settlement and without. The completion of the electric tram service has made Canning Town more accessible to the northern part of the Borough, while before our very eyes cabbage-fields and rhubarb-fields have been transformed into bricks and mortar. The docks and river, which made such a picturesque view from our windows, are now completely shut out, long streets of two storied cottages coming between.” (CTWS Annual Report, 1904)

This increase in population, housing and industry increased the needs of the local people, especially women and children. The work of the CTWS was focussed on improving their prospects with a doctrine of self-help which saw initiatives particularly aimed at employment, education, temperance, and health. [see first CTWS article for more details].

Personal achievements

 The role of Warden was just one part of Rebecca Cheetham’s work in the local community, in her time she achieved the following formal roles and accolades -

 ·         Warden of the Canning Town Women’s Settlement 1892-1916 and Financial Secretary and Vice President from 1916-1938, the year before her death.

·         1893 - Committee member of Charity Organisation Society and Children’s County Holiday Fund (local branches).

 ·         1892 - President Canning Town Branch Women’s Co-operative Guild.

 ·         1894 - first elected Poor Law Guardian for the West Ham Board of Guardians.

 ·         1903 - co-opted member of the West Ham Education committee from its inception to her death.

 ·         quoted giving evidence in the Poor Law Minority report (1909) which influenced poor law reform.

 ·         1920 - appointed Justice of the Peace for West Ham.


Rebecca Cheetham in her retirement years, still living in the CTWS settlement

Rebecca Cheetham retired from her role as Warden in 1916 at the 25-year jubilee of the CTWS, but became financial secretary and continued to live at the settlement house (2 Cumberland Road, Plaistow). In 1931 she was awarded a Civil Pension.

One newspaper noted that this was of special interest ‘because social services are if anything more commonly ignored than services in other fields of human effort.’ (Common Cause, 1931)

She died on the 18th December 1939. Her obituary in The Times was written by Mrs Galloway, the incumbent warden, and described her fondly as:

 “a woman of profound religious faith and of wide culture; she was endowed with a delicious sense of humour and a remarkably active brain – she read her Testament in Greek and her Dante in Italian as she lay in bed in her eighty-seventh year.” (The Times, 12 Jan 1940)


Rebecca Cheetham Nursery and Children's Centre, Marcus Street, Stratford

Rebecca Cheetham is best recognised locally today through a nursery and children's centre in Marcus Street, Stratford that bears her name. According to their website, it: "officially opened in 1930 by Ms Margaret McMillan who was a pioneer in the Nursery School movement. At the time, Rebecca Cheetham was thankful for the honour of the nursery being named after her and said that she hoped that nursery schools would spread throughout the country, so that young children might be nurtured in readiness for their education"

How fitting that Ofsted regards that institution as "Outstanding", in the same way that she was in the service of the community within which she served.

The nursery's child-centric logo

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