The troubles with and of families across 150 years

The case of COS constructions and interventions.

Professor of Sociology Ros Edwards, along with colleagues from other institutions, comments on the history of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) and how struggling families are placed in society today.


Archives dating back 150 years make it possible to trace shifts in perceptions of disadvantaged families
Archives dating back 150 years make it possible to trace shifts in perceptions of disadvantaged families

In the wake of the 2011 civil unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron identified the cause as inadequate parenting within ‘what some people call problem and others call troubled families’.  The Troubled Families programme was born.  Historically, this was the latest in a line of lenses through which to view families with problems and what to do about them.

The voluntary agency Family Action has been central to the provision of services to struggling parents since its foundation as the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in 1869.  Its archive of papers detailing nearly 150 years of case work allows us to trace shifts in perceptions of disadvantaged families and responses to them, especially in times of economic constraint.

In the late 19th century, the poor were reliant on casual low paid work, living in poor quality and overcrowded accommodation, and suffering ill health and malnutrition, exacerbated by the Long Depression.  The period was also characterised by a multiplication of overlapping charitable and relief agencies.  The COS was founded in an attempt to control the distribution of charitable resources to those judged deserving, with the irredeemably destitute left to the parish Poor Law.

In the late 19th century, family deprivation was regarded as a result of parental immoral character.  As a COS founder, Octavia Hill, put it: “Men, who should hold up their heads as self-respecting fathers, learning to sing like beggars, all because we give pennies’.  The COS assessed whether or not parents were capable of self-improvement and deserving of help through investigatory casework.

Applicants were viewed through the lens of character with COS interventions reflecting the moral agenda.  For example, Elizabeth Carey, a widow with six children, was granted a mangle so she could take in washing after references confirmed she was sober and steady.  In contrast, the Thorpes and their starving children, living in a damp basement with little furniture, were considered to lack any self-reliance to build upon and referred to the Poor Law.

By the time of the 1930s Great Depression such moral certainty had been subject to challenge. Factors beyond parents’ control were recognised to cause family poverty.  Parents were regarded as amenable to, rather than undermined by help with problems.  The COS case files show how assessments and interventions moved away from preoccupations with character and self-reliance, to focus on respectability, responsibility and appearance.

In the face of mass unemployment COS provided grants for necessities and convalescent aid. For example, the Baines family were dependent on a small income from sick club insurance after Walter had an accident at work.  The COS investigator described Walter as a skilled man who took an unskilled job in hard times, his wife as ‘charming’ and their children as well dressed.  The Baines received several grants and a holiday.

Around this time the COS also became interested in raising self-confidence to lift parents out of despair and ensure they were more presentable and better able to find work.  In the 1940s and ‘50s anxieties about ‘problem families’ dominated welfare agendas, and apprehension about the effect of World War II on family stability mounted.  In 1946 what was now named the Family Welfare Association (FWA) focused on therapeutic interventions to strengthen family relationships including marital counselling.

By the early 1970s Oil Crisis, psychoanalytic ideas were embedded in statutory and voluntary work with families, including the Family Services Units which was eventually amalgamated with the FWA.  Relational dynamics were positioned at the core of families’ troubles.  Previously applicants tended to be assessed as a household, with fathers often scrutinised over their willingness to work.  By the 1970s the mother was identified as the key focus for intervention.

While relational dynamics were problematised, the practical difficulties families faced seem similar to those in the previous century. For example, the Doones were managing on little money, living in badly maintained, overcrowded housing, and the children often missed school.  Their caseworker decided these issues needed to be addressed before the relational root of their difficulties could be tackled. He liaised with the housing department and walked the children to school, but continued to view his primary role as helping the family to work on their relationships.

The concern with family dynamics shifted across the latter part of the 20th century to an intensive focus on parenting – and latterly ‘inter-parental’ relationships.  By the Global Financial Crisis of the early 2000s and pronouncement on the cause of the riots, poor parenting was ensconced as creating troubled families.  Children’s upbringing has emerged as the core of interventions, and a concern with domestic violence is fixed on its effects on children’s life chances.

Family Action’s interventions under the Troubled Families initiative involve family support and delivery of parenting programmes — although case notes show that material issues often occupy much time.  For example, Irene and her children were living in overcrowded unsuitable housing. They received minimal benefits and could not afford basic furniture.  Chronic ill health affected Irene’s mobility and she struggled to take her youngest child to school.  While Family Action advised Irene on parenting and becoming ‘work ready’, effort was put into alleviating the family’s severe practical and financial difficulties.

Overall, the troubles of struggling families largely remain the same historically: poverty, ill health, inadequate housing, children’s school attendance, as does the assumption of self-perpetuation.  But the lens through which such deprivations are projected adjusts to fit the preoccupations of the day.

The research on which this blog is based was funded by the ESRC under their Secondary Data

Analysis Initiative II grant number ES/L01453X/1

This content was originally published on the University of Leeds History & Policy Parenting Forum Blog

Professor Rosalind Edwards, SSPC, University of Southampton2; Professor Val Gillies, Visiting professor, Goldsmiths University of London3; and Dr Nicola Horsley, CRSP, University of Loughborough4. 

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