Building back better after times of crisis

Normally around this time of year we would be on a stall at the annual History Day run by the Institute of Historical Research at UCL, which gives researchers a chance to meet staff from libraries, archives, museums, and publishers, and gives us all a chance to eat free sweets and collect postcards, bookmarks and other freebies from the different stalls!

This year the event has moved online and there is a programme of online talks which you can check out here: History Day has teamed up with this year’s Being Human festival; Britain’s festival of the humanities which happens every autumn. The theme of this year’s Being Human festival is New Worlds which feels timely given the current global situation. This blog is our contribution to that theme.

Quakers, among others, are talking about the current coronavirus situation and the opportunity it gives us to Build Back Better. This made us think about times in the past when Quakers have similarly sought to turn a crisis into a moment of reflection and opportunity to create a New World on peaceful and more equitable grounds.

Both World Wars in the 20th century were experienced as unprecedented upheavals for society at the time with total breakdown of normal life for many directly involved. Quakers during both wars saw the opportunity provided to rebuild society in a positive way, and we are going to focus on some ideas that feel equally relevant to conversations around building back better today.

World War I was characterised by some Quakers as a failure of the capitalist system, and of empire.  A number of Quakers were self-described socialists while others would have shied away from this label, but they all saw the system in place in Britain at the outbreak of WWI as containing untenable inequalities of wealth and power.

Quakers established a committee, in 1915, to look at these inequalities called the War and Social Order Committee which produced a manifesto: Foundations of a True Social Order in 1918. You can read their manifesto here:

War and Social Order conference report, 1921 Library reference: Box 245/12

Their feelings about the system which had created the climate for global war are summed up in the following quote from Friends Social Union to the Quaker Yearly Meeting in 1915. Reading this quote, it struck us how one could change the word ‘war’ for ‘pandemic’ and apply this to today’s situation.

“The War has brought home to us a grave sense of our personal and corporate responsibility for the social welfare of our country. It is humiliating to find ourselves able to do so little to alleviate the social evils which the war has revealed….Some have become entangled in habits which they find it impossible to simplify without serious injury to the classes whose services they have accepted easily and thoughtlessly…..Others, again, have discovered in their own lives and conduct the same spirit of competitive self-seeking, which in larger spheres and on a wider scale leads to the disastrous cycle of war and war preparation…..As employers, consumers, and investors we are all of us bound up in a network of relations between trade, commerce, finance and national diplomacy, from which we cannot as individuals, break free.” Report of the Friends Social Union to Yearly Meeting 1915

The last sentence applies as much to the newly industrialised world, dependant on problematic empires, of 1915, as it does to today’s globalised consumer-based world dependant on underpaid labour and modern day slavery.

Quakers had some practical suggestions which still resonate today. One was the idea of a ‘state bonus’ which was similar to the idea of a Universal Basic Income being trialled in countries around the world today. This proposal was developed by Quaker couple Denis and Mable Milner who were among the first theorists in Britain to argue for the concept in their publication Scheme for a state bonus: a rational method for solving the social problem(1918).

There were similar ideas around living wage, and workers’ co-operatives so workers could have a real share in the dividends they helped create. Quakers wanted a system that “knows no restriction of race, sex or social class” with materials and land regulated so as to serve the greatest need.

Again although this sounds radical, most of the Quaker activities after the war were more reformist than radical in character and always eminently practical. Quakers were leaders in the Adult School movement which wanted to lift people out of poverty through education, and started a government backed allotments programme which focussed on the alleviation of poverty in industrialised areas. Quaker employers were known for trying to create fairer conditions for their employees although there were not many examples of workers’ co-operatives among the big Quaker businesses.

The War and Social Order Committee became the Industrial and Social Order Committee and continued its work until the early 1960s. We have not had the opportunity to study its later work in much depth (and are not currently onsite to access our collections!) but the organisational history on our catalogue record is possibly revealing. The minutes from Meeting for Sufferings, the corporate body which created committees and laid them down considered, in 1956, that the committee’s work was too ‘unpractical’ and the committee complained of being underfunded. This could mean many things but it could possibly reflect the tension between more radical socialist members of the Society of Friends and those who did not identify as Socialist – was the Committee too polemical?

Meeting for Sufferings goes on, in 1957 to say:

It [the Industrial and Social Order Committee] would need to “work in close association with any committees already in existence which are concerned with particular aspects of the social order, e.g the Penal Reform Committee (qv), the Friends Temperance and Moral Welfare Union (qv). Under present circumstances, the Industrial and Social Order Council will need to keep in touch with the Peace Committee (qv), the East-West Relations Committee (qv) and the Race Relations Committee (qv), since the national and international aspect of the industrial and social order must be reviewed together

Again, this could show an admirable understanding of the intersectional nature of economic justice, or a reluctance to focus on changing economic systems and directly political campaigning.

Obviously there was major disruption to the ideas around development of the new social order by World War II. Quakers had gained a lot of experience in relief work before and after World War I, and World War II would see them become an effective, modern, and influential humanitarian organisation working alongside bodies such as Save the Children and Oxfam. By the end of the war some Quaker humanitarian workers were given influential positions in bodies which looked at how to rebuild better after the devastation of war.

Around two thousand young, full-time, active, keen, men and women pacifists joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and Friends Relief Service organisations during WW2. They were utterly opposed to war as the way to resolve international disputes. They were convinced that damage done by war brought about the worst suffering, not only on those who fought in its battles, but also on the millions of civilians who were caught up in it. They volunteered to work directly in a number of the theatres of war, to contribute in any way possible to alleviate the suffering first at home and later on the battlefields and in the devastation and destruction following the campaigns. 

The FAU and FRS’ approach to chaos of wartime situations was first to conduct surveys of real need in the immediate crises. For example in the Blitz of 1940-1941, members on the ground in London and other British towns and cities quickly analysed and carefully worked out which sections of the bombed-out population affected were in most need; who were being neglected or overlooked by the authorities, and directed their efforts to fill that gap by offering their services of organisation, labour and support to make a difference to the lives of those who were suffering. FAU offered medical and ambulance service and assisted in the organization of shelters and rest centres; FRS offered social service with a real interest in the methods and practice of voluntary social work, of the greatest value to the existing local services which had been thrown into disarray by the devastation. 

FRS members developed an insatiable thirst for social reform, were extremely interested in the experience which came to them and were concerned that the fruits of it should be made available to those who would, in the long run, work in the field.  Useful work was done and in maintaining and spreading the idea of voluntary social work. 

The first example of this was FRS’ pioneering work in addressing the failure of British social policy in providing for the evacuation of old people from bombed-out areas in the Blitz. This experience shone a light on the lack of provision for elderly care in pre-war times as well.

One of the lessons learned, which surprised Quaker relief workers initially, was that many of the elderly were neither grateful nor happy at being removed from their homes and social networks, despite being moved to safer and in some cases materially improved environments. This led Quakers to consider the emotional and social elements required to thrive as well as the physical and logistical. This informed some of their thinking about postwar social care and whether it should happen in the home, or in external institutions such as care homes.

FRS was not the first body to look after old people but it was the first to think carefully about the problem, analyse its elements and call the attention of the authorities and communities to the needs they were meeting. Several FRS members made important contributions to the work of the Rowntree Committee of the Nuffield Trust (Roger Wilson, war-time head of FRS, was a member of the Committee), which made a large-scale enquiry into the needs of the elderly, and whose report, Old People, became a classic work on the subject.

Alan Pickard’s film on life at Oldway House, Wellington, Somerset, Those who are Old aroused enormous interest in what could be done and when in 1945 the Service produced a practical handbook, Hostels for Old People, embodying the experience of FRS workers, it quickly ran through two editions.  Its main lessons were: hostels should be small, so that the residents feel that they belong to a community that is not dominated by the need for administration; residents should be carefully selected, so there may be a reasonable balance of temperaments; and hostels should, as a rule, be mixed.  Through its work among old people, FRS made some contribution to the understanding of their needs in the 20th century British community. Many found their permanent vocation in caring for the elderly; and up and down the country, Friends used the experience gained in and through the FRS to help the old people’s welfare committees which were developing in many districts. 


High Meadow hostel for old people, Pinner, c1940, image from p.100, Quaker Relief by Roger Wilson

Another important activity FAU and FRS members undertook, was work in Citizens’ Advice Bureaux in in the bombed and devastated areas of London and targeted provincial towns and cities.  Citizens’ Advice Bureaux were inaugurated by the National Council of Social Service, and became one of the most valuable of all the war-time developments in the field of social work. The CAB system became a highly popular source of information and assistance to those who were in distress through air raids or other causes and could not pick their way through the maze of wartime regulations and provisions.  FRS always had at its disposal a number of members who were thoroughly familiar with current legislation and regulations that affected the ordinary citizen and could help them navigate bureaucracy to get what they needed in terms of support.

THE WORK OF THE CITIZENS’ ADVICE BUREAU, ELDON HOUSE, CROYDON, ENGLAND, 1940 (D 522) A widow of a civil servant seeks advice about her delayed pension from volunteer Mrs Wraight at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Croydon. Mrs Wraight was one of 12 volunteers working at the bureau at this time. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

This interest in the nuts and bolts of delivery of social care and social services reflects the practical mindset of the projects dealing with poverty after WWI.

The events of World War Two would leave Quakers with two other major areas of campaigning for change over the next decades and continuing today, that of the rights of the refugee, and resistance to nuclear weapons. Again two topics which unfortunately are still so relevant today.

When we think about the New World we want to create after the pandemic is over, we could do worse than reflect on the experiences of the 20th century and the ideas people had to prevent those wars from happening again, many of which would have created a stronger, fairer society better equipped to face today’s challenges.

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3 Responses to Building back better after times of crisis

  1. Helena Clayton says:

    Thank you for the post. I have shared of course as I truly believe that there is always hope after crisis.
    Just to see, read and share our optimism is important and I am sincerely grateful for this. ❤️🙏🏻❤️

  2. Helena Clayton says:

    Thank you 🙏🏻

  3. Definitely going to follow your blog!

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