Developing youth work: Chapter 2 – The making of popular youth work

developing youth work

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In this, the second chapter of Developing Youth Work, Mark Smith explores the emergence of working class and more community-based forms of youth work. In particular he looks at the development of work within chapels and other associations in the nineteenth century, and the development of practice in the 1930s and 1940s.

contents:  introduction · emerging patterns of youth work · the youth service and wartime disruption · the new youth workers · changing membership · popular youth work · further reading and references

Significantly, relatively little research has been undertaken in the intervening years on the forms of practice outlined here. However, two recent papers highlight important elements of the argument. Annemarie Turnbull (2001) has explored the retreat by the National Association of Girls and Mixed Clubs from engagement with the working conditions of young women, and the growing focus on leisure (allied with the move from single-sex work). Crescy Cannan has explored some of the fascinating work taking place between the wars in educational settlements in South Wales (often associated with the Quakers. As she argues they have continuing relevance, ‘stressing as they do the importance of connecting social and economic development and central principles (in the case of the Quakers) of the common good and the inclusion of all sectors in society in community work’ (20001:165).

The general line of argument put forward in this chapter still seems to hold up today. The contrast with much contemporary practice has become increasingly strong though – as workers and policymakers have lost faith in associational forms. It is fascinating to speculate on what sort of sense those concerned with pushing the Connexions strategy in England would make of the Ministry of Education’s (1945) statement that the ‘purpose of activities within the Youth Service should be recreation and enjoyment’.

Links: association · social capital · settlements · Josephine Macalister Brew · Robert Owen ·

Mark K. Smith, 2001

[page 24] The scope and scale of popularly organized leisure activities for young people has always been substantial. For example, children and young people have engaged in highly institutionalized but often informal forms of self-organized amusement for centuries. Perhaps the most obvious and universal of these are the games of the street and field such as football and pitch and toss (Opie and Opie, 1969), or amusements such as skipping and gambling. Street groups in the late 1800s and early 1900s also had values of which bourgeois society knew little, as Roberts’ description of his Salford upbringing shows:

The group constituted an open air society, a communal gathering which had great importance socially, culturally and economically. By tradition, membership stood hedged round with restrictions, all unformulated: indeed all participants were hardly conscious of a bond. . . . School-boys, girls, women and married men kept their distance, the last, of course, having their rendezvous socially much superior in the tavern.

During each nightly meeting the young worker, once fully integrated, listened, questioned, argued and received unawares an informal education. Here work-a-day life beyond his personal ken came up for scrutiny. . . . All this was bread and butter talk vital at times to the listener, talk that had an economic scope and a variety to be heard nowhere else. (Roberts, 1973: 156—7)

Other street activities such as the ‘monkey parade’ on weekend evenings were more deliberately mixed:

Girls resort to Oldham Street on a Sunday night, in nearly as [page 25] large numbers as the boys. The [boys] exchange rough salutations with the girls, who seem in no way less vigorous than the boys themselves, and whose chief desire, one would think, was to pluck from the lads’ button-holes, the flowers which many of them wear. (Russell, 1905: 30)

In addition to the street, there are also many examples of mutual aid, of how young people organized themselves. Early youth organizations were no exception in this respect. There were a number of instances where groups of young men (and young women) came together and attempted to find an adult leader so that they might become an official Scout pack (Springhall, 1977). The boys’ club movement boasts the celebrated example of ‘The Deadhouse’, a group of young men who organized their own club in 1909, largely around football, in a disused mortuary in Cable Street, East London (Dawes, 1975: 93-4). Outside the formal youth organizations young people used other types of institution. One example is the formation in 1875 of the Great Wigstone Working Men’s Club, Leicester, by ‘a few youths of the village tired of being chased around by the village constable’ (Taylor, 1972: 18):

They even had to borrow the four shillings and sixpence to pay the bellman’s fee when he went around announcing their first meeting. His cries fell on respondent ears, and these early clubmen were able to rent premises in the shape of ‘an asylum house’. This was a humble home; ‘The furniture consisted of two old forms, and the place was illuminated by lamps and candles’. The first beverage to be drunk in the club was tea.

The first member to arrive lit the fire and put the kettle on, and became the steward for the night. With too many stewards this did not pay. It was eventually decided to try a small barrel of beer. Success was immediate. (Taylor, 1972: 18)

Aside from what working-class young people organized for themselves, there was also a considerable tradition of working-class adult provision aimed at young people. Of central importance here was the Sunday School. By the mid-1800s it could be argued that there were two mutually exclusive groupings within the urban working class: the first and larger sub-culture revolved around the public house; the second, smaller grouping rejected pub society and took to the chapel or church and adult education:

While the self-educators spoke the language of their betters, the mass took pride in an aggressively opaque dialect. And while the social life of the smaller group was spent almost [page 26] entirely within an intimidating complex of formal institutions, the free-and-easy friendly society remained the only — and exceptional — organizing element for the majority. (Foster, 1977: 223)

Conclusions such as this need treating with care. By this time many Sunday Schools had passed into the control of working people, although the membership of chapels would appear to have been drawn rather more from the skilled than the unskilled working class (McLeod, 1984: 24). Three-quarters of working-class children were attending such schools in 1851 (Laqueur, 1976: 44). This was popular provision on a massive scale.

Laqueur suggests that the key element in the success of Sunday Schools was that they provided the education and expressed the values that working-class parents wanted for their children. In particular, it was the transmission of the values of the ‘respectable’ working class or labour aristocracy that were stressed — self-discipline, industry, thrift, improvement, egalitarianism and communalism. Sunday Schools, when considered in this light, paralleled other working-class institutions such as Friendly Societies, trade unions and savings banks. They mirror the achievements of the supplementary schools organized within Afro-Caribbean communities in recent years (Stone, 1981: 184—90). Sunday Schools were used not simply to improve literacy and religious knowledge, but also, arguably, to enhance the culture of working-class life.

However, the view that Sunday Schools were the actual creation of a working-class culture of respectability and self-reliance has been questioned. Dick (1980) claimed that Sunday Schools have to be seen as essentially middle-class conservative institutions directed at the improvement of working-class young people from above. Thompson argued that they helped contribute to the political defeats of working-class radicalism (1968: 411—40), although other writers have advanced the counter-argument that the Chapels and Sunday Schools were actually an integral part of the same movement (Hobsbawm, 1968). If we take the line of analysis developed at the end of Chapter 1, then it certainly can be argued that while the smaller sub-culture took on some bourgeois forms these may well have been re-made and reinterpreted and actually used against their ‘betters’. Much seems to turn round the notion of ‘respectability’ and the extent to which it was reinterpreted within a working-class culture. We might, like Bailey, approach respectability as a role rather than as an ideology or a uniform life-style. Then: [page 27]

the nature of class relations in leisure takes on a new light. Thus working class membership of church football teams can be seen as a purely instrumental attachment, calculated to extract certain benefits. . . . In this case working class behaviour which might have appeared as deferential from above, functioned as a kind of exploitation in reverse for its actors, who assumed respectability to meet the role demands of their class superiors. (Bailey, 1987: 185)

Whether such respectability was instrumental or distinctively working class or bourgeois, there can be no denying the scale and importance of these institutions in the lives of young people. Nor can the major role played in them by working-class people be neglected.

Aside from the educational contribution of Sunday Schools, Churches and Chapels also provided a forum for leisure. Services and associated activities had the special advantage of being one of the few organized and ‘respectable’ social occasions where sex segregation was not imposed. By the 1890s Joseph Lawson was able to write:

Chapels are now more inviting — have better music — service of song — which cannot help being attractive to the young as well as beneficial to all. They have sewing classes, bazaars, concerts, and the drama; cricket and football clubs, and harriers; societies for mutual improvement and excursions to the seaside. (quoted in Cunningham, 1980: 181)

Such mutual aid provision has come to assume crucial importance in our experience of leisure, yet remarkably little is known about its history and nature (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 2).

By and large, commentators have also excluded consideration of the contribution of political movements to the education of young people. Some late nineteenth-century socialist organizations made specific provision for young people. The Clarion Scouts, started by Robert Blatchford in 1894 as groupings of young socialist pioneers, claimed by 1896 to have 120 clubs with 7000 members. Clarion Youth Houses were set up, forerunners of the Youth Hostels, and Clarion Scouts carried the socialist message to villages and towns on bicycles (Simon, 1965: 38). As with the religious Sunday School movement, however, there is some debate as to the class nature of the Clarion Clubs and Scouts, with the suggestion that membership was predominantly lower-middle class. Both Chartist and Owenite socialists had established Sunday Schools for children, but which had died out in the late 1840s. This tradition was revived in the 1880s [page 28] and 1890s, and by 1910 when a national union was formed, around 100 schools were operating and were attended by nearly 5000 children and over 1000 adults (Simon, 1965: 48-52). A number of local cooperative societies ran youth sections, although these were often directed towards social and recreational ends. However, such examples exhibit a degree of age segregation which was unusual within the socialist and labour movement at that time.

For the most part these forms of young people’s organizations did not have the degree of formality or structure that the middle-class sponsors of youth work would have recognized as their own. They did not conform to the paradigms of the ‘youth organization’ that existed. Nor were there the ‘adults of good example’ or ‘ladies of culture’ (presumably meaning subscribing to similar values and behaviours as the middle-class sponsors) except, perhaps, in the case of some of the Sunday Schools. Nor did they, for the most part, exhibit the qualities associated with the new ‘science of charity’, so powerfully extolled by organizations such as the Charity Organization Society (COS). Indeed, the working men’s clubs and the Clarion Scouts at times sought to confront the dominance of the middle class. The nature of what these organizations offered was essentially different: it was not ‘improvement’ that they promised, in the sense of entry to the middle class or the assumption of bourgeois attitudes and behaviours, rather, by the late 1880s, they sought to advance the interests of the working class as a whole. In other words, their vision was essentially collectivist, whereas that of the middle-class providers of youth work was largely individualistic. Even much Sunday School activity stressed the importance of mutual aid and equality. However, a number of these organizations did share elements of bourgeois provision, such as the use of the club and the provision of educational opportunities: in most we do see social activities, although they were probably understood in a different way.

The bulk of those involved in the working-class forms described would not have thought of labelling their endeavours as youth work. The conceptualization of youth work around a supposed generational need or difference, and its underpinning by the notion of adolescence, would not have accorded with the experience of those engaged in working-class politics. The idea of adolescence was culturally bound and, far from accepting a youth-adult dichotomy, such activists ‘emphasized precisely those outcomes which philanthropic youth work was seeking to prevent: a working-class solidarity nurtured in part by the [political] “corruption” of the young by their elders’ (Davies, 1986: 95). Further, the main focus of [page 29] the philanthropists’ attentions, leisure, was not accorded much importance in male working-class political organizations. Compared with the workplace or the struggle to achieve reasonable educational opportunities for the working class, leisure appeared a secondary concern. Finally, many of the concerns and forms of bourgeois youth work did not resonate with the experiences of the working-class organizers. But much was to change.

Emerging patterns of youth work

Faced with their seeming inability to turn the advancing tide of mass commercial leisure and the growth of other forms of socializing provision, such as schooling and the mass media, many improvers began to reassess their interventions. At the same time, the continuing development of community-based forms of working-class organization, e.g. the Chapel and the tenants and community association, and the emergence of state intervention, and hence paid part-time youth work, heralded the conscious adoption of the epithet ‘youth work’ by those other than the bourgeois improvers. The pivotal period in this respect was the 1930s and 1940s.

During this period there was a substantial increase in young people’s involvement in the newly emerging mass leisure industries. In particular, dancing and the cinema (Wild, 1979) excited considerable comment about their impact on the young, especially concerning their sexual morality. By the 1930s, 40 per cent of the population went to the cinema at least once a week. Two things are worthy of note here: first, the development of the cinema and dance hall expressed the changing relationships between the sexes, with a far higher degree of ‘mixing’. Secondly, the cinema was one of the first mass leisure forms to appeal to, and come to be designed for, the leisure needs of women (Clarke and Critcher, 1985: 73). Other leisure forms also continued to evolve. Excursions and holidays developed under the impact of the growth of holiday pay, and mass-spectator sports such as football were regularly attracting large crowds.

At the same time home-based entertainment became more sophisticated and there were enhanced possibilities for it. Family size had declined and the housing conditions of many had improved. Generally, these factors combined to make the home a less crowded and more pleasant place to spend time in. In addition to the development of various card and board games, radio was introduced, and the ownership of luxury goods such as gramophones greatly increased. The number of radio licences increased from under 30,000 [page 30] in 1922 to over 9.5 million by 1939. Other domestic hobbies that developed included model making, radio construction and model railways. Crucially, such hobbies also provided a focus for the development of enthusiast groups. These communal leisure groups provided a fairly unique opportunity for people to come together to produce something outside the usual confines of the market economy, primarily for consumption by themselves or their friends and neighbours (Bishop and Hoggett, 1986: 40).

These developments reflected a high degree of segregation, specialization and institutionalization. First, the growth of holidays away from home and the movement of housing away from industry enhanced the separation of work and leisure. Further, while the dance hall may have been mixed, gender still remained a powerful means of segregating leisure activities, as did class and region. Secondly, ‘leisure institutions were increasingly aimed at attracting discrete bodies of leisure consumers rather than the public in general’ (Clarke and Critcher, 1985: 78). In other words the market had become segmented. Finally, the new leisure industries depended upon small returns from a large number of users, and this confirmed the continuing institutionalization of leisure. Thus, the cinema, football grounds, dance halls, gaming establishments and the sale of many consumer products such as radios all relied upon this premise and, as a consequence, required large-scale organization and a customer—provider relationship. It is against these movements in leisure and the way in which they express the deeper workings of the economy and of the social structure, that the expansion of youth work that happened at this time has to be considered.

A number of important new actors entered the youth work stage. Of great significance was the development of community centres under the encouragement of the National Council for Social Service. These centres set out to integrate youth and adult provision in one unit, and the apparent success of the initiative ‘led to the inclusion of Clause 80 in the 1936 Housing Act which conferred upon housing authorities the powers to enable them to make funds available for the construction and maintenance of community centres and recreation grounds for their tenants’ (Jeffs, 1979: 13). Although many of the new community associations made only limited space available for young people, their growth, and that of village halls, did make a net addition to provision and to the youth work labour force (Rooff, 1935: 88; Morgan, 1939: 377). The harnessing of local enthusiasm was not without its problems though: ‘One of the great difficulties . . . is to combine the initiative and independence of the neighbourhood group with the need for experienced leadership and [page 31] specialist teachers in the organization of clubs for boys and girls’ (Rooff, 1935).

The NCSS was also active in making monies available for the establishment of unemployment centres during the inter-war years. In part, this resulted from a desire to counter the efforts of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. A number of these Occupational Centres or Community Service Clubs sought to attract the young unemployed, but were largely unsuccessful. One survey found that the ‘absence of democratic control provided the ground for the most serious of the criticisms offered by young men on the conduct of the Centres’, and that the programmes offered were staid and unimaginative (Cameron et al., quoted in Jeffs, 1979:14).

To concerns about ‘new’ communities and unemployment were added worries about black children and young people. In those areas where there were black communities there is evidence of bourgeois intervention. For example, a ‘liberal and white paternalistic organization’ (Law, 1981: 31) known as the Association for the Welfare of Half Caste Children was set up in Liverpool in 1929. One report it sponsored in 1930 concluded that the problem of unemployment and destitute youth could be solved, not by tackling the problem of white racism in employment, but by ‘replacing all black firemen by white on British ships coming to Liverpool’ (Law, 1981): a conclusion hardly welcomed in the black community.

Black political and social organization continued to develop. Again in Liverpool, a number of social clubs and organizations were formed such as the Ethiopia Hall, which provided protective shelter during the racist riots of 1919 (Fryer, 1984: 301—302). In East London, Pastor Kamal Chunchie set up the Coloured Mens Institute in Canning Town in 1926. Significantly, this organization placed an emphasis on the needs of black children and young people, commissioning a special report in the early 1930s and providing activities for them including day trips to Southend (Widdowson, 1986). Chunchie was also involved in the League of Coloured Peoples, founded in 1931 in order to combat, among other things, the colour bar. It was described as a ‘social club, housing bureau, pressure group and employment agency’, in short ‘Humanitarianism, Pan-African Style’ (Drake, quoted in Fryer, 1984: 328). With a membership largely centred in Cardiff, Liverpool and London, it also organized activities for children and young people. Moody, one of its founders and its President until 1947, was anxious about the welfare of ‘coloured’ children and young people. On their prospects for jobs: [page 32]

he felt it was a well-known fact that no black boy or girl could procure a job in any office no matter how qualified. No engineering works was willing to employ them, and apart from shipping they had no outlet. . . . Unfortunately, Moody’s attention was on the individual rather than the system which produced and showed every sign of prolonging this tragedy. (Ramdin, 1987: 114)

Moody expended some effort in correspondence with various local authorities on these young people’s behalf and held discussions with officers of the Juvenile Employment Bureaux.

As might be expected from the earlier account of Sunday Schools, churches were large-scale and diverse providers of leisure and educational opportunities for young people. Provision included sports clubs, dramatic clubs and guilds and fellowships for the older age ranges. As Garrett (1986) later found in her survey of youth provision in Croydon in the mid-1980s, many churches (and in particular, in Garrett’s research, black churches) had been undertaking activities which were hidden from general surveys of welfare provision. When these were brought into contact with self-conscious youth work organizations they were liable to relabel their activities. Thus, with the development of uniformed work and the links made with national organizations such as the Girls’ Friendly Society, the YWCA and the National Council of Girls’ Clubs, such work was increasingly described as youth work.

