Tuesday, 3 December 2013

History of Social Work in the United Kingdom

In primitive society, sometimes referred as the ‘folk
society’, the larger family or tribe took over the support
of those whose needs were not satisfied in the normal
way. Children deprived of parental support were taken
into the homes of relatives or adopted by childless
couples. Food resources were shared among relatives
and neighbours. In course of time, when the feudal
system gave way to the wage economy, legislation was
enacted to compel the poor to work. Whipping,
imprisonment, and even death punished begging.
Role of the Church
In Europe, in the early Christian era, the folk tradition
continued and the faithful considered it a religious
obligation to care for those members of the group who
could not care for themselves. Religion provided the
greatest motivation for charity. The church, especially
the monasteries, became the centres for distributing
food, medical aid and shelter. Alms were collected in
the parish and distributed by the parish priest and
other clergymen who knew the individuals and their
Welfare Becomes a State Responsibility
The shift from church responsibility to government
responsibility for relief is seen first in the restrictive
legislation forbidding begging and vagrancy. In England
between 1350 and 1530, a series of laws were enacted,
known as the “Statutes of Labourers,” designed to force
the poor to work. The decreasing authority of the
church and the increasing tendency to shift
responsibility to governmental authorities gave rise in
England to a series of measures which culminated in
the famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.
The Elizabethan Poor Law 1601
The Poor Law of 1601 was a codification of the preceding
poor relief legislation. The statute represented the final
form of poor law legislation in England after three
generations of political, religious, and economic
changes that required government action.
The law distinguished three classes of the poor:
1) The able-bodied poor were called “sturdy beggars”
and were forced to work in the house of correction
or workhouse. Those who refused to work in the
house of correction were put in the stocks or in
2) The impotent poor were people unable to work—the
sick, the old, the blind, the deaf-mute, the lame,
the demented and mothers with young children.
They were placed in the almshouse where they
were to help within the limits of their capacities.
If they had a place to live, they were given “outdoor
relief” in the form of food, clothes and fuel.
3) Dependent children were orphans and children who
had been deserted by their parents or whose
parents were so poor that they could not support
them. Children eight years and older able to do
some domestic and other work were indentured
with a townsman.
The Poor Law of 1601 set the pattern of public relief
under governmental responsibility for Great Britain for
300 years. It established the principle that the local
60 Introduction to Social Work
community, namely the parish, had to organize and
finance poor relief for its residents. The overseers of
the poor administered the poor law in the parish. Their
function was to receive the application of the poor
person for relief, to investigate his or her condition,
and to decide whether he or she was eligible for relief.
Influence of The Elizabethan Poor Law
Though there were similar reform plans advocated in
Europe; it is the Poor Law of 1601, sometimes known
as 43 Elizabeth, which was most influential in the
development of public welfare and social work. There
are several important principles in the English Poor
Law, which continue to have a dominating influence
on welfare legislation four centuries later.
1) The principle of the state’s responsibility for relief
is universally adopted and has never been
seriously questioned. It is in tune with democratic
philosophy as well as with the principle of the
separation of church and state.
2) The principle of local responsibility for welfare
enunciated in the Poor Law goes back to 1388 and
is designed to discourage vagrancy. It
stipulates that “sturdy beggars” to return to their
birthplaces and there seek relief.
3) A third principle stipulated differential treatment
of individuals according to categories: the
deserving as against the undeserving poor,
children, the aged, and the sick. This principle
is based on the theory that certain types
of unfortunate people have a grater claim on the
community than other types.
4) The Poor Law also delineated family responsibility
for aiding dependants. Children, grandchildren,
parents, and grandparents were designated as
“legally liable” relatives.
The Elizabethan Poor Law was noteworthy and
progressive when it was enacted. It has served as the
basis for both English and American public welfare.
The Poor Law Revisions: 1834-1909
In 1834 a Parliamentary Commission presented a report
which aimed to revise the Elizabethan and post-
Elizabethan Poor Laws. Upon the basis of the
committee’s report legislation was enacted enunciating
the following principles: (a) doctrine of least eligibility,
(b) re-establishment of the workhouse test, and (c)
centralization of control.
The doctrine of least eligibility meant that the condition
of paupers shall in no case be so eligible as the
condition of persons of the lowest class subsisting on
the fruits of their own industry. In other words, no
person receiving aid was to be as well off. According to
the second principle, the able-bodied poor could apply
for assistance in the public workhouse, but refusal to
accept the lodging and fare of the workhouse debarred
them from qualifying for any aid. Outdoor relief was
reduced to an absolute minimum. As per the third
principle, a central authority consisting of three Poor
Law Commissioners had power to consolidate and coordinate
poor law services throughout the land.
Parishes were no longer to be the administrative units.
Between 1834 and 1909 there were numerous changes
in Poor Law legislation, the cumulative effect of which
was to veer the entire system away from the principles
of 1834. The most important changes were those that
began to develop specialized care for certain
disadvantaged groups. For instance, for dependent
children district schools and foster homes were
provided and for the insane and feeble-minded
specialized institutions were started.
A more positive approach to the poor laws can be seen
in The Poor Law Report of 1909. The report stressed
curative treatment and rehabilitation rather than
repression, and provision for all in the place of the
selective workhouse test. If the principles of 1834
provided a ‘framework of repression’, those of 1909 may
be termed as the ‘framework of prevention’.
The Beveridge Report
In 1942, Sir William Beveridge, chairman of the Inter-
Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and
Allied Services, presented the Committee’s Report to
the government. The report emphasized four major
1) Every citizen to be covered,
2) The major risks of loss of earning power -- sickness,
unemployment, accident, old age, widowhood,
maternity-- to be included in a single insurance,
3) A flat rate of contribution to be paid regardless of
the contributor’s income, and
4) A flat rate of benefit to be paid, also without regard
to income, as a right to all who qualify.
Beveridge emphasized that the underlined social
philosophy of his plan was to secure the British against
want and other social evils. Everyone is entitled to
benefits, which include maternity, sickness,
unemployment, industrial injury, retirement and grant
for widows. The related services are Family Allowances,
National Health Services and National Assistance.
The Beveridge Report of 1942 takes its place as one of
the great documents in English Poor Law history ---
601, 1834, 1909, and 1942. The Report became the
foundation of the modern social welfare legislation for
Beginnings of the COS Movement and Settlement
House Movement
In England, where the problem of competing and
overlapping social services in London had been
increasing over the years, a group of public-spirited
citizens founded in 1869 the London Charity
Organization Society (COS). Octavia Hill and Samuel
Barnett were two of these founders. In her work as
housing reformer, Octavia Hill introduced a system of
“friendly rent collecting” as a method of improving slum
Octavia Hill communicated to the volunteers certain
principles or laws to be followed in their activities,
through weekly meetings and ‘Letters to Fellow
Workers’. She stressed that ‘each case and each
situation must be individualised.’ Everyone must be
treated with respect for his or her privacy and
independence. She advised her workers not to judge
the tenants by their personal standards. She believed
in the value of dignity of even the most degraded of
her tenants.
Samuel Augustus Barnett was the founder of Toynbee
Hall, the first settlement house, in which wealthy
Oxford students “settled” in an attempt to improve living
conditions in the slums of Whitechapel. The basic idea
was to bring the educated in contact with the poor for
their mutual benefit. Realization had dawned on the
Christian Socialists that mere distribution of charity
does not solve problems. In order to better understand
the situation of poverty and underdevelopment, one
needed to live with the poor and listen to their
After outlining the beginnings in England, we shall
now see the growth and spread of the social work

profession in the United States.