Warfare to welfare

Celebrations on 8 May will mark the 60th anniversary of the
allied victory over Nazi Germany. Whatever else the war is known
for, it is little recognised that the war was also significant for
the promotion of better services for deprived children.

Child care and social work were not on the political agenda in 1939
when the war broke out. Local authority public assistance
departments and education departments provided care for different
categories of needy children but gave priority to pauper adults and

Government responsibility was split between three ministries.
Voluntary societies had more than 1,000 residential homes but had
lost much of their drive. Child guidance clinics, imported from the
USA, were bringing in new ideas but were few in number. In general,
child care and social work were not an issue of public

That was to change dramatically. Within days of the declaration of
war in September 1939, hundreds of thousands of children – I was
one -were sent from the bombing danger zones to reception safe
zones. In all, six million children were evacuated in three
Before long, some foster parents were complaining that the evacuees
“were dirty and verminous, guilty of enuresis and soiling both by
day and night, ill-clad and ill-shodÉthat some were
destructive and defiant, foul-mouthed, liars and

The complaints had two results. One was that the receiving
authorities appointed child care visitors, mainly recruited from
those who had helped organise the evacuations. They were expected
to see the children once a month and help the carers cope with
problems. The Ministry of Health employed regional welfare officers
to advise the visitors. Lucy Faithfull, later to be one of the
great children’s officers, was the officer for the Midlands.

The other outcome was that researchers became interested in the
subject. Susan Issacs and her colleagues studied about 700 London
children who had been evacuated to Cambridge. They concluded that
the evacuees fared best with carers who were in their 30s or 40s,
when other children were present in the home, and when their own
parents kept in contact.

The child care visitors met evacuee children who foster parents
were finding difficult. They referred some to child guidance
clinics for bedwetting, stealing and aggression. The clinic at
Cambridge assessed that 15 per cent needed residential care. But,
clinics did not exist in many areas and the visitors told senior
officials that some foster parents could not cope. So, backed by
grants from central government, local authorities established over
700 hostels (or children’s homes) for disturbed children, surely
the most rapid growth of statutory residential provision in British

In Peebleshire, Scotland, the council co-operated with the Society
of Friends to found Barnes House, led by David Wills who became a
prominent figure in the world of residential care. But most hostels
had inexperienced staff and, in some places, the children ran riot.
The authorities responded by calling in expert help. In
Oxfordshire, the prominent psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott, was
enlisted part-time as consultant to the staff in five

Clare Britton (who later married Winnicott), a psychiatric social
worker, had overall responsibility for the hostels. Together they
published papers on the functions of hostels, the way they should
be organised, and the skills and training needed by staff.
As a result of the evacuations, some local authorities had
recruited field staff, established hostels, provided psychiatric
help and recognised the need for training. Academics were showing
what made for success and failure in foster placements. A new
children’s service was being shaped.

Concern about child poverty had been voiced in the 1930s. However,
governments never made it a prime concern as the independent MP,
Eleanor Rathbone, discovered as she tried in vain to get the
backing of the House of Commons for family allowances.

The evacuations transported many poor children from the inner
cities to more prosperous areas. For the first time, many middle
class citizens came face-to-face with poverty. Social historian
Arthur Marwick said this “aroused a new sense of social concern”
among the articulate few.

Among these were the professional women who made up The Women’s
Group on Public Welfare. They surveyed evacuees, expressed
indignation at their poverty and recommended reforms, including
family allowances. Their report, Our Towns: A Close-up, ran to
three editions in 1943. It demonstrated that by this time
middle-class people wanted welfare reform.

It was not just the evacuation that shaped opinion. William Temple,
the Archbishop of Canterbury, made the Christian case for a welfare
state. Labour MPs were in the cabinet of the coalition government
and backed the Beveridge Report of 1942 which based its social
security proposals on the assumption that family allowances would
be introduced.

Rathbone seized her chance and the Family Allowances Act became law
in 1945 a few months before she died.

Poverty reform came before child care reform but the wheels of
change were in motion. Local authorities coping with evacuees
turned to central government for advice and financial support. The
increase in the number of child care social workers gave rise to a
lobby for training. The government concluded that the old public
assistance departments were not good enough and by 1944 the idea of
a new local authority children’s committee was circulating around

The reform movement was led by Lady Marjory Allen, a pacifist who
would not assist the war effort but would help children. She was
appalled at the low standards of the residential establishments she
investigated. Not only was central responsibility for the homes
fragmented between government departments but also none of them
properly inspected the homes.

She brought together a number of eminent child care figures,
including Winnicott and Leila Rendel, the director of the
progressive Caldecott Community. On 15 July 1944, The Times
published a letter from Lady Allen calling for an official

Following this The Times received more letters about child
deprivation than any other single topic during the war. MPs called
for action and the home secretary Herbert Morrison promised an

Morrison dallied until tragedy forced his hand in January 1945. A
school attendance officer could not find foster homes for two boys
because of the number of evacuees in the area. Eventually he put
them in an isolated farm where one died of cruelty and neglect. As
well as setting up an investigation into the death, Morrison also
announced the members of two committees, the Curtis Committee for
England and Wales and the Clyde Committee for Scotland, to examine
the needs of “children deprived of a normal home life”.

The Curtis Committee soon considered that training was so important
for field and residential staff that it issued an interim report
calling for a Central Training Council for Child Care. The
government responded and courses were established.

The Curtis and Clyde Reports were published in 1946. Their main
recommendations were embodied in the Children Act 1948. It decreed
that a local authority children’s committee be responsible for all
children under the age of 17 whose parents or guardians were unable
to provide for them, for children committed by the courts, and
certain other children in need. The committees would oversee
children’s departments whose sole brief was for deprived children.
At government level, just one ministry was to be responsible. The
act specified that fostering was the most desirable method of care
followed by residential care.

The reforms in child care by 1948 would not have seemed possible 10
years before. Child care officers became the driving force for
professional social work while children’s departments were to be
the cornerstones of social services departments and social work

These reforms were not solely due to the war for they had all been
discussed before 1939. But the war acted as a catalyst, pushing
forward social change. As Donald Winnicott pointed out in a BBC
broadcast, evacuation involved millions of people, namely the
parents who were parted from their children, the evacuees, and the
foster parents. Separated children became a national issue. In
celebrating the end of the war, we should also celebrate what the
experience of war at home did for children, children’s services and
social work.

(1) Women’s Group on Public Welfare, Our Towns: A Close-up, OUP,

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