It’s difficult to walk far in central London without spotting something remarkable.
One morning recently I walked from Russell Square to meet someone at the Churchill Hotel at the back of Selfridges, and came upon a quirky Arts-and-Crafts building that reminded me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Two ladies who saw me stop to photograph it asked me what it was and I had to admit I hadn’t a clue.
It is in fact Mary Ward House [http://www.marywardhouse.com], built in 1898 for the philanthropist Mary Augustus Ward (1851-1920), better known as the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward. Her writings are not much read now, but her breakthrough novel, Robert Elsmere (1888) secured her reputation in her lifetime.
She came from a distinguished family, the niece of the poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) and the granddaughter of Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the celebrated headmaster of Rugby School; she was the mother-in-law of the historian G M Trevelyan and the aunt of the biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975) and the writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).
She believed in bringing education and culture to people of limited means, though she was opposed to the idea of women’s suffrage. She wanted to create an institution that would “stand perpetually between a man and a woman and the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.
Her venture to provide “education, social intercourse, and debate of the wider sort, music, books, pictures, travel” derived from the vision described in Robert Elsmere and was financed by the prolific benefactor John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911). The building on Tavistock Place, originally known as the Passmore Edwards Settlement, was designed by Arnold Dunbar Smith (1866-1933) and Cecil Claude Brewer (1871-1918).
Indeed, the Pevsner entry enumerates design influences from the major figures of the Arts and Crafts movement – W R Lethaby, Richard Norman Shaw and C F A Voysey, whose circle of friends contributed designs for the fireplaces.
It stands on the edge of the estate of Herbrand, 11th Duke of Bedford (1858-1940), who provided the land, and was intended to serve the deprived population of St Pancras.
Its provision included the Invalid Children’s School (1899) at 9 Tavistock Place, and a Vacation School (1902) to keep children out of mischief in school holidays, from which derived Evening Play Centres. These developed into clubs for teenagers, and ultimately a School for Mothers complemented by a nursery.
The building originally functioned as a community centre and hostel, and the dramatically curved white stone surrounds to its doorways stand out from the plain brickwork.
The Settlement was renamed to commemorate Mary Wards’ life and work in 1921, the year after her death. The work continues to the present day: http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk.