The Canning Town Women's Settlement: its workers and the women who wanted to help

Friday 8 March 2024

We have invited historian and local resident, Jane Skelding to share her fascinating research with us on the Canning Town's Women's Settlement, which was very much the precursor of Forest Gate's Durning Hall (see here for history). This will be a three part feature, the first looking at the aims and outputs of the settlement, below; the second will follow in a couple of days on the buildings associated with the organisation. And the third, a couple of days later, on the Settlement's, and indeed one of Newham's, most significant citizens - Rebecca Cheetham - after whom the Stratford Nursery and Children's Centre is named.

So - you can read as the articles are published, or wait a few days and "binge-read" the three together! Jane introduces herself and her interests in the paragraphs following.

Jane Skelding (she/her) is an Aldersbrook resident. She is currently pursuing a PhD, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with the genealogy website FindMyPast. Her research explores language use and marginalised histories in the census. 

As part of her research on working class women in the nineteenth century, she became interested in the Canning Town Women’s Settlement (CTWS) and its work in the community, starting in 1892. CTWS, along with Mansfield House University Settlement, became part of the Aston-Mansfield Charity that continues working with families and young children in Forest Gate today, known to many through Durning Hall. 

To celebrate International Women's Day this blog looks in more detail at the early work of the CTWS and how it impacted women, children and families in the local area.

Many Newham residents will have heard of Rebecca Cheetham, or at least the nursery and children’s centre named after her on Marcus Street in Stratford. She had many important roles in the local community, but it was her job as Warden of the Canning Town Women’s Settlement (CTWS) from 1898-1917 that brought her to West Ham. To mark International Women’s Day this article takes a closer look at the women who worked for the community in the settlement and the women and girls they helped.

What was the Canning Town Women's Settlement?

Canning Town Women’s Settlement was established in 1892. Run as a charity by women and for women, CTWS focussed on helping the working classes and the poorest of Canning Town. Around eight to ten resident workers and some paid staff would run meetings and clubs and train in social work to do casework with the most needy. In the initial scope of its work was a lengthy list of the clubs, agencies and charitable work that is familiar within the world of nineteenth century philanthropy. 

These included work among ‘Factory Girls’; a training home for domestic service; religious social clubs such as Pleasant Sunday Afternoon services (PSA) and Mothers' Meetings; Temperance work and visiting to the sick and poor. CTWS was religious but unsectarian it sought to help without evangelisation, but religion was a constant theme of its work, which was seen as ‘missionary’ work which was just as important as that undertaken abroad. It also trained missionaries for the London Missionary Society to ready them for their work abroad.

As CTWS was a charitable endeavour, all the work was funded by donations and subscriptions. For this reason, Annual Reports were published almost as an advert to appeal for more funds. They contained photographs and detailed accounts of the work that was going on and what still needed to be done by women who worked closely with the local poor. This blog will use the annual reports to take a look at this aspect of life in Canning Town in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Who were the Settlement workers?

CTWS was an offshoot of Mansfield House settlement and continued to serve the women and children of the area until 1968 when it became bankrupt and was absorbed in the Mansfield Charities Trust. The settlement movement had started with Toynbee Hall in 1884 and saw a number of establishments spring up in the late nineteenth century where middle-class volunteers, male and female, would live amongst the poor of the cities whilst working with them to try and alleviate the effects of poverty. Settlements were often related to Oxford or Cambridge colleges and usually founded by men, but women’s settlements also became common, CTWS was an example of this.

In general, the women who came to work at the settlement were middle- and upper-class women wanting independence, adventure, and training for a social work career and they came from all over the country. There is mention in the annual reports of funded places for women who may not have had independent means but on the whole they were wealthy.

In the 1890s there were usually ten resident workers volunteering, they would stay for a minimum of two months which often stretched into longer periods with some staying for six years or more. By 1907 the annual report notes that it is harder to get ‘self-supporting’ residents, and as society changed, particularly during the wars, this would become more of a challenge to the traditional way the settlements ran.

Settlement staff (Seventh Annual Report of CTWS, September 1898, p9)

The only ‘local’ girls who lived and worked at the settlement were the domestic staff. The census report from 1901 lists Elizabeth Colvin (22), Frances Rowe (14) and Annie Butcher (14) all living in as domestic servants and were born in West Ham and Shoreditch, the daughters of dock workers and labourers.

