The Work of the Charity Organisation Society

A timeline of the development of the Charity Organisation Society, 101 stories spanning nearly 200 years of social and economic change. Created by Nicola Horsley and Michael Lambert.

1832-04-14 08:09:32

Rev Chalmers, the 'Patron Saint of COS', Develops Early Case Work Methods

The work of Reverend Thomas Chalmers amongst the poor of Glasgow from 1819-23 would be one of the two great influences on the early COS. He argued that the moral condition of the masses was the key to their economic success and that pauperism was a sign of personal weakness. Also, as Minister of St John's Parish, Glasgow, he conducted an experiment, dividing the area into 25 districts for extensive investigation of applicants' circumstances. Public relief was replaced with Chalmers' parish fund. Only after personal investigation by visitors was the fund distributed, and he concluded that this was the best method to assess the condition of the poor - this became known as case work. While the results of the experiment were mixed, Chalmers' approach and methods inspired the COS founders. Charles Loch Mowat, the Grandson of the influential COS secretary Charles Loch described him as 'almost the patron saint of the organisation'.

1834-05-09 02:49:41

'Workhouse Test' Intensifies Plight of Poor Families

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act aimed to simplify complex and varied local arrangements for dealing with the poor into one unified system and to cut government spending on the poor. It revived the 1723 concept of the workhouse test - the idea that the workhouse should serve as a deterrent to pauperism and therefore distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor who lacked the moral fibre to avoid such a shameful fate. It withdrew much of the support that had been available to poor families, forcing many into the workhouse regime, which was deliberately harsh and often cruel in order to deter all but the most desperate applicants.

1851-07-01 17:43:39

Deserving or Undeserving?

Henry's Mayhew's sensationalist account of the lives of the capital's families in London Labour and the London Poor brought the experiences of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' alike into the homes and minds of Victorian London's well-to-do.

1865-01-01 00:11:31

COS Pioneer Octavia Hill Begins her Social Housing Projects

Victorian philanthropist John Ruskin donated £750 for Hill to buy three houses in Paradise Place, Marylebone, with others purchased soon after. She employed rent collectors who were also responsible for encouraging punctuality, thrift and respectability in the tenants. Hill later installed a meeting room and social centre in one of her properties, where classes were held and peer support was given. Hill's case work methodology would prove significant in the early work of COS visitors. Peer support is a highly effective way of supporting families for Family Action today.

1869-01-01 03:59:34

Charity Organisation Society Established

The inaugural meeting of the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity (which became known as the COS) was held on 29th April 1869 as a result of a series of meetings between the Association for the Prevention of Pauperism and Crime in the Metropolis and interested benefactors.

1869-01-01 03:59:34

National Children's Home (Action for Children) Founded

NCH was founded by Rev Thomas B Stephenson, a young Methodist Minister, when he converted a disused stable into a home for orphans and abandoned children in Church Street in London's Waterloo. NCH would go on to become Action for Children in 2008 and still provides a broad range of services and support for children and their families.

1869-11-27 13:43:42

Poor Law Endorses COS Priciples on the Limits of Charity

The publication of the Goshen Minute on 17th November 1869 marked out the limits of charity. It promoted the work of the COS's District Committees and visitors in using case work to assess the moral fibre of destitute families.

1870-01-01 14:43:24

COS Opens the First Employment Enquiry Office

The COS continually undertook experimental ventures and investigations concerning the lives of London's poor. The Employment Enquiry Office was the first of many such ideas.

1870-01-01 22:03:41

Barnardo Opens a Home for Destitute Boys

Thomas Barnardo founded a boys' orphanage in 1870 and later opened a girls' home. By the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo oversaw 96 institutions. His work was continued by the charity Dr Barnardo's Homes. In 1950, the charity changed its focus from the direct care of children in homes to fostering and adoption. It continues this work today as Barnardo's.

1870-11-19 17:05:49

Compulsory Education Introduced

The 1870 Elementary Education Act introduced the first form of compulsory schooling for children aged 5 to 13 in Britain. It required local areas to create School Boards and to ensure attendance, basic standards of teaching and minimal classroom facilities.

1873-01-01 16:33:26

The Long Depression

The Long Depression, 1873-96, was a global financial crisis which had a dramatic impact on social and economic life in London, for the British Empire and the COS.

