We are all students of history, even if we don’t actively pursue a career or level of academia in this field. It is the natural fact of our society that we learn from those who came before us and we build on the foundations that have been laid for us. The Romans introduced a style of road that we then adapted into what now covers the country. Leonardo Da Vinci believed man could take flight with the support of mechanical devices and now we have planes and paragliding. It’s built into our psyche to understand how things worked in the past and compare them to how they work now, with innovators and entrepreneurs taking it the step further and looking at how they can work better in the future. The social work sector is no different. There have been those who came before us who helped shape and create what we now see as day to day social work. What’s interesting, is that there are many historical figures who helped in this moulding process for our sector, weren’t actually social workers. There are several individuals who had an impact on the social work sector and acted as pseudo-practitioners, without actually being in that profession themselves, they simply embodied social work values.
Although he was a politician, Wilberforce is remembered for playing an important role in the fight to abolish slavery from 1787 – an act which we can’t deny is reminiscent of social worker values. While his practices weren’t perfect and his association with the Corn Law can be debated to no end, William Wilberforce was undoubtedly an honourary social worker for how he helped end slavery. An eloquent speaker in the House of Commons, he was able to challenge the system from within and didn’t let repeated defeats of his motions and resolutions in Parliament diminish his spirit. He worked for over 15 years to succeed and eventually managed to get a bill passed that abolished the Slave Trade in the British West Indies in 1807. While slavery in one form or another was not completely eradicated overnight and still exists to this day, Wilberforce was a driving force behind examining it with a legal eye and ensuring the structures that allowed it to continue were broken down. He is the type of person who in today’s world would be championing better management of exploitation across county lines or submitting bills to improve the way we catch human traffickers.
An 18th Century businessman who brought a sense of social justice and awareness to those around him during a time of great poverty and class differences, Sir Titus Salt fought for those who were vulnerable and changed the system to protect all, not just the few. He worked to ensure his employees had a standard of living unlike any other of the time, when most were expected to live and die in abject poverty. His Methodist values did come into play at times, however they also align with modern social work areas of focus, as he discouraged people from gambling or drinking. With a 21st Century perspective, we can imagine he might have been conscious of their addictive nature and wanted to protect those susceptible from going down an unproductive path. Sounds quite social worker-y to me!
When you hear the name Rowntree, you might instinctively think ‘sweets’. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Joseph Rowntree was a chocolatier who was a visionary Quaker on a mission to support the vulnerable people across communities. He set up the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as a mechanism to provide housing for those on low incomes (including those who worked in his factories) so that they had safe places to live. He wanted to understand why social inequality happened and what caused different social issues like poverty and disadvantage. He embodied the values of a social worker with his drive to learn and understand why things were the way they were, and more importantly fought to change them.
It’s not just a boy’s club of prominent figures who shaped social work, there are countless women who helped define this profession of being the voice for the voiceless. To highlight just one, Marie Stopes was a staunch campaigner for women’s rights, making her voice heard in the fight for gender equality. She took this fight further by also looking at the disadvantages women faced when it came to family planning. At the time (early 1900s) there was no real concept of contraception or control over pregnancy for women; however, Marie Stopes changed all that. She wrote a pioneering book “Married Love”, inspired by her first husband’s impotence and her subsequent interest in the subject of family planning. Opening a clinic in London in 1921, she gathered data about contraception and helped married women gain a voice in the discussion that affected their lives so drastically. This drive to empower women and correct disadvantages is symbolic of the way social workers protect and facilitate change with vulnerable women nowadays.
While you're here...
Is there a practitioner in history you are passionate about? Or maybe someone nowadays who you feel is reshaping the way social work looks? Want to tell us about them?
No matter what you’re passionate about within social work, we’re here to listen to you. One Stop Social are a community of practitioners who work together to develop the future of social work, and your voice matters to us in this mission. We want to champion the causes that matter to you, celebrate your successes and have a positive impact on your working life however we can.