The history behind the community centre

Posted on the 7th September 2016

We take a look back at the history of the community centre in the US and Britain.

This week we celebrate the humble community centre – providing a hub for people to come together and connect in a shared space. We take a look at the fascinating history of how they became the home of local community.

The roots of the community centre

The earliest forms of community centres – schools that provided services for communities after hours – were recorded in the United States. The best documented example of this was in Rochester, New York in 1907 – where a Presbyterian minister, Edward J. Ward, became the advocate and organiser behind campaigning for community centres and was behind the development of the Wisconsin Bureau of Civic and Social Development at the University of Wisconsin. In 1911 the Bureau sponsored a nationwide conference on using as social centres. Although politicians and officials were sceptical about the possible alternative uses of these social centres, the idea was successful. By 1916, the National Community Center Association was founded and the community centre was born and by 1930 there were nearly 500 centres with more than four million people regularly attending.

One of the organisers at PS 63 in the Lower East Side, Clinton Childs, described them as:

A Community organized about some centre for its own political and social welfare and expression; to peer into its own mind and life, to discover its own social needs and then to meet them, whether they concern the political field, the field of health, of recreation, of education, or of industry; such community organization is necessary if democratic society is to succeed and endure“.

The movement in Britain

There were three movements that were significant in the formation of the community centre movement in Britain:

  • the National Council of Social Service (founded in 1919)
  • the Federation of Residential Settlements
  • the Educational Settlements Association.

The history of settlements in Britain revolved around the same principle – that all should share in community. The concept was that ‘university’ men and women would live-in (residential settlements) and live in the poorer areas of the great cities. These residential settlements would be a ‘club-house’ among the ‘poor’ for residents to ‘share’ themselves with their neighbours. Samuel and Henrietta Barnett established the first university settlement, Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, in 1884. Key social influencers and settlements identified three key needs of these settlements:

  • scientific research concerning poverty
  • the furthering of wider lives through education
  • and an enhancement of leadership in local communities.
Toynbee Hall

Educational settlements starting the adult education movement that developed into centres such as the YMCA and the Workers Education Association. Adding to this mix were the social service clubs that grew out of the miner’s strikes of 1926-7. By 1939 there were 2,300 of these clubs, offering unemployed people the opportunity to work and organise together for the benefit of their local communities.

Toynbee Hall
Toynbee Hall

Post-war community centres

The idea of the community associations came into play in response to the new housing estates formed after the First World War. Associations were formed in Dagenham, Watling, Middlesex, Birmingham and more – and a national organisation within the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) was developed to promote this work in the new estates. By 1937 the NCSS was in contact with 171 towns having community centres (centers) in existence or contemplated; in 1938 the number had nearly doubled to 304.

In an early paper, the NCSS set out the following definition for the community centre and community association:

“A Community Centre may be defined as a building which (1) serves a community organized in an association which is responsible for the management of the building; and (2) provides facilities for the development of the recreational, cultural and personal welfare of members of that community; and (3) constitutes a meeting place for voluntary organizations or other groups in the community which need accommodation.”

“A Community Association may be defined as a voluntary association of neighbours democratically organized within a geographical area which constitutes a natural community, who have come together either as members of existing organizations or as individuals, or in both capacities, to provide for themselves and their community the services which the neighbourhood requires.”

(quoted by Mess and King 1947: 73)

According to Mess and King, a ‘good social life’ is ‘dependent upon good buildings’. Good buildings was defined as large rooms for meetings and social events, a theatre, common room, canteen and games. They also identified that good leadership was also crucial and that it could not only depend on volunteers, but on skilled workers to be successful.

After the Second World War, the community centre was an essential amenity, according to the government. The number of community centres grew to over 900 by 1960 – and also significantly shifted in their function. They became less of social service and took on more of an education aspect, and they were focused around the operation and maintenance of their centre with reliance on assistance from their local council. They became a base for groups and clubs, and larger social events such as dances and fundraisers. Later, as we entered the era of Thatcher there were significant cutbacks in state support that saw an increase in profit making ventures such as the centres becoming venues for weddings, bars and gymnasiums.

Present day

Community centres today look very different to their beginnings as settlements in the poorest areas of major cities. However they remain to be a place where people can organise – whether that is a social functions, political meeting or adult to pre-school education.

Over 4.4 million people are estimated to use community buildings every week (Marriott, P. (1997) Forgotten Resources? The role of community buildings in strengthening local communities, York: York Publishing Services). Protecting these centres, whether that be through funding or developing enterprise, ensures that they remain the place for the community to engage and develop – where action can be organised and lives can be changed.


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