Not a history of social work, but a history of social workers

Dave Burnham’s new book The Social Worker Speaks: A History of Social Workers Through the Twentieth Century has just been published. It charts the motivations, work activities and attitudes of social workers across the country from 1904 to 1989, and includes the words and thoughts of social workers themselves.

Below is an edited extract from the author’s introduction. You can read the introduction in full, and get further information about the book on our website.

This book is about social workers; the ordinary men and women across the twentieth century who toiled on society’s front line. The account describes their motivations, work practices and interventions, wherever possible in their own words, set against social and cultural developments, legislative changes and practice requirements. To allow the narrative to flow, the tale returns regularly to the social workers in one town.

This is no history of ‘Social Work’ the profession, it is about individual social workers. This is an unusual approach so I shall explain what I have done.

Most histories of social work are partial, concentrating on particular aspects of the profession, or on grand characters in social work, pioneers such as Octavia Hill or Eileen Younghusband. Other histories have a clear focus on a particular field of activity or organisation: hospital social work, psychiatric social work, the Children’s Society. Some histories of social work published towards the end of the twentieth century focus on various crises in social work, from the mid seventies onwards, when social work’s status and role was questioned from the left and its very purpose questioned from the right.

Read any of these histories and look for individual social workers and the reader will not find them – very few mention front line workers or discuss their day-to-day experience.

The partiality of such histories, histories without people, is akin to the way histories of the Great War were presented until Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme (1971) was published with its direct quotes from 500 ordinary soldiers involved. When Middlebrook submitted his manuscript Penguin asked Corelli Barnett to review it. A fine historian of the Great War in the traditional vein, Barnett commented that Seigfried Sassoon and Henry Williamson had already told the tale from the trenches so Middlebrook’s book was not necessary. But Sassoon and Williamson were both middle class, both writers, both educated and had been officers. Barnett just did not get it. Penguin published Middlebrook’s book and it has sold 40,000 copies (Middlebrook 2004). Subsequently, first class scholars like Lyn McDonald (The Roses of No Man’s Land, 1980; 1914, 1987) followed Middlebrook’s lead and now no account of the Great War would be considered complete without observations about and from men in the trenches.

This gap in the history of social work has broader connotations. Consider the idea of the social worker available to the general population. There are, I would contend, three broad public images.

There are those unfortunates caught up in child deaths or other failings: real people involved in thankfully short-lived media storms, but as silent and furtive on TV news bulletins as murder suspects as they scuttle into buildings holding enquiries. Then there are the fleeting, ill-drawn but invariably wooden figures who occasionally appear in TV soaps, interviewing the main characters who want to become foster parents, or whose dad can no longer cope. The third example is Clare in the Community.

Compare this stilted, demeaning set of images with the idea the general population has of teachers for instance or doctors, priests, nurses or police officers. Novels, radio and TV dramas offer us scores of examples – Jane Tennison, Gene Hunt, James Herriot and so on. These may be inaccurate or idealised, but they breathe; they live.

Anyone who has done the work understands that life as a social worker can be fascinating, scary and rewarding; offering horrendous insights into the way people suffer, granting flashes of achievement. But only social workers know this. Social workers have not told their stories.

The research methods used have been simple. There are three strands:

1. I undertook a survey of the literature. This included a search for unpublished MA and PhD theses as well as a review of the histories of social work written from 1900 onwards. Part of the literature search included a subcategory exploration for accounts by individual social workers. There are diaries, memoirs, some autobiographies and even a few autobiographical novels.

2. I reviewed a considerable amount of material in the Bolton History Centre (BHC), the public archive in Bolton. There is a good set of Poor Law and Public Assistance records there and records of many voluntary organisations. I have also consulted records in London, Birmingham, Manchester, York, Bury and Preston.

3. I sought out social workers from across England and contacted about 70 people seeking reminiscences. As a result of that I have taken personal testimony from 48 social workers, one or two who started before the end of the war and a few others, at the other end of the scale who are still working. There are of course contributions in the records of social work associations from front line workers, but I have avoided these because I wanted to capture the individual experience, not organisational or political views. Similarly I have interviewed people whose careers culminated in senior positions or in social work education and research but have deliberately not asked them about their years of leadership or their time in academia.

Any historian, especially one personally involved in the area of study, as I have been since 1973, cannot escape the accusation of having some agenda. I trained as a probation officer on a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work (CQSW) course at Leicester University between 1973 and 1975. I worked as a probation officer for three years in Nottingham, then latterly as a child care social worker in Manchester before moving away into training and management in the 1980s. I am married to a social worker. Some of my best friends are social workers. So I have some conscious biases and no doubt unconscious ones too.

Of conscious biases underpinning the approach to this text, I lay claim to three. First of all I offer a vehicle for people to tell their tale and try to report people’s views directly. I suppose I am following J.R. Green whose observations of charitable workers are quoted in Chapter One. Green was a clergyman-turned historian who rejected the Rankian claim that all history is the history of politics and diplomacy, refuting drum and trumpet history as he called it, and wrote instead about people.

Secondly I have tried to uncover the tales of people whose roles have been largely ignored in previous histories. So part of the aim here is to tell the tales of those social workers working before 1948 under the Poor Law. Thirdly I have deliberately attempted to consult a broad and non-traditional evidence base.

Using personnel records, memoirs and novels as material for a history of social workers brings to mind R.G. Collingwood’s observation that historical understanding develops sometimes with the use of evidence historians have hitherto thought useless. Butterworth’s admonition to historians to empty their minds is impossible but I have tried to stand outside the system, at a distance looking in, leaving my contemporary baggage at the door.

Despite it all I have no doubt brought my own biases to bear here. But in doing so I hope I have produced a solid and colourful contribution to the debate. While succeeding histories on the same subject may not be cumulative, differing approaches, contrasting views and even conflict is good for debate and increases the readers’ ability to reach or reconsider his or her own truth. So partial as this history is, if it offers a different angle on the past or encourages anyone to seek out the history of social workers in their own area, it has done its job.

Dave Burnham

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