In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Social Worker Speaks: A History of Social Workers through the Twentieth Century by David Burnham
  • Julia Johnson
The Social Worker Speaks: A History of Social Workers through the Twentieth Century. By David Burnham. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. 213 pp. Hardbound, $109.45.

As David Burnham points out, this is not a book charting the history of British social work during the twentieth century. Rather it is a book about the history of social workers in England—their experiences, attitudes, and practices between 1904 and 1989—as revealed wherever possible through their own words. Given this substantial timespan, together with the great diversity of social work activity during this period, Burnham has set himself a formidable task, and the book is, [End Page 376] therefore, based on a substantial amount of research. His sources include archival material such as Poor Law records, diaries, and memoirs, as well as forty-eight “personal testimonies” that he himself elicited from practicing and retired social workers. In addition to these sources, Burnham also makes use of a few autobiographical novels written by former social workers, including, for example, The Paid Servant (London: The Bodley Head, 1962) by the Guyanese novelist E.R. Braithwaite, who worked as a social worker in London in the 1950s seeking out foster homes for nonwhite children. This variety of sources makes for an interesting book that places the voices of frontline social workers at center stage.

Although Burnham draws on accounts from across England, he uses Bolton, a large former textile mill town in the north of England, as a focal point to mirror developments elsewhere. Hence in chapter 1 the reader is introduced to Mary Haslam, married to a Bolton mill owner and “one of a number of active affluent local women who worked in the Poor Law Union and in voluntary organisations, lobbied for improvements and visited poor families in distress” (10). Her experiences are typical of the kind of philanthropic work that some middle-class women undertook in early twentieth-century England, where the response to poverty was effected through voluntary visiting societies or, as a last resort, the Poor Law Unions. In the next chapter we meet Richard Burton, a police court missionary appointed to the new role of probation officer in Bolton in 1908, and Mr. Hall, an inspector in Bolton for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) founded in the late nineteenth century. We also hear about the “boarding out” arrangements for children removed from their parents and the activities of organizations such as the Waifs and Strays society. Alice Kershaw is a further character, appointed as a paid Lady Visitor in Bolton in 1912 to organize a team of volunteers to visit children in public care who had been placed in domestic service.

In a similar vein, following characters from Bolton and drawing on individual testimonies from elsewhere, the chapters move us through the impact and aftermath of the two world wars and establishment of the welfare state in the late 1940s to the 1970s and beyond. The final three chapters, which cover the post-World War II period, draw in part on the testimonies of the people Burnham interviewed. Readers who are acquainted with social work in Britain during this later period might find these chapters particularly interesting. In the early 1970s, the specialized departments set up by the new welfare state in 1948—for children, older and disabled people, and for mental welfare—were merged into one, and specialist workers, such as “child care officers,” became generic social workers, at least for a while. The new, much larger, Social Services Departments spawned all sorts of innovative and exciting developments for many of Burnham’s witnesses, such as group and community work. Several were new graduate recruits who were experiencing something of a revolution in social [End Page 377] work and the way in which it was carried out. Burnham captures well the excitement of the time and also some of the chaos and camaraderie, thus demonstrating how his approach can offer a fresh perspective on the history of the period.

Burnham’s final chapter on the 1980s reflects, in part, the increasing...