Interview with Ken Powls, veteran social worker

Ken Powls' career in social work predates the welfare state. He tells Mithran Samuel why progress since 1930 has been immense

Ken Powls’ career in social work predates the welfare state. He tells Mithran Samuel why progress since 1930 has been immense

Ken Powls is a living link with social work’s pre-history before the emergence of the welfare state following World War Two.

The 96-year-old’s career spanned five decades and was dominated by concepts that have long been expunged from the social work lexicon: “Poor Law”; “asylum”; “outdoor relief”; “lunacy”.

He has now published a memoir, Many Lives, which, among other recollections, lays bare the parlous treatment that was meted out – in the state’s name – to the less well off and to those with mental illness not so long ago.

Powls’ career started in 1930 as a 16-year-old assistant relieving officer with the East Riding County Council, soon after it took over responsibility for administering the Poor Law.

This mainly consisted of making outdoor relief payments to older and disabled people in their own homes. But he also had the less savoury task of taking people who could no longer maintain themselves at home to the local workhouse (later the public assistance institution) in the village of Howden.

“I saw people at their very worst. People used to be turned out of their homes under this awful system of having a job tied to a home,” he says.

“I used to have to sit in the front of a house with all the family waiting for the van to take their furniture away and for me to then take the family to the workhouse.”

He also had to take pregnant women to the workhouse labour ward, if doctors deemed they could not give birth at home because of insanitary conditions.

“They used to leave it to the last minute. I knew of an instance of a woman giving birth on the steps of the workhouse,” he says.

Powls also worked as a duly authorised officer – the equivalent of an approved mental health professional today – a capacity in which he went round “grabbing” people deemed a danger to the public, under the Lunacy Act 1890, and taking them to asylums.

The client group were mainly people with schizophrenia and the lack of drug treatments at the time made for several harrowing experiences.

“One chap blew his head off in front of me. Another slit his throat. It was very stressful.”

Those who made it to the asylum were “placed in a locked ward where everything was chained down”. He says the disease would “burn itself out” but by then people were so institutionalised that a return to the community made their lives worse.

“They were put in private bed and breakfasts and they were turfed out each day at breakfast and not allowed to return until 6pm. In Hull you used to see them wandering about like zombies. A number used to come back and knock on the doors of the hospital begging to be let back in.”

Powls was still working when the Seebohm reforms arrived in 1971, and became an area officer. The reforms created unified social services departments out of the old welfare and children’s departments.

He retired in 1979 and was awarded an MBE for services to the care of people with mental health problems.

Having worked through the pre-welfare state era, he is convinced that there has been huge progress in the way the state treats vulnerable people.

“It was so bad it couldn’t get any worse. It’s wonderful that people are looked after. The welfare state is now so entrenched that no government dares change it.”

the arrival of caseloads

But he recognises that the arrival of social services departments brought, major challenges such as higher caseloads. He recounts a case from the early seventies of a woman with depression whom he was asked to supervise by the courts after she killed her two children. The intensive work he was able to do with her improved her condition significantly, but he had to hand over her case to the field social workers he managed once he became an area officer.

At that time caseloads were increasing as patients were discharged from long-stay hospitals “so social workers didn’t have the time to focus on one person as I did”. The woman later killed herself.

Despite working in a role that did not require him to serve during the second world war, Powls decided to do so and is a Dunkirk veteran.

Following his retirement, he has made his name as a historian of Howden, where he has spent most of his life. His memoir is his third book and follows Howden: an East Riding Market Town (1994) and Howden: the Untold Story (2007).

“I just like writing. It’s as simple as that,” he adds.

This article is published in the 17 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline From the Workhouse to Seebohm, via Dunkirk

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