Yesterday (Saturday 17 th June) was the Commemoration Day in the Church of England of Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, social reformers.
Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was ordained in 1867 to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill.
Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s, Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. Active Christian Socialists, they sought to ensure that social reform was
based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.
Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children.
In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon (and later sub-dean) of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead. The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income. This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907. When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
Their memorial in Westminster Abbey talks of ‘the witness that [Samuel] bore to God in the world as with faith and courage he followed Christ’. We may not achieve such spectacular advances for Christian social justice: but I like to think of George Eliot’s comment at the end of her novel Middlemarch:
‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’
(Information on the Barnetts from Saints on Earth: a biographical companion to Common Worship by John H Darch and Stuart K Burns)