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The Social Work Platinum Jubilee: What social work looked like in 1952

In a special two-part feature, Social Work Today journalist Carol Harris looks at social work in the UK in the year Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.

27/05/22

The Social Work Platinum Jubilee: What social work looked like in 1952

As Elizabeth II became queen in 1952, radical changes in social work were underway.

Social work training and education was influenced by humanistic psychology, and the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, who published Client-Centred Therapy in 1951. He was one of the first professionals to talk about clients rather than patients.

The Children Act of 1948 was coming into effect. For the first time, local authorities had a duty to provide care for any child whose parents were unable to care for them.

New laws aimed at placing children in care in foster families, rather than institutions. Uniforms for those in care were phased out and the overriding idea was that children in the care system were to be treated as much like other children as possible.

In 1951, John Bowlby published the results of his research into separation between mothers and children in ‘Maternal Care and Mental Health’. People began to understand the impact of secure and insecure attachment between young children and their main caregiver.

Social workers were more directly involved in the youth justice system as a result of the 1948 Criminal Justice Act. Children under 17 were no longer sent to adult prisons, and other types of custody were introduced. Corporal punishment for crimes was abolished – although it continued in schools for decades. Instead of prison, the courts sent older children to non-custodial attendance centres for specified daytime activities. In 1952, detention centres were opened. These aimed to give a ‘short sharp shock’ – sentences of up to three months – for 14-20 year olds.

Post-war reforms also saw an end to the old Poor Laws. The reforming government of Clement Attlee replaced them with legislation that made local authorities responsible for care for old, disabled and chronically sick people.

However, standards of elderly care were variable, especially between private homes and those for people receiving support. In the late 1950s, sociologist Professor Peter Townsend published The Last Refuge’, his study of the care given in 174 homes he visited in England and Wales. He was particularly shocked by the treatment of people living in care homes that had been workhouses, finding that many of the old workhouse practices continued. The furore around his findings led to more personalised care for elderly people, including a new standard of single occupancy rooms.

The Attlee government also established the National Health Service in 1948. Social work in hospitals was the responsibility of the Almoner – a role founded long before the NHS and almoners became NHS staff. The NHS’ principle of ‘free at the point of use’ meant that they no longer assessed people’s ability to pay for care, so their roles concentrated on helping patients with problems beyond the clinical. In 1952, the new government under Sir Winston Churchill introduced charges for prescriptions and hospital appliances. The Institute of Almoners announced that it would not collect any money as it was ‘not an appropriate duty of the almoner’s departments.’ Patricia Hornsby Smith, the almoners’ leader said, ‘I am sure many of you rejoice in the fact that your work is no longer association with the extraction of money and that those other services which you render to the patient and to the National Health Service have assumed their proper place.’

This is a special two-part feature to be continued next week.

Picture: Ernst Bevin and Clement Attlee

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