The membership of some of the uniformed church organizations reached their peak during this period, with the Boys Brigade having 96 000 UK members in 1934, although these numbers dropped significantly with the outbreak of war. In contrast, membership of the Girls’ Friendly Society declined and, it is apparent that during the 1930s, the churches and many youth organizations recognized the shifts occurring within the leisure market and felt some need to respond. Perhaps the most substantial changes occurred in the decision of many clubs and fellowships to be ‘mixed’ and to adopt a more directly social or recreational programme. In general, such clubs were rather more welcomed by the girls’ club movement than the boys’ club movement. The case for mixing was advanced on both educational and pragmatic grounds. The separation of the sexes was seen by the proponents of mixing as unnatural, the creation of an artificial barrier. In addition, they feared that they would be unable to carry on with youth work on any substantial scale in the long term unless mixing was introduced in some way, simply because this was what was demanded by the young. Other factors contributed to this [page 33] movement including the organizational difficulties of running twin clubs with separate girls’ and boys’ activities on different nights.

Significantly, a tradition emerged within church work of clubs and fellowships ‘usually organised and planned by the Young Peoples’ Committee’ (Rooff, 1935: 29). However, Rooff identifies two main areas of concern in church-associated work — the first being difficulties with premises and the second the danger of sectionalism:

Many are able to do the valuable work amongst the small groups attached to them which is sometimes difficult of attainment in the larger club. On the other hand, there is the danger of too great concentration on their own small units, and a narrow loyalty may lead to a refusal to co-operate in larger issues of the neighbourhood. (Rooff, 1935: 35)

Jewish youth workers also continued to adapt and in particular had to take account of social mobility. The suburban clubs which opened in London in the 1930s ‘brought about a major reappraisal of the pattern and character of Jewish youth work’ (Bunt, 1975: 27).

School-based youth work made its appearance, perhaps the best known example being the first Cambridge Village College at Sawston, opened by Henry Morris in 1928. A number of LEAs were encouraging the development of Old Scholars’ Clubs, while others were turning an official blind eye. Their programmes are reminiscent of those of the Chapel and Sunday School at the end of the nineteenth century:

A diversity of tastes and needs is catered for, and winter activities include physical training, country dancing, lectures, reading circles, craft work and dramatic performances. In summer, contact is maintained with the old scholars by means of rambles, cycling and other forms of outdoor sport. (Rooff, 1935: 43)

In London in 1935 there were some 250 of these clubs meeting generally once a week in school premises provided free of charge by the London County Council.

The entry of the state into the youth work arena was originally signalled in the report of the Russell Committee at the end of the First World War which advocated the setting up of local juvenile organizations’ committees to coordinate the provision of facilities for young people (Jeffs, 1979: 11—12). The committee also recommended that LEAs should have the power to give financial support to such committees and to certain voluntary organizations. Fisher, [page 34] in his Education Act (1918), drew on the committee’s recommendations and gave LEAs the powers to spend money on facilities for physical training, organized games, holiday camps and for the social training of young people in the evening, which ‘in essence meant that they could if they so desired make grants available to youth clubs and groups’ (Jeffs, 1979: 12). Little money was in fact made available until the mid-1930s, when grants were made to voluntary organizations in depressed areas by the Special Areas Commissioner and to the YMCA for outdoor pursuits in junior transfer centres by the Ministry of Labour. The Physical Training and Recreation Act (1937) conferred permissive powers on LEAs to make provision for physical training instruction and recreational facilities for the 14—20 age group. Further action had to wait for the war.

The Youth Service and wartime disruption

At the beginning of the Second World War there was mass transportation to the countryside in expectation of bombing and disruption. This, combined with the break-up of families through mobilization, the re-entry of married women into the labour market (and hence the need for provision for children), and other changes occasioned by wartime conditions, led to an immediate review of a number of welfare services by the government departments concerned. When the invasion did not immediately materialize a good proportion of the evacuees returned to the cities:

The absence of one or both parents, abrupt changes of employment, long dark evenings and inadequate facilities for recreation combined to produce an urgent need for action…. The existing youth organizations had been hit by the call-up of youth leaders and workers, by the drastic commandeering of premises, by the running down of the income of the voluntary organizations and by the wholesale closure of youth clubs as an air raid precaution in evacuation areas. (Gosden, 1976: 211—12)

At the same time there was a substantial rise in juvenile delinquency, most commonly taking the form of larceny. The government could not remain idle. Circular 1486, In the Service of Youth (Board of Education, 1939), heralded the ‘fourth province’ of the education service after primary, secondary and adult education. The Circular talked of the neglect that the 14—20 age group had suffered in its physical and social development. It also noted the social problems of young people that had arisen during the First [page 35] World War. LEAs were urged to constitute Youth Committees, whose first duty was to formulate an ordered policy ‘which shall provide for meeting the most immediate needs and which shall indicate the lines on which a real advance can be made under more favourable conditions’ (Board of Education, 1939: 2). This was quickly followed by Circular 1516, The Challenge of Youth (Board of Education, 1940: 2), which laid down that LEAs ‘are to take the initiative in their local areas; provide the machinery for local cooperation; encourage existing organizations to extend their work; and fill the gaps not covered by such organization’. The people charged with this task were to be Youth Officers and Organizers.

A year later it seemed as if the State was about to take a further step – compelling young people to belong to youth organizations. This was to be the first stage in the introduction of pre-military training. However, the practical and ideological questions were such that, the resulting Circular 1577 (Board of Education, 1941) simply required all young people aged 16 and 17 to register with their LEA. Young people were also to be interviewed and advised as to how they might spend their leisure time and of the local opportunities for them to give voluntary help to the war effort. This was usually done under the auspices of local youth committees. At first there was an attendance rate nationally of around 70 per cent. But as people began to realize the interview was not compulsory, the rate dropped, and the system was gradually dismantled as pressure for a paramilitary training scheme disappeared.

