Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War

Peter Grant, Senior Fellow at City University London, and former chair of the Voluntary Action History Society, has just published a new book: Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War: Mobilizing Charity (Routledge, 2014). In this post, he outlines some of the book’s key themes and arguments, and argues for a different understanding of voluntary action in the war period.

1134500386The First World War saw the greatest act of volunteering ever in Britain. Two-and-a-half million men volunteered to fight in a conflict that cost more than 700,000 of them their lives. But there was another act of volunteering between 1914 and 1918 on at least the same scale, though without the same life-and-death consequences. This was the voluntary effort at home especially to support the men at the front, in health and sickness, but also to aid numerous other causes.

There was a massive increase in charitable voluntary action during the First World War. Around 18,000 new charities were created, a 50% increase on the number in existence pre-war. The value of their fund-raising was probably at least £150 million, equivalent to the income for ‘good causes’ through today’s National Lottery, and their legacy was significant. Charitable activity in the war was, especially in many industrial towns and cities, a manifestation of working class solidarity with many more organisations run by ordinary women and men than by well-to-do matrons. It was easily the most significant charitable cause that had ever been supported in Britain and it had profound effects upon both the war effort and the relationship between voluntary organisations and the state.

There was an enormous range of charitable activity undertaken, but with a significant bias towards comforts for troops and medical supplies. However this flourishing of charities and voluntary activity also brought its problems. Not least the lack of co-ordination and whether the items collected or sent matched the needs of the troops. Quality control was a further problem as not all charities produced their goods to high standards.

Eventually in order to bring some much needed organisation to this chaos the War Office decided to appoint a ‘Director General of Voluntary Organisations’ to oversee both the demand and supply ends of the system. This might have caused even more problems as imposing order from above on what was essentially a bottom-up serge of voluntary action could have backfired. Fortunately the man appointed to the post, Sir Edward Ward, was an inspired choice. No one combined his knowledge of army supply, Whitehall politics and managerial competence. Yet he is today an almost entirely forgotten figure.

The DGVO scheme was clearly needed and it overcame many of the supply problems encountered in 1914 and 1915. At the outbreak of war a localised approach to comforts and medical supplies was all that existed but by the end of 1915 the government had started to realise that a voluntary and localised approach to the war was not enough. Such co-ordination required great skill and diplomacy if it was not to alienate the mass of charitable activity that had been generated. In this, the appointment of Sir Edward Ward was a masterstroke. He was probably the only person who combined an intimate knowledge of the armed forces, with a commitment to efficient management and a compassionate understanding of voluntary effort.

fcfaccf11e210a82390b18.L._V364977694_SY470_Though there were moves in the direction of state control of charitable activity in support of the war effort, this was not a coherently developed policy of government nor was it by any means a steady, linear process. Rather it was motivated by specific events, or crises, such as concerns as to wasted effort or lack of co-ordination in the supply of comforts for the troops that led to the establishment of the post of DGVO. However, Ward’s remit was coordination of supply, not regulation of abuses. In 1916 the government reacted to further scandals, this time of bogus and fraudulent charities, by bringing in the first regulation of non-endowed charities through the War Charities Act, almost a last resort entered into when abuses of the charitable system became a significant public issue. Where state intervention did occur, it was therefore due to a failure to integrate the dual charitable impulses of mutual aid and philanthropy with the requirements of a budding state welfare system.

My main conclusions about philanthropy and voluntary action in the war are all in complete opposition to the received opinions about wartime charity:

First, the war provided a new impetus to voluntarism based upon the principle of mutual aid. There was a profusion of small, local organisations providing support for the troops of their town, village or workplace.

Second, the First World War contributed towards an increased professionalization of the charity sector. Only after the war were social workers regularly paid and turned from amateurs into professionals and many modern fund-raising techniques were invented or expanded.

Thirdly, there was then a greater movement towards democratisation in the post-war voluntary sector as well as moves into new areas and greater use of business principles. These changes were clearly influenced by what had happened during the war, not least Edward Ward’s DGVO.

