Teaching the History of Voluntary Action

Where does a passion for the history of voluntary action come from? One of the main sources of this is being taught about an aspect of voluntary action history.  My curiosity was prodded by studying the Attlee governments during A-level History. It prompted many questions in my head about how people in need had managed  before the 1940s, questions I got to answer when doing a PhD on the settlements (and working at one).

The students on the programme I teach on get voluntary action history in a number of ways. It figures in the Contemporary Britain module in the first year, which provides a general history of Britain in the twentieth century, and voluntary action crops up in many ways and places: Edwardian social reforms; the suffrage movement; trade unions; interwar depression; the World Wars; empire; migration; women; political participation; the post-war settlement; and many others. It figures highly in the social policy modules that students can take at all stages of the programme.  That it is such a recurring theme speaks powerfully to how embedded voluntary action is in British civil society.

Adult education class in Cambridgeshire, with thanks to the Institute of Education Archives

However, I have yet to actually teach a second or third year module that specifically tackles the history of voluntary action, be that at Kent or the other institutions at which I’ve worked. I certainly do research-led teaching – but my research has led me not to a perhaps more traditional history of welfare module. A module on Britain on Film 1930-1960 came about because I was trying to work out how I could use documentary films from 1930s and 1940s that featured either settlement houses or had settlement workers starring in them; I was also intrigued by one of the characters talking about working at settlement at the start of Mrs Miniver, not to mention the exploration of working class life by the British New Wave. I would strongly recommend that anyone teaching the history of voluntary action explores the British Pathé newsreels, the British Universities Film and Video Council, the BFI’s Screenonline and many others for resources for your teaching, so that you can help bring your subject quite literally to life for your class. I also teach political sociology on this programme, which has made me engage with much broader fields than I might otherwise have done.  The dialogue you have with students helps you to work out your research questions.

I will be putting together a more canonical voluntary action history module later this year for a new MA in Social and Public Policy, if it will remain informed by what I’ve learned in teaching visual sources and political sociology in particular. I will be excited to see how it works, having always come at it from other angles. Some questions for Forum readers: How do you teach voluntary action history? What resources would you recommend? Do you work voluntary action history into more generalist modules? Were you inspired by an earlier teacher to explore voluntary action history further?

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11 Responses to Teaching the History of Voluntary Action

  1. Simon Fowler says:

    I offer a history of charities lecture to family history groups, although pick up hasn’t been great. In it I give a brief summary of the growth of voluntary organisations since Tudor times plus an overview of the major archival resources which might mention their ancestors – annual reports, case files and the like. The records of voluntary organisations can be name rich with details of both volunteers, managers and the people they help, the problem is that genealogists have yet to realise their potential plus of course they are hard to get into.
    There’s also a chapter to charities and their records in my guide to Poor Law records (Family History Partnership, 2011).

  2. This is very helpful for me as I’m currently preparing a new final-year undergraduate module on the history of voluntary action in Britain. The shape and scope of it is still very much a work-in-progress, although I’m vkeen to get students engaging with present-day voluntary organisations, especially ones that are local to my institution, Queen Mary, in the East End – perhaps even resulting in some work experience/volunteering opportunities. One of the assessments will be a group presentation on the history of a particular organisation; I want students to use these case studies to think through some of the bigger issues regarding the relationship between state and society, the ideological work of charity, the tensions between service provision and having an independent voice etc, as well as an opportunity to use primary source material.

    Kate’s suggestion of using film is an excellent one. Any other ideas about resources (preferably easily available to the undergraduate) would be hugely welcome.

    • Kate Bradley says:

      Hi Helen – try getting in touch with Toynbee Hall. They are in the process of renovating the library/archives, and part of this involves a learning initiative. They are also renovating the original building on Commercial Street, though I am not sure what the impact of this will be on services, including the archive. Still, they have a large and efficient volunteer service which will be able to help place any students who want to volunteer, and residential volunteering may also appeal to students who are looking for local digs in the second year? Tower Hamlets Local History Library is on your doorstep, of course, and have the records of Oxford House and other charities. Am not as familiar with OH’s current work, but I am sure opportunities for volunteering will be possible there, also St Hilda’s East.

    • Georgina Brewis says:

      Hi Helen and Kate
      There are no better resources for voluntary action history in the East End than what’s around students on the streets – so I would think a walking tour from Queen Mary around Mile End / Whitechapel / Bethnal Green could be a great part of your module, Helen. Charity buildings still in use / converted to other uses or other physical sites such as plaques, drinking fountains, statues etc offer a rich insight into how voluntary organisations have tried to meet the needs of the changing population here – there are soup kitchens, settlements, ragged schools, city missions, philanthropic housing blocks, museums, parks etc galore. I’ve done various versions of such a tour for groups of student volunteers / overseas visitors so let me know if you want some ideas!

      Also, I understand Oxford House is currently recruiting volunteers for an intergenerational history project, they advertised recently in the local paper.

      • Kate Bradley says:

        Hi George,

        Excellent point and you just reminded me that Tower Hamlets offer a series of historical walk leaflets: http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/lgsl/601-650/623_walks.aspx They are really good, I’ve used them in the past for getting my bearings on where things were when working on the settlements in the area. The movie map looks like a hoot, though working it into a history of voluntary action might take a little thought..

