From Shakespeare to East End gangsters, Emmeline Pankhurst to
Percy Shaw, who invented the luminous cat’s eye, the Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography’s 50,000 entries are contained in
the 61,440 pages of its 60 volumes.
Among the most notable and eccentric, innovative and notorious,
famous and infamous Britons of the past 2,400 years, social work
figures are amply represented. This is no small feat: among the
professions, social work is a Jenny-come-lately, a product of 19th
century industrial societies.
When Sir Lesley Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, was editing
the first volume of the ODNB, which appeared in 1885, there was
nothing recognisable of the profession that exists today. However,
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) had pioneered casework in the Charity
Organisation Society and the great children’s charities had been
founded: Rev Thomas Bowman Stephenson (1839-1912) had created what
is now NCH; Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) founded Dr Barnardo’s;
while Edward Rudolf (1852-1933) founded what is now the Children’s
Society; and the Rev Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908) what became the
The dictionary tends to use the phrase social work as a synonym
for good works as well as the title of a recognised professional
activity. And it throws up some unusual practitioners, such as the
Zimbabwean politician Joshua Nkomo (1917-1999) and the post-war
Labour prime minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967) from his days at
London’s Toynbee Hall. Here the most privileged people were brought
in to live in the poorest area of London, Tower Hamlets, and paid
for the honour. The founders hoped the experience would change
society for the better. Now, the charity works to combat poverty in
the same area.
In more modern times the almoner was the most distinctive form
of social worker. Thus, not surprisingly, Margaret Kelly
(1912-1989), Marjorie Steel (1904-1985) and Edith Warren
(1903-1980), pioneers of hospital social work, find a place.
Sheridan Russell (1900-1991), we are told, had a distinguished
career as an almoner, but we aren’t told that he was one of the
first men to qualify to be one. He shares his entry with his wife,
Kit (1909-1998), who with her friend, Eileen Younghusband
(1902-1981), pioneered social work training. It was the latter’s
report that led to the establishment of a Council for Training in
Social Work and a social work certificate.
Others listed include Barbara Kahan (1920-2000), who chaired the
1991 Pindown Inquiry and was said “not to suffer fools gladly”, and
Nicholas Hinton (1942-1997), who led voluntary agencies including
Save the Children and the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations. He lived up to his dictum that “one should wear a
dark suit and think radical thoughts” to gain influence in
Kenneth Brill (1911-1991), was 63 when he became a social
services director and would also do out-of-hours duty work. But it
was as the first director of the British Association of Social
Workers that he helped to shape the emerging social services.
John Chant (1938-1995), the only person to grow up in the care
of the service of which he later became director (Somerset), is
referred to as “probably the most influential social work leader of
his generation”, a title that some might think could equally apply
to Newcastle’s Brian Roycroft, who is not listed as he died after
the 2000 cut-off.
Some entrants – although not social workers – influenced
practice, services and knowledge. Academics Richard Titmuss
(1907-1973), Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996) and Barbara Wootton
(1897-1988) gain entries, as do child psychotherapists Donald
Winnicott (1896-1971), whose wife, Clare (1906-1984) was both a
social worker and psychotherapist, and Barbara Dockar-Drysdale
Civil servants include the charismatic Derek Morrell (1921-1969)
of the Department of Health and Social Security, who with Joan
Cooper (1914-1999), later chief inspector of the social work
service, developed what was to result in the Children and Young
Persons Act 1969.
The new edition comes 103 years after the completion of the
dictionary in 1901. Companion volumes are likely to appear every
three or five years, with online updating three times a year.
Ironically, another century’s volumes may show that the newest
profession’s title soon became lost beneath a plethora of new job