One of the key responses made by the LCC and a number of LEAs, particularly in the north of England, was to open civic youth clubs or recreation centres, often in school buildings. Indeed, by the end of the war, Barnes reported that in his local survey, nearly three-quarters of all youth groups met in schools or in church halls (1945: 108). The new civic or recreational youth centres were frequently open on three or more nights in the week. In these centres:

boys and girls not attached to any organization could go in an emergency, and these rapidly became of use during the blackout hours of the winter evenings. Although these youth centres were started to meet an emergency and on a temporary basis, numbers of boys and girls, hitherto untouched by any social organization, have joined these and similar centres and in many cases they have developed into permanent clubs. (National Council of Girls’ Clubs 1940, quoted in Bunt and Gargrave, 1980: 111)

As Brew reports, these clubs also attracted some harsh criticism [page 36] for ‘giving their members no definite instruction, for concentrating on ballroom dancing, for being entirely secular, and for being mixed’ (1943: 56). One of the innovations much talked about was the so-called ‘In and Out Club’ which did not require formal membership and young people could use as they wish. The Times Educational Supplement (29 June 1940: 255), following the publication of Circular 1516, hoped that any further financial support for the LCC’s ‘deplorable recreation centres’ would be ruled out. Much of the other opposition to the new developments came from existing youth organizations, concerned about ‘possible competition for membership from new organizations apparently favoured and backed by the government’ (Gosden, 1976: 217).

Many of the new ‘open clubs’ were staffed by part-time paid workers, large numbers of whom had no previous experience of youth work. They came without many of the preconceptions of those in the older youth movements and tended to design programmes to attract, rather than to ‘improve’, young people. One of the major concerns was to keep young people’s morale up as well as providing activities for them in safety. The shortage of staff and the development of members’ committees were also contributory factors:

Drama, arts, crafts, games and physical recreation were popular and were introduced with the idea that the senior members would return to their clubs, and build up the numbers necessary to justify the appointment of an Instructor, appointed and paid by the Local Education Authority. (Evans, 1965: 29)

Figures concerning the fitness of conscripts to the armed forces show why there was not a major moral panic concerning young men’s ability to ‘contribute to the war effort’. During the period of the War, 70 per cent of conscripts were found to be fully fit, compared with 36 per cent during the second half of the First World War (Rowntree, 1941). However, there was still an emphasis upon fitness in a number of official pronouncements and this led the Youth Committee of the Commission of Churches to send a deputation to complain of this emphasis and the relative neglect of religion in Circular 1516 (Gosden, 1976: 216).

The massive expansion of youth clubs was not restricted to urban areas. The impact of the evacuation of large numbers of school children and the billeting of troops in rural areas led to an expansion of rural provision. This was scarcely halted by the return of many of the evacuees to the urban areas. In general, rural provision took a [page 37] similar form to that in the cities in that it adopted a broadly social model, although provision was often only on one night a week. In one very small rural area, where in June 1940 there were no clubs, there were 25 three years later (National Association of Girls’ Clubs Annual Report, 1943).

Another feature of ‘modern’ youth work attracted attention at this time, i.e. detached work. Many policy documents expressed concern about the large numbers of young people who were not attached to youth organizations. One response was an attempt to encourage membership through registration, while another was to go to the places where young people were and to work with them there. Within youth work there has been a tradition, certainly dating back to Stanley (1878) and before, of going out onto the streets in order to find young people with the general intention of enrolling them in a youth organization. However, with large numbers of young people spending time in shelters, and with the closure of a number of traditional youth facilities, there was a demand for alternative forms of working. Paneth (1944) provides an account of one such project and poses a series of questions that remain fundamental to the work:

Have we been intruders, disturbing an otherwise happy community, and is it only the bourgeois in us, coming face to face with his opponents, who minds and wants to change them because he feels threatened? Or do they need help from outside? (Paneth, 1944: 121)

Here we see a form of self-questioning that would have been unthinkable to the early exponents of youth work. Beyond that there had been a substantial shift in youth work’s overall character, particularly with the emphasis on programmes that would attract young people. Most, if not all the changes, were prefigured in the 1930s with wartime conditions accelerating their adoption. The extent of the changes can be gauged by the second report of the National Youth Advisory Council, which argued that four characteristics distinguished the Youth Service’s contribution from those of other agencies.

The purpose of the Youth Service is to promote and provide the opportunity for participating in activities:

1     which are carried on in a community different in its nature from school or work;

2     which are voluntarily undertaken;

3     which are complementary to other activities; [page 38]

4     to which the approach is from the standpoint of recreation. (Ministry of Education, 1945: 7—8)

The Report unequivocally stated that ‘the purpose of activities undertaken within the Youth Service should be recreation and enjoyment’ (Ministry of Education, 1945: 9). The contrast with the rhetoric of character-building and child-saving could not be starker. Significantly, there was rather more emphasis on collectivities and ‘collective self discipline’. ‘Whatever the activity, and whatever the precise motif, the lessons to be learned are the same, cooperation, tolerance, free decision and joint responsibility’ (Ministry of Education, 1945: 10): a conclusion which echoes a proposal to the Board of Education by the London Probation Service in 1940, where clubs in shelters were proposed in order to evoke the public spirit lacking in ‘this individualistic society’ (quoted in Gosden, 1976: 222). The report met with a less than adoring response in a number of youth organizations, but it undoubtedly articulated a mood and direction which was prevalent in a large swathe of the new provision. Although at the end of the war youth work had suffered severely from cuts in grant aid from central government funds and the loss of a substantial number of leaders as they returned to ‘normal’ activities, many of the mixed ‘social’ clubs remained.

