Voluntary Action in Changing Times: Creating History or Repeating It? Some advice for researchers – Meta Zimmeck

When VAHS chose the title of its conference (now postponed to 7–9 July 2021), we thought that this was a sort of sexy invitation to debate by historians of voluntary action across space and time, who would generally answer yes or no with different examples and different degrees of passion. The current pandemic, with backward glances at the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and the World Wars, has rather ramped up the cogency of this question. 

However, lessons from the past are not all doom and gloom, and I am happy to report some wisdom from the past which is directly transferable to the present and of particular interest to historians who will be teaching and giving papers at conferences.

‘Boil It down

When a speech you mean to make,

Boil it down!

Lengthy speeches never take,

Boil it down!

Stick to subject and keep cool,

Empty chatter shows the fool;

Short and sweet should be the rule,

Boil it down!

Try and think of something new,

Boil it down!

Ancient history will not do,

Boil it down!

Complete speeches don’t digest;

If you want to add a zest,

Just include some wholesome jest,

Boil it down!’

These pearls of wisdom were printed in The Sentinel, the journal of the Association of Ex-Naval and Military Civil Servants, Issue No.46, 12 August 1908.

The Association, which was active in all four nations of the UK, had one goal, “Colour Service to Count”, the counting of naval and military service towards Civil Service pensions and gratuities. In nearly thirty years of assiduous campaigning it failed completely to achieve this goal. Along the way, at the moment of its greatest strength in terms of the number of members, the number of branches and parliamentary support for its aim, it suffered a catastrophic organisational meltdown in 1910, which was only papered over in 1914, just in time for the First World War.

The Association’s meltdown was characterised by accusations and counter-accusations, libel actions, ‘fake news’, resignations/expulsions or members and branches, the establishment of an anti-association and even a contested referendum. Despite these rather florid manifestations, it has not been easy to extract from this ‘bear garden’ the factors which led to the break-up and then the re-establishment of the Association. 

Having spent years head down in The Sentinel and bemused by the thick detail at my command, I am hoping to ‘boil it down’ and come to a view of whether this meltdown was a unique occurrence never to be repeated or just another example of male hissy fits in an organisational setting.


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Don’t overlook this important contribution to the historiography of voluntary action! – Colin Rochester

Back in May 2018 one of our committee members, Bob Snape, used the VAHS Blog to introduce his book on Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change 1880-1939. I am embarrassed to admit that I missed Bob’s post and have only just caught up with this major contribution to the historiography of voluntary action – although the passage of time did mean I could buy the affordable paperback edition – which was published by Bloomsbury in October 2019.  

Perhaps the most important impact of Bob’s book is to shift the discussion of the development of leisure as voluntary action from the periphery of social policy to its centre. He argues persuasively that ‘voluntary association for leisure and conviviality has been under-explored in the in comparison with efforts to provide social relief or health care’ (p. 3) and summarises the aim of his book as explaining ‘how and why … leisure became associated with the idea of the common good valued for its potential capacity to realise the good society and adopted as a field for experimentation in the advocacy of social cultural and political values’ (p. 1).

The book begins with an introductory essay followed by ten tightly argued chapters which weave together theory – from a variety of social and cultural thinkers – and practice – in the shape of a plethora of associational activities. This material explores the changing nature of mid-nineteenth century Britain and the growth of leisure associations in response to concerns about ‘working class morality, drunkenness and public safety’; the subsequent influence of religious values; the role of the settlement movement; the importance of leisure activities in the development of a radical alternative to social work; the key role of the National Council of Social Service in promoting leisure activities in both town and country; the development of provision for young people; the impact of unemployment in the 1930s; and the growth of employer-based leisure facilities and activities. 

An important central chapter provides a key to the way in which leisure developed in the post-World War One period. It sets out Snape’s account of how leisure and voluntary action were developed in tandem and ‘presents an analytical account of the theorisation of leisure and voluntary action in post-First World War social reconstruction, locating them in discourses of social policy’ (p. 12). The book ends with a short but telling concluding chapter which suggests that ‘leisure was not a mundane or residual construct but a vital element of social and civic life and central to nineteenth- and twentieth-century discourses of democracy, community and voluntary action’ (p. 147) and explores the extent to which leisure and voluntary action could be seen as ‘enabling social change’ both through the vision of ‘an influential and relatively small coterie of intellectuals’, (p. 148) and as the result of the collective activities of a range of voluntary leisure associations.

