Feature: Philanthropy and the City of London

Rhodri Davies leads the Giving Thought policy programme at the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).  He has just finished writing a book on the role of philanthropy in UK society from a historical and modern perspective, which is due to be published next year.  In this blog post he uncovers the historical trends behind the present culture of philanthropy in the City of London.

I recently completed research for a book on the role of philanthropy in UK society and also gave a couple of talks focusing on the history of philanthropy in the City of London, which has led me to think about the factors that shape philanthropy in our country and the particular role the City has played.  This made me realise that the City offers a fascinating microcosm within the broader history of philanthropy and can tell us a great deal about how philanthropy has evolved.

One of the key themes underpinning philanthropy is wealth.  The nature of wealth and attitudes toward it within society play a vital role in determining the scale and scope of philanthropy at any given point in time.  An important aspect of this is the balance between inherited and created wealth.  There has been a long-term shift in this country from the latter to the former, which has accelerated during periods of significant wealth creation (such as the rise of the Tudor merchant class or the Victorian age of the great industrialists).  The last two decades have seen a particularly marked shift towards created wealth.  When the Sunday Times Rich List was first published in 1989, over half of the people on it came from inherited wealth, but in the 2014 list the pendulum had swung the other way and more that eighty percent of those on the list were now self-made wealthy.

The City is obviously all about creating wealth, and is immensely successful at doing so.  But we should not assume that this automatically translates into a thriving culture of philanthropy.  The rise in profile and influence of the City since ‘Big Bang’ deregulation in 1986 has not been accompanied by the sort of blossoming of philanthropy that accompanied previous periods of major growth in the City.  Wealth creation, then, is at best a necessary condition for philanthropy rather than a sufficient one, which means that there must be additional factors which determine whether wealth creation leads to widespread giving.

Religion and social status played large roles in the history of philanthropy in the City. The London Charity-School Children in St. Paul's Cathedral (1789).

Religion and social status played large roles in the history of philanthropy in the City. The London Charity-School Children in St. Paul’s Cathedral (1789).

What are these factors?  There are a number we can identify, which although not exhaustive, give a good idea of why the present culture of philanthropy might have failed to live up to its historical precedents.  One obvious factor is religion.  This has always played an important role in philanthropy, not only in terms of direct giving to religious causes but also as a broader motivating force for giving to secular causes.  This remains true today; according to CAF’s UK Giving annual survey, religion is still the cause that receives the highest proportion of donations by value in the UK (although it is not the actually the most popular in terms of number of donations).  However, even if religion remains an important factor, its prevalence in society is nothing like it was in Tudor or Victorian times, when the charitable culture of the City was arguably at its strongest.  There is not the same universal compulsion to give that was felt by those who lived in times when religion was a backdrop to every aspect of life.

Another factor is social status.  In both the Tudor and Victorian eras, philanthropy was an important tool to cement status for those who had created wealth in a society that was still largely dominated by inherited wealth.  Although many would argue that a desire for social status is still a major part of philanthropy, the changing nature of class structures in the UK and the availability of other means for climbing the social ladder has undoubtedly lessened the importance of giving as a way of purchasing social standing.

But perhaps the most interesting factor affecting philanthropy when it comes to the City is awareness of need.  Whilst financial success creates a supply side for philanthropy, there is only a demand side if people have a reason to think about giving.  And in the past the most important pull factor (in London at least) was simply that the grinding poverty in which many of the capital’s inhabitants lived was inescapable.  Even the very wealthy could not fail to be aware of the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves, because the sheer scale of poverty and deprivation was right there in front of them every time they walked out their front door.

This acute awareness of suffering is a key factor in the origin stories of many of our most famous City philanthropists.  The former sea captain Thomas Coram, for instance, who latterly worked in the City and became famous for his role in the founding of the Foundling Hospital, was reportedly driven to act when he was on his way to work one day and he saw a young mother literally in the act of abandoning her child in the street.  He decided then that he could no longer ignore the problem and dedicated the rest of his life to helping abandoned children.

