The Life of Arnold Freeman: Philosopher, Teacher and Social Reformer

Arnold Freeman

reflections on the occasion of the publication of his biography

Sheffield has a very interesting social history enriched by people like:

G.J. Holyoake – Owenite missionary

Joseph Mather – ale house poet

Ebenezer Elliott – corn laws rhymer

Joseph and Winifred Gales – publishers of the Sheffield Register

James Montgomery – Sheffield Register

Edward Carpenter – socialist

and of course, Arnold Freeman – socialist

All of these people were educationalists, adult education then as now was very much needed. These people were in their various ways imaginative and sympathetic social teachers.

Arnold Freeman was a complex person, drawn to spiritual, esoteric, occult interests. In the early days of the 20th century, such interests were quite common, and many famous people took an almost obsessive interest in such things, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind.

Freeman studied these subjects throughout his life and became interested in anthroposophy and was influenced by the works of Rudolf Steiner. This has to be acknowledged. His Christianity became less mainstream as he grew older, he caught the authentic message which shines out in the Jesus stories in the Gospels and he stated in the Settlement letterhead:

“By the Kingdom of God we mean streets along which it is a pleasure to walk; homes worthy of those who live in them; workplaces in which people enjoy working; public-houses that are centres of social and educational life; kinemas that show elevating films; schools that would win the approval of Plato; churches made up of men and women indifferent to their own salvation; an environment in which people “may have life and have it abundantly”. By “Education” we mean everything by means of which people may become more spiritual; everything that enriches human beings, with That which described in three words is Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and described in one word as GOD.”

Above all, Freeman was a humanitarian. It was this deep empathy, care for all people which was his driving force. It was this which made him a socialist. He read everything that was written by George Bernard Shaw and admired him. This led to much correspondence between the two men, and they met socially.

They disagreed on some things, but it was Shaw’s fierce independence of mind which won Freeman’s admiration. In 1945 the Shaw Society was founded at the Settlement in Sheffield.

In 1909 Freeman began to work for Sidney and Beatrice Webb on Poor Law Reform. Beatrice Webb had written the Minority Report for the Break Up of the Poor Law and published The Prevention of Destitution in 1911. She was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law from 1905 to 1909. In the spring term of 1910 Freeman acted as assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics, helping Sidney run the seminar known as Seasonal Trades. In the preface to the published volume on these seminars, Sidney Webb wrote that it was ‘his assistant Arnold Freeman’ who was responsible for putting the book together. This led to a long association with the Webbs.

Freeman studied economics at St John’s College, Oxford. At the end of January 1909 he was asked by the committee of the Oxford Branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) to become their prospective parliamentary candidate for the City of Oxford. He decided against this, but in 1924 he stood as the Labour candidate for Sheffield Hallam, coming second.

Freeman also had strong links with Ruskin College.

Central to Freeman’s vision was education for people who were deprived of the opportunities to develop their potential. For this reason he spent most of his life as tutor for the Workers Educational Association (WEA). He was a researcher and writer, and before he was appointed as the Warden of the Sheffield Educational Settlement The Equipment of the Workers and Education Through Settlements had already been published.

As Warden of the Sheffield Educational Settlement, Arnold Freeman will be best remembered as the director of many plays at the Little Theatre, Shipton Street. All that goes together to put on a play becomes a great act of education. People work together as a team, creatively making the set, learning and understanding the story, rehearsing and presenting. Arnold Freeman held it all together and chose some wonderful plays.

I recommend this fine biography by Kenneth Gibson.