Finally, and most importantly, charitable and philanthropic activities played a major role in helping Britain win the war. It provided Britain with a distinct advantage over her main adversary, Germany, in the reservoir of social capital on which it was able to draw. Voluntary action in Britain during the war acted as an integrating mechanism between social classes that helped initiate changes in the relationship between ‘top-down’ philanthropy and ‘bottom-up’ mutual aid and this trend continued into the post-war period. Voluntary action contributed significantly both to maintaining morale at home (a visible sign of ‘pulling ones weight’) and with troops and prisoners of war. Contrary to received opinion, through war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and writers like Paul Fussell, the vast majority of troops welcomed charitable efforts on their behalf and were kindly disposed towards benevolence on the home front. In contrast German social control of voluntary action strengthened under an increasingly militaristic government and this led to a serious weakening of social capital.

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Forthcoming 2015: Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918-1948


Last week I signed a book contract with Pickering and Chatto for their Studies for the Society for the Social History of Medicine series. I’ll now be spending the rest of this year working on the manuscript for my first monograph on the topic of Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918-1948. At some point next year, you’ll hopefully start finding copies in university libraries and, if you’re really lucky, perhaps even on your own bookshelf. I’m sure that by the time the book arrives it will have evolved from the way it currently looks in my head. I’ve already agreed to change the title, dropping reference to the National Health Service to ensure it’s immediately accessible for an international readership. I’m sure there will be further changes, some as my own ideas change and some in response to the suggestions of others. But I do have a clear idea of what I want to do with the book.

In one sense, this book will discuss what it was like to turn up at hospital in Britain before the inception of the NHS in 1948. There’s been a significant growth in historical works on healthcare before the NHS in the past few decades, yet the perspective from which these have been written has typically been one from above. This hasn’t prevented some excellent works that have given far greater insight than before into the nature and workings of the pre-NHS mixed economy of healthcare. The question these works have generally sought to answer has been: how were health services provided? Amongst the exceptions to this is Lucinda McCray Beier’s oral history work on working-class health cultures in Barrow, Lancaster and Preston.

A major aspect of hospital care – and its consumption – that has gone unexplored, however, is the issue of payment. And it is not surprising we should start to consider the place and meaning of patients ‘paying for health’ at the moment. For right now there is a dramatically changing landscape in healthcare. A recent British Medical Journal investigation found that 89% of NHS acute hospital trusts now offer private or ‘self-funded’ services and that private work in NHS hospitals is expanding. Although we should take seriously the responsibility to ensure that in our work as historians we take the past on its own terms, it’s inevitable that the concerns of our own time will direct the questions we ask, if not the answers we find.

In much the same way, it’s all too easy for those of us who have grown up with the NHS to anachronistically impose our own assumptions, either that things were the same or that they were different, onto the hospital systems operating before 1948. We might assume that historians would be wise to this, but too often when the history books refer to payment in the pre-NHS hospitals they fall into precisely this trap. And this may explain why British historians have largely overlooked or over-simplified such issues while a number of US historians, surrounded by a rather different politics of healthcare, have directly addressed them. Charles Rosenberg, for instance, has identified a ‘private patient revolution’ around the start of the twentieth century. I would suggest the picture this side of the pond is rather different.

This is not to say that issues of hospital funding and finances have been ignored by British historians. Martin Gorsky and Sally Sheard’s 2006 edited volume would be a good starting point for anyone wanting to know about recent work in this area. A perhaps surprising focus within this field has been the great deal of attention paid to the pseudo-insurance hospital contributory schemes. The rise of these schemes in the early-twentieth century has been seen as the driving force behind major change in how hospital services were accessed. In the 1990s this was characterised as a consumer-insurance system by Steven Cherry, then more recently it has been recast in more mutualistic terms by Gorsky and John Mohan or by Barry Doyle. The emphasis on change in either case rather implies that philanthropic traditions were swept aside by these developments – something that I just don’t see when looking at the way payment systems actually worked on the ground, in the hospital. My alternative view – first put forward in my 2010 Medical History article - is to focus on payment as a form of ‘civic duty’, supporting a reinvented philanthropic principle.

