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The interviews: background information

by Tim Cook and Harry Marsh

In August 1979 the Nuffield Foundation under its small grants social science research programme offered a grant of £1217 to the Department of Social Administration at the University of Lancaster to enable Alan Cohen, a lecturer in that department, to carry out a project on “personalised accounts of the development of social work institutions and ideas”. A supplementary grant of £200 was given in August 1981.

Alan had a long standing interest in the careers and reflections of important social work figures. There was a shortage then, as there is now, of such accounts – a view specifically put by Professor Harry Ferguson in his Foreword to Olive Stevenson’s Reflections on a Life in Social Work (2013).

The Revolution in Post-war Family Casework

In 1980-81 Alan interviewed 26 retired social workers and academics, all pioneers in their day, whose career paths in many ways replicated in Alan’s view the fundamental changes in social work and in society at that time. The aim was to use the material from the interviews to write a 240 page book on the theory and development of casework examining the casework process and looking at its operation in family casework, medical social work, psychiatric social work, probation and the early days of moral welfare. As part of that he was keen to discuss the reasons the 26 came into social work, the type of people who chose that profession and the nature of the training available.

It is clear from the notes that Alan left that the book was intended to be a series of “conversations” around certain themes such as, for example, the relevance to social work of psychoanalytic concepts. These exchanges would have been constructed through juxtaposing excerpts from the 26 interviewees to create in effect the appearance of a “conversation”.

There is no record of how the 20 women and 6 men were chosen or indeed if there were any others who refused to be interviewed. The predominance of women reflects the times, apart from the male dominated probation service. There were after all 30 women on Robina Addis’ course at the LSE in 1931. The selection was also rather too focused on London though the dominance of key institutions like the LSE and the Maudsley Hospital may have partly determined that. Indeed there was a debate in the 1920s as to whether the new Mental Health Course should be based at the LSE or the Maudsley. Nonetheless one does wonder what social work developments were occurring in, for example, the north-east.

The 26 covered a wide range of roles and professions. Almoners, probation, poor law relieving officers, Charity Organisation Society workers, medical social workers, psychiatric social workers, child care and local authorities were all represented. Some went on to become academics, others played critical roles on government committees, some wrote widely and reflected on their experiences. Some said they had been too busy ‘doing’ to write, often to Alan’s disappointment!

However Alan chose his 26, they are by no means a uniform group. There is great variety within such a small number. Perhaps the only generalisation that we can risk is to say that they all spent their whole working lives in the social work field at one level or another with an immense commitment to its development and all looked back on their careers with satisfaction but not in any sense self-satisfaction. Alan asked them all when and how they came into social work. They came from a variety of backgrounds and for many reasons. Some had a Christian upbringing, some a family tradition of service, some were searching for a profession open to them, some had an interest in children through say the scouts and one came through a personal family tragedy

Their social backgrounds were equally varied: the women ranged from Oxford graduates to refugees, though it is fair to say that Alan became perhaps unexpectedly interested in the small group of women from an educated middle or upper middle class. He saw them as “very powerful women”. How else, he wondered, did Eileen Younghusband persuade the Carnegie trustees to fund the course she initiated?! He sensed that this group was better able to hold their own when as psychiatric social workers they were faced for example with overbearing male doctors. He also saw them as more than holding their own on major committees or in dealing with senior civil servants. Not all those in that group necessarily agreed with Alan’s hypothesis and had never previously seen their background in that light, which doesn’t mean to say he was wrong! After all one PSW said that still in the 1940s you had to be “socially acceptable” to the doctors. Another made it clear she was not just going to be an “errand girl” in the hospital. Although social work overall was a female world one person recalled the first ever man on a child care course. The women interviewed here brought new professional attitudes and an increased intelligent understanding of the clients, far removed from the old divisions into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.

Many of the 26 were in fact important figures in the emerging profession of social work before and during the second world war. Only one person started their career after the war. Alan was clear that this survey of social work history would end in 1959, the year that Barbara Wootton published her landmark social work critique in Social Science and Social Pathology. There is some discussion of social work issues post-1959, particularly of Seebohm, but the heart of the material lies in the earlier period.

Just as there is no means of knowing how the 26 were chosen, so the exact methodology of the interviewing is equally unknown. Some interviewees refer to ‘our earlier conversation’ which suggests that there may have been a prior visit. Some seem to have been given advance notice of the questions. There is however no clearly defined standard approach though almost all were asked the same opening and closing questions. One thing that was common was that they were being asked to remember and reflect upon people and events that were part of their lives for anything up to 50 years previously, Robina Addis for example was born in 1900 and Lettice Harford in 1907. It is not so surprising therefore that much to Alan’s amazement and amusement that in 1980/81 they could not always recall articles they had written, significant though some of these now were in terms of social work developments. On the other hand, like the remarkable practitioners they were, they had little difficulty in providing Alan with most informative and lively anecdotes about clients they could recall, often with affection. However Alan decided upon these 26 people, there is no doubt that reading these interviews now in 2013 he chose well, for they all provide, individually and together, a fascinating and important insight into the early years of social work in the UK.

Additional information and backgrounds to the interviewees and their careers.