The new youth workers

The entry of schooling, community associations and the State into youth work has been associated with a watershed in the class location and organization of those directly sponsoring and undertaking youth work. The relative proportion of workers from middle-class backgrounds decreased: ‘Endowed with greater wealth and leisure than ever before, the groups from which the caretaker elites had once been recruited began to withdraw into a more self-centred private existence’ (Gillis, 1974: 200). Part of the reason for this may have been the increasing proportion of married women who were working. As Percival noted, the feeling of noblesse oblige ‘continued to produce social volunteers so long as there was a leisured class which had been given time to acquire this feeling’ (1951: 211). However, it was not simply a matter of the middle classes withdrawing from such work, it was also that ‘the supply of those who are willing to devote themselves to this arduous service has not expanded proportionately to the demand’ (Morgan, 1939: 399). In other words, there was a substantial increase in the numbers of clubs and units during this period and in the numbers of young people [page 39] attending them. Significantly, these groups were largely accommodated within organizations which were largely devoted to other activities, be they schooling, worship or broad community provision. They were unlike the traditional bourgeois paradigms of youth provision, represented by the free-standing boys’ club, the uniformed organization, or the improving group such as the Girls’ Friendly Society.

The large-scale entry of the State is of central importance. As the State increasingly took over functions necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of labour power, youth work became viewed as a possible, but limited, site for intervention. At the same time, with the extension of secondary education and mass communications reinforcing popular commitment to national norms and values, alternative forms of affirming social and political responsibility were readily available. Thus, the formal entry of the State must be seen in the peculiar circumstances of the period. Youth work was perceived as having some potential to contribute to the productive and fighting effort by providing enhanced opportunities for leisure and by channelling people into voluntary productive activities via projects such as the youth squads. Crucially, the entry of the State was also to provide a generalized demonstration of the commitment and concern of the State towards helping and supporting young people en masse and individually (Jeffs and Smith, 1988a: 37—40). This was further reinforced by claiming a special concern for those young people with ‘special needs’:

Consequently, youth movements made less of an appeal to the upwardly mobile than before, while their role as agencies of social management became increasingly superfluous. Only the lower-middle classes, with their status anxieties, patriotism, and political assertiveness, continued during the interwar period to provide leaders with enthusiasm at a local level. (Springhall, 1977: 124)

This latter grouping provided many leaders and workers. When Rooff’s (1935) survey on girls’ clubs is analysed, a significant number of the leaders were drawn from church congregations, with relatively few from among teachers and ‘leisured women’, although this appeared to vary from region to region. Significant occupational groupings included office workers and businesswomen, students, Church Army sisters and nuns and welfare workers in factory clubs. The other major grouping were senior club members. Others were restricted by material circumstances:

Local efforts to support clubs are necessarily limited, since the [page 40 incomes of the residents leave little in excess of household needs. Moreover, the question of leadership is a vexed problem, since most of the women in the area have had neither the opportunities to develop wider interests nor the time to devote to running clubs etc. for young people. (Rooff, 1935: 71)

Morgan reported that ‘leaders are being recruited from every walk of life’, and that in the Special Areas, ‘many unemployed men are assisting the work (1939: 401), a situation which was clearly not to his elitist tastes:

A large and increasing number of club leaders are men who have not had the advantages of an extended and liberal education. . . . The less well-educated leader can manage a sports institution or shelter from the street where boys can play billiards, and he may give them much of value for the formation of character; he may be a most valuable helper, but he is incapable of inspiring and organising a real club as of being headmaster of a school. (Morgan, 1939: 402)

During the expansion of youth work at the beginning of the war, a large number of people from local neighbourhood organizations as well as a substantial number of teachers were involved in the provision of youth work: a position further encouraged in some areas by payment. There was ‘little or no difficulty in recruiting leaders and helpers. The need to assist young people under wartime conditions appealed to many as an urgent form of community service’ (Evans, 1965: 23).

The professional youth worker and officer had also arrived, although some full-time workers had been employed previously in voluntary organizations. Now full-time officers and organizers were required to carry out the duties laid upon LEAs and it was argued that ‘club service is elaborate and exacting, and many clubs have reached a stage of development where the regular presence of the leader is essential and it is not practicable to secure this on a voluntary basis on the scale which the movement now demands’ (Morgan, 1939: 403). In 1944 the McNair Report advocated the training of professional workers, who would be drawn from the widest possible range of backgrounds (Board of Education, 1944). Employment in industry or commerce was considered a prerequisite for entry and, therefore, maturity in terms of years was given a high priority. Partly in order to attract such candidates, McNair argued for an independent training scheme: ‘We do not think that training [page 41] for youth leadership should be attempted within the course designed to train teachers and other kinds of social worker’ (Board of Education, 1944: 104). The training scheme was to be of three years duration and located within the university sector of HE. The later Jackson Committee advocated a rather different course of action, recommending that teachers should be the main source of recruitment (Ministry of Education, 1949), a position which has subsequently been realized (Kuper, 1985).

Young people played a significant role in the organization of clubs and this was reflected in contemporary reports and policy statements (Evans, 1965: 18). During the Secord World War, this trend appears to have been strengthened by the shortage of adult leaders and the numbers of senior members who were called up. Further, in the hot-house atmosphere of war, the club was seen as important in the training of citizenship, ‘as a little commonwealth, having its place in a democracy’ (Edwards-Rees, 1943: 84). Overall, it would appear that much greater responsibility for the running of clubs was given to senior members and many came to resemble mutual aid institutions, although there was some problems of turnover in the special conditions of the war. A range of senior member training schemes were set up at local, regional and national levels. At the same time there was also ‘the spontaneous desire of young people who had left school but were too young for the Services to do some form of national work’ (Gosden, 1976: 223). Considerable numbers of young people joined local youth service squads which again were often self-organized.

