An urban view — 01 February 2013

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building which you might have passed without noticing.

This Building of the Month is Mary Ward House.

Running parallel to Euston Road, Tavistock Place is used by cabbies heading west towards Euston Station or Tottenham Court Road.

Camden Council in an effort to protect the many cyclists using the route has constructed dedicated cycle lanes. The result of which has been to narrow the road producing a perpetual traffic jam.

While sitting stationary you get to notice on the north side of Tavistock Place the stunning Grade I listed 1898 building – Mary Ward House. But who was Mary Ward, and what was her ‘House’ for?

Mary Ward was known in her lifetime as Mrs Humphry Ward, a prolific Victorian novelist. Her novels are not much read now but were successful in their time and tackled the social subjects and issues of faith and doubt that were beloved of the Victorians.

She was also a noted philanthropist and socialist, she helped open up university education to women. She promoted the education of the working classes through the ‘settlement’ movement (which settled students in working-class areas where they worked among the poor). Curiously, she also became a leader of the anti-suffragist movement, campaigning against giving women the vote.

One of her most inspired initiatives was founding Passmore Edwards House in Tavistock Place. This building, funded by publisher and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, was part of the University Hall Settlement.

Passmore Edwards House had the first properly equipped classrooms for children with disabilities and was also home to a centre where children could come to play in a safe, warm, bully-free environment. A hall, gym, library, and other communal rooms were provided, and there were also residential rooms for those living in the settlement.

Gustav Holst was for a while the settlement’s director of music.

Mary Ward doorThe building’s young architects, Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, themselves lived in the settlement, so knew the background to the settlement movement and grasped the building’s purpose and potential.

They would go on to design the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff, they proved a good choice. The style the adopted for the building was that fruitful blend of Arts and Crafts with Art Nouveau that proved successful in London buildings for education and the arts at around this time. They brought together segmental arches, a variety of window shapes, fine stone detailing, and other features to make an arresting façade. The lettering over the entrances is also delightful.

In 1921, a year after Mary Ward died; the house was renamed in her honour. There is more information about this building and its current use here.

Picture of Mary Ward House by Mike Quinn

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