Cambridge House today

Our roots lie in radical change, in a desire to tackle poverty, social inequity and injustice in the communities we serve.

In terms of the work we do and the communities and people we support, we have come a long way since our inception in the 19th century but that focus on radical change hasn’t wavered.

In response to ever-increasing demand and the significant gaps in support that are present in our communities and beyond, Cambridge House has transformed from a traditional building-based community organisation into a modern social action and innovation centre. We’ve expanded from our Southwark roots into a regional organisation, working in communities across London, and we’ve invested in new frontline services and restructured existing ones so that our activities reach the individuals who need them the most.

Our work today is varied and far-reaching, from campaigning for safer conditions and security for renters to offering free expert legal services in housing, employment, discrimination and welfare benefits law, to the delivery of youth and disabled people’s empowerment projects or helping support the development of social policy and practice through our research and knowledge exchange.

How we got here

Founded in 1889, Cambridge House is part of the international Settlement Movement set up to provide social services to the urban poor and campaign for social justice.

In the 1880s the misery of industrialised England moved scores of students and academics to found and live in ‘settlements’ in poverty-stricken areas. Here, it was felt, the socially-advantaged could attempt to bridge the gap between what Disraeli termed those ‘two nations between whom there is no intercourse… the rich and the poor.’ This was not to be a voyeuristic effort: settlement residents would offer their expertise to local people, providing free legal advice, education and training.

A radical presence

The effects of the Settlement Movement were felt across the country. Indeed, the Movement has a fair claim to having changed the face of Britain by fostering many of the architects of the welfare state. Clement Attlee and William Beveridge were both residents at Toynbee Hall, while Cambridge House can lay claim to the liberal politician Charles Masterman. The crushing poverty with which his residency in Camberwell acquainted Masterman informed a journalistic and political career which reached its zenith with the shepherding of the 1911 National Insurance Act through parliament. The book that Masterman wrote shortly after his stay at Cambridge House, the dourly-named ‘From the Abyss: of its Inhabitants by One of Them’, sets forth how the people’s calls for change are muted by the daily struggle to survive:

‘Always noisy, we never speak; always resonant with the din of many-voiced existence, we never reach the level of ordered articulate utterance.’

Cambridge House has done much to listen and respond to these calls over the years, for we have often been at the forefront of developments in the mission to combat society’s ills. Our free legal service has been in operation since 1898, and we set up one of the UK’s first Adult Literacy Schemes in 1963. We have provided myriad different services to Southwark residents, at one point in the early 1900s even taking local children for holidays on our very own house boat. What has never changed is our position at the centre of a proud, kind, yet unforgivably impoverished community.

Learn about the Magdelene College Youth Trust

1889 - Trinity Court founded

Our story begins in September 1889, when enterprising Trinity students founded the Trinity Court lay settlement in Camberwell to support the philanthropic work of the college clergy.

It was, they trusted, ‘an opportunity both for doing much good to those in positions less favoured than their own, and also one for a practical study of the great Social Questions of the Day’
– Trinity Court, ‘First Annual Report’, 1890

1897 - Trinity Court re-founded as Cambridge House

Trinity Court is re-established as Cambridge House at the request of the Bishop of Rochester for a ‘Cambridge something’ to rival North London’s Oxford House.

1898 The ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’ service is established

The ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’ service is established, forming an early forerunner to professional legal centres.

1900 Talbot House is founded

Talbot House (later the Talbot Women’s Settlement) is founded as a women’s settlement named after the Bishop of Rochester’s wife Mrs Talbot. The two settlements enter a long partnership.

1908 Children’s Country Holiday Fund

Cambridge House forms London’s largest centre for the work of the Children’s Country Holiday Fund, sending 2,000 children annually on holidays to partnered countryside villages.

1914-1918 - Wartime closure

Closed for the only time in its history. Most if not all of Cambridge House’s residents are killed in the fighting.

1920 The Federation of Residential Settlements established

Cambridge House is a founding member of The Federation of Residential Settlements.

1942 - Establishment of first UK Legal Centre

Establishment of one of the UK’s first professional Legal Centres, now being run by salaried employees during standard working hours.

1939-45 - Emergency food and rest centre

Provision of an emergency food and rest centre, also taking over the running of several local youth clubs after their premises are destroyed.

1950 - A centre for homeless west Indian women and children

The Talbot Women’s Settlement establishes a residential club, day nursery, and advice centre for homeless west Indian women and children.

1963 - Provision of literacy services leading to the ‘Right to Read’ Programme

Cambridge House begins provision of adult literacy services, leading to heavy involvement alongside the British Association of Settlement in a national literacy movement that culminates in the 1973 ‘Right to Read’ Programme.

1972 - Cambridge House and Talbot merger

Cambridge House and the Talbot Women’s Settlement formally merge, becoming Cambridge House and Talbot.

1975 - Adults and children's club established

Establishes Southwark’s first club for adults and children with learning disabilities.

1978 - BASSAC founded

Founding member of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (BASSAC), now Locality.

1979 - Launch of project to develop disabled services

Having uncovered the extent of under provision for disabled people in Southwark, Cambridge House launches a major project to nurture the development of new autonomous services in the borough.

1980s - Advocacy services take a lead role

Our Advocacy Service takes a lead role in the campaign for statutory advocacy, also taking part in the original NHS and Independent Mental Capacity Advocacy pilot programmes.

2012 - Refurbishment programme

Completion of a £6.5 million building refurbishment and extension programme.

2015 - The Law Centre takes case to the Supreme Court

The Law Centre takes a client’s case to the Supreme Court, permanently changing how the government defines vulnerability and priority of need.

2017 - Safer Renting is established

Safer Renting is established to support private rented tenants with criminal landlords.

2018 - Radical Listening Campaign launched

We began advocating nationally for radical listening to be used to reconnect with communities, address complex challenges, and transform systems through conversational leadership and practice.

2019 - ‘Youth Professional of 2019’ Award

Our Youth Empowerment Lead is awarded London Youth’s ‘Youth Professional of 2019’ Award, and our Law Centre establishes its Crisis Mitigation service.

2019 - ‘Youth Professional of 2019’ Award

Our Youth Empowerment Lead is awarded London Youth’s ‘Youth Professional of 2019’ Award, and our Law Centre establishes its Crisis Mitigation service.

2020 - 'Journeys in the Shadow Private Rented Sector’ report

Safer Renting’s ‘Journeys in the Shadow Private Rented Sector’ is named Thinkhouse’s most influential housing report of the year, and we maintain services remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

2021 - Crisis Mitigation service for young women and girls

Cambridge House establishes an outreach Crisis Mitigation service for young women and girls at the Baytree Centre, Lambeth.

2022 - Cambridge House sells 1 Addington Square

We complete the sale of our building at 1 Addington Square to put us on a much more sustainable financial footing and to free us up to focus on our core work of supporting people in crisis and challenging the systems that led them there.

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