1875-01-01 03:11:51

'He made the COS, he was the COS'

Charles Stewart Loch became Secretary of the COS in 1875. His personal influence was enormous.

1877-01-01 15:17:49

The COS Expands Across the Globe

The first Charity Organisation Society in the United States was established in Buffalo in 1877. The Reverend Samuel Gurteen had been very active in the London COS and responded to the distress he saw after becoming assistant minister at a church in Buffalo by popularising the COS model through sermons. He then launched the Buffalo COS to investigate the cases of all applicants to the overseer of the poor and all other applicants for charity, regardless of 'religious creed, politics or nationality'. Over the next five years, 21 other Charity Organisation Societies were established across the United States. In 1882, the COS's 14th Annual Report listed 125 societies and affiliates in Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Canda, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Natal, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. By 1895 there were 125 in the United States alone.

1877-10-26 16:51:16

The Padroni

The investigation of begging by Italian street-singing children, or Padroni, was a particularly well-publicised action by the COS. The COS became renowned for their periodic investigations into other charities and the problem of encouraging begging by giving out money without investigating the beggar.

1878-01-01 11:10:45

The Salvation Army Begins its Mission of Soup, Soap and Salvation

The Salvation Army was founded by William and Catherine Booth from their Methodist Mission in East London, which had been running since 1865. They sought to teach and redeem the poor of London through the ‘three 'S’s of soup, soap and salvation’.

1881-01-01 06:25:59

Horrors Exposed by COS Sanitary Aid Committee Force Policy Change

The case work of the COS soon exposed them to the very real difficulties under which families were forced to live in Victorian London. Octavia Hill and Beatrice Webb wrote of their despair at the degradation and demoralisation of the poor. Whilst they encouraged families to make the most of their situation, the COS also campaigned to promote wider reforms.

1882-01-06 15:17:49

Publication of C S Loch's How to Help Cases of Distress

Loch's handbook was an essential manual for generations of COS workers. It had reached its 35th edition by 1936 and remained largely unchanged.

1884-01-01 12:33:51

Toynbee Hall Established

Toynbee Hall was built on Commercial Street, Spitalfields, as one of the first University Settlements. Named in honour of historian Arnold Toynbee, the Hall was a place for researchers to study the problems of London’s east end poor by living and working among them and experiencing their plight.

1884-01-04 05:27:22

Fabian Society Formed

The Fabian Society was formed from earlier radical organisations in order to press for political change and the renewal of humanist values in Victorian Britain. Its progressive mission and association with the Labour Party, along with two prominent early members, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, would lead to successive confrontations with the COS in the years before 1914.

1884-03-28 01:18:16

NSPCC Founded

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, renamed in 1889, started life as the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (LSPCC) in 1884. One of the key influential founders, Lord Shaftesbury, was a patron and active member of the COS.

1888-11-26 10:32:22

Invalid Children's Aid Association (I CAN) Founded

The Association started as a two-year experimental venture between the COS and St George’s Hospital from 1886 to 1888 before becoming an independent organisation.

1889-01-03 19:18:33

Charles Booth Maps London Poverty

The first volume of Booth’s survey into the extent of poverty in London, Life and Labour of the People in London, was published in 1889; the second in 1891. The evidence he presented challenged the idea that the poor were to blame for their plight, and pointed to poverty as a problem of low and irregular wages and of the aged unable to continue working.

1889-08-14 04:07:16

Great Dock Strike

The dock strike of 1889 was the result of the social and political tensions developing in London during the 1880s and was a key moment in shaping public attitudes towards the COS for a generation.

1890-08-31 04:30:34

COS Lobbies for Fairer Treatment of the Poor in Metropolitan Hospitals

The 1890 House of Lords Select Committee on Metropolitan Hospitals was the result of a campaign by COS supported by the British Medical Association. It investigated the complex system of hospitals and patient payments in London and made recommendations based on evidence provided by COS.

1895-01-01 19:26:23

First Social Worker Appointed to London Royal Free Hospital

Following the failure to implement the recommendations of the 1890 House of Lords Committee, the COS started a venture to appoint a hospital social worker – almoner – to the London Royal Free Hospital in 1895 for three months.

1895-03-22 22:14:21

COS Under Attack!

