History of VAHS

The Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) was founded in 1991 by three people – Colin Rochester, Justin Davis Smith and Rodney Hedley – whose experience straddled academic study and practical experience of the voluntary sector and volunteering. Their aim was to address what they saw as the neglect of the history of voluntary action by historians and policymakers and the ignorance of their own heritage by those who worked in the voluntary sector.

VAHS rapidly attracted a membership of academics, practitioners, interested parties and policymakers and organised a series of seminars which were based at the London School of Economics for more than a decade. It became a registered charity in 1995. After a short period of inactivity it was relaunched in 2005 with Pat Starkey taking over as chair from Colin Rochester and Georgina Brewis taking over as secretary from Justin Davis Smith. Between 2005 and 2008 its seminars were peripatetic and took place at a variety of venues including the London School of Economics, the Foundling Hospital Museum, Dr Williams Library and CIVITAS before finding a permanent home at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London in 2009. At IHR it has held a series of well-attended seminars on a range of subjects covering periods from the medieval to the modern. It has also made available podcasts (and an occasional video) of most of these seminar presentations – the first in IHR’s seminar series to do so. Recently it has added to traditional seminars a series of ‘witness’ events in which key figures in the development of the voluntary sector and volunteering and the development of the academic study of voluntary action have reflected on their intellectual and professional life and work.

In addition to its programme of seminars VAHS has held:

  • Six international conferences on voluntary action: at the University of Liverpool in 2001; the University of Roehampton in 2003; the University of Liverpool in 2008; the University of Kent in 2010; the University of Huddersfield in 2013 and the University of Liverpool in 2016.
  • Occasional Saturday study days on specialist topics: voluntary action in the First World War, churches and voluntary action, councils for voluntary service and local voluntary action, leisure and voluntary action, conservation areas and the fight for heritage, and the past and future of infrastructure organisations.
  • A symposium, jointly organised with the Menzies Centre at King’s College, London, on the legacy of William Beveridge’s Voluntary Action in November 2008.
  • An event celebrating VAHS’s 20th anniversary in April 2011, which also included the launch of Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World (edited by Melanie Oppenheimer and Nicholas Deakin; Manchester University Press, 2011), which was based on papers presented at the symposium; and 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), which was based on papers presented at the third international conference.

VAHS has also engaged in other initiatives which support the development and professional health of the voluntary sector research community and the continued existence and accessibility of the source materials essential to its work. These include:

  • A New Researchers Project, generously funded by the Economic History Society, which involved training workshops and networking events tailored to the needs of postgraduate students and early researchers.
  • An ongoing campaign for the preservation and upkeep of the archives of voluntary organisations, which was relaunched, with the support of the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, as the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives at the House of Commons in October 2012. VAHS has deposited its own archives at the London School of Economics.