Family Action has a very impressive history. Since being founded in 1869, we have regularly been at the forefront of providing innovative support to vulnerable people.
Click on the video below or each date to learn more about our history or use our interactive timeline, kindly prepared by researchers from the University of Southampton and Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Charity Organisation Society was founded by a group of social reformers including Octavia Hill, William Gladstone and John Ruskin. It was established to increase 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.
They set out to provide financial help through establishing local committees. The first were in Poplar and Islington, but they soon spread across London.
COS aimed to ensure that donations being given by the Philanthropic Victorian’s were being spent sensibly, particularly on keeping families together and out of the workhouse.
Another founding aim was to campaign for policy change to help those suffering the effects of poverty.
The Employment Enquiry Office became the model for Labour Exchanges, a place to help people find work. As well as this, local committees were established across London to raise funds, which were distributed to families in need.
Charles Stewart Loch was a Balliol-educated son of an Indian judge. When he undertook the running of The COS he was just 26, and he held the post until 1913. His publications included Charity Organisation (1890) and Charity and Social Life (1910).
The committees who distributed grants to families in need recognised that giving financial help alone was not always enough to get a family through a crisis. Practical and emotional support was also needed to make long term change to a family’s situation. The COS called this combination of practical assistance and financial support ‘social casework’, thus founding the principles of modern day social work.
By the end of the 1870’s, volunteer family-visiting workers were being placed with families to provide the practical and emotional support they needed.
As a result of this committee, there were significant improvements in public health and the passing of new housing legislation. Following on from this, many local COS committees appointed a Sanitary Inspector to encourage landlords to improve the standard of housing and hygiene, this all contributed to the improvement of public health.
The service was, in due course, transformed into Environmental Health Departments, which quickly became the responsibility of local government.
At this time, COS also set up tuberculosis dispensaries, after-care committees, meal centres, reading rooms and thrift clubs which were accessible to the poor and vulnerable.
The local committees continued to give loans to help people get work, or to support people who were out of work because of sickness or accidents, and even arranged for them to recuperate at the seaside.
Following the census of poverty, Charles Booth, a friend of Octavia Hill’s, argued for a state funded income support service. 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.
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 – this foundation still exists today and undertakes valuable work to raise awareness of the issues of poverty in the UK.
Booth’s work with COS was pioneering in raising awareness of the plight of the poor, including the low incomes they were on and the poor conditions in which so many families were living.
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, to address social problems affecting school children. Today social workers attached to hospitals and schools are commonplace.
With responsibility for the inner London area, COS set up 28 CABs, often responding to enquiries about wartime evacuation. Volunteers continued to run CABs, offering people legal, housing and other advice, until the CAB was made independent in the 1970s.
Once formed, the FSU offered a roof and emergency help to families whose homes were severely damaged through bombing during the Second World War.
After over 60 successful years of operation, the Family Welfare Association and Family Service Units merged in 2006 to become England’s largest provider of support to families.
Immediately after WWII, the FWA were hugely influential in advising the government on the establishment of the Welfare State. As the Welfare State began to emerge over the following years, the government began to assume responsibility for a lot of FWA’s social casework. This allowed the FWA to refocus on providing in-depth therapeutic help for some of the most troubled families.
For the first time, the FWA received substantial sums from the newly created government departments to deliver services to children and families. Around this time, the FWA ceased to be staffed only by volunteers. Staff training became a priority to ensure standards were high across the organisation, and the FWA founded an important role in training student social workers – a commitment that continues today.
The FDB was launched by FWA with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Peckham Health Centre to provide case work and therapy for married couples: seen as the key relationship within the family. The experiment created two neighbourhood psychiatric units in connection with the Marriage Guidance Council.
Having significantly contributed to creating social work as a concept, the FWA played an integral role in teaching new social work courses. The FWA conducted research and provided advice and practical help for new immigrant families who arrived from the West Indies. A CAB was opened in the London Borough of Lambeth, which provided support to around 400 families.
Although therapeutic case work and counselling had proved influential in the USA, it was relatively unknown in the UK. FWA helped to organised the first such conference in Britain and promote cutting-edge ideas on its theory and practice.
Working closely with GPs has continued importance for us today – our WellFamily and Social Prescribing services provide support for people in community-based settings, such as surgeries and health centres. To find out more about these services follow the link
The FWA’s residential services were specifically for adults with serious mental health problems. Today, we continue to run a number of residences, which enable individuals to retain a level of independence and autonomy whilst receiving the support they need. Find out more about our supported housing services.
Helen Dent joined the FWA with a wealth of front line experience and passion. She started her career as a social worker, moving into policy and strategy at Cambridge County Council. Helen entered the voluntary sector as Director of Policy and External Affairs at NCH (now Action for Children) in 1990, before taking the helm at the FWA in 1997.
The merger made the organisation the largest single provider of services to families in Britain.
Family Action’s award was achieved for meeting and exceeding targets in the delivery of charitable objectives, using outstanding management skills to transform passion and ideas into effective outcomes.
In 2008 the Family Welfare Association became Family Action – reflecting the organisation’s continuity in providing family services but dropping the post-war connection with welfare politics.
Helen Dent originally worked for Cambridgeshire in social services before becoming the Director of Policy and External Affairs for NCH Action for Children in 1990. She was awarded a CBE in the 2009 New Years Honours List and retired from the position in 2013 after 16 years.
An early intervention, low intensity service for those with low-level diagnosed mental health issues or who are at risk of developing perinatal depression supporting mothers and families with volunteer perinatal befrienders.
As part of the Barclaycard Horizons programme, delivered in partnership with Gingerbread and Citizens Advice Bureau, Family Action won the Third Sector Excellence Awards in the Corporate Partnership category. The Horizon’s partnership focussed on supporting single parents back into education to improve their employment prospects.
After 16 years leading Family Action, Helen retired and David was appointed as new Chief Executive, joining the charity from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). David has established an innovative new strategy for the organisation, titled ‘Stronger than Ever’, to take Family Action forward towards its 150th anniversary in 2019.
Providing cash grants alongside intensive support to recipients provided by a number of partner organisations. The programme is made possible by the support and funding of our corporate partner NewDay
David is Chair of Children England and an advisor to the Children’s Commissioner for England. He is a former Chair of the Connaught Group, the End Child Poverty campaign and the Alliance for Child-Centred Care. He was rewarded with a CBE in the 2014 New Year Honours List for his services to children and families.
Family Action’s Training and Consultancy Services draw on its long history and depth of practical experience to help all organisations working with, supporting or employing vulnerable families and individuals achieve the vision of ‘Stronger Families’.
Family Action’s training is targeted at organisations and individuals who work with, support or employ vulnerable families or family members. Family Action works across a range of sectors including Local Authorities, the NHS, schools and education providers, other third sector organisations, and commercial companies.
Friendship Works started in 1977 when the Family Welfare Association launched the Big Friend/Little Friend befriending project in Islington. In 1983 the project became a charity in its own right and in 1991 Big Friend/Little Friend became Friends United Network (FUN), and then Friendship Works in 2009. Friendship Works rejoined Family Action in 2015.
The Friendship Works service offers mentoring support in Islington and Camden to improve the emotional well-being and life chances of children and young people aged 5-16 who face multiple disadvantages.
building stronger families
building brighter lives