Thomas Coram reportedly established the Foundling Hospital after witnessing the abandonment of an infant

Thomas Coram reportedly established the Foundling Hospital after witnessing the abandonment of an infant

Of course, if most City workers today saw the same thing I don’t doubt for a second that their response would be similar to that of Coram.  The difference is that they are often never faced with this kind of evidence of the suffering of others.  City workers usually live in wealthy areas of London, or in commuter suburbs; they travel to work, work long hours, and travel back again, all without ever seeing the other side of life in London  that is the reality for many people living in the capital.  Evidence from the United States clearly shows that when wealthy people live in areas that are not economically diverse, they are less likely to give to charity.  Intriguingly, all that it takes to overcome this problem under experimental conditions is to show these wealthy people a short video on child poverty.  And in a real world setting, as Professor Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley explains, ‘simply seeing someone in need at the grocery storeor looking down the street at a neighbor’s modest housecan serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people… Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more1.

People who are trying to nurture a culture of philanthropy in the City are well aware of this ‘seeing is believing’ phenomenon.  Many corporate programmes that seek to engage employees with charitable giving start by taking them to visit the work of charities or community groups in the local area to understand the problems they are addressing and the challenges they face.  This is often very successful at establishing the initial link with a cause that is the prerequisite of long-term giving.

I don’t hold much truck with those who yearn after the ‘golden ages’ of philanthropy of the Victorian and Tudor eras.  There are many factors that drove their philanthropy that we cannot replicate today, and many that we would not want to even if we could.  However, the example of the City shows that there is plenty we can learn from looking at the history of philanthropy, both in terms of things we can do to encourage giving and the pitfalls to avoid, as long as we interpret them from a modern context.  There are many aspects of philanthropy policy and practice that would benefit greatly from such a dose of historical perspective.

1.  Ben Gose and Emily Gipple, ‘Rich Enclaves Are Not as Generous as the Wealthy Living Elsewhere’, Chronicle of Philanthropy, 19 August 2012.
Posted in Features, Rhodri Davies, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Feature: Stop the Spread- The Disasters Emergency Committee, Ebola, and Humanitarian Fundraising in Britain

Andrew Jones is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham.  His research examines the rise of modern humanitarian organisations in Britain, with a focus on those agencies connected to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).  Originally set up in the 1960s, the DEC has recently been in the news for its ongoing Ebola outbreak appeal.

For humanitarians, 2014 has been a year of crises which have stretched the international aid system to ‘breaking point.  Now, leading British aid agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children have once again jointly mobilised to respond to a global emergency under the umbrella of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).  The DEC is a familiar actor in Britain as it coordinates the fundraising of thirteen humanitarian organisations for large-scale disasters.  It does so primarily through making joint appeals on television for public donations to support relief work.  Originally set up in the 1960s, the DEC has made over sixty such appeals to the public in the decades since then.  However, its current appeal appears very different to anything that has come before, calling for funds to tackle the ongoing Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.

DEC Ebola Crisis Appeal

DEC Ebola Crisis Appeal, 2014 (http://dec.org.uk/)

As the DEC has repeatedly stressed, this is the first time that it has launched an appeal for a disease outbreak.  Various media outlets have picked up on this as a newsworthy story in its own right, echoing DEC Chief Executive Saleh Saaed’s remarks that the Ebola appeal is ‘completely unprecedented.  So far these publicity tactics have been effective; at the time of writing, the DEC has raised twelve million pounds in six days.  The emphasis on the appeal as exceptional represents an interesting use of the past.  It also suggests that now may be a timely moment to reflect back on the history of the DEC.  Of course, presenting a systematic historical evaluation of the DEC is well beyond the confines of a blog post.  What follows is a brief introduction to the DEC and what it suggests about humanitarianism in Britain.

The DEC was set up in 1963 by what were then the ‘big five’ British humanitarian organisations: Christian Aid, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children, and War on Want.  Their coming together was presented as a pragmatic step to enable collaboration, but it was also a response to the new power of television as a medium.  In the early 1960s, individual aid organisations discovered that emergency appeals on television could reach larger audiences, and generate more donations, than previously thought possible.  More money also meant more rivalry and the DEC was devised to dampen competition between its members.  The Committee met after major disasters to pool information and initiate joint action.  All five members had equal authority, with decisions taken by majority vote.  Representatives from government and the media were also invited to observe and contribute.

