In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Social Work in the United Kingdom

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Biographies and Autobiographies
  • The Charity Organisation Society and the Settlement Movement
  • Philanthropy, Volunteerism, Moral Welfare, and Social Work
  • Social Work: Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
  • Social Work: 1900–1950
  • Social Work: From 1950
  • Individual Casework
  • Radical Social Work
  • Professional Associations
  • Eileen Younghusband: Pioneer in Social Work Education
  • Medical and Health-Related Social Work
  • Older People
  • Probation and Juvenile Justice
  • Mental Health
  • Learning Difficulties
  • Social Policy and Social Work
  • Research

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  • Social Work Practice with Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Social Work History of Social Work in the United Kingdom
Caroline Skehill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 February 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 February 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0051


This entry provides an overview of social work in the United Kingdom, which refers to Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. (The more accurate historical name for the United Kingdom is Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but generally this is abbreviated to the United Kingdom or sometimes just to England.) The complex history of the two islands makes it difficult to provide a general overview of social work in the United Kingdom per se. A complex set of relations marked the individual countries’ histories over a number of centuries and is explained in the more detailed histories of the jurisdictions in other entries. In terms of the modern history, from 1800 the four countries England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were unified. After the war of independence and subsequent civil war in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, twenty-six counties of Ireland became a free state, and six—Northern Ireland—remained part of the United Kingdom. The history of social work spans over 150 years, though the period covered in this entry is roughly 1870 to 1980. Each section of this entry has a mixture of retrospective histories written in the present or the recent past and samples of important resources from different periods that reflect the nature of social work at particular moments in time. Where possible, major policy documents and archival sources are also cited. A complex set of relations marked the individual countries’ histories over a number of centuries. In terms of the history of social work, practice in the United Kingdom shares many common features in terms of models of practice, development of the profession, dominant theories, legislation and policy, and training approaches. The vast majority of literature on which an understanding of United Kingdom social work is built within national and international contexts derives from histories relating to Great Britain or England. The diversity of history within the broader United Kingdom is highlighted in this general entry and in the more specific entries on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Introductory Works

For those unfamiliar with the subject, introductory chapters aimed at beginning social work students provide some useful mapping, such as Horner 2003 and Wilson, et al. 2008, which highlights some of the major transitions in the profession in the 20th century. Payne 2005 is the most comprehensive single modern text available, though it offers a broad general overview of history from an international perspective rather than focusing on the United Kingdom. The classic, most-cited text on social work is Woodroofe 1962, followed by Seed 1973.

  • Horner, Nigel. 2003. The beginnings of social work; The comfort of strangers; Formalising and consolidating social work as a profession. In What is social work? 2d ed. By Nigel Horner. Exeter, UK: Learning Matters.

    These are basic introductory chapters aimed at beginning students of social work. They map the origins of social work from philanthropy and the development of social work as a profession through the 20th century. Though introductory, they are helpful overviews of some of the main developments and are particularly useful for new researchers.

  • Payne, Malcolm. 2005. The origins of social work: Continuity and change. Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Provides a general overview of the history of social work with an emphasis on developments in Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, other Western democracies. Overall it provides a broad international perspective that makes it a particularly useful reference resource.

  • Seed, Philip. 1973. The expansion of social work in Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    This book from the 1970s provides an early history of social work with a focus on its development as a profession. It was written at a time when a major shift had occurred in the organization of social work training from specialist education (mostly in child care, psychiatry, or hospital social work) to a generic model.

  • Wilson, Kate, Gillian Ruch, Mark Lymbery, and Andrew Cooper. 2008. The development of social work: Key themes and critical debates. In Social work: An introduction to contemporary practice. By Kate Wilson, Gillian Ruch, Mark Lymbery, and Andrew Cooper. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.

    As in the case of Horner 2003, this reference is intended specifically to help students develop a beginning understanding of historical perspectives in social work. It is a useful introduction to history that introduces some critical themes to reflect on in terms of how history is interpreted and understood.

  • Woodroofe, Kathleen. 1962. From charity to social work in England and the United States. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    One of the most well-known and widely cited books relating to the history of social work in the United Kingdom. It charts the history of social work in both England and the United States, thus giving a broad international perspective. It focuses in particular on the development of social work from a philanthropic activity to an organized profession. It is also an interesting moment-in-time reflection as the first edition was published in the early 1960s.

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