This is not a cheap book (£25.00 in paperback for less than 200 pages of text) and it is not an easy read (it is densely argued and written with a care for detail which is ‘academic’ in the best sense of the word). But it is worth every penny and the time devoted to reading it is also well spent. Anyone with an interest in understanding voluntary action – and not just its history – will find that Bob Snape has contributed an important new dimension to its study. 

Details: Robert Snape, Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change in Britain, 1880-1939, London, Bloomsbury Academic

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A Different Kind of Conference: some reflections from Colin Rochester, one of the founders of the VAHS

Those who haven’t taken part in any of the six previous international conferences on the history of voluntary action may not be expecting the distinctive experience of the seventh event scheduled for the University of Liverpool in July 2020. Yes, of course, it is an academic conference with a plethora of papers on a wide variety of topics but it is so much more. 

Those taking part include both academics and practitioners who will bring to the conference a range of perspectives on the history of voluntary action which will deal with issues of philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help; the moving frontier between state and voluntary action; issues of social justice and social change; and the increasing hybridity of voluntary sector organisations. 

This varied diet will be supplemented by field trips to places of interest in a city which has a rich history of involvement in voluntary action as well as opportunities for participants to mix on a social level with a voluntary action quiz and conference dinner held in a magnificent building and followed by dancing to the sounds of our own jazz band. 

And overall the conference provides a relaxed, friendly and convivial space for anyone with an interest in the history of voluntary organisations and volunteer involvement. Don’t miss it!

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Findings from VAHS’s survey of members and friends: ‘Good to know you exist!’ Meta Zimmeck

For some time VAHS has wanted to be in closer touch with our members and friends in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses of what we are doing and, if possible, to make changes that might make our activities and research outputs more accessible, interesting and effective.

Between September 2017 and May 2018 we invited our 270 members and friends to participate in a web-based survey (our first ever), and we received completed surveys from 63 members and friends, a response rate of 23%.

This is what respondents told us:

  • 90% of respondents were based in England, the majority in Greater London and the South East, and the remainder in other regions, except the East Midlands and the North East; 5% were based in the other nations of the UK, except Northern Ireland; and 5% were based abroad.
  • 54% of respondents were academics; 29% were retired; 14% were consultants, researchers and writers in the government and private sectors; and 8% were practitioners.
  • Two-thirds of respondents initially heard about VAHS and its activities by rather vague and unspecific methods (52% by word of mouth, 8% by attending or speaking at seminars or conferences and 6% by long-term involvement), and the remaining third, by more immediate, mainly electronic, methods (18% by IHR’s/VAHS’s websites, 13% by VAHS’s e-mail announcements and 2% by Twitter/social media).
  • All respondents but one usually heard about VAHS and its activities through VAHS’s e-mail announcements.
  • 90% of respondents attended seminars; 27%, Saturday study days; and 25%, both seminars and Saturday study days.
  • 48% of respondents attended one or more international conferences (six since 2001) of which the best-attended conferences were Liverpool in 2008, Canterbury in 2010 and Liverpool in 2016. More than half of respondents who had attended conferences attended two or more conferences.
  • 33% of respondents read the collection of research papers from the conference in Liverpool in 2008, 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); 52% read blogs; and 19% listened to podcasts of seminars (both blogs and podcasts available through VAHS’s website).
  • Respondents reported high levels of enjoyment in VAHS’s activities – in particular, the focus on voluntary action, a specialist subject otherwise marginalised by mainstream social research; opportunities for learning; opportunities for networking; bridging past and current debates on policies and practices; and conviviality (there was much favourable comment about VAHS’s friendly and welcoming approach to a cross-disciplinary community and those at all stages of their research careers).
  • Respondents reported a number of barriers to joining in VAHS’s activities and events – in particular, the location of seminars in London (and therefore the time and cost involved in attending for those who did not live within easy-travelling distance), other commitments such as childcare, teaching or other work; time constraints generally; lack of interest/relevance of particular seminars; and lack of personal organisation.
  • Respondents also made suggestions for improvement, some of which we have already implemented and all of which we will be considering.
  • Overall on a scale from 1 (least likely) to 10 (most likely) respondents gave VAHS a composite score of 8.25 on how likely they were to recommend VAHS to a colleague or friend. This is a remarkably high score as such and in comparison to Surrvey Monkey’s global benchmark for the same question.

While we do not have (and never have had) detailed and complete information about the characteristics and views of our members and friends, we cannot say that these findings are representative, but they are indicative of the views of some of our more committed and enthusiastic members and friends. We are very pleased with these findings and will do our best to keep up the good work and, if possible, do even better work in future.

The full report is available here.

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Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change.

