FOR more than a century, a centre founded by a bestselling Victorian novelist has been bringing education, culture and fellowship to the people.
Tucked away in the heart of London, the Mary Ward Centre has been unobtrusively "widening participation" since the early 1890s. It was originally established as an educational and social action "settlement".
Educated men lived there in the hope of bringing education and culture to the impoverished masses. "Equalisation" of society was the aim - Mary Ward wanted local people to enjoy "the hundred pleasures and opportunities that fall mainly to the rich".
Ms Ward, aka Mrs Humphry Ward, its founder, was the author of the now scarcely known, but then bestselling, novel Robert Elsmere (1888), a granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby and niece of Matthew Arnold. She was also one of the founders of Somerville College, Oxford.
Under her indomitable leadership, the settlement pioneered ground-breaking activities. She started the Play Centre movement in England, providing care and activities for children after school and in the holidays. By 1902, more than 1,200 children were attending sessions at the centre. Sixteen years later, attendance at London play centres totalled 1.7 million.
Equally importantly, Mrs Ward established the first school for physically handicapped children in England at the settlement in 1899. This offered lessons, physical therapy and meals.
More generally, the settlement enabled ordinary people to pursue intellectual interests and practical skills. It also gave them the opportunity to be part of a social and community network that included music, debating and chess societies, and self-help groups such as savings clubs for shoes and coal, and mothers and toddlers clubs.
There was also a poor man's lawyering service, retraining facilities for the unemployed and domestic economy classes for wives.
Mary Ward believed in seeking knowledge and experience for its own sake, so concerts and music played an important part in the settlement. Gustav von Holst, composer of The Planets, was the centre's musical director for a time and George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and Keir Hardie lectured there.
In 1950 the centre closed its doors to residents, and in the early 1980s it moved to the present quarters at 42 Queen Square on the borders of Holborn and Bloomsbury.
A warren of computer rooms, classrooms and art and craft studios are crammed into two adjoined, formerly domestic houses dating back to the 1730s. Today the centre's work continues to be shaped by its founder's ideals. Patrick Freestone, its principal and warden for the past 17 years, says that the settlement's roots can justify it taking part in social action in the community, all-inclusive learning and widening participation.
The centre also continues, Mr Freestone says, to embrace the notion that "in an age when everything is mechanistic and functional, the study of useless knowledge is a good thing".
The college, he adds, prides itself on being large enough to run an interesting, varied programme, but small enough to offer a personal, friendly and unpretentious service.
In the past the centre has offered rather eclectic courses on, for example, anarchism to tai chi.
Nowadays, offering everything from art to acupuncture, confidence-building to creative writing, the centres's strengths include computer education, personal development and alternative approaches to health. There is a flourishing over-60s club and the college works with the homeless. It has also, in the past, worked with ex-offenders.
One of four specially designated institutions in London - the others being the City Literary Institute, the Working Men's College and Morley College - the centre is a charity and company limited by guarantee. It caters for 7,000 students a year, has 16,000 enrolments, 160 part-time and 30 full-time staff. Twenty per cent of its students are from ethnic minorities.
The settlement, which includes the Mary Ward Legal Centre - with a staff of 12 offering legal advice to those on low incomes - has an income of pound;3 million, and the college has one of pound;2.3m. Most of the centre's classes are oversubscribed and have long waiting lists.
Around a fifth of its students come from Camden, some 50 per cent from the arc of boroughs surrounding Camden and the remainder from further afield.
"We are very good at ensuring the stuff we do is accessible at different times of the day, at different times of the week and in different formats," Mr Freestone said.
The college, he says, prides itself on being unstuffy and informal. A recent visit by the Adult Learning Inspectorate rated 83 per cent of its classes good or excellent, and described its management and leadership as outstanding.