Steve Thompson, May 2023

Sheffield Educational Settlement

from the University of Sheffield

Sheffield Settlement Papers

The Settlement, in Shipton Street, Upperthorpe, Sheffield, was founded by the YMCA in 1918 (it opened the following year) under the Wardenship of Arnold Freeman. It succeeded an existing Neighbour Guild Settlement there which had developed financial problems. The Council of the YMCA in turn became concerned about debts accumulating under Freeman’s ambitious Wardenship, and dissociated itself from the venture in April 1921, at which point Freeman was able to proceed with his educational plans. Having a Council of some forty members, not all of whom were active, but including respected local figures such as the Bishop of Sheffield and the Vice-Chancellor of the University, and nationally-known people such as Edward Carpenter and Arnold Rowntree (member of the noted Quaker Family and President of the Educational Settlements Association), its declared and ambitious Object was “to establish in the City of Sheffield the Kingdom of God”. The Method of achieving this was “Education”. The definition of “the Kingdom of God” was spelled out in the Settlement letterhead:

“By the Kingdom of God we mean streets along which it is a pleasure to walk; homes worthy of those who live in them; workplaces in which people enjoy working; public-houses that are centres of social and educational life; kinemas that show elevating films; schools that would win the approval of Plato; churches made up of men and women indifferent to their own salvation; an environment in which people “may have life and have it abundantly”. By “Education” we mean everything by means of which people may become more spritual; everything that enriches human beings, with That which described in three words is Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and described in one word as GOD.”

The story of the Sheffield Educational Settlement belongs with the history of the University Settlement Movement. Some Settlements had more formal university links, but all sought to bring education, improvement and hope to the lives of the poor and socially disadvantaged in the decades before the development of the Welfare State following the Second World War. The early decades of the Sheffield Settlement coincided with the serious hardship of the post-First World War era, typified by the Depression and mass unemployment.

The success of the Sheffield Settlement was due in large measure to the idealism and energy of its founder and Warden. Freeman came from a strongly middle-class background with a tradition of self-help, the family being non-conformist in religion and involved in the import of tobacco and the manufacture of cigars. They lived in the Hoxton area of London, though moving house at various times. Arnold’s brothers and sisters were all gifted and became successful in business or the professions (his brother Ralph for example became consultant engineer for the Sydney Harbour Bridge; another, Peter, became a Labour M.P.). He and his brothers attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s School from where, in 1905, Arnold went up to St. John’s College, Oxford, where his senior tutor described him as “an ardent socialist, keen and capable”, and where he joined the Fabian Society. He was from an early age a vegetarian, and was familiar with social work as a member of Highbury Quadrant Congregationalist Church. Just before his advent into the Sheffield Settlement he and his sister Daisy spent a year at the Quaker Settlement in Woodbrooke, Birmingham. After this he began lecturing for the Universities of Sheffield, London and Oxford, doing extra-mural work in Tutorial classes. He also began lecturing for the Workers’ Educational Association. In Sheffield these activities involved travelling out to mining areas in South Yorkshire. His subjects were initially History and Economic History, broadening into a concern with human nature and the higher life of mankind expressed in Literature, Art and Philosophy.

Around 1922 Freeman became an adherent of the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and of the principles of Anthroposophy, convictions which led to some conflict with certain members of the Settlement’s Council. Freeman always insisted on the paramountcy of achieving spiritual values through education.

Freeman himself came to Sheffield as a consequence of his employment by the University as a tutor, and members of the University’s staff played a significant role in the lectures which formed a major part of the work of the Settlement, although the Settlement was not formally associated with the University. Other activities included recreation: courses of handicrafts, rambles and camping expeditions. One principal method of achieving the foundation’s purposes was to involve the membership in the performance of plays, and the Settlement’s Little Theatre put on a great variety of productions by the best serious dramatists, with some of whom Freeman corresponded. He never compromised over the quality of the work selected for presentation. Several notable local people, including industrialists, supported the work with donations, and a number of people later active in the public life of the city were associated with the Settlement.

The Settlement played a part in the area’s Second World War pacifist movement, although Freeman, who was a conscientious objector in the First World War, and stood in 1923 as a Labour Parliamentary candidate in the unwinnable Hallam constituency, always argued strongly against Marxism.