Changing membership

Along with these significant shifts in the backgrounds and concerns of those running youth work provision, there was a major expansion and movement in membership. Surveying the developments during the war in one area, Barnes comments:

In October 1944 there were some 900 youth groups known to the LEAs in our region, with a total membership of from 22 000 to 24 000. The membership fluctuates seasonally within fairly wide limits. But it is safe to say that, amongst the 14—18 age group, 40 to 50 per cent of the girls and 50 to 60 per cent of the boys are in 1944—5 attached to some group. This represents a threefold expansion since 1939. (Barnes, 1945: 106)

Making sense of attendance figures and of the various surveys of leisure habits undertaken at this time is a task fraught with [page 42] difficulties. When Jeffs examined the raw data on group membership collected by Morgan in 1938, he found that the figures gave an overall affiliation rate of 15.8 per cent, which does not seem out of line with what Barnes suggests. By late 1940, Board of Education figures suggest a total membership of youth organizations of 750 000 or around 25 per cent of 14—18 year olds (Gosden, 1976: 219). The registration scheme appears to have further increased the membership of youth organizations, initially by around 15-20 per cent, although such figures are open to dispute (Gosden, 1976: 228).

Having reached a peak during the war, by the late 1940s the overall number of young people taking part in Youth Service activities showed a decline. This was partly due to falling birth rates, but also to the shortage of experienced leaders, the withdrawal of funding and the growing opposition from groups such as teachers who felt that youth work was diverting young people from their educational endeavours. There was also a less intense sense of purpose in such activities following the cessation of hostilities. However, national surveys of the uses of leisure among secondary school children and out-of-school youth, plus many local surveys, still demonstrated a significantly higher usage than prior to the war. For instance, the Youth Service in the early 1950s was able to recruit around 75 per cent of school-age youth at some point. As before, when young people left school they usually stopped attending youth provision. Investigators also discovered a trend, that as teenagers aged, so they grew away from the older uniformed organizations towards membership of social clubs, whether run by local authorities or churches (Roberts, 1983: 14—15). When these figures are compared with later surveys a degree of stability appears. For instance, a survey published in 1972 showed that while around 26 per cent of 14—20 year olds belonged to a club at the time of the survey, 65 per cent belonged to some organized group (although often outside the Youth Service) and 93 per cent had belonged to an organized group at some time (Bone and Ross, 1972).

A question that these early figures leave open concerns the class location of users. A reasonable assumption is that in both absolute and relative terms, the working-class membership of youth organizations increased during this period. The bulk of this increase would appear to reside in the expansion of open youth work. However, while there was a shift towards working-class usage, grammar school pupils were still more likely to attend youth clubs and youth organizations than were those attending secondary modern schools (Ward, 1948). Certainly by the early 1980s, open youth work displayed a different distinctive pattern: [page 43]

Usage of youth clubs was age, sex and class determined to a considerable degree. Significantly more C2DEs (67%) had ever attended a youth club than ABC1s (57%) and this was reflected in the current usage pattern; . . . of the 14 to 16 year old ‘teenagers’ nearly 2 in 5 (38%) were currently going to a youth club compared with less than 1 in 5 (19%) of the over l6s; around one third (32%) of the boys attended a youth club compared with just over one quarter (26%) of the girls. (DES, 1983b: 36)

Their image, the report concluded, was ‘essentially young, male and C2DE’ (DES 1983b: 44). The new provision, while titled ‘mixed’, was weighted towards young men. For example, of those currently attending youth clubs in the above survey just 46 per cent were female (DES, 1983b: 37) and there is considerable evidence that this figure overstates their usage. Data collected by ILEA shows that it is only in the under-12 age ranges that girls constitute such a proportion of membership; in the crucial 14—15 age ranges they comprise 37 per cent of membership and in the 16—18 range 30.6 per cent (ILEA, 1984: 8). Further, such statistics as we possess, ‘while appearing to confirm the hypothesis that the rate of girls’ participation in the Youth Service is less than that for boys, and that it decreases with age, cannot be seen as reliable indicators of activity’ (ILEA, 1984: 2). In other words, the position may be worse when actual usage is considered.

With the development of specific forms of black youth provision, often associated with black churches (Garrett, 1986), demographic movements (Ramdin, 1987: 253—4) and, arguably some shifts in cultural patterns of control of parents over their adolescent children, the usage of youth provision by black young people has substantially increased. In particular, Afro-Caribbeans are now twice as likely to attend youth clubs than are whites (DES, 1983b: 76). However, Asians were least likely of all to use youth provision with the exception of sports centres and school clubs, where, it is suggested, parental constraints do not operate as strongly (DES, 1983b: 36). Again, the emergence of unique forms of mutual aid provision via religious and cultural organizations and the various Asian youth movements has been of particular significance, and a great deal of provision remains ‘hidden’ from the usual surveys of welfare. While attendance figures for youth work provision may have improved, the extent to which such provision actually meets the expressed needs of black young people is limited (Williams, 1988). [page 44]

Popular youth work

The expansion of youth organization membership, an apparent increase in the participation rates of working-class and black young people, the emphasis on self-organization, shifts in the class location of workers, the emergence of ‘professionals’, the entry of the State and the school, the significance of community organizations, and the general movement from notions of improvement to those of enjoyment, combine to make this a momentous period for youth work. But does this amount to the making of a popular youth work?

As Williams has noted, ‘popular’ was originally a legal and political term taken from popularis, meaning belonging to the people (1976: 198). Thus, popular culture could be understood as that made by people for themselves. In this sense, ‘people’s’ youth work had arrived by the end of the Second World War. Programmes were adopted which contained cultural practices, such as mixing, dancing and informal discussion, which were associated in the minds of the providers with working-class leisure activities. The location of much provision within community-based organizations strengthens this view, as does the extent to which young people actually organized provision.