Bob Snape is a Reader in Leisure and Sport and also Head of the Centre for Worktown Studies at the University of Bolton. His research centres on the history of leisure 1850–1939. He has published on a number of voluntary organisations, notably the National Home Reading Union and the Co-operative Holidays Association. His current research is focused on leisure and voluntary social service in post-World War One social reconstruction.

Much of the early historiography of leisure in Britain was concerned with mid-nineteenth century rational recreation and the moral improvement of sports, games and amusements through philanthropic and religious intervention.  The idea of ‘recreation,’ with its utilitarian overtones, was well suited to the period; by opening parks, building libraries and museums, establishing Sunday schools and forming social institutions for young adults, for example the YMCA and YWCA, the use of spare time could be moulded to encourage moral behaviour and civilized manners. However, by the later nineteenth century the concept of recreation as part of a civilising mission became less credible as social investigations, notably Alexander Mearns’ The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, published in 1883, revealed extensive drunkenness and vice and both spiritual and material poverty in the capital city. Rational recreation, it appeared, had not worked. Christian socialism and a nascent social science argued that social problems could not be addressed by focusing on the individual but through social solutions and radical changes to social structures and institutions. Accordingly charitable philanthropy, which worked on the principle of case-work, identifying and helping the deserving poor, was increasingly criticized by advocates of social work who saw change in society as a prerequisite for individual betterment. The decades on either side of the beginning of the twentieth century saw a contest between advocates of charitable philanthropy, exemplified in the Charity Organization Society, and social liberals and Fabian socialists who sought to displace its model of philanthropy by social work. By 1930 charitable philanthropy was by no means extinct but social work, by then widely referred to as social service, had become dominant within policy discourse. The relevance of this to leisure is that it was within this transition that a modernizing social idea of leisure superseded that of recreation. In other words, the historical development of voluntary action from charity to social work and of rational recreation to leisure were closely entwined, not just in terms of practice but also of theory.

The processes through which this came about are detailed and complex.  From the eighteen-eighties social and philosophical interpretations of leisure became of interest to social policy makers and cultural commentators, producing a discourse of leisure and voluntarism that flourished until the Second World War but which remains largely overlooked in the historiography of both leisure and voluntary action. Through the work of John Ruskin and William Morris, leisure acquired a humane value but was not, as the social economist John Hobson pointed out, equally distributed. A major influence on debate around leisure was Thomas Hill Green and his school of social idealist philosophers who articulated a model of the good society and the political obligations of the citizen, thus connecting the use of leisure with social change and citizenship. The work of these social critics and philosophers helped shape theory and policy around social work and leisure and was diffused through a multiplicity of channels which included monographs and journal articles, particularly those published in the International Journal of Ethics, seminars, and discussion circles concerned with the social sciences. There was too, from the eighteen-nineties, considerable correspondence between social workers in Britain and those in the United States of America where similar concerns about urban working-class life and citizenship were becoming pressing.

After the First World War the demand for radical social reconstruction led to increased interest in voluntary action in terms of community building. The National Council of Social Service, established in 1919, saw the enhancement of community well-being as one of, if not the most important, of its tasks. Its first conference was held in Manchester in 1919 on the theme of ‘The Leisure of the People’ with a range of papers outlining proposals for varied forms of voluntary action through and for leisure. Leisure had important theorists in the inter-war period, notably Ernest Barker, a classicist who as Chair of the National Council of Social Service New Estates Community Committee re-articulated Aristotle’s work on leisure and civic action as a model for voluntarism through housing estate community centres and Cecil Delisle Burns, Stevenson Lecturer in Citizenship at the University of Glasgow, who saw a new leisure of mass culture, voluntary association and shared experience as a harbinger of a modern civilization. More radical understandings of leisure and social change through voluntary association and action were proposed by left wing associations, for example the Kibbo Kift, Woodcraft Folk and various worker-sport organizations.

Leisure and voluntary action were thus inter-twined in several different social, political and cultural contexts. Social change was not always a sought outcome; several organizations remained conservative in outlook while numerous expressive voluntary associations existed solely to enable or promote participation in a hobby or a sport. The histories of those organizations which did seek social change through leisure, however, open a new and revealing window on social policy and voluntary action in a period of rapid and extensive social change in Britain. Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change in Britain 1880-1939 (London:  Bloomsbury, 2018) attempts to capture these patterns of integration of voluntary action and leisure and to re-introduce some significant and relatively forgotten thinkers on leisure, social citizenship and voluntary association.

For publisher’s webpage click here.

To see a preview of the book click here.

For more information and book discount click here.

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