The COS was accused of 'not moving with the times' by Canon Samuel Barnett, who had been an active, founding member of the COS. During an address to the COS Central Council, Barnett suggested that the Society’s primary emphasis on character was outdated, and that wider welfare measures should be established as necessary. The COS had often been criticised for its commitment to the investigation of the character of its clients. C S Loch gave a lengthy rebuttal and reaffirmed his commitment, and that of COS, to the role of character and the primacy of case work in its discovery.

1896-01-01 16:10:10

Foundations of Social Work Training

The COS, along with the National Union of Women Workers and the Women's University Settlement formed a Joint Lecturer Committee in order to share experience and expertise with its members in a formal course on social work. This provided the foundations for future case work and social work education.

1902-08-25 02:57:19

'Strength of the People' Restates COS's Convictions about Character

The Strength of the People book was a restatement of the case work principles and character focus of the COS, and was published in response to increasing public criticism over their unchanging principles.

1903-01-01 20:10:05

COS Establishes a School of Sociology

The success of the 1896 Joint Lecturer Committee in providing training to case workers due to rising demand for such techniques led the COS to found their own training institution: the School of Sociology.

1904-01-06 07:15:47

Boer War Exposes the State of the Nation's Health

Fears were sparked about Britain's decline as a world power when the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration published a report into why so many young men were unfit to fight in the Boer War (1899-1902). One in three potential recruits were rejected on health grounds. The report found improper nutrition to blame and recommended providing milk for mothers and meals for children to ensure minimum standards of health. These recommendations were not well received by the COS and initially they campaigned against the report. They had conducted a survey in 1889 when the London School Board offered meals, and found that the health of children did not improve and argued that providing meals at school further eroded the responsibility of the parents at home. The public outcry following the military defeat, and panic about the decline of the nation, led to the recommendations of the report becoming the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act. Once the law was in place, the COS stopped their opposition and instead used their case work to assess the eligibility of parents on behalf of the London Education Committee.

1906-09-21 12:00:34

Liberal Reforms Pave the Way for the Welfare State

The 1906 and two 1910 general elections would usher in an era of significant social, political and economic reform in Britain and formed the basis of future welfare legislation.

1908-01-01 08:33:52

Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 passed

The 1908 Old-Age Pensions Act introduced a universal basis for statutory payments to people over the age of 70. The COS equated universal pensions with universal dependency and degradation. Loch had previously described two paths out of poverty: one slow and difficult, leading to social independence, prosperity and stability for all; the other dangerous, fatally expensive, and resulting in universal pauperisation.

1908-01-01 10:49:44

The Children's Act 1908

The Children's Act 1908 removed children from adult legislation covering offending and established Juvenile Courts along with the statutory registration of foster parents. The accompanying Punishment of Incest Act made sexual abuse within families a matter for state jurisdiction rather than action by the clergy.

1909-12-28 13:14:21

Poor Law Report Causes Rift

The Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress was held from 1905 to 1909 and drew substantially on evidence provided by the COS, particularly C S Loch and Helen Bosanquet, in addition to that from the Fabians, notably the Webbs. The resulting split of the Report into two: the Majority and the Minority reflected these two sets of irreconcilable views.

1911-04-11 22:09:20

National Insurance Act

The 1911 National Insurance Act formed another element of the Liberal welfare reforms, and enacted compulsory saving in case of accident, injury or illness for the majority of the male working population. Insurance funds would also receive contributions from the employer and the state, although the benefits did not apply to the wives and children of working men.

1914-07-28 23:24:22

World War I

The Great War drew an enormous sacrifice from Britain and its Empire during four years of bloody conflict. The work of the COS on the home front, where the government found itself unprepared for the mobilisation of resources and manpower, contributed substantially to the wider war effort.

1914-12-15 14:37:28

John Christian Pringle Secretary of COS

Rev J C Pringle replaced C S Loch as Secretary of COS when he stepped down in 1913 and continued his unwavering commitment to case work and the role of character in causing poverty. During the 1920s he became increasingly interested in psychology and introduced the ideas into case work, influencing the role of psychodynamic practice in the Society for future years.

1919-06-04 22:47:40

National Council of Social Service (NCVO) Founded

The Councils of Social Service (CSS), which were established in towns and cities across the country, were an effort to continue wartime co-operation of charity at the end of hostilities. The COS was key in trying to have local voluntary organisations and charities register with a local CSS, realising their ambition of ‘charity organisation’.

