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155 years on – Family Life in the UK and the role of Family Action

29 April 2024

Family Action is always looking to innovate and push forward with practical support that’s relevant to the times we live in.  Did you know that our origins and our charity archives stretch back all the way to Victorian times?  This long history gives us deep knowledge about the evolution of family life in the UK over the last 155 years.  It also provides a unique perspective on how pressures on and support for families have both changed and stayed the same over many generations.

In this blog to mark our 155th birthday, Sir David Holmes CBE, Family Action’s Chief Executive, reflects on our history and experience and how it relates to our current situation.

155 years ago today the rather depressingly named Society for the Organisation of Charitable Relief and the Repression of Mendicity met for the first time. At this meeting the organisation – which soon changed its name to the much snappier “Charity Organisation Society” or “COS” – set out its goal to organise charitable giving and support families in need to improve their situation.

The COS was ahead of its time in some ways, but it was also very much a child of its time.  The new charity was careful to assess need using a version of what we would recognise today as “casework” so it can justifiably claim to have been there at the very beginning of social work.

Its founders wanted to make a significant and immediate difference to the people the charity served, but they were also inevitably influenced by Victorian attitudes towards the importance of moral character, “worthiness” and the “deserving” poor.

Of course, the not-so-secret twist here is that the COS still exists today – following several name changes over the intervening centuries and decades (from COS to Family Welfare Association) – as Family Action. Although our charity is very different today and we are thankfully much less judgmental about those we serve, we recognise that many of the challenges that face families have remained constant.

In 1869 many poor families lived in fear of the separation and misery caused by the workhouse. Workhouses were abolished in 1930 but is the misery felt by many families today given the cumulative impacts and widening inequalities caused by austerity, COVID and continuing cost-of-living pressures really less painful to endure?

In 1946, Family Action was influential in advising the government of the day around the establishment of the Welfare State but fast forward to 2024 and we see the ambitious safety net created by the Welfare State now full of so many holes with increasing levels of child poverty, high levels of in work poverty and huge pressure on the NHS and our public housing and benefits systems.

And, while it’s true that we’re seeing rapid change to family life in the modern era – with families contending with social media and faster communication than ever before, concerns about work-life balance, different family structures, expensive childcare, a lack of mental health support and rising cost of living – it would be hard to argue that the Victorian era wasn’t also a time of rapid technological and societal change (e.g. the very significant reforms enacted in this period on child labour, public health and education and huge advances in public transportation).

Consider the following case from our 1891 archive – in reading it, think about the family’s situation rather than the Victorian attitudes shown and note the determination shown by COS to provide practical and financial support to make an immediate difference:


Case: BIGGS FAMILY (January—March 1891) 

Father: George (24, carman at a coal merchant for 8 months until illness);

Mother: Cecilia (21, works at laundry);

Daughter: Cecilia (7 months) 

Themes: In work poverty, physical ill health 

Background – The case was sent by the district nurse as George has been ill for three weeks and needs nourishment. Cecilia testifies that he is better but not able to work just yet. She admits they should have joined a club and promises to do so. George does not want enquiries made to his present employer. Sister Eleanor of St Paul’s Mission House has been visiting George. She sent the nurse and gave them half a crown, meat and milk. References are given by Sister Eleanor and a vicar from George’s place of birth, who confirm they are respectable and deserving despite not having joined a club.

COS Action taken in response: COS approved convalescent dinners for a fortnight and wrote to the Convalescent Dinners Society who grant this. George manages to go back to work with three dinners left to go. Cecilia then approaches the COS for a hospital letter as she suspects she has rheumatism. The COS stresses the importance of joining a club again and find a sponsor (Mr Hammond) to pay their entrance fee to a club. 


In this case, COS clearly made a difference to this young family, the father was able to go back to work, the mother’s health issues were being investigated and longer term support looks as if it was put in place.  In reading this case, I reflected on the fact that one of Family Action’s fastest growing areas of work over the last decade has been our work to alleviate food insecurity. More than 130 years have passed since the Biggs family was helped by us but we are still helping families to have a decent meal through our national network of FOOD Clubs and through vital programmes such as the Government-funded National School Breakfast Programme.

Take a moment to reflect on that reality.

It is both surprising and disappointing to realise that the challenges that faced families in 1869 are not so very different to the challenges we see families having to navigate today. The context has changed enormously, but the need has not, and throughout the years that followed that first founding meeting 155 years ago today, Family Action has continued to be at the forefront of meeting the needs of families across the country.

That first meeting of the COS would have taken place by candlelight as, although electricity wasn’t completely unknown in 1869, reliable electric lights wouldn’t be built by Thomas Edison in the US and Joseph Swan in England until the decade that followed.  The attendees at that meeting – among them Octavia Hill, John Ruskin, Archbishop Manning, Edward Dennison and William Gladstone – wouldn’t have been notified by telephone, as the first telephone call wouldn’t be made for another six years after that meeting took place! Perhaps they were invited to attend by letter or by a note hand-delivered by a servant? Perhaps we will never know.

I have been Family Action’s Chief Executive for 11 years now. The longer I stay in my role the more I understand that organisations such as Family Action need to continue to exist as the need for our services is not going away. My job, as it was the job of every Family Action CEO before me and every CEO that will follow me, is to ensure that Family Action remains part of the fabric of family life in the UK, that we stay relevant and that our service delivery keeps reflecting what families in the UK want and need.

We will keep taking change in our stride, keep adapting and developing Family Action so it stays on top of changing issues and requirements and keep embracing new technologies so we provide support to families how they want and need it today. For us, that means investing in our digital portals such as FamilyLine (where the good old telephone remains very much in use) and FamilyConnect, in our digital service delivery and of course in our extensive face to face support in communities up and down the country.

At the same time, Family Action must keep making the case to Government, to all political parties, to commissioners and to anyone and everyone who is in a position to support our work that families need accessible and inclusive, well-timed and well-resourced support if they are to thrive. Charities like Family Action are plugging the holes in a safety net for families that feels as if it is being stretched tighter by the day and we don’t want any family to slip through the gaps.

No-one can know what life will be like in another 155 years, but our hope is that more people will join us in understanding that family is key to positive futures, for individuals and communities. It has the power to shape lives, for better or worse. That’s why we’ll carry on supporting people, speaking up for the importance of family, creating spaces for stories about family and from families and represent the changing needs of families in the UK today and every day and long, long into the future.

I hope you will continue to support our work – as we just can’t do it alone – and in turn we will keep on shining a light on the realities of family life today and keep on providing practical help and support to families across the UK.

Sir David Holmes CBE

Chief Executive

Family Action