Following Freeman’s retirement in 1955 at the age of 69 the Wardenship passed to Christopher Boulton, an anthroposophist and lover of theatre. Up to the summer of 1961 Boulton produced some 20 plays, including his own play “The Doctor”, in some of which he also acted, whilst continuing to teach a course on anthroposophy and arranging lectures on other subjects such as astronomy and Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. But the end of the Shipton Street Settlement, whose work had to an extent been superseded by the post-war growth of state education and improvements in social conditions, was predicted in 1960 with the announcement of a road-widening scheme. Boulton continued as Warden until the summer of 1961, when he was succeeded, for some two or three years, by Sam Davidson. At the suggestion of Arnold Freeman the next, and last, Warden was Tim Martys; but after about a year the property, now becoming increasingly run-down, was finally demolished, and the Settlement, along with its Little Theatre, vanished. Its tradition was not entirely lost: Christopher Boulton had previously purchased a house in Meadowbank Road, Nether Edge, where he founded a Rudolf Steiner Settlement, and where the Merlin Theatre and the Arnold Freeman Hall continue to flourish. The Sheffield Repertory Company also had its origins in the plays presented by its members at the Little Theatre before they decided in 1923 to become independent of the Settlement.

The extensive collection of documents in the collection came to the University Library following its rescue from the redevelopment site, a procedure in which John Roberts, who made use of it in writing his dissertation on the history of the Settlement, played a part. Regrettably, Roberts notes that by the time of the rescue many of the records, particularly from the 1930s and early 1940s, had been badly damaged by rodents and were thus no longer available.

Accounts of the Settlement and of Freeman’s work, on which these notes are based, are to be found in John Roberts’ dissertation “The Sheffield Educational Settlement, 1918-1955” (1961), which incorporates a number of the original archive documents as illustrative material; Winifred Albaya’s “Through the green door” [1981]; Grace Hoy’s “Inwardly limitless: 19th century reformers, the University Settlement Movement and education by magic at the Sheffield Educational Settlement under Arnold Freeman” [1989?]; and “The Sheffield Educational Settlement: notes on its later history and the Wardenship of Christopher Francis Boulton, 1955-1961” by Janet Swannack (1998).

The University of Sheffield

Sheffield Educational Settlement Papers

Personal Notes


Biography 2023

The Life of Arnold Freeman

Philosopher, Teacher and Social Reformer
By Kenneth Gibson
with a Preface by Aonghus Gordon, OBE


Preface by Aonghus Gordon, OBE

Who was Arnold James Freeman?

Chapter One: Early Influences
The Freeman Family
Early Education and Role Models
1904-5, and Preparations for University

Chapter Two: Oxford        
Oxford, Politics and Faith
George Hay Morgan and the 1906 Election Campaign
Literature and Faith
The Keswick Convention
Evangelism, Disillusion and Decision
Friendship and a Full Life

Chapter Three: George Bernard Shaw  
A Shifting Perspective
The Influence of George Bernard Shaw
Tramps, Supermen and Eugenics
Inklings of a Socialist Utopia
George Bernard Shaw on Rudolf Steiner

Chapter Four: Matters of the Heart       
Falling in Love
Winifred Lines
Juliet Stuart Poyntz
Nora White

Chapter Five: Spiritualism and Theosophy     
Seeking the Spirit
The Mesmerising Literature
Julia’s Bureau
A Struggling Soul, Christian Science and Theosophy
The Theosophical Society and Annie Besant

Chapter Six: The Guru      
Finding the Guru
The Making of a Guru and The Great School
The Road to ‘Mastership’
Sean Williams, a Master for an Eager Student
The Anguish of the Threshold
Gaston De Mengel

Chapter Seven: A Working Life  
Sidney and Beatrice Webb
A Trip to Germany
Woodbrooke and Boy Life and Labour

Chapter Eight: The Great War, Writing and Reconstruction
Workers’ Educational Association
World War One
Becoming a Writer
The Evolving Relationship with The Great School
Great Britain After the War
The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction
The Equipment of the Workers
Education Through Settlements

Chapter Nine: Building a New Society   
Rudolf Steiner, The Settlement and Controversy
Competing Visions for Society
The Oxford Conference
The Settlement
The Little Theatre
The 1923 General Election
Facing Hardship
Helen Rootham

Chapter Ten: War, Refugees and Retirement  
The Second World War and The Sheffield Blitz
Supporting Refugees
The Post-War World
Save Europe Now
The Golden Blade

Final Reflections

The Writings and Publications of Arnold James Freeman

Author: Kenneth Gibson