DEC Tsunami Earthquake Appeal

DEC Tsunami Earthquake Appeal. Sky News, January 2005.

Crucially, the DEC was granted exclusive arrangements with the BBC and ITV to air emergency appeals in primetime television slots after major disasters.  This gave its members a unique level of access to television.  British charities were not permitted to purchase advertising on commercial television until the 1990s, while conventional appeals on the BBC were tightly regulated.  These arrangements with the broadcasters continue today, now widened to include Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and a range of corporate partners.  The DEC’s first appeal was in 1966 for an earthquake in Turkey.  This raised £560,000 (about nine million pounds in today’s money) and the Committee has been making regular appeals ever since.

The history of the DEC captures the importance of the mass media, especially television, to the sustained rise of humanitarianism in Britain in recent decades.  It is through the media that society encounters disaster and bears witness to distant suffering.  The most successful DEC fundraising drives have all been launched to capitalise upon widespread public sympathy already created by dramatic news reports of overseas disasters.  These have ranged from Turkey in 1966, to Bangladesh in 1970, Ethiopia in 1973 (and again in 1984), Rwanda in 1994, to the Indian Ocean in 2004, and Haiti in 2010.  In all of these cases, the DEC acted quickly to position itself as a channel for public sympathy and raised massive sums from the public.  The standout example of this remains the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami appeal which raised a remarkable record sum of £392 million.

However, modern aid agencies are also beholden to how the mass media operates —pursuing ratings, roaming quickly from one emergency to the next, drawn to simplistic accounts and negative images of distant suffering.  In the rush to raise money, DEC appeals have often provided a simplistic view of overseas emergencies, presenting them as existing outside of politics and easily solved with more cash.  More recently, the DEC has strived to provide concrete information concerning how its members spend their funds, and the contexts in which they work, to the public.  This contrasts with many early DEC appeals which provided little information of substance to viewers beyond guilt-inducing calls to give money.  Many DEC appeals have relied heavily on graphic images of starving children which have been consistently effective at raising money from the public.  The use of such images has been denounced within the aid community since the 1970s for promoting an unethical view of the world and reinforcing problematic stereotypes.

DEC East African Emergency Appeal

DEC East African Emergency Appeal. The Guardian, June 1980.

The history of the DEC also sheds light on the impressive growth of the humanitarian sector in recent decades and the competition between aid agencies that this has created.  The DEC was set up to dampen rivalry between its five founding members.  It also excluded non-members from the benefits provided by television appeals.  As the British humanitarian industry grew in size and number, the DEC came to be perceived by other organisations as a self-interested ‘cartel’ which refused to open up its membership.  These tensions eventually culminated in an independent review into the Committee, triggered by a problematic appeal for the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  This review examined all aspects of the DEC’s operations and resulted in the barriers to DEC membership being relaxed.  The DEC was also formally established as a non-profit organisation with charitable status at this time. The ‘New DEC’ was officially relaunched in 1997, comprised of fifteen members with an independent Council and more professional evaluation methods.  Despite concerns at the time that the DEC would not survive in a more competitive broadcast environment, the Committee has thrived in the years since.  The DEC is now often lauded as a successful model of collaboration for other charitable sectors to emulate.

Clearly, to understand the development of non-state humanitarianism in Britain requires an understanding of the history of the DEC.  But what does this history tell us about the current Ebola appeal?  For a start, it suggests that despite claims to be ‘unprecedented’, the Ebola campaign is actually quite a conventional DEC appeal.  The Committee has responded to public empathy about Ebola victims whipped up by recent news coverage and has harnessed this for fundraising purposes.  This includes television appeals and press advertisements characterised by evocative language, images of suffering children, and dire warnings of impending catastrophe.  These have been reinforced by inventive campaigns on social media under the hashtag #StopTheSpread.  This approach to fundraising and publicity actually fits quite neatly into a longer history of emergency humanitarianism in Britain.

The DEC takes its own accountability and transparency very seriously.  Any money it raises will undoubtedly be put to life-saving uses by its members.  However, the timing of the appeal also raises questions about why it was not launched earlier.  The Committee has received some criticism for being slow to respond to the epidemic.  This may reflect the reluctance of the broadcasters to agree to an appeal for a disease outbreak.  More likely, it highlights how the DEC and its members are continually one step behind media coverage, rather than out in front.  The Ebola epidemic has been unfolding throughout the year and arguably no non-governmental humanitarian agency has done more than Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to spearhead the international response.  Revealingly, MSF-UK is not a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Andrew Jones
University of Birmingham

For more on the Disasters Emergency Committee, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk/

For more on the DEC Ebola appeal and to donate, visit: http://www.dec.org.uk/appeals/ebola-crisis-appeal

Posted in Andrew Jones, Features | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Crystal Palace Triangle Project: Studying Voluntary and Community Action in Crystal Palace

Colin Rochester was the founding Chair of the Voluntary Action History Society and is a founding partner of the Practical Wisdom R2Z Research Consultants. He has worked in and with the voluntary sector for over forty years.

Why on earth have my colleagues and I at the Practical Wisdom R2Z research consultancy embarked on a study of voluntary and community activity in the Crystal Palace area of South London (for details see our website)? How can we possibly justify adding to the existing piles of largely unread studies of local voluntary action?

There has been no shortage of well-conceived and well-executed local studies since Stephen Hatch carried out his pioneering research on the voluntary sectors in three English towns, which provided the Wolfenden Committee on the Future of Voluntary Organisations with much of the evidence that informed its influential report[1]. Later research has included Tony Marshall’s ambitious series of Local Voluntary Action Surveys for the Home Office in the 1990s[2]; Konrad Elsdon’s in-depth studies of local organisations[3]; and Andri Soteri-Proctor’s more recent micro mapping of a few adjacent streets[4].

UnknownIt was, however, during the first decade of this century that the production of locality studies boomed and became a minor industry in its own right. Local infrastructure bodies like councils of voluntary vervice -– stimulated by New Labour’s programme of ‘modernising’ the sector – commissioned or produced a steady stream of reports designed to advertise the importance of the local sector by producing statistics to demonstrate its scope and significance. With some honourable exceptions these studies were of poor quality and added little to our understanding of local voluntary action.

While most of these products fell well short of the standards set by Hatch. Marshall, Elsdon and Soteri-Procter, they did share with them a similar aim or purpose. They were designed to provide statistical information about the number of organisations in a given area, the resources they deployed and the activities they carried out. Their purpose was to map and measure local voluntary action.

Unknown-2By contrast our justification for undertaking yet another local study is that we are taking a radically different approach. It is different not only in what it sets out to achieve but also in the methodology we have adopted to enable us to meet our aims.

It is true that we will be developing a working map of voluntary and community activity in Crystal Palace, but this is not the end of our enquiry so much as an important means of working towards it. Our aim is to understand ‘how things work’ – why and how people become involved in voluntary and community activity; how they organise to make it happen; and what factors encouraged or inhibited voluntary action in the area.

Unknown-3And we will explore these questions through in-depth interviews in the manner of Tony Parker or Studs Terkel[5] to present the views of key individuals who are the ‘experts‘ on voluntary and community activity in the area. These will be supplemented by the use of documentary and on-line sources, observation of, and participation in, many of the activities we identify and a series of short ‘vox pop’ interviews with local residents as they go about their everyday activities. And we will maintain a relationship with our interviewees that will help us over time to shape both the conduct of the enquiry and the ways in which we will present our findings.

Finally, the study is also unusual in that it is a voluntary activity in its own right. No one has asked us to do it and nobody has funded it. We are free to explore where our interests take us constrained only by the willingness of our collaborators to travel with us.

So, what we have begun is not so much another step along a well-trodden path but a new and different approach to understanding how voluntary and community activity ‘works’.

[1]Stephen Hatch, Outside the State: Voluntary Organisations in Three English Towns (London: Croom Helm, 1980).

[2]Tony Marshall, Local Voluntary Action Surveys (LOVAS) Research Manual: LOVAS Paper 1 (London: Home Office, 1997).

[3]Konrad Elsdon, Voluntary Organisations: Citizenship, Learning and Change (Leicester: NIACE, 1995).

[4]Andri Soteri-Proctor, Little big societies: micro-mapping of organisations operating below the radar (Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper 71; Birmingham and Southampton: Third Sector Research Centre, 2011).

[5]See Tony Parker, The People of Providence (London: Hutchinson, 1983) and Studs Terkel, Division Street America (New York: Pantheon, 1967).

Posted in Colin Rochester | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Feature: Mental Illness and Childhood Migration: The Bright or Dark Side of Victorian Philanthropy?

Steven J. Taylor is a PhD researcher in the Centre for Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester.  He discusses the challenges of locating —and interpreting— mental illness in charity archives and of assessing the ethics of philanthropic emigration schemes.   

My current research interests sit at the intersection of three important historical topics: childhood, insanity, and philanthropy.  Recently I have attempted to weave these broad themes together in my investigation of a charity that operated from the north west of England during the late nineteenth century.  I am particularly interested in young charity emigrants who had mental illnesses. These youngsters were few in number, but their narratives shed new light on the nature of charitable endeavours for children with mental disabilities between 1870 to 1910.

At the outset it is perhaps wise to comment on medical nomenclature.  ‘Lunacy’ and ‘insanity’ were often catch-all terms for  —as we would refer to them today— a range of mental illnesses and learning disabilities.  Mental illness or lunacy was usually considered to be a temporary condition that an individual acquired and would typically recover from.  Nineteenth-century diagnoses of lunacy included ‘mania’ and ‘melancholy’.  On the other hand, mental disability was apparent from birth or infancy and was believed to be permanent.  Mental disabilities came under the medical terms  of ‘idiocy’ and ‘imbecility’, diagnoses that have altered meanings in modern vocabulary.  The majority of children that I encounter in my research were diagnosed as mentally disabled.

I first came across the records of the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge in the summer of 2012 when I was exploring alternative spaces that catered for insane children.  The charity’s archival material has been well maintained and its detail instantly piqued my interest in the philanthropic efforts of the Refuge.  I didn’t expect to find much about mental illness within the archive but the personal narratives that it revealed were compelling.  The charity, relatively overlooked by historians, spread across Manchester and included homes and shelters for vulnerable, abandoned, and orphaned children.  What really sparked my curiosity was the role that the Refuge played in the emigration of pauper children to Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries.  I knew of similar emigration programmes in other cities, but had not heard of one operating in Manchester.

Child emigration met a number of middle-class philanthropic goals.  Firstly, the children were settled with stable farming families in rural Canada where they were exposed to the benefits of domesticity. Secondly, they were made productive through employment on farms and consequently taught the value of their work.  Thirdly, they were considered to be settling the empire.  Finally, they got a new start in life, away from the dirt and vice of the industrial city.

Of course, the expectations of the reformers were overly optimistic and many of the children were beaten (some even killed), worked too hard, treated as outsiders in their foster families or exhibited some of the vices that were considered so detrimental to the British city.  These experiences have been documented elsewhere but they are important in setting the scene.  I was more interested in the mentally ill child and hopefully asked a question of the archival material: were children who were mentally “inferior” ever emigrated?  Of course, the records screamed back at me, in the stern reformist voice of Victorian philanthropy, that children needed to be in good health and have obtained a medical certificate attesting to such condition before they could embark on a voyage to Canada.  Alas, it seemed as if I had reached another dead-end attempting to discover unconventional spaces where child insanity was managed.

Perhaps a little selfishly, the apparent good physical and mental health of these children had left me a little downbeat.  To me it seemed as if emigration would have been an ideal way to rid the charitable homes of problem, awkward, or medically expensive children.  Maybe I had just formed an unnecessarily negative opinion of Victorian charity?  Then I came across a range of scholarship from Canada that suggested children emigrated from England were tainted by their ‘heredity’.  Cautious about such eugenics language, I continued my search of the child case files in Manchester to see if I could identify “taints”.  After a huge amount of trawling through the extant records I unearthed a handful of children described as insane in the individual annual reports sent back from Canada.  These children were said to be ‘epileptic’, ‘feeble-minded’, ‘imbecilic’ and some were eventually confined in Canadian lunatic asylums.  All were said to be congenital cases and had been emigrated despite their medical condition.

Somewhat frustratingly (to me at least), the mental inferiority of the children was only revealed when they were situated in families in Canada.  This letter sent from the distributing home in Canada demonstrates how authorities in England learned of the mental illness of one of their emigrants:

Edith A. was returned to the home because of her strange behaviour, she was becoming mentally unbalanced, had interrupted the minister in the service for one thing. She came here on Tuesday July 31st, was rational at times but gradually got worse requiring close attention all the time, for a night no one could sleep on that side of the house for her continual singing or knocking. We tried to coax her in every way as she thought herself quite a baby. At last we called in medical advice and she was examined by our own kind friend Dr Gibson and also by Dr McCall. Both gentlemen advised removing her to Rockwood Hospital for the Insane. They did their best to press the officials to take her in at once without the usual papers being signed, and they agreed yesterday. Miss Ramsey and I took her there. The superintendent thought she ought to have been sent to another hospital and so await further developments. In the meantime the doctor has to answer fifty odd questions that are asked. There is one question that may crop up, and that is who will pay for her there. She is under 18 and has been out three years.1

Of course, the Refuge would never have been able to justify the removal of the children if they had identified them as mentally disabled in Manchester.  When thinking of reasons for removing them I am left pondering two possible conclusions. Firstly, the Refuge, quite proudly at times, stated that the cost of emigrating a child was £10, but maintaining them in the city was an expense of £15 (for a healthy child) a year.  Children with mental disabilities were likely to be a burden on charity and ratepayers for a considerable amount of time, maybe even the rest of their lives. Their removal to Canada made good economic sense; it shifted a considerable expense to a faraway land for a reasonable one-off fee.

The second is more optimistic. The purpose of emigration for Victorian philanthropy, at least at a rhetorical level, was to provide a better life in a new land for those that were never going to be successful in the urban and industrial city. The open spaces of the countryside were considered therapeutic for those suffering from mental impairments and contemporary alienists thought that the agricultural classes were mostly exempt from insanity. Consequently, emigration was in the best interests of these children and Victorian charity provided them with a better life.

The binary nature of these conclusions bothers me, a lot! It is apparent that mentally disabled children were emigrated to Canada. The question is about the nature of Victorian philanthropy and whether the children were sent to improve their lives or the balance sheets of the charity? In the end I suppose the conclusions come down to personal interpretation and whether these youngsters were representative of the bright or dark side of Victorian charity.

For more information see Steven J. Taylor, ‘Insanity, Philanthropy and Emigration: Dealing with Insane Children in Late-Nineteenth-Century North-West England’, History of Psychiatry 25, no. 2 (2014): 224-236.

1.  Greater Manchester County Record Office, Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge, Emigration Files, M189/7/2/5/048-54, 7 August, 1913.
Posted in Features, Steven J. Taylor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Disability History Professional Workshop

Mike Mantin is a Research Fellow for the Wellcome Trust-funded project, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, at Swansea University.  Here he shares his impressions of a recent multidisciplinary workshop on disability history.

Disability history, by its very nature, crosses boundaries and disciplines. Writing about disability in history is writing about social and economic marginalisation, literary symbolism and changing interpretations and models of health. Most importantly, it resonates enormously with the contemporary fight for health and welfare for disabled people. It is with this in mind that the collaborative history project on which I work as a Research Fellow, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, organised our professional workshop, Looking Back, Moving Forward. Held at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum in early April 2014, the event brought together various healthcare professionals —ranging from student nurses to physiotherapists and archivists— to discuss the history of disability in the coalfields and the everyday dangers facing workers in one of the most dangerous of British industries.  Although South Wales’ once-sprawling coalmining industry has all but disappeared, all those working in healthcare in the area were familiar with its lasting health impact, making confronting the past even more important.

Rescue Brigage of a Coal Mine

A rescue brigade of a coal mine in Wattstown, Wales, in 1914. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

After brief talks by Anne Borsay and David Turner introducing the study of disability in the past, the workshop participants were split into four small groups for sessions themed around a particular source. The sessions brought together material for discussion from across the timespan of the project, making room both for the rulebooks of eighteenth-century friendly societies and Second World War propaganda films about rehabilitation centres. The vivid sources were at the centre of each session and helped spark the discussion. Steve Thompson and Ben Curtis’ talk explored the spread of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from the most human of perspectives, by using a Picture Post article profiling the 1929-30 Aberpergwm football squad.  The team had flourished that season but, by 1945, seven players were struck with the disease; the remaining four were either dead or seriously injured from accidents.

Elsewhere, David Turner and Dan Blackie used the rules of mutual aid associations to explore the ‘mixed economy of welfare’ for disabled miners. Whilst the dreaded workhouse loomed large in popular and historical imagination, the voluntary sector played a crucial role, adding further complexity to discussions about the historical roots of the modern concern with ‘welfare dependency’. Another session led by Kirsti Bohata and Alex Jones shifted the focus to coalfields literature, much of which recorded the proliferation of disability in the pits and the mining towns. Disability served not just as a symbol of the industry’s human devastation but as a narrative device, individualising the lived experience of disability.

Life Begins Again Session

Participants watch the wartime rehabilitation film, Life Begins Again. Photo courtesy of Mike Mantin.

My session, co-run with Anne Borsay, used as its discussion point the short wartime film Life Begins Again, which follows a disabled worker from injury to recovery in the new industrial rehabilitation centres, explained via the somewhat questionable acting skills of the doctors and physicians working in the institutions.  The viewer is taken into rehabilitation centres such as Talygarn House in South Wales, which used a model based as much on returning patients to economic productivity and masculinity as to fitness and health.  We ran the workshop with each of the four small groups during the day.  All four of the discussions we witnessed were completely different, and all centred around the work experiences and opinions of the participants. The rehabilitation programme’s embrace of holistic medicine and industry-specific programmes of returning to work struck a chord with some of the workshop participants. Many saw the ambitiousness of the programme, and its embrace of both physical and mental treatment, as something that might be a positive influence on modern-day healthcare. Others pointed out how the film was very much a product of its time, as it was a programme of state rehabilitation aimed at filling a labour shortage created by the war. (That, and the fact that everyone is chain-smoking throughout.)

The final session of the day was a plenary discussion led by Andrew Davies of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Rhian Davies of Disability Wales, and Joy Merrell of the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University.  The plenary discussed the themes explored in all of the sessions and tied together disability issues historical and contemporary. Andrew Davies saw the treatment of disabled people in the past as a cause for reflection on modern-day issues of accessibility, which he argued should be at the heart of disability policy.  Rhian Davies discussed the individualised narratives of the sources and stressed the need for society to recognise the need for disability access and move on from the notion that disabled people have an individual duty to simply ‘get better’. Merrell saw the event as highlighting the need for the healthcare profession to look back at the past and ask what modern-day lessons it can offer. A particularly important point she brought up was the need to recognise the multiple sources of medicine and welfare in the historical coalfields, with voluntary and community care side-by-side with emerging state welfare and health programmes.

The feedback for the workshop was positive. Participants told us that they enjoyed discussing historical issues with the varied group and contrasting historical issues with current standards and practices. As well as this, the workshop allowed for an open forum to think about conceptions of disability, the historical roles of the patient and the healthcare professional and the complex legacy left by the coal industry —not just its devastating record of disease and illness, but also its strong communities. The lesson that we took away from the day is the importance for historians to work with the communities and professionals whose lives continue to be affected by the histories they study.

Posted in Conferences, Events, Mike Mantin, New Researchers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment