Pembroke College Mission was founded in 1885, one of many such missions and settlements set up by Oxbridge colleges and public schools to alleviate poverty in London. Whilst many Oxford colleges set up missions and settlements in the East End, Cambridge colleges located their missions and settlements in South London.
College missions and settlements were products of a particular age:
“expressions of response to social change, attempts on the part of religious institutions to take on new functions or to adapt traditional functions to new situations”.
The establishment of the missions would ensure that boys educated at public schools and men at the Universities could not plead ignorance of the poor, and would help educate these future gentlemen and rulers in their duties to the working classes. One of the key factors of the Settlement Movement was to be good neighbours and this meant to live among the poor and demonstrate neighbourliness in practical action, through “methods of friendship and co-operation in building all that is essential to the well-being of the neighbourhood”.
Encouraged by the Bishop of Rochester, Pembroke College chose a district in Walworth, in the parish of All Saints, Newington. The intent of Pembroke College Mission was primarily religious, but clubs and charitable work were also to play their part in the ‘working’ of the Mission district, illustrating the Church’s concern for the ‘whole man’.
“we are bound to acknowledge that their bodies want caring for as well as their souls, especially when we see what a terrible effect privation, misery, and want have in steering a man’s hearty against good influences. We shall endeavour then to combine practical with preaching”.
Initially Pembroke House was located on Elsted Street. In 1891, a new site was leased in Barlow Street (later Tatum Street). Since then, this location has been the home of Pembroke House. Freehold to the property was purchased more than half a decade after, in 1955.
The building was used as an air-raid shelter in WWI, bringing the Mission into closer touch with more people in the district. The greatest difficulty caused by the war was the depletion of Mission workers. By the end of 1918 many of the former workers at the Mission had been killed or were still engaged in wartime duties. In the absence of a full complement of staff, local administration in Walworth began moving towards increasing local involvement in the running of the Mission during the 20th century, reflecting an increased prosperity and respectability in the district.
During WWII, local people flocked to the Mission during heavy bombardment between September 1940 and May 1941, forging new contacts for the mission. “Adversity binds people together”, claimed the 1939 Mission report. The church escaped unhurt for the third time during flying bombs and rockets in 1944, and it was the proud boast of the Mission that at the end of the war, no services had been cancelled or postponed.
After the wars, in an era of the Welfare State, full of optimism for a new society being built for the future, many questioned the role of the College Mission with its old, worn-out buildings. As a result, some colleges and schools closed down, as they were no longer serving a useful purpose. Others were able to adapt or change their role and ethos, and some of the original settlements, including Pembroke College Mission, are still actively involved and serving the same local communities.
Where missions survived, it was through a renewed sense of purpose, and working in close association with municipal state authorities. It gradually became evident, however, that the new housing estates were no urban utopia. Problems of rising unemployment and economic decline were coupled with a new difficulty of racial conflict. Through the 1970s and 1980s, successive Conservative governments cut back on the Welfare State provision. Once again, it was left to churches to realise and fill the gap in community social provision, to point out to the state its responsibilities.
The 20th century witnessed the closure of all but two of the Cambridge Misions, and the demolition of most of their buildings. Only Pembroke House and the Trinity Centre in Camberwell remain as living testimony to the Cambridge Mission Movement. Furthermore, Trinity Mission was atypical from the start, taking over immediately a whole parish of St George’s, Camberwell.
The survival of Pembroke College Mission to the 21st century perhaps owes more to luck than sober judgements and planning, for the Mission has never been rich, and support amongst members of the College has fluctuated, to say the least. It owes its continued existence too to a number of strong individuals – the most obvious are CH Prior, CF Andrews, and MB Dewey – who have championed the Mission’s cause in times of dwindling support.
It is clear even from the optimistic tones of the annual reports, that the Mission has only truly flourished when there has been strong administration, with a clear vision of the purpose and legitimacy of the enterprise. One can also witness a gradual movement towards increasing local responsibility and active involvement in the running of the Mission, though this trend has not been as complete as perhaps some have wished.