Review: Beveridge and the Roots of Voluntary Action

Anjelica Finnegan, University of Southampton

The history of the voluntary sector is a vibrant area of research, with a significant volume of research beyond that more generally on social, welfare, medical and economic histories. This included two edited volumes published this year, mostly developed from papers presented at VAHS conferences.

Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World edited by Nicholas Deakin and Melanie Oppenheimer (Manchester University Press, 2011) HB £60 - 224 pages

The first of these is Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World edited by Nicholas Deakin and Melanie Oppenheimer. Over the course of its thirteen chapters the book lays out a clear argument: that Beveridge’s writings are still relevant in Britain, as well as in the wider British world (Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Two chapters that demonstrate this theme particularly well are Paul Smyth’s, on the Australian state and voluntary action, and Margaret Tennant’s, on volunteering in New Zealand’s less-religious society. Politicians and sector organisations recognised that, despite the introduction of social security in 1938, the state could not meet the needs of all individuals; voluntary action could operate in particular areas, and should be left to do so.

The book contains three distinct sections. The first introduces the reader to Beveridge’s works and views. Of particular note is Frank Prochaska’s chapter, which details the Labour government’s reasons for nationalising welfare services and the subsequent changes in Beveridge’s thought. From his praise for universal welfare in his first report in 1942, Beveridge became sceptical of state involvement in welfare services in the third, on Voluntary Action in 1948. Jose Harris examines these changes in greater detail, while offering a caveat to the overarching argument by noting that his third report was and remains contentious.

Dan Weinbren offers commentary on the role of friendly societies in a chapter that argues Beveridge’s preoccupation with such societies came from his youthful experience of them, rather than their having any other particular significance. Oppenheimer closes this section by providing the volume’s first insight into the wider British world. This colourful chapter shows us the state of voluntary action in the Antipodes through Beveridge’s eyes. It is the only chapter that explicitly compares the activities of voluntary organisations between the wider British world (in this case Australia and New Zealand) with Britain.

Three chapters by James McKay, Georgina Brewis and Jill Roe form an especially strong section of the book. Each tackles a specific area of voluntary action of particular current relevance. McKay argues that the voluntary sector has a major political role to play: it can pioneer new causes, foster the increase of social capital and direct political intervention. To do so he draws on both Beveridge’s Voluntary Action and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations’ 1996 report, Meeting the Challenge of Change by Nicholas Deakin.

Brewis’ chapter follows this with an examination of the growth and change of volunteering opportunities for British young people, both at home and abroad. Roe provides the ‘wider British world’ element and argues that, in Australia, voluntary action and a collective sense of social responsibility are vital to the survival of rural communities. Further, she argues it can only fulfil this role as long as voluntary action remains inclusive, rather than solely the preserve of the ‘ladies bountiful’ (middle-class, middle-aged, well-educated women), with increased involvement of indigenous peoples in leadership roles.

The final section of the book, which includes the Tennant and Smyth chapters, looks at the influence of voluntary action in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada post-publication of Beveridge’s third report. The section’s opening by Pat Thane surveys the period since Beveridge in Britain and will be especially useful for readers new to the themes of the book (not least for its clear working definition of voluntary action).

The closing chapter by Peter R. Elson is to be commended on its individual merits as an introductory text on the impact of Beveridge’s works on Canadian voluntary action. Due to the obscurity of Voluntary Action in Canada, this chapter also looks at Beveridge’s first report, Social Insurance and Allied Services. Elson, in line with Beveridge, argues that voluntary action, although important, is not a substitute for “economic equality, technical and social integration and enforceable guarantees of human rights”.

The book identifies a need for further research. Indeed, Harris explicitly calls for it throughout her chapter. There are two questions in particular, I think, which deserve further attention. The opening sentence of Brewis’ chapter claims the growth of youth volunteer schemes is only one of the significant changes in volunteering policy and practice in the UK. This suggests that there were other significant changes in volunteering policy and practice at the time and it would be interesting to pinpoint and analyse such changes. Also interesting would be further detail on the roles of volunteering and the voluntary sector in post-war Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Tennant briefly mentions the problems experienced in the use of volunteers as marriage councillors and what appears to be the subsequent government funding of these voluntary councillors.

Beveridge and Voluntary Action is a well-organised and informative book, likely to be a valuable resource for academics and policy makers. It provides the reader with a wealth of information about the relationship between government support of voluntary action, including non-government reports and initiatives.

Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical Perspectives on Current Social Policy edited by Colin Rochester, George Campbell Gosling, Alison Penn and Meta Zimmeck (Sussex Academic Press, 2011) PB £25 - 190 pages

Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical perspectives on Current Social Policy is our second book. Its twelve papers are organised into four parts. Part One looks at what Beveridge called the ‘moving frontier’ between the state and voluntary action, challenging accepted narratives of the relationship between the two. John Stewart argues, in line with Geoffrey Finlayson, that voluntary organisations were incorporated into the state; although there was no simple switching-point when state provision took over from voluntary effort. Meanwhile Alexandra Wright’s chapter argues that approaches to children’s welfare provision in Scotland from 1940-1995 varied due to the changes in the concept of ‘need’. The highlight of this part, however, is Alison Penn’s detailed investigation of changes in welfare delivery and the role of voluntary action, beginning with the Liberal reforms of 1906-11, which she takes to be the foundation of the ongoing relationship between state and voluntary sector.

Part Two’s five chapters are the centrepiece of the book, providing the reader with accounts of three broad motivations of voluntary action. The chapters particularly worthy of note are Bridget Yates on social class and volunteer-led museums and Steven Thompson on the varieties of voluntarism in the South Wales coalfield. Both aim to find the source of voluntary action, considering philanthropy and mutual aid as candidates, and highlight how the interplay between rural/industrial leaders and the working class has influenced voluntary action.

The following two chapters, by Brenda Weeden and Shurlee Swain, look at the motivations of individual philanthropists, identifying religion as central. Weeden looks at Quintin Hogg, founder of the first polytechnic, while Swain focuses on child rescue work in Britain between 1850 and 1915 and discusses Thomas Bernardo, Thomas Bowman Stephenson, Edward de Montjoie Rudolf and Benjamin Waugh. The final chapter in this part, by Anne Logan, discusses the central role played by those women excluded from the labour market in the mobilization of voluntarism in the criminal justice system. Penn’s chapter could equally have been placed in this section; the story of disillusionment with the welfare state would provide another view of motivating factors in voluntary action.

Part Three analyses organizational challenges and will prove especially useful to sector workers. For example, Jenny Cronin argues that the decision of a Glasgow convalescent home to hire employed staff rather than rely solely on volunteers contributed to its longevity. Pat Starkey also considers the twentieth-century mission drift of a London housing charity for the ‘deserving poor’. These chapters, which focus on specific organisations, have obvious wider lessons.

Part Four argues for the existence of continuities across time in voluntary action and its social role. A similar argument has been put forward recently in The Ages of Voluntarism, a book which claims voluntarism has had to change to fit the world in which it operates. Jonathan Fowler demonstrates that ‘scientific philanthropy’ was a presence as early as the end of the eighteenth century, while Beth Breeze argues, in the volume’s closing chapter, that philanthropy has adapted to a changing environment whilst retaining its central features. For example, donors have always wanted to know that their money is being ‘well-spent’. There is also the repeated pattern of developing ’new causes’. Just as it was popular to help poor maids marry in the fifteenth century, by twenty-first century it had become fashionable to donate to charities supporting AIDS victims.

Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action is an ambitious book which shows how voluntary action has in the past delivered public and social policy, responding to social need. It brings together the work of prominent scholars of voluntary action in order to fill a gap in the literature. Each chapter offers detailed analyses of particular cases of voluntary action. The editors are to be commended in bringing these papers into the public domain. However, with the exception of Part Two, it is not always clear how the points addressed might be made to take on a more-general relevance. Parts One and Four are grouped by topic in such a way as to narrow them to a particular manifestation of voluntarism rather than ‘voluntary action as such. This issue, however, does not detract from the value of the book. The papers presented in each part do fit the identified theme, though they mainly do so only with reference to particular kinds of voluntary action.

In sum, both collections make a valuable contribution to voluntary action’s standing as an historical subject in its own right. Both books are accessible; both should interest academics and students of voluntary action in Britain and, in the case of the Beveridge book, to those in the ‘wider British world’. They are to be recommended to all those interested in voluntary action and its role in welfare delivery.


Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider World was published in January 2011 by Manchester University Press and is available at £60 in harback. Click here for more information on the book and the original VAHS symposium.

Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical Perspectives on Current Social Policy was published by Sussex Academic Press in March 2011 and is available at £25 in paperback. Click here for more information on the book and the original conference.

Both books were launched together at the LSE in April 2011 at an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the VAHS. Click here for photographs of the book launch.

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