Primarily here I’m talking about the voluntary hospitals – those charitable institutions established in many cases as early as the eighteenth century, in some cases as late as the early twentieth. The common introduction of direct patient payment schemes and the ability to opt out via a hospital contributory scheme has sometimes been thought to mean these charitable institutions had effectively become private hospitals by the time of the Second World War. I don’t see it that way. There are a number of reasons for this that I’ll explore in the book, and perhaps also on this blog in the coming months – but this can only really be understood by investigating payment at the level at which it operated. This means not focusing on what central government was doing or what national movements or organisations were pressing for, but what was actually happening in the hospital itself.

To this end the book will continue a focus I’ve had for a while on the city of Bristol and its hospitals. Barry Doyle has done something similar with his book, coming out later this month as part of the same series, on the politics of hospital provision in interwar Leeds and Sheffield – and I look forward to reading it. But my focus will be specifically on matters of payment. The fact that we don’t pay directly for health services is so important to how we think of them today that the ways in which we did in the past deserve attention.

Shifting the focus to how payment schemes operated within the hospital allows for a reconstruction of the options available to and experiences of hospital patients before the NHS. It allows us to ask what payment meant. Did knowing you might be asked to make a financial contribution to the hospital influence the decision of whether or not seek treatment? How was the prospect viewed of being interviewed by the Lady Almoner (a medical social worker) to determine at what rate you might be asked to pay? Did the almoner separating out patients according to class – with the middle classes excluded from free or subsidised treatment and having to pay a commercial rate - reinforce social divisions or foster a sense of fairness?

Ultimately, by interrogating the boundaries between charity and commerce in the pre-NHS hospital, I hope to use this book to start exploring the history of payment as a social interaction. But more immediately it will argue that, through a host of practical changes in the interwar years, philanthropy was redefined rather than abandoned as the organising principle of the voluntary hospital system in its final decades.

Now, I’d best get writing…

This post was originally published on George’s blog:

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Oral Histories of Voluntary Action: Reflections on the Workshop

In this guest post, Bridget Lockyer reflects upon Oral Histories of Voluntary Action: An Interdisciplinary Workshop, a VAHS New Researchers event which took place this February in association with the University of York’s Humanities Research Centre.

Voluntary action history is a growing area of research and in the current political and economic climate, the history of the voluntary sector in the twentieth century has been pulled into focus.  Oral history methods can be one way of accessing these invaluable histories, yet many of those undertaking this type of research may not have the necessary skills or expertise to conduct interviews.  Oral Histories of Voluntary Action: An Interdisciplinary Workshop, which took place at the University of York on 7th February , aimed to remedy this and offer a space for new researchers to discuss the benefits and
challenges of using interview methods within their research and share solutions
for overcoming potential problems.

The workshop was organised by myself and Charlotte Clements (you can read her blog on the event here), both active members of the VAHS New Researchers committee.  The workshop was funded by the Humanities Research Centre at York.  We wanted the day, comprising of six papers and a roundtable session, to have a very relaxed and discursive atmosphere, which would allow plenty of time for discussion and debate.

Workshop Discussion

Workshop Discussion. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clements.

Presenting in the first panel was Charlotte Clements, David Ellis and Jessica Hammett.  Charlotte gave us her perspective as an historian conducting oral history interviews within a social sciences department.

This kicked off one of the central themes of the day: interdisciplinary boundaries. The workshop included researchers from history, politics, women’s studies, social sciences, law, archaeology as well as practitioners working in voluntary organisations.  Why and how did our approaches to interviewing differ and how important was this?

Charlotte also raised the issue of why researchers choose interviews.  For her, it was because she is researching small local youth clubs where records are minimal and poorly catalogued, so it is necessary to talk to the people involved.  But she argued that the choice to interview can sometimes be too automatic, too expected, particularly as a historian or sociologist studying the recent past.

