Feature: Community building in Notting Hill: online archive for nursery centre

Michael Locke is an independent writer, researcher and adviser, formerly employed by the University of East London, Volunteering England and NCVO. In this blog, Mike reports on a new archive of community history, which covers the ground of his witness seminar to VAHS, and highlights themes of community action and partnership with local authorities.

The history of community action to build a nursery centre in London’s Notting Hill is captured in a website launched in May (www.maxillaarchive.com). It celebrates the life of Maxilla Nursery Centre (1978–2015) through interviews with parents, professional staff and community activists, pictures and archives of reports and press clippings.

This website tells the big story which I featured in my witness seminar ‘A place in a community’ to VAHS in November 2015. My presentation focused on how I got involved in the campaign to create the under-5s services the community needed and then in the management of the centre and governance of the charity. You can listen to the seminar here: http://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/voluntary-action-history/witness-seminar-place-community.

Maxilla Nursery Centre was a trailblazer in combining the traditions of nursery education, social services day care and the playgroup movement and offering year-round, full-day provision for children from babyhood to five years old.

©Barry Wilson

©Barry Wilson

Our campaign to build the centre was founded on members of the local community working in partnerships with the local authorities, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the Inner London Education Authority. As a voluntary organisation we found a mutual interest with local authorities in introducing new provision to meet needs in our community; and we demonstrated that we the community could run a public service.

The strength of our campaign was set against a background of community action in the locality during the 1960s. People had struggled and organised against poverty, racism and housing conditions. They had created Notting Hill Carnival and Notting Hill Housing Trust, as well as initiating the Law Centre, Social Council and Adventure Playground. These actions had developed the political commitment, skills, networks and community organisations – in current terms, the social capital and infrastructure – which our campaign drew on.

During the life of Maxilla the relationships between voluntary organisations and local authorities changed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the local authorities accepted and funded our agenda. ILEA even provided the architect, Barry Wilson, who worked to our voluntary organisation as to a client. But by the 1990s, local authorities saw themselves as setting the agenda and as commissioning services. The voluntary organisation became, in effect, a subcontractor: “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, as a local councillor told us. And when another councillor called Maxilla a “Rolls Royce service”, it was an accusation of extravagance.

By 2006 the voluntary organisation had been defeated by reduced public funding and increased competition for charitable funding and had to back out of Maxilla, ending the provision for children under 3 and its parents centre. That left the nursery school element run by the borough; it became Maxilla Children’s Centre and kept alive parental engagement and support. Finally, last summer, the local authority moved the school out of Maxilla to merge with another nursery school.

The closure of Maxilla generated a celebration of its extraordinary work with parents and children for nearly 40 years. Lisa Nash, a former parent and governor of the nursery school, working with Corner 9 Arts Project achieved funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund – with further support from local funds – to create the archive that is now online.

The closure of Maxilla and the development of the website took me back into history. I dug out of my loft several boxes of committee minutes and reports from 1973 to 1987. With Lisa Nash and with Judy Wilcox – Coordinator of Maxilla Nursery Centre, and previously the Community Worker with the People’s Association who started the campaign and got me involved in 1972–73 – we pieced together events. We matched the records to our memories, finding a few inaccuracies in the memories. Lisa and her volunteer team recorded and filmed interviews for the archive. In an essay in the archive I reflect on how pragmatism came through more strongly than radicalism – perhaps more so for having been re-reading committee minutes from over 30 years ago.

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Feature: Charity in the Georgian Era: Lessons for Today?

Andrew Rudd is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter and has previously worked as the Parliamentary Manager at the Charity Commission. In this blog, he reflects on the lessons learned by researching the history of 18th-century charity.

What can the history of charity in the eighteenth century teach us today? This was the question I asked myself when I started working on my latest research project, a cultural history of charity as it is depicted in the literature and art of the Georgian period (1714–1830). And it was a personal question, because before I became a lecturer at the University of Exeter I worked as Parliamentary Manager at the Charity Commission, which oversaw the activities of the 160,000 charities in England and Wales day in, day out.

Looking at the mass of visual and printed material produced on the subject of charity during the 1700s, there were clearly resemblances between what people were concerned about then and what we are still debating today. To be sure, there were important differences. For instance, the Georgians had inherited the medieval tradition of almsgiving which the Henrician Reformation and subsequent Elizabethan legislation had effectively secularised.

The ‘New Poor Law’ (officially the Poor Law Amendment Act) of 1834 was designed to make provision for the poor fairer for society as a whole, although it was regularly accused of inflicting inhuman cruelty, as the novels of Charles Dickens and others were at pains to show. This system, which was intended to clear away the detritus of ages and which arguably paved the way for the modern welfare state, has caused us to forget the Georgian idea of charity which was much more ad hoc and more dependent on the generosity of private individuals.

With recent attempts to put charities back at the heart of service delivery and questions being asked once again about unevenness of provision and even the whims of individual benefactors, it is timely to revisit the Georgian system and establish exactly what characterised it and what lessons we can learn from it. The Voluntary Action History Society kindly invited me to present some of my early findings in December 2015 and the presentation benefitted from a thought-provoking discussion afterwards.

The gist of the presentation was as follows. I was struck by figures showing that charity plays more of a role in people’s lives today than ten years ago (40% of people in 2014 said that they, a friend or family member had had contact with a charity, compared to 10% in 2005) and that debates over the pros and cons of charity have reignited.

In the eighteenth century, people were divided about whether the upsurge of charitable activity was evidence of nationwide benevolence or the social fabric coming apart. The novelist Samuel Jackson Pratt regarded Britain’s charitable institutions such as the Foundling Hospital in London as the glory of the age. Dorothy and William Wordsworth, on the other hand, lamented the growing numbers of injured soldiers and sailors who were victims of the period’s almost continuous foreign wars.

The question of the psychology that lay behind acts of charity was also at the fore. Eighteenth-century novelists were fascinated by characters who performed good deeds because they wished to be seen doing so (Georgian virtue-signalling). Secret acts of charity, on the other hand, were a sign of incontestable virtue.George_Morland_-_The_Squire's_Door_-_Google_Art_Project

Writing in 1797, the reformer Joseph Townsend wrote ‘it is generally found, that modest worth stands at a distance, or draws nigh with faltering tongue and broken accents to tell an artless tale; whilst the most worthless are the most unreasonable in their expectations, and the most importunate in their solicitation for relief’. This reminds us that self-representation of those seeking charity is often regarded as suspect and givers are prone to be on guard against possible fraud.

William Wordsworth agonised over the difficulty of writing about personal deeds that, by their very nature, ought not to be displayed in public. In one of his best-known poems, ‘Lines written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798), he described the ‘best portion of a good man’s life’ as ‘his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love’. Publicly feted acts of charity, such as those celebrated by Pratt, were from a moral perspective a contradiction in terms.

And yet, did any of that matter if money was raised and good work done as a result? One of the most compelling recurring features of the debate is the claim that charities somehow become less charitable the larger and more vocal they become. We see this in newspaper reports today about charities being too large or using aggressive fundraising techniques. Equally, charities that receive public money are accused of being too close to the state, an echo of Wordsworth’s view that true charity ought to be a wholly personal and not an official matter.

The Georgian era teaches us, finally, that despite repeated warnings not to give money to beggars in the street, for many the face-to-face, individual encounter remains at the mystical heart of what true charity means. Charity publicity tries to reproduce the effect in posters showing the faces of needy recipients whom the giver can imagine they are helping personally. The age of sensibility when the mental dynamics of sympathy and compassion were forged lies at the root at this enduring aspect of modern charity.

As my project progresses I hope to share more of my work with VAHS, but you can listen to the seminar from 14 December 2015 here.

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Celebrating 25 years of studying the history of voluntary action: VAHS’s Conference 2016

Colin Rochester first published the following blog detailing next year’s conference on HistPhil.org, a web publication  on the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, with a particular emphasis on how history can shed light on contemporary philanthropic issues and practice.

In the summer of 1991 three people who conducted research on the UK voluntary sector and volunteering as well as working in voluntary organisations met at the Coach and Horses, a well-known public house in London’s Soho. After spending months complaining among themselves about the ignorance and lack of interest of people who worked in the sector when it came to the history of the organisations for which they worked – let alone of voluntary action more generally – they decided to do something about. What they did was what many people had done before them and many others would do after them; they set up a voluntary organisation to address the issue.

The need was summarised by one of the founders:

People who work in and with voluntary organisations and those who study them are remarkably insouciant about the history of voluntary action. Individual organisations are careless of their archives consigning their records to damp cellars or carting them off to land fill in skips. If they do show some interest in their past this takes the form of ‘cherry-picking’ their history to provide selected images, incidents and personalities with which to add sparkle to their promotional and fund-raising materials rather than a serious attempt to understand the concerns and the external forces that shaped both their founding mission and the ways in which it has been adapted to changing circumstances. From a wider perspective, the debates about social and public policy and the growing role to be played in it by voluntary agencies have been curiously deracinated. As a result the discussion has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has formed today’s institutions and relationships while any lessons from the past have been left unlearned. (Rochester, 2013; 15)

In its attempts to challenge the sector’s indifference to its own history the Voluntary Action History Society (or VAHS) has run a great many seminars, organised five international conferences and published two books of essays in an attempt to ensure that the activities of those making policy that impinges on voluntary action and those working in and with voluntary organisations are informed by what has gone before.

Today, nearly twenty-five years since its foundation, VAHS continues to promote the study of the history of charity, philanthropy, mutual aid, volunteering and voluntary organisations and has a healthy membership which combines academics and voluntary sector practitioners. In July 2016 it plans to celebrate its silver jubilee year by organising its 6th international conference on the history of voluntary action. This will take place at the University of Liverpool from 13th-15th July.

The theme of the conference is THINKING ABOUT THE PAST, THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE It will feature papers which are accessible to a broad audience of practitioners, activists, amateurs and academics and provide insights into the development of voluntary action history in the past twenty-five years and address the challenges it faces in the future.

Within that framework there will be a great deal of diversity. We are looking for papers that:

  • approach voluntary action history from a variety of perspectives – local, national and international or transnational;
  • explore subjects in a range of time periods, from the Middle Ages (or earlier) to the near-history of the twenty-first century; and
  • are based on different methodologies, both traditional and innovative.

And we expect to receive proposals that focus on very different topics. These may include new research on time-honoured themes like philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help; the moving frontier between state and voluntary action; social justice and social change; and organisational development and management. Or they will address comparatively neglected areas of voluntary action history such as bad behaviour and the dark side of volunteering and voluntary organisation or the historical role of voluntary action in leisure activities and expressive behaviours. And we also expect contributions on teaching voluntary action history and issues of preservation and access associated with archival research.

We also welcome contributions from ‘new researchers’ – graduate students, postdoctoral researchers (within 3 years of degree) or unpublished independent researchers – and will be offering a prize for the best paper submitted by people in this category.

This rich and varied diet of papers will provide the main core of the conference activities but it will be supplemented by other activities. These include a plenary session addressed by a prominent speaker (details yet to be confirmed); visits and tours to local places of interest to the history of voluntarism; a conference dinner; a quiz; and other opportunities for social and convivial interaction. We will even have the Society’s house band – Home Brew – to provide its own brand of good time jazz.

If you are interested in taking part in the conference or want further information about it please contact the VAHS Chair, Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

If you would like to propose a paper, please submit an abstract of around 300 words and a brief biography by e-mail to Meta no later than 31 December 2015.

We will be happy to consider proposals for panels of up to four papers on a similar subject, although if this is your intention, please submit an abstract for each of the proposed papers.

If you have any queries or if you wish to discuss a proposed paper’s suitability, please e-mail Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

Booking will open once the programme is finalised. Please note that all speakers must register for the conference.

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Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid

Aid practitioners, archivists, and academics recently came together in Canada to explore how the history of humanitarian aid is researched, collected, and taught.  Will Tait, a PhD candidate at the University of Carleton, shares his thoughts on the event and its outcomes.

The Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid took place on 30 May 2015 at Carleton University in Ottawa.  The event built on a workshop held last year where historians  from across Canada, archivists from Library and Archives Canada and Carleton University Archives, a well as humanitarian practitioners from Partnership Africa Canada, Oxfam, and MATCH International Women’s Fund met to welcome Dr Kevin O’Sullivan from the National University of Ireland.  Kevin was a catalyst for the first workshop in 2014 when he travelled to Canada to conduct research.  In his latest book O’Sullivan has likened Irish and Canadian use of soft power through aid and development1.  Under the organisation of Dominique Marshall, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Carleton and former President of the Canadian Historical Association, a website was created after the 2014 meeting to link a growing online collaboration of aid practitioners, archivists, and academics interested in preserving the history of humanitarian action both in Canada and elsewhere.  O’Sullivan returned to Carleton this year to brief the workshop and members of the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNHH) on developments in the field and to continue to expand collaboration with European partners.

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

The themes of the 2015 workshop concentrated on approaches to researching, collecting, and teaching the history of humanitarian aid.  The event coincided with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2015 which was held at the University of Ottawa.  The number of humanitarian historians presenting at Congress was indicative of the growing interest in the field.  Several members of the network spoke about their research at Congress.  Sarah Glassford, Shirley Tillotson, and I took part in the ‘Public, Private, Political: Charitable Organizations and Citizen Engagement’ Roundtable, while Stephanie Bangarth and Jill Campbell-Miller headed the roundtable on ‘Capitals and Peripheries: Historical Perspectives on International Development’.  Dominique Marshall gave her Presidential Address on the ‘Dessins d’enfants et aide humanitaire: expressions et expositions transnationales’.  See here for for more information about the presentations.

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

A key theme of the workshop was developing a framework for pairing researchers and graduate students with interested NGOs such as Oxfam Canada, MATCH, and the African Canada Partnership to examine their own histories.  Sarah Glassford of the University of Price Edward Island reported on her longstanding relationship with the Canadian Red Cross and her role as a professional historian in her own right and volunteer archivist for the organisation.  Sarah’s work with the Red Cross encouraged discussion about the need for trust to be established between researchers and NGOs, while at the same time preserving critical analysis of aid practices and institutions.  This discussion prompted us to consider developing a  ‘toolkit’ to guide researchers and NGOs in building collaborative relationships.  This toolkit will focus on respect between researchers and their partnered aid organisations and methods for NGOs to archive and collect their histories in order to empower these groups.  The toolkit will also show how NGOs can create a space for students and academics to access material and showcase research.

Historian Kevin O'Sullivan

Historian Kevin O’Sullivan

This final component of the proposed toolkit was an element in plans for the new website for the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History which was launched in July 2015.  The website is a platform for knowledge mobilisation, displaying the value of humanitarian histories for both researchers and aid agencies.  The site encourages sharing of methodologies and information for syllabi, teaching resources, and material for workshops.  The hope is to develop modules for the sharing of ideas for university courses and to cultivate discussion between academia, archives, and practitioners of aid.

For more information on the Canadian Network for Humanitarian History please join us here or contact Dominique Marshall at dominique_marshall@carleton.ca.

1. Kevin O’Sullivan, Ireland, Africa and the End of Empire: Small State Identity in the Cold War 1955-75 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).
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Critical Thinking About Voluntary Action and Its History

In this month’s blog post, Colin Rochester introduces a journal which will take the study of voluntary action in a new direction.

A group of academics and practitioners –and some who combine both roles– have decided to do something about their growing dissatisfaction with the current state of voluntary sector studies.  In the hope of developing ‘a different narrative of voluntary action’ they have launched a new journal to be called Critical Studies in Voluntary Action.  The journal will be published online twice a year and the first issue is planned for the Autumn of 2015.

The ‘Mainstream’ View of Voluntary Sector Studies

Our discontent with the way voluntary action is studied and presented has three main components:

  • In the first place most current research tends to focus unduly on just one type of voluntary organisation –the bureaucratically organised and professionally managed agencies which concentrate on delivering various kinds of social welfare services.  The challenges of governance and management they encounter are not fundamentally different from those experienced by public sector agencies and for-profit businesses and the standard wisdom of mainstream organisational theory and the management techniques taught in business schools can be used to address them.  Very little attention is given to non-bureaucratic organisational models and to other functions such as campaigning and advocacy, self-help, or community action.
  • Secondly, volunteering is also studied from a similarly restricted perspective.  Volunteers are viewed as unpaid workers who provide additional human resources for professionally run service delivery organisations.  They need to be managed in ways which are very similar to the standard approach to managing paid employees.  There is hardly any serious interest in the much larger numbers of ‘unmanaged’ volunteers and the variety of roles they play.
  • And, finally, scholars of voluntary sector studies work within a set of assumptions about the object of their area of study and the place voluntary action has in the wider social and political environment.  While lip service is given to the huge variety of organisations and activities involved in the field, the idea of a voluntary (or third) sector complete with an ‘infrastructure’ and ‘leaders’ is taken as read and more often than not equated with the organisations that employ staff to provide services.  And the relationship of this sector with government is seen in terms of partnership –the underlying assumption is that working with government is inevitable and that government’s aims and aspirations are compatible with those of voluntary organisations.

Towards a Different Narrative of Voluntary Action

Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will encourage and help to develop an alternative account of voluntary action that: 

  • embraces a much wider range of voluntary and community activity than the work of professionally-led and bureaucratically organised voluntary agencies whose main function is to work with government on the delivery of public services.  We are just as interested in mutual aid groups; advocacy and campaigning organisations; informal and non-bureaucratic collective action, and other kinds of civil society organisations.  And the journal will feature research on activities in the worlds of leisure, recreation and the arts, community development, and the natural and built environments.
  • involves a more critical approach to discussing the role and significance of voluntary organisations and volunteering in our society and, more specifically, questions the twin assumptions of much current research and writing that voluntary organisations are natural partners of government and that the key questions are about how they can make themselves more efficient in the delivery of services; and
  • challenges the infiltration of the culture and behaviours of the market into the non-market parts of our society and reasserts the idea that voluntary action embodies/expresses important and distinctive values that are not compatible with a market society.

A Call to Historians

One explanation for the widespread acceptance of the assumptions underpinning the ‘mainstream’ view of voluntary sector studies is the ignorance of those who work in voluntary organisations and those who study them of their history.  The Voluntary Action History Society was founded more then twenty years ago with the express aim of addressing a widespread lack of interest and understanding of the roots and historical development of voluntary organisations and volunteering.  As I commented in a paper given to a VAHS seminar a year ago ‘discussion of the growing role to be played by voluntary agencies in the public and social policy arena has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has shaped today’s institutions and relationships and any lessons from the past have been left unlearned’.

In that paper I argued that the accounts we had of the history of voluntary action were incomplete and only provided part of the story and that we needed to develop a more inclusive and comprehensive view of the roots of voluntary action and the development of its activities, institutions, and role in the wider society.  Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will provide a home for contributions to that development and I hope very much that we will receive proposals for articles that will, among other things, explore the history of voluntary action as the pursuit of social change and social justice –often in opposition to governments– and as the vehicle for conviviality and expressive behaviour rather than as the practice of philanthropy and mutual aid.

Contributions and Further Information

We are looking for contributions written in clear, accessible English of two kinds:

  •  Full-length articles based on research and making a contribution to the development of critical theory of up to 8000 words.  These will be subject to peer review before publication.
  • Shorter articles of up to 2-3000 words in the form of ‘think-pieces’ or ‘research notes’.  These will be published at the discretion of the editorial board.

We are also looking for volunteers to act as peer reviewers.

Contributions, proposals for articles, offers to review submissions, and requests for further information should be sent to the Editorial Board’s convenor, Colin Rochester, at colin@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk.



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