Casework and the Charity Organization Society

Casework and the Charity Organization Society. Founded in 1869, the Charity Organization Society (COS) made a deep impact on social work through its advocacy and codification of emerging methods. This, with its focus on the family, and upon a scientific approach provided a key foundation for the development of social work as profession in Britain.

The Charity Organization Society came into being in large part as a response to the competition and overlap occurring between the various charities and agencies in many parts of Britain and Ireland. The general lack of cooperation between organizations not only led to duplication, it also involved what was seen at the time as indiscriminate giving. Not enough detailed attention was given to examining the claims and needs of potential clients.

It was the human weakness of the social workers that was often to blame. Without training, and often without adequate preparation regarding the aims and purposes of the society they served, these good-hearted, somewhat sentimental workers all to often were taken in by apparent distress that they tended to give relief as a matter of course. This was put to put the best view on lack of discrimination, but less worthy motives were sometimes ascribed to them. It was said, for instance, that some churches competed with each other in gifts of soup and food tickets, in order to increase their congregations; that such was the competition among the relief societies working with the homeless that John Burns decided to clear the Thames Embankment of all charitable societies distributing relief there. (Young and Ashton 1956: 93)

In addition, there was some concern about the impact of such giving upon recipients. The classic worry was that it could lead into what later became known as a ‘dependency culture’ and a great deal of exaggeration in order to gain money and goods. Thus, it was that the pioneers of the Charity Organization Society saw two urgent needs: ‘that self-respecting families who were struggling to keep themselves from destitution should be helped and encouraged, and that charities should be organized and coordinated, so that the best use could be made of resources’ (Rooff 1972).

Other groupings had recognized some of these issues and sought to intervene (such as the Central Relief Society in Liverpool, established in 1863), but it was the formation of the Charity Organization Society in London that provided the focus and catalyst for action. Its formation flowed from a number of sources but two papers published in 1868 were of particular significance. The first was by Henry Solly, ‘How to Deal with the Unemployed Poor of London and with its Roughs and Criminal Classes’ and Dr Hawksley’s ‘Charities of London and some Errors of their Administration’. Both writers were to be founder-members of the Charity Organization Society. While there is some dispute about the founding and who was involved, what is clear is that on 29 April 1869, the new Society’s function was agreed to be ‘Organizing Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity’ (Rooff 1972: 29). Offices were established at 15 Buckingham Street, London WC. The early organization appears to have been a bit of a shambles. In 1870 C. B. P. Bosanquet became the first full-time Secretary and began to stabilize finances and the organization. By the time he left the post in 1875, a number of offices had been opened and coordinating relationships established with a number of bodies. The Charity Organization Society also had gained a reputation for the success of its propaganda activities.

Bosanquet was succeeded by Charles Stewart Loch (1875-1914) whose Times obituary notice in 1923 read, ‘He made the COS; he was the COS’ (Rooff 1972: 35). Loch was both a good organizer and a prolific writer. His book Charity Organization (first published in 1890) became an established text in the field, and his article ‘Charity’ in the tenth edition of the encyclopedia Britannica was an oft quoted piece. Charity and Social Life (1910) drew on this article and developed its themes. Loch served on several Royal Commissions and was made a Professor of Economic Science and Statistics at Kings College, London (1904-08). However, he is often remembered for his opposition to the introduction of statutory old-age pensions and the feeding of school children (he was worried that the universality of provision would ignore personal needs and remove responsibility from families for its members (ibid.: 51). ‘Loch’s chief misfortune’ Rooff (1972: 52) commented, ‘was to have been grounded in the classical economy and individualistic philosophy so widely accepted when the COS was founded. It was soon to be outdated. It marked the end of an era’.

The essence of the Charity Organization Society’s method was thorough investigation. A corollary of this was the case-paper (Young and Ashton 1956: 103). They argued that visiting should only be undertaken for a specific purpose, ‘and at the invitation or with the consent of the client’ (ibid.: 104). They also looked to a ‘follow through’ – seeing that a case was successfully completed and what could be learnt about method.

In this way case-work methods, developed haphazardly through the nineteenth century, were gathered together, considered in relation to the declared purpose of the COS, developed into a coherent plan and taught to succeeding generations of caseworkers. Little that the COS taught was new. But it developed a body of transmissible knowledge, and lost no opportunity to pass it on, not only to its own workers, but to social workers and philanthropists wherever they were to be found.(ibid.: 105)

The Charity Organization Society developed links with like-minded societies and helped to establish similar agencies in different parts of Britain. Its emphasis on organization and upon investigation, when linked to notions such as the deserving and undeserving poor, and the significance of individual responsibility, excited considerable argument. As Madeline Rooff (1972: 23) has commented ‘few societies have inspired such devotion; few have roused such bitter hostility’.


Roof, M. (1972) A Hundred Years of Family Welfare, London: Michael Joseph.

Young, A. F. (1956) British Social Work in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Casework and the Charity Organization Society’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Mark K. Smith 2002