Who did they work with?

In the 1890s Canning Town was one of the most deprived areas of East London. Industry and housing built up rapidly between 1880s and the turn of the century, but the late Victorian London philanthropists were slow to catch up with this new area which was deeply affected by the precarious casual labour system of the docks and the poverty that resulted.

The settlement aimed to create a place where the poor women and children could find help with all areas of their lives and try and improve their situation. A sample weekly timetable from 1893 can help illustrate the scale of the work.

Third Annual report of the CTWS, September 1893, p28

Clubs were both a way of offering improving activities for the mind such as bible readings, and physical health with exercise and activity. The idea was to keep the women from the pubs or other less wholesome activities which were seen as a constant danger in areas like Canning Town, especially for the young women working outside the home.

Single women were targeted with the Factory Girls clubs which ran every evening and weekends with often 40 girls in attendance. 

Factory Girls Club (CTWS Third Annual Report 1895, p40)

Another club was the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon (PSA). The PSA movement was important in its provision of a place for the working classes to go on their day off, it was religious and was a compromise for those who would not go to church and might otherwise end up in the pubs. Running in close partnership with Mansfield House as it was for the men too, the Canning Town meetings ran up to 500 attendees on a Sunday afternoon.

Mother’s Meetings and Women’s Co-operative Guild meetings, although different in content, were aimed at married women needing a place to gather for an hour or two away from the responsibilities of children, husband, and household drudgery.


A group of MABYS women - dressed ready for job hunting? (CTWS Annual Report 1896 p30)

The Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) had been set up by Henrietta Barnett of Toynbee Hall and looked to place young women into service with reputable households. After they were placed, they were also checked up on and supported by the agency to ensure they were well treated. CTWS prioritised setting up their own branch as the closest had been Poplar.

CTWS also created work rooms for women to work on garments for sale and other employment agencies to help women find work outside the domestic service focussed on by MABYS. Other initiatives included a Sick Benefit society and clothes clubs where women could make over old garments to use or sell on.

Charity and social work

The social work element was in many ways the work that would have drawn the workers to the settlement to gain experience. CTWS soon established branches of the influential Charity Organisation Society (COS) and the Children’s Country Holiday Fund (CCHF). The work involved would have used the visiting and case work approach developed by these agencies under the influence of Octavia Hill and others. 

(Ed:Henrietta Barnett, together with MABYS and the CCHF that she was closely associated with running, were hugely important in the development of the Forest Gate Children's Workhouse, of which Henrietta Barnett was a governor for twenty years - as detailed in Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children's Workhouse by John Walker £12.99 from Newham Bookshop and all good book retailers).

The first Warden, Rebecca Cheetham, was very active in the local community. Cheetham was elected as a Poor Law Guardian and later (1903) co-opted onto the School Board. Through her the CTWS became important in West Ham municipal government meaning they could help influence local policy in relation to the poor. 


The CTWS took over the local Medical Mission from September 1893. It had been running for six years already and provided free medical care to the poor. Soon after, they appointed a resident ‘lady doctor’ Miss Margaret Pearse MD, and it rapidly expanded. The Nursing Institution was also important and was established in 1893 by Miss Tillyard and her sister, nurses from the London Hospital (they stayed until 1904). The intention was to provide training for women missionaries working both at home and abroad and offered women’s health, maternity services, and children’s health services to the neighbourhood.

Miss Tillyard (CTWS Third Annual Report 1895, p27)

In addition to the main hospital work outreach work was done among ‘crippled and invalid’ children and convalescent stays were organised at a home at Danbury and Moreton-in-marsh where local women could go to recuperate in clean healthy air.

In 1904 CTWS started to build a hospital which opened in 1905. By 1913 it was reported that the medical mission treated "353 in-patients and [...] 16,165 out-patients during last year" (Westminster Gazette - 17 March 1913). This work continued until the destruction of WW2 meant that the medical mission closed.

CTWS was badly affected by the second world war and its finances never fully recovered. It was absorbed into the Aston Charities Trust in 1968 [see here] and although it is not visible in its buildings, which were all lost to redevelopment, the legacy of the hundreds of women who worked there can still be seen in the health and community services that still exist on the old sites.      

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.