The significance of circular 1486 – The Service of Youth

Circular 1486 is usually taken as marking the beginning of the youth service in England and Wales. Published in 1939 Jonathan Roberts assesses its significance.

contents: introduction · wartime conditions · young people and youth organizations · the circular · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article
Photograph: The Oxford and Bermondsey Boys’ Clubs – the work of Boys Clubs in Bermondsey, London, England, UK


Why, 65 years later, should we look at this modest government document? Tony Jeffs summed up its impact on the LEAs: ‘it really produced very little in the way of LEA involvement and the Government was rapidly obliged to replace it with a far more explicit and directive document’ (Jeffs 1979: 23). Looking at it now it reveals the state of development of work with young people and the values held about youth work in 1939.

The context – wartime conditions

By the time Circular 1486 was written evacuation had happened and the massive displacement of young people and children was shaking family life and crossing class lines (Bawden 1973). 1.5 million people moved in the autumn of 1939 with chilling predictions of urban bombing based on the Spanish and Manchurian wars of the 1930s. The Board of Education saw curriculum opportunities, and the reports on the BBC of urban children encountering cows (broadcast 10.9.39) made the cultural clash vivid. But the misery of evacuation was much more evident: distance from family and familiar places, being rejected by potential foster homes, and the lack of resources in many reception areas. Lone teachers charged with the parental care for a class were worn out and there was a need to encourage other support mechanisms. The phoney war convinced many that it was fine to go back home, and by January 8,1940 900,000 had done so (Longmate 2002: 60). It is easy to see that those involved in work with young people would want to offer more to address the ‘conditions which constitute a serious menace to youth’ (Circular 1486 paragraph 1).

The war context of the document is a curiosity to us and speaks of a world hard to imagine where it dominated the entire nation’s activity. The army was not just a small highly professional group of young people. In 1999 there were 119,000 in the Forces, from a population of 58.4 million. In 1918 there had been 8,500,000 from a British population of 20 million and by 1944 there were 5,067,000 from a population of 48 million. (Davies 1999: 897). For the adults faced with creating, and implementing Circular 1486 the impact of fighting was a personal matter. There were no romantic illusions. The first day of the Somme battle in 1916 had cost the British 57,470 casualties from the young volunteers and in the 14 weeks that followed that single sector saw losses of 419,654 (Davies 1999: 896). There was a powerful feeling of ‘Never Again’ after the Great War. The Pals’ battalions were not to be repeated because of the social misery associated with mass slaughter: Aston had streets where most houses had lost a Royal Warwick’s soldier on the Somme; how could comfort come from neighbours? The Church of England wrestled with giving comfort and meaning in this uncomforting and apparently pointless waste of life, and in the process learnt about the distance that lay between what it could say and what people would listen to (Wilkinson 1978).

In this context the anxiety about young people’s behaviour among the wider adult population during the First World War is unsurprising. Alan Bennett drew upon his own experience to satirise the meaningless hassling of schoolboys to be worthy of those being slaughtered in France (Bennett 1968). In political reality young people were the focus of a ‘National Committee for Public Morals’ and a ‘Committee on Juvenile Delinquency’ both of whom reported in 1917, leading to a committee chaired by Charles Russell recommending financial support for young people’s facilities: this became part of the 1918 Education Act, but was not implemented due to post-war limits on public spending. But this was not what we would now call evidence based practice. Jeffs comments that ‘on average crime during the war period only exceeded the 1912 figures for both indictable and non-indictable offences in one year, 1917. In fact … 1916 provided the lowest figures for any year during the period 1893 – 1965.’ (Jeffs 1979:11, footnote 54).

What we seem to be faced with is a desire to intervene in the lives of young people because patterns of society seemed to be unsettled by grief, large-scale early violent death, and the breaking of regular family, gender and class patterns. Before the First World War broke out there were large numbers of young people in the population: birth rates were still high and death rates had been falling. There were 13 million 0-14 year olds in a population of 42 million at the 1911 census, the largest 15 year cohort. After the war had begun the adult males were away fighting and the exhaustion of so many single women bringing up large families must have been evident. Women were at work to a more significant extent with the nation’s production dependent on them. The expertise in providing support as young people made the transition to adulthood lay with voluntary projects: Rowntree’s studies of poverty, the Settlements, the uniformed organisations, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.  Such work always needs more support, financial and political, to back up the enthusiasm of those who lead it and join in with it; it took until the end of the First World War for any such support to be forthcoming. It was an indication of the improved position of the voluntary sector that Circular 1486 was published within a couple of months of the outbreak of war.

Young people and youth organizations

The extent of the young population within the wider population is striking too. There were in real terms similar numbers of young people as today but their significance in the smaller population was greater.  In 1941 the cohort of the population that was 15-29 was the largest (11.2 million of a population of 48.3 million) and the younger cohort of 0-14 was 10.1 million. This was just less than a quarter of the population, in each group. Young people under 30 made up nearly half the population. The lower school leaving age meant too that the members of youth organisation over 14 were in work, often with their leaders as colleagues.  In comparison with 2001 the youngest cohort was 11 million, and the 15-29 also 11 million, while the 30-44 year olds number 13.2 million, all in a population of 58.4 million. This is between a fifth and a sixth of the population in each cohort with just over a third of the whole population under 30. The issues that were likely to attract sympathetic voluntary action in the 1940s were more likely to be to do with young people. The biggest contrast with today is seen in the older population where the over-75s have risen from 1 million in 1941 to 4 million now. It is likely now that the experience and interests of the elderly will be vocal and that a greater distance from and conflict with the interests of young people will result in more extreme interpretations of young people’s lives. What is striking in 1939 was the concern for the ‘serious menace to youth’ (Circular 1486) in contrast to the rhetoric of Anti Social Behaviour Orders where young people are seen as a menace.

The demands of this young population had been inspiring action to improve young people’s lives since the mid-nineteenth century and the success of the arguments of ‘well meaning amateurs’ (Jeffs 1979: 25) were having an effect in Westminster. Circular 1486 is a pivot point in the argument setting the agenda for action. The list of the voluntary organisations (Boys’ Brigade, Boy Scouts Association, Church Lads Brigade, Girl Guides Association, Girls Friendly Society, Girls Guildry, National Association of Boys’ Clubs (including the Association of Jewish Youth), Girls’ Life Brigade, National Council of Girls’ Clubs, Welsh League of Youth, Y.M.C.A., Y.W.C.A., National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs) and the reminder of the Standing Conference of Juvenile Organisations, including its address, indicates the active engagement of the voluntary sector.

When we consider the setting they found themselves in we can imagine the dilemmas based on our own anxieties about the latest initiative to address youth unemployment, crime, drugs, or sexual health. The ‘Dad’s Army’ tussles for the hall between the Air Raid Wardens and the Home Guard were reflected up and down the country as a common feature of the Home Front. Circular 1486 reflects the excessively officious nature of some of this new activity: ‘The Committee has already taken practical steps to deal with the immediate difficulties arising out of the present abnormal conditions. They have facilitated the re-opening of clubs and pressed for the release of premises requisitioned for war purposes’ (paragraph 3). The Circular was, in part, to assert the need and right to continue youth work. The uniting of such a range of youth organisations indicates the effectiveness of each voluntary organisation’s network and the partnership working between the organisations. As the First World War broke out the ‘militia’ uniformed organisations (BB and CLB) had made deals with the War Office; their lads skipped the six weeks army basic training on the basis of their discipline and drill. The BB repented of this in dust and ashes in the 1920s, seeing so many of those they had cared for before the war sent to early deaths by this deal (St Nicholas’ Church Durham is not unique in identifying the 28 members of the BB among the 59 who were killed, on its war memorial).

The heartbreak of the voluntary organisations can be seen wider with the shift from the detailed care for individuals before the War to more general group work afterwards (Spence 2001). As the Second World War broke out the general view was to stay with youth work and this would be the best contribution to the war effort. There was common ground about the need for fitness and the ability of the voluntary bodies to address this (Circular 1486 paragraph 3). This had been based on the difficulties of recruitment in the Boer War, First World War (when only 1 in 3 conscripts had been found to be fit), and in the 1930s (in 1933 95,270 offered themselves to the army and only 28,841 passed fit) (Jeffs 1979: 20). The reality of the achievement of the voluntary sector to do youth work on their own terms can be seen, for example, in the enthusiasm with which the Commandos had to recruit Scouts (Spean Bridge museum).

The Circular

What were the characteristics of the ‘service of youth’ (paragraph 8) in 1939, reflected in Circular 1486? First that it was expected to be a service equally addressed to ‘boys and girls’ (paragraph 1). The emphatic ‘both sexes’ in the discussion of representation (Appendix 2) reflects a demand for equality with which we are familiar. The names of the organisations (Appendix 2 note) may seem quaint, but they balance girls and boys pretty evenly in their separate provision. The use made of organisations was fairly well balanced too, for example: the Scouts and Guides each had membership during the 1930s of about 200,000 (Jeffs 1979: 17). It does not take much to imagine behind the circular the desire to embed the shared rights to vote recently won in active citizenship for girls and boys. The energies of workers like Lily Montague would have ensured that the girls would benefit from the joint working and resources, as well as potential soldiers.

Second, young people are expected to be initiators of the youth activities. What we would call ‘youth participation’ is taken for granted. This applies to the identification of appropriate activity (paragraph 6), and the regular business of the Youth Committees (Appendix 2). They even seem to anticipate annual conferences to which young people might be invited to ensure wider input (Appendix 3). This emphasis on youth participation matches the involvement in youth club management, the warrant officer and officer system in the uniformed organisations, and the emphasis on young people’s self reliance in the Scout movement.

Third, the Circular is trying to consolidate and encourage partnership working between the voluntary sector and democratic government at all levels. It is clear that there are ‘excellent committees already (paragraph 5) where there is little to change. But there are familiar themes too: the adequacy of representation from the voluntary sector on local authority committees, the coordination between different layers of local government, and the winning of trust from all stakeholders by partnership coordinators: ‘In all cases it is essential that the Secretary should be a person fully acceptable both to the statutory and voluntary bodies (paragraph 5). The resulting balance of power can be seen in the suggestions about the composition of a local Youth Committee: they give more representation to voluntary bodies than we see now, and they don’t muddy the roles of representatives with any qualifying description such as ‘observer’ or ‘non-voting member’. The need to encourage this partnership and reassure both sides is seen in paragraph 8:

The association of voluntary effort with the public system is typical of the history of the growth of the education services in this country and will give the service of youth an equal status with the other educational services conducted by the local authority. In the Youth Committee the individual traditions and special experience of youth possessed by the voluntary organisations will be joined with the prestige and resources of the local education authority. The Board realise that the requirements of the civil defence services and the disorganisation of the public system of education under the present abnormal conditions make heavy claims upon the attention and the resources of local authorities. But the service of youth, too long neglected part of the education field, today assumes a new significance in the national life and the Board are confident that local education authorities will do all in their power to meet this challenge.

The appeal to the greater good and the desire to pool resources most effectively is the central thrust of the circular. It is little surprise that William Temple (Archbishop of York), who had spent so much of his life trying to develop the Student Christian Movement,  the Workers Education Association and had worked in the Toynbee Hall settlement; welcomed the Circular as ‘the beginning of an epoch’. It certainly fitted well with the partnerships he built, in the ecumenical movement, and the connections he made between Christianity and the social order (Temple 1942).

Fourth, there is a practice of logical and thought through needs analysis. The circular encourages ‘ascertaining local needs’ (paragraph 6) and this will lead to prioritising action. This needs analysis has a theme of social justice running through it: it explicitly mentions the dull long hours of young people’s work and considers what sort of provision might be most suitable. It also addresses the anxiety about accountability in the public sector, and the grinding drudgery of fundraising in the voluntary. There is nothing new under the sun; the youth worker and project manager will recognise the dilemmas faced here.

Fifth, there is a distinction between full time leaders, who will be paid, and the provision of competent instructors. Staffing is a key issue and the costs need to be addressed.

Finally, there is the direction to local authorities about resources to be made available to the voluntary sector. The whole of the youth service will benefit from better administration. But there will be grants for: staff, buildings and equipment. There will also be the opportunity to use schools and playing fields, free or at reduced charges. This is where the impact of the Circular was felt. It created the opportunity to start new work where there was not quite the affluence, or historic resources, or personal connections that had set up the earlier generations of voluntary work. The vexed questions for local authorities about who should receive grants and on what grounds begin here, and the deeper impact of the voluntary sector across the country matches each agreement. ‘It really produced very little in the way of LEA involvement,’ but it was the trigger to new activity to serve young people during the unpromising times of the war.


Let us close with a picture of the new Boys Brigade Company formed in 1941, (and the new Girls Life Brigade formed in 1942) attracting 12-18 year olds in Norton-on- Tees. The Methodist church had Sunday School activities before the war but it was the impetus of Circular 1486 that began the work in the service of youth. The church hall was requisitioned as an emergency hospital for the duration of the war. Sunday school was held in the cramped quarters of the Guild room at the back of the main church building, with the Sunday School anniversaries being held in the Modern Cinema. But a Scot, Mr Neilson, who knew the BB from north of the border began a Boys Brigade company and was its captain for two years before handing over to Dick Watshorn.  By 1945 the company numbered 61. Circular 1486 meant that they were using the local Frederick Natrass senior school as their meeting place.

Further reading and bibliography

Bawden, N. (1973) Carrie’s War, London: