Social Care – A Reactive Profession

Even the most cursory glance at the way in which social care in Britain has developed over the past two hundred years will reveal two things – one, it was a piecemeal development and, two, most of the significant changes occurred because of a “knee jerk” reaction to confusion, crises and problems. A brief look at the early years of the social care system in this country should be sufficient to prove the point.

The social context of the 19th century

We tend to forget that government or state intervention into the affairs of both individuals and communities is a relatively new phenomenon. Formal education in this country, for example, did not begin until Forster’s Education Act of 1870, less than 150 years ago. And the provision of effective social care networks for children and young people is only marginally older. Equally as important, such networks had a clear link to the provision of services for children and young people who had fallen foul of the law. Their creation had at least as much to do with pragmatism as it did with philanthropy.

During the first half of the nineteenth century Britain was in the throes of rapid industrialisation, its population desperately attempting to cope with unparalleled economic and social change. Such was the speed and intensity of these changes that the intricate, delicate, structure of society came under immense strain and stress. There were desperate shortages of clean water supplies and of housing, while outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases were a common occurrence. Discontent was rife and often flared up into open rebellion and rioting.

It was no accident that the country’s first HMI inspection of educational provision took place at Newport in South Wales in 1840, one year exactly after the Chartist “attack” on the same industrial town. It had nothing to do with education, everything to do with examining the fabric of human existence.

Juvenile offenders

It was perhaps inevitable that children, the most vulnerable of all social groups, should show the strain most. Those who had little or no parental support were forced to fend for themselves and, if they could not find work or support from someone, invariably turned to crime. The early development of child care was, therefore, closely linked to the need to find ways of dealing with these criminal juveniles.

During the eighteenth century there had been virtually no separate treatment for young offenders – if you exclude specific interventions such as the Marine or the Royal Philanthropic Societies. Juvenile offenders were dealt with by the same means as their adult counterparts and judicial retribution was invariably harsh. In 1785, for example, out of 21 offenders executed in the city of London, 18 were under the age of twenty-one (1).

Faced by such terrible punishment many aggrieved individuals chose to deal out their own summary justice – a box around the ears or a quick ducking under the village pump. However, at the start of the nineteenth century things began to improve. Imprisonment began to replace punishments like hanging, branding, whipping or the stocks and, as a result, punishment for young offenders became considerably less severe but an awful lot more certain.

In 1842 government returns show that over 1,600 juveniles were committed to prison in that year alone. By 1847 the number had risen to 1,767 (2). And in the prisons young offenders came into daily contact with hardened criminals where they were efficiently schooled in their chosen profession in what were, effectively, academies of crime.

Provision for juvenile offenders

Such provision as did exist for young people was, at best, patchy and limited. The Royal Philanthropic Society had been founded in 1788, its intention being to provide asylum from the streets. Under the direction of Sydney Turner it offered an alternative to adult provision for those youngsters lucky enough to fall within its remit. There were other options, such as Parkhust Juvenile Prison (even though the boys section closed in April 1864) and Sheriff Watson’s feeding and industrial centre in Aberdeen, which opened in 1841.

Jonas Hanway’s Marine Society had been founded on the outbreak of war with France in 1756, its aim being to take destitute children off the streets and, after a period of education and respite on board the Society’s training ship Warspite, to send them off armed with a copy of Christian Knowledge Made Easy to face the twin rigours of enemy guns and life below decks on His Majesty’s warships (3). Apart from a few other philanthropic enterprises scattered across the country, that was about it!

Mary Carpenter and the perishing and dangerous classes

The figure of Mary Carpenter is hugely important in the growth of education and care for young people in this country. She began her work in these years, at a time when the British public came face to face with the problems of delinquency and juvenile deprivation. It was brought about largely by the ending of the system of transportation when, because of the huge increase of the prison population, reform of the penal system became a matter of urgency.

Influenced by the work of Joseph Tuckerman in America and by the success of places like the Rauhe Haus in Hamburg and La Colonie Agricole at Mettrai in France, Carpenter advocated the ending of adult incarceration for children and the establishing of reformatories for young offenders. She wrote and published her seminal work, Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes and Juvenile Offenders in 1851, claiming that such establishments would have:

“the desired effect of checking the progress of crime in those who have not yet subjected themselves to the grasp of the law, and of reforming those who are already convicted criminals (4).”

It was a bold claim but one that made Mary Carpenter, overnight, into a national figure. More importantly, the book and her campaigning stance led directly to the 1854 Youthful Offenders Act. By the terms of this Act any person under the age of 16 years could now be sent to one of the plethora of Reformatory Schools that quickly sprang up across the country.

The system was not perfect. It was, to start with, a voluntary system – the reformatories were not government-run even though the state oversaw the network. Those youngsters who were sent to such establishments had, first, to serve a preliminary prison sentence – thereby defeating much of the object in the first place – and the style and process of first gaining and then retaining a certificate to allow the reformatory to be run was, at best, cursory. But it was a start.

The point is simple. The creation of residential provision for young people who were either criminals (Mary Carpenter’s “Dangerous Classes”) or simply in danger of becoming so (the “Perishing Classes”) was a reactive process. Such a system would never have been provided had not the government of Britain been forced to react to the industrialisation of the country. The ending of transportation merely accelerated the process.

Social care has continued to react to problems rather than try to get ahead and be prepared for issues as they arise. Hence the continuing scandals that have dogged the profession down the years – but that is another story, another article, perhaps.

Why study child care history?

The question of why we study history has often been raised. Apart from the continuing interest in what are, at the end of the day, rattling good stories – something that no historian should ever ignore – there are only a few real reasons.

To begin with we study history to make sure we do not commit the same mistakes, now and in the future, that we did in the past. From the point of view of the social care professional, however, it is important that we know from whence we came. We need to know and understand our roots – without that knowledge we can never hope to call ourselves, in the true sense of the word, “professionals.”

Teachers, doctors, lawyers – they all know their origins. At the risk of posing a rhetorical question, how many social care practitioners have any type of understanding about the beginnings of their profession? I would guess at very few. Yet there is no way we can call ourselves professionals until we change that attitude. That is why the study of our history, our roots, is so crucial to the advancement of our task.


  1. John Hurt “Reformatory and Industrial Schools Before 1933.” Article in ‘History of Education,’ Vol 13, No 1, (London 1984)
  2. Thomas Beggs “An Inquiry into the Extent and Causes of Juvenile Depravity.” Published by Gilpin (London, 1849)
  3. James Stephen Taylor “Jonas Hanway” Published by Scolar Press (London, 1985)
  4. Mary Carpenter “Reformatory Schools for the Children of the Perishing and Dangerous Classes and for Juvenile Offenders.” Published by Gilpin (London, 1851)

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