        Also on the walking front, many of these institutions will let you in for a look around – I used to do this at Toynbee Hall (I can still do it now in my sleep), but I also took a group once to Sandys Row Synagogue (http://sandysrow.org.uk/) and the Bishopsgate Institute – who I believe QMUL History also have links with – might be obliging for tours as well as having some rich and interesting archives…

  3. George Campbell Gosling says:

    It’s really interesting to hear (in both the post and the comments) what people are doing in this area. It’s good to see that there are people purposely teaching the history of charity both in universities and beyond. In fact, I spoke at the HEA’s 2011 Teaching and Learning in History Conference on how we should bring these themes more squarely into the teaching of history (summary on page 2: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/heahistory/resources/tlc11_hsc_conferencereport_20110515.pdf)

    I’m now teaching in the History Department at the University of Liverpool and there have been chances for me to bring in this theme into a number of different taught modules for History undergraduates. These haven’t been specific modules on the topic (and what Helen is planning sounds very interesting), but fitting it in where they is scope within existing modules:

    – The first-year students get a module where they have to do a group project, leading to a presentation at the end of the semester. The project is broadly set by a tutor, so I have set one group a project on philanthropy in Liverpool from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth.

    – I’m teaching second-year modules on Britain during and after the First World War, where charity gets a recurring focus. In fact, the essay that got the highest marks in the WW1 module had a strong focus on working-class cultures of voluntarism. So obviously something of what I was saying got across.

    – We have another second-year module where we set a specific book that we think is important, then we have a series of seminars looking at different aspects of the book and leading up to a review essay as the module assignment. This is an unusually in-depth focus on one text, which gives a lot of weight in their studies to whatever you choose. I’ve chosen Geoffrey Finalyson’s 1994 ‘Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain, 1830-1990’, so we’ll be talking about philanthropy and mutualism a fair bit for that.

    It’ll be interesting to see how all this voluntary action history teaching goes and I’d be really interested in hearing more about what others are doing in this area. Perhaps we can use the VAHS blog forum for this. Maybe we should think about some sort of ‘teaching voluntary action history’ workshop, to discuss all this in more depth. What do people think?

  4. Charlotte Clements says:

    I really like the idea of a workshop to discuss teaching voluntary action history. I’d like the chance to fit in how we might teach modules on voluntary action history, and also how we help put the voluntarism back into wider teaching on the welfare state.

    Last term I taught a module called Social Justice Practice, which was heavily focussed on the non profit sector and includes voluntary placements for the students (which are ongoing this term too). It has been useful to be able to use the ‘real life’ examples from the placements to help with understanding the content of the lectures and seminars. For example we used the mission statements and Charity Commission annual returns of placement organisations when discussing the culture, values and finances of organisations, as well as their relationship with the state. So as far as resources go, I’d recommend students own voluntary work, even if in a less formal capacity than I’ve experienced. I’d also really like to find more oral history on voluntarism, but haven’t yet.

    In the course, the history of voluntary action was covered far too briefly (in my opinion, but then again it was a social policy course not a history course). This showed through clearly in the assumptions the students had about the sector and welfare in general. It was clear they had presumptions about where voluntary sector funding comes from, what the sector did and how it worked. One prominent example that stood out for me was how, with little understanding of the religious background of voluntarism or British society in general, they struggled with examining the role of religion in today’s voluntary organisations. A few were surprised to find the organisations they worked in were Christian or had a religious background. I think many of the students assumptions merely reflect how uncritically the term ‘welfare’ is often used though, and the focus on the post-war period as well. Is there much teaching which looks in particular at voluntary welfare in the pre-1945 period? If so, I’d be very interested to find out how people have found teaching that material to students who are very used to the ‘welfare state’ model.

  5. Many thanks for all of this – much food for thought as I prep my module over the summer, and I may very well get in touch to pick your respective brains. I think part of the challenge for me is in delineating the subject, as the ‘voluntary sector’ (or third sector, or not-for-profit sector, or NGOs) can be – and has been – defined in some many different ways. My particular interest is in the associational dimension: how and why people join organisations, and how doing so alters social relationships – the ‘social capital’ model, I suppose. This is connected to but stands outside the standard narratives of charity and welfare, and is also distinct from the story of NGOs and post-war protest politics which the DANGO project at Birmingham has brought to prominence in recent years. I want all three dimensions to be in the module, so the trick will be weaving them together in a way which makes sense for the students. Definitely interested in a teaching workshop, by the way.

  6. Ian Wakeling says:

    Leading on from Simon Fowler’s comment, obtaining input from the 50-60 in-house charity archives around the country would provide you with further perspectives; see: http://www.charmonline.org.uk/ for information about these. The Children’s Society Archive’s Hidden Lives Revealed website has also been used in many classroom and teaching situations, providing on-line access to archive documents: http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/

  7. Carl Allen says:

    To what purpose do we teach the History of Voluntary Action when the Groundhog Day effect is in play?

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