A competing understanding of ‘popular’ is ‘well liked’. This contains ‘a strong element of setting out to gain favour, with a sense of calculation’ (Williams, 1976). According to this second meaning, popular culture has not been identified by the people, but by others. Often there is an accompanying judgement that popular forms are inferior, especially when compared with ‘real’ art or ‘the novel’. Thus, when some of the developments in youth work are analysed in this way, they could again assume the label ‘popular’. They display a number of the elements present in the development of mass entertainment. Even though this has been a time of mixed social provision, segregation, specialization and institutionalization still occurred and developed in a way parallel to other leisure industries (Clarke and Critcher, 1985: 78). Provision was specifically offered and designed that might appeal to a ‘mass’ market. The new ‘low’ popular forms could be compared unfavourably with ‘real’ youth work, which might be about improvement, leadership or spirituality.

From the foregoing it may be seen that there are two usages of the term ‘popular’. However, this view has to be treated with some care, the distinctions and definitions are not that straightforward. All culture contains a moment of domination and the possibility of [page 45] producing the ideological and material tools needed to begin to transform an oppressive social reality (Giroux, 1983: 226). Hence, popular culture is neither ‘the site of the people’s cultural deformation nor as that of their cultural self-affirmation . . . or of their self-making; rather it is . . . a force field of relations shaped, precisely, by these contradictory pressures and tendencies’ (Bennett, 1986a: xiii). It is this force field within youth work which has produced the uncomfortable accommodations that go to make up popular practice and the way in which youth work is defined. The resistance of working-class young people to many bourgeois forms, the impact of commonsense economic imperatives, and the desire to rescue and improve the young are examples of these forces and have been represented here via the idea of a ‘historic bargain’ between workers, sponsors and young people – a bargain which is rarely made explicit:

To put it crudely, people who support youth work by their money are seldom willing to support a venture which supplies nothing but what they like to call “mere amusement    Therefore the unfortunate leader is too often in the unenviable position of being forced to embark on a programme which shall satisfy the desire for uplift demanded by the subscribers to the club, and at the same time to cater for the club member who is not ready for this uplift and resists it to the last gasp. It is this Puritanical conception that if people are enjoying themselves they are probably not learning anything which is at the root of much of the acknowledged dishonesty behind many annual reports. (Brew 1943: 49)

Significantly, stripped of the requirement to maintain morale following the end of the war, the language of official reports once again became peppered with references to character and to Christianity (see, e.g. King George’s Jubilee Trust, 1951).

A further tendency in the use of ‘popular’ has been to equate implicitly ‘the people’ with the working class, and often the male working class at that. This, in turn, has often rested on the further assumption that ‘the tensions and conflicts which are worked out and expressed in the sphere of popular culture are reducible to a single contradiction: that between working class culture and bourgeois ideology’ (Bennett, 1986b: 15). This results in a failure to take account of the other ‘multiple contradictions and struggles which traverse the class-related aspects of cultural struggle and deeply mark the face of popular culture’ (Bennett, 1986b). These [page 46] include the struggles of women against male domination and that against racism.

For these reasons it is not possible to allocate a fixed meaning to terms such as ‘the people’ or ‘popular’, rather they have to be viewed as contested and essentially political. It is in this way that we can talk of the making of popular youth work. Aspects of bourgeois youth work can be claimed as ‘popular’, as can certain commercial forms of provision such as the music hall. Nevertheless, bourgeois youth work may be contrasted with examples of activities which are characterized by face-to-face organizing relationships and which express their identity through forms which are seen as ‘popular’. A significant number of the new ‘open’ clubs and groups were social, convivial, and had a symbiotic relationship with their members’ cultures. Such organic youth work had an identity which lay with some notion of the ‘popular’. While bourgeois youth work may use ‘popular’ forms, it appeals to a rather different set of ideas and practices when seeking to make sense of itself.

It would be nice to be able to call the non-bourgeois popular forms ‘proletarian’ in order to give symmetry to the model, but subsequent developments in youth work demonstrate the strength of Bennett’s (1986b) argument. The most significant movements in what might be called oppositional and possibly anti-bourgeois practice in the 1970s and 1980s, have been found within consciously black or feminist practice. Located within social movements, portraying positive images, making explicit reference to ideology and culture, and linking the realms of personal and political experience, some of the practice generated has demonstrated how popular forms can be used in order to approach, understand and combat an oppressive social reality (M. Smith, 1987: 17—24). These cannot be seen as expressions of simple class-related struggles. Indeed, some of the work labelled feminist, for example,’ is also bourgeois. Further, it may also be that class analysis requires ‘reconceptualization in the light of an extended exploration of race’ (Gilroy, 1987: 223) and that we need to look at the ways in which experiences of gender and race are articulated within class relations.

Unlike that other middle-class-improving foray into working class leisure, the working men’s club, young people have had to wait a long time to throw off bourgeois intervention. By 1886 the workers had gained control of that movement and it was able to ‘bid a long farewell to all its great ones’ (Hall, quoted in Simon, 1965: 73). The 1930s and 1940s mark something of a bourgeois farewell in youth work as popular forms of practice gained ascendancy. Even though some popular practice was simply the result of a growing bourgeois [page 47] accommodation of working-class cultural forms, it still holds within it ‘clusters of potential’ (Yeo and Yeo, quoted in Bailey, 1987: 11). While bourgeois youth work can inhibit the development of an ideology and practice which serves the interests of subordinated groups, popular youth work at least furnishes possibilities for a counter-practice (see Chapter 8).


Cannan, C. (2001) ‘Fellowship and reconstruction: social action and unemployment in the 1930s’ in R. Gilchrist, T. Jeffs and J. Spence (eds.) Essays in the History of Community and Youth Work, Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Turnbull, A. (2001) ‘Gendering young people – work, leisure and girls clubs. The work of the National Organization of Girls Clubs’ and its successors 1911-1961’ in R. Gilchrist, T. Jeffs and J. Spence (eds.) Essays in the History of Community and Youth Work, Leicester: Youth Work Press.


Consult the full bibliography

© Mark Smith 1988

Reproduced from Developing Youth Work. Informal education, mutual aid and popular practice, Milton: Keynes: Open University Press.

First placed in the Archives in April 2001. Refreshed July 2019

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