1925-07-07 01:11:52

The Young Delinquent

Cyril Burt’s 1925 book, The Young Delinquent, was very influential in social work and the COS. The emphasis on the defective or abnormal individual and effecting change through psychodynamic treatment found a receptive audience in the COS, particularly the Secretary J C Pringle.

1926-05-04 10:52:18

General Strike

A nationwide General Strike called from 4th to 13th May by the Trades Union Council in support of a miners’ dispute led to many industries being staffed by volunteers to keep essential services running. The COS did not formally organise the mainly middle-class volunteers who replaced striking workers, but many of its supporters and visitors opposed the Strike and were key instigators in arranging local recruitment during the week-long stoppage.

1928-01-06 05:05:40

Great Thames Flood

On the night of 6th January 1928 London experienced the most severe flooding in its history. The work of the COS District Committees proved invaluable to the authorities in managing the effects of the disaster.

1929-05-30 16:38:09

Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Government

In 1929 Labour were able to form a government for the first time, relying on the support of the Liberal Party due to their minority of seats. This arrangement broke down as a result of the problems caused by the Great Depression, leading to the formation of a cross-party National Government to deal with the crisis.

1929-10-29 16:38:09

The Great Depression

The stock market collapse on Wall Street on 29th October 1929 known as Black Tuesday brought to an abrupt end to the prosperity enjoyed by many during the ‘Roaring Twenties'. Its impact spread across to Britain, creating mass unemployment, poverty and misery for many families, and placing a heavy burden on the COS.

1929-12-23 00:55:46

The Beginning of the End for the Poor Law

The 1929 Local Government Act was the beginning of the end for the Poor Law in Britain as the experiences of mass unemployment after demobilisation from the First World War and from the Great Depression made the division of the poor into the deserving and undeserving more difficult to implement. A series of changes including the 1934 Unemployed Act placed more emphasis on payment and less on ascertainment and reduced the local prominence of COS working with Poor Law officials.

1932-01-01 21:14:31

Children and Young Persons Acts, 1932 and 1933

The two Children and Young Persons Acts strengthened the role of the state and law in intervening in family life on behalf of children under the age of eighteen. The ability of the local authority to remove children from a family if they were deemed unfit, along with a range of remedial measures for child offenders, would provide the basis of family intervention until 1948.

1936-01-01 07:08:54

COS Works with Refugees from War

The COS organised and administered a ‘British refugees from Spain’ fund to aid refugees from Spanish Civil War. Many arrived in the UK destitute and unable to speak English. In 1942 the COS took on the British War Refugees Fund and administered aid to refugees from across Europe.

1937-05-21 10:22:46

The Psychological Benefits of Teeth

Dental hygiene was a recurring feature of COS's work as good teeth were thought to affect a person’s self-esteem, and the common practice of removing teeth as a preventive measure was seen as eroding character. The COS sought to stop unnecessary extractions, and provided funds to purchase false teeth in order to restore people’s self-esteem.

1938-03-01 07:08:54

COS Helps Establish the First Citizens' Advice Bureaux

The COS helped to establish the Citizen’s Advice Bureaux (CAB) as a means of using existing voluntary organisations to distribute information for people on the impact of new laws and problems experienced in wartime. The COS quickly trained and placed volunteers in offices on the outbreak of war and reached a peak of 184,438 clients from 1943 to 1944.

1938-05-31 07:08:54

COS Campaigns on Moneylending

The COS provided evidence on families' experiences of money lenders to a Parliamentary committee, resulting in The Hire Purchase Act 1939. During the Great Depression, the COS frequently encountered families who bought furniture or other goods with credit, only to have the item seized before they could pay off a small remaining balance. The Act required traders to make clear the amount being charged in interest and gave protection to hirers who had paid over a third of the contracted sum. The problem of money lending worsened in the 1950s as many more people took advantage of widening availability of credit. The CAB collected accounts of mis-selling, high pressure tactics and scams, drawing attention to the often distressing consequences for families, and campaigned for greater legal protection.

1938-12-31 15:37:46

A New, Progressive Direction for the COS

Benjamin Edward Astbury provided a new and more progressive direction as Secretary of the COS, building on their expertise in practical case work whilst jettisoning some of the out-dated views associated with Loch and the Victorian pioneers. The change of name from COS to FWA – the Family Welfare Association – in 1946 under his leadership reflected this move.

The Work of the Charity Organisation Society

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