Barnett House was founded in June 1914 in memory of Canon Barnett (1844-1913), an Anglican clergyman and social reformer married to Henrietta Weston (1851-1936). In 1873 the Barnetts settled in Whitechapel, then a poor area in the East End of London, where they worked unceasingly for the poor of their parish. Barnett kept in close contact with Oxford (where he had studied), with the group round the philosopher and social reformer T. H. Green, Arnold Toynbee and Sidney Ball, all closely involved in adult education (‘university extension’) and university reform, civic education and welfare reform.
When Toynbee died, Barnett proposed his memory should be celebrated in practical action, through the founding of a ‘settlement’. This was at a meeting in November 1883, called by Sidney Ball in his rooms at St John’s. Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, the first university settlement, was the result; and Barnett was appointed first warden. Barnett's work and Toynbee Hall had an impact beyond Britain, as it became the model for the settlement movement in America, leading to the establishment of Hull House by Jane Adams in Chicago in 1889.
When Barnett himself died in 1913, a group of his disciples met in Sidney Ball’s rooms (thirty years to the day after the meeting proposing Toynbee Hall), to set up a new institution in Oxford in his memory; not this time a settlement, but a centre combining study, training, adult education and local involvement. While physically at the heart of the university, with a building on the corner of Turl and Broad Streets and set up by leading reformers in the university, Barnett House was an independent institution established ‘to advance the systematic study of current social and economic questions’, to encourage and train people to take up social and caring work, particularly in the urban ‘settlements’ in disadvantaged areas, and to promote adult education. Sidney Ball was first chairman of the Barnett House Committee, and the department still runs an annual Sidney Ball Memorial Lecture.
In the early years Barnett House pursued its objectives of research and education by maintaining a library, arranging lectures and conferences, publishing papers, running a variety of training courses and conducting local surveys of social conditions. The library, supported by the collegiate University, provided access to a range of material and books on current social and economic problems which at that time, before the development of the PPE Honour School, were not readily available elsewhere. The Social Training Course prepared students for the University Diploma in Economic and Political Science and for the Diploma in Public and Social Administration, established in 1936. In the same year, the House was formally recognised by the University as a place of 'higher study'.
After 1946, when the University became responsible for the Social Training course, other activities at Barnett House slackened, and in 1954 Council decided to end its existence as a corporate body. Barnett House remains the name of the building and the institution that now has a different official title but still pursues its original activities and objectives.
Over the years Barnett House gradually moved into a closer relationship with the University, and in 1961 was formally incorporated into the University. The eminent sociologist AH Halsey (‘Chelly’) became its director in 1962 (following LJ Barnes who in 1948 succeeded Miss CV Butler, Director since 1919). Around fifty or so students were admitted to the department each year, nearly all graduates, to read for the renamed Diploma in Social and Administrative Studies.
In 1962 there were four teaching members of the department. Ten years later this had increased to 14 and by the end of the 1970s additional teaching members had been appointed. Staff included seven University lecturers in social work, one psychologist, eight sociologists, one lecturer in social administration and one in demography.
The same decade saw further change and expansion. In 1974 the Diploma in Social and Administrative Studies was replaced by the MSc in Applied Social Studies, a two year graduate degree combining the old Diploma and professional training, and attracting 25 to 30 candidates each year. In 1976 there were 70 students in the Department reading for the Masters degree. The following year the first students were admitted to read for a newly established two year Masters degree in Social Research and Social Policy.
Research and teaching continued energetically through the 1980s. A part-time version of the MSc in Applied Social Studies was introduced - the first such degree in Oxford - and senior members extended undergraduate teaching for the sociology, social policy, demography and psychology options in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Human Sciences degrees. Meanwhile, Oxford received star rating from University Grants Committee in both 1986 and 1989 for research in each of sociology, social policy and social work, an award reflecting the activities within the Department.
The 1980s was also a time of retrenchment for the University, however, and the department was weakened by the loss of a number of posts. By 1987 there were only eleven senior members. At the same time there were ten flourishing research projects with twelve research officers receiving outside funding.
In 1990 Professor Halsey retired. The department was renamed as the 'Department of Applied Social Studies and Social Research' and Stein Ringen was appointed to the directorship. Departmental teaching and research continued to flourish with graduate degrees in Comparative Social Research leading to the award of an MSc or MPhil introduced in 1992. In 1997 Teresa Smith was elected as Head of Department and the department was renamed the Department of Social Policy and Social Work in August 1999 at the time of the creation of a separate Department of Sociology.
In the new millennium the department has once again expanded rapidly. Social Policy teaching has developed strongly with the successful graduate degrees in Comparative Social Policy attracting an international entry of about thirty graduate students a year, many of whom go on to doctoral studies. The successful MSc in Applied Social Studies social work training course, which the department ran for many years, was phased out and the final group graduated in Trinity Term 2004. In 2003 a new MSc course in Evidence-Based Social Work was successfully launched with an initial international intake of 20 students. George Smith became Head of Department in 2005, followed by Peter Kemp in 2007 and Martin Seeleib-Kaiser in 2011.
Research has also expanded steadily since the late 1990s. At any one time there are 25 or so separate funded research projects underway in the Department, with more than 20 research staff and an annual turnover of approximately £1.5m. Funds come from research councils, charitable foundations, local authorities and government departments and increasingly from overseas governments or agencies. Since the late 1990s research in the department has included some major national and international studies that have made a very substantial impact on national and local resource allocation, policy formation, policy implementation and evaluation.
A century after its foundation, Barnett House continues to uphold the tradition of providing high quality graduate and research training, closely linked with the importance of social enquiry and social evaluation, driven by a concern for better informed social policy, social intervention and social reform.