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Octavia Hill
The Charity Organisation Society (COS) was founded in 1869 at a meeting held at the home of Lord Lichfield. Founders included Octavia Hill, Lord Shaftesbury, William Gladstone, John Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Following pioneering work by Octavia Hill the first Chief Executive, C.S Loch, was appointed in 1875.

COS was formed  to increase cooperation, and therefore effectiveness, amongst charities and to organise charitable giving.

The founders recognised a need for charitable assistance but believed that “indiscriminate almsgiving” did not always reach the neediest families, nor were they sure that money was being spent wisely (i.e. on keeping families together and out of the workhouse).

They set out to provide financial help through establishing local committees. The first were in Poplar and Islington, but they soon spread across London. The local committees set about raising funds and soon formed grant making committees to distribute the funds to families in need. Family Action’s grant making continues today with a panel of volunteers meeting weekly to distribute a million pounds to around 5,000 families each year.

The COS local committees found that giving financial help to families was not always enough to get them through a crisis. Practical help and emotional support were soon offered too. The COS called this combination of practical assistance and financial support ‘social casework’; thus founding the principles of modern day social work.

The work of the committees was carried out by volunteers and once they started to offer ‘social casework’ the need to train the workers was recognised. From the 1890’s onwards COS published a Volunteer’s Training Manual and became a pioneer in the professionalisation of social work.

The COS committees recognised that other practical services were also needed to help the poor of London. Thus, in 1870, in a climate of high unemployment in the capital, COS opened the first Employment Enquiry Office in Soho. This became the model for helping people to find work that was adopted by the Government and spread across the country as Labour Exchanges.

In 1882, COS established the Sanitary Aid Committee with the aim of reducing the spread of infectious diseases.  As a result, the late nineteenth century saw significant  improvements in public health and the passing of new housing legislation. It also established TB dispensaries, after care committees, meal centres, reading rooms and thrift clubs accessible to the poor and vulnerable. Many local COS committees appointed a Sanitary Inspector to encourage local landlords to improve the standard of housing and hygiene and so improve public health. Whitewashing to keep down fleas, better access to clean water and more hygienic disposal of waste all came within their remit. The service would in due course be transformed into Environmental Health Departments, which quickly became the responsibility of local government.


COS and Its Early Campaigning WorkOne of the founding aims of the charity was to campaign for policy change to help those suffering the effects of poverty – this work continues today (see our Policy and Campaigns section).

The pioneering work of the COS committees provided rich evidence in support of their campaign for policy change in the late Victorian period . For the first time, the focus of those working with the poor moved, from handouts or the workhouse at crisis point, to addressing the root causes of a families’ poverty.

COS caseworkers gave practical help in resolving problems together with financial assistance where necessary. Their aim was to get families back on their feet so that parents could provide for their children and keep them out of the dreaded workhouse. The committees gave loans to help people go to work -to buy tools or clothes, or mend their costermonger’s carts). Those out of work, due to accident or sickness, were supported until they could return to work and the COS committees often arranged for them to recuperate at the seaside. They found work in the country for families where sickness was rooted in the unhealthy air of London while elderly people were given train fares to enable them to travel to be cared for by other family members, saving them from the workhouse as well as reducing the burden on the state.

The early founders understood that the root cause of many family problems was poverty. COS dispensed some of the first pensions to support the elderly who were no longer able to work. In the 1890s COS campaigned for a state managed pension scheme and was at the centre of heated debates about how this should be funded. These debates became public and the New Statesman carried several articles about them – along with some less than complimentary cartoons. Sidney and Beatrice Webb resigned from the COS Management Committee over the matter. Nevertheless, the COS Chief Executive and committee members joined a Royal Commission established by the Government that led to the passing of the first Pension Act in 1908. 

In the 1890s Charles Booth, a friend of Octavia Hill, argued for a state funded income support service after conducting a census of poverty across England. The work of the COS in the late 1800s, amongst some of the poorest communities in London, informed the social investigative work of Joseph Rowntree (founder of the chocolate factory). Rowntree used this information to raise the profile of the needs of the poor and to form his own foundation which sought solutions to social problems. His work with COS was pioneering in raising awareness of the plight of the poor – their low income and the conditions in which so many of them were living.


Charity Organisation Society Founding New Charities In the 1890s, to address the problems of casual employment and dead end jobs, COS founded the Skilled Employment and Apprenticeship Association.  It established the Invalid Children’s Aid Association, to care for physically handicapped children. Allen Dowdeswell Graham, was appointed to lead the charity and he encouraged more affluent members of society to take an interest in its work and specifically to become a ‘friend' to a child on the Association's list. Like Octavia Hill, he believed that it was their duty to provide for the poor and vulnerable.

In 1895, COS founded the Institute of Hospital Almoners and seconded the first hospital almoner to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. COS also established the first School Care Service. Today social workers attached to hospitals and schools are commonplace.

Read some of the stories from our extensive archives