David Ellis discussed this concern during his presentation.  He had conducted interviews as part of his research on the history of community action in urban Britain.  For him, interviews were a way to ‘compensate for the inadequacies of the historical record’.  But he did encounter problems: had he interviewed the right people and could he reach the real grass-roots activists?  There was also the issue of continuity as he had interviewed living sources who were using current debates and political climate to reflect on their past experience.  A remark of David’s which particularly chimed with me was that the distinction between documents and oral history can be overemphasised; they are often presented to a researcher at the same time and inform each other.

Jessica Hammett, whose work focuses on memory of Second World War era Civil Defence focused on the re-use of oral history interviews, analysed an extract of an interview with a woman ambulance driver.  This close analysis was very revealing, suggesting how this woman felt about her (sometimes controversial) work.  Jessica reminded us that it is not necessary to conduct new interviews; there are hundreds of oral history interviews in archives and undertaking new analysis of existing interviews can reveal different details and themes.  You do not have to have been the one asking the questions for interviews to be meaningful.

In the second panel were Susanne Martikke, Katrina Foxton and Lucy Binch.  Susanne, who works for the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations, discussed how the context of the interview, who you are doing it for and why, affects the process.  In a voluntary sector context her interviews were ‘quick and dirty’ with swift outcomes, whereas the interviews she conducted as part of collaborative project with universities had to be more comprehensive and take more time.  She talked about these difference in terms of ‘trade-offs’.  For example, having recording equipment (instead of making notes) means that you can be more focused  on listening and responding to the person you are interviewing, but this does mean you are left with masses of data and it is more difficult to extract information and produce an output.

Katrina Foxton described her experiences as a volunteer working on a Heritage Lottery Fund oral history project in Windsor.  She examined her transition from volunteer to oral history researcher and how this changed her approach to interviewing.  Katrina discussed the issue of remaining ‘neutral’ when you do not agree with the person being interviewed.  She also asked how interviewers can maintain boundaries in certain situations, such as when interviewing elderly people in need of support.

Lucy Binch, whose research centres on sex workers in the UK and how they manage their everyday identities with the challenges of their working lives, discussed how she was able to use her volunteer status within a voluntary organisation to interview female and male sex workers.  Volunteering for this organisation meant she was able to access these difficult-to-reach, marginalised groups, and meant that she was more likely to be trusted.  Lucy also brought up the issue of showing emotion during the interviews, as her participants had related very traumatic events.  Lucy asked how much she should follow her instincts and respond sympathetically, or maintain ‘professionalism’.

The day finished with a roundtable led by Paul Ward, Anjelica Finnegan, John Mc Loughlin and Geoffrey Wall, with a written contribution from Beth Breeze.

Our Roundtable Panel: Paul Ward, Anjelica Finnegan, John Mc Loughlin and Geoffrey Wall. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clements.

The panel summarised some of the issues we had been discussing during the day: discipline distinctions, neutrality, emotion and empathy, insider/outsider status and co-production.  We did not solve all of the issues raised, but were able to talk through them, recognise that others faced similar problems and review our different approaches.  Some of the practicalities of interviewing were discussed, such as how to signal the end of an interview and how to get hold of busy interviewees.  The roundtable was a great way to end the day, bringing together the central themes and offering time to reflect on the presentations.

The feedback from the workshop was overwhelmingly positive.  There were some people attending who were about to undertake interviewing for the first time and who suggested that the workshop had allowed them to think more deeply about the choices and approaches they might take.  Others who had already conducted interviews within different contexts appreciated the space to raise some of the methodological and ethical issues they had already encountered.  For me personally, it was a chance to reflect on the interviews I had already done and think about how I could amend my practices in the future, reminding me to always make informed and proactive methodological decisions.

This post was originally published on Bridget’s blog:


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Student Volunteering: The Long View

Today marks the start of Student Volunteering Week 2014, an annual celebration in England now supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Student Hubs. My new book argues that higher education students have made significant contributions to social change in modern Britain through their commitment to a wide range of causes and campaigns.

Activities including student volunteering, fundraising and social action have rarely received the same attention as political protest on campus, despite involving greater numbers of students and being a prominent feature of every student generation. Yet volunteering (or social service as it was earlier known) was core to the emergence of a distinct student movement in twentieth-century Britain. Service strengthened student identity at what were before the 1960s mostly non-residential universities and colleges.  In England, before the formation of the NUS in 1922, the Student Christian Movement’s social service committee and the Universities’ Committee of the Imperial War Relief Fund provided valuable meeting places for student leaders from Oxbridge, the London colleges and the civic universities. Rag and social service committees were some of the earliest societies that brought students from different backgrounds together. In the 1930s what I call a ‘student popular front’ was forged through social and political action on domestic and international issues including the Spanish Civil War, the Depression and the Nazi refugee crisis. In the 1960s and 1970s a new Student Community Action (SCA) movement formed an important aspect of wider student radicalism, and exerted strong influence in national student politics.

Ram NahumOver the period 1880-1980 students emerged as a reliable constituency of support for many new social initiatives. Causes including educational reconstruction after the First World War, youth work, unemployment relief, refugees, Aid for Spain, anti-apartheid, nuclear disarmament, housing and homelessness, overseas volunteering and international development benefited greatly from the input of students. Student voluntary action showed great resilience, being reinvented by new generations of students to reflect changing social conditions. Voluntary organisations from the Imperial War Relief Fund to Shelter, from university settlements to Oxfam saw the value in enlisting students’ time and money in support of their cause, supported by dedicated staff and special publications. However, while much of the rhetoric on student voluntarism emphasised service as a way of bridging perceived gaps between students and the community, the results rarely lived up to the promise, and student voluntarism could be plagued by problems of high turnover of volunteers.

Although numbFront page of SCANUS Sept 1973 ers of students and higher education institutions grew over the period 1880-1980, students remained a small minority of the age group even in the 1970s, a status which fostered a sense of social responsibility.  Despite regular criticisms of student apathy, students over the period shared a strong moral impulse, although this manifest itself in ways that may not have seemed particularly progressive to later generations, such as volunteering to drive buses or staff dockyards during the 1926 General Strike. A central concept was that students had special responsibilities to communities outside the university and to the nation, and it was only through fulfilment of these obligations that they could demonstrate the wider social value of higher education. In today’s increasingly marketised higher education sector, universities should be valued not only for producing skilled workers or for fostering economic growth, but for the significant contributions students can make to wider society and to long-term social change. Student Volunteering Week provides one such opportunity.

Further resources

My book A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 takes a long view of the student experience in Britain and the ways in which students have engaged with local communities, social causes and international affairs. It will be out in summer 2014 in Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Historical Studies in Education’ series.

In a 2012 VAHS blog post I looked back at what student volunteering was like in 2012, the height of the Edwardian craze for social service and social study.

In 2010 a witness seminar organised by the Institute for Volunteering Research and Student Hubs brought together leaders of student volunteering from the 1960s to the early 2000s and can be read online here.

A short animated video can be seen here.


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Thank You, George!

This month sees the handover in editorial duties here at the VAHS blog, from George Gosling to a new editorial team.  George established the blog in 2011 with the aim of fostering discussion and providing a space for scholars to share their research on voluntary action.  How he has succeeded!  Over three years, George has not only arranged dozens of posts from researchers in the field, but has regularly contributed his own writing.  We would like to thank him for all his hard work which has made the blog such a success, and point you all in the direction of his excellent website, where you can read more about his on-going research.

The position of blog editor will be held jointly by Kevin O’Sullivan and Megan Webber.  Kevin is a lecturer in history at National University of Ireland Galway, where he works on the history of globalisation, decolonisation, and international relations – particularly the history of humanitarian NGOs.  You can read more here.  Megan is a PhD student at the University of Hertfordshire.  Her research looks into the ways poor Londoners used charitable resources in the early nineteenth century.  Kevin and Megan may be contacted at .

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O’Sullivan

Megan Webber

Megan Webber

Together, we hope to keep the blog lively and relevant, and will look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions on all aspects of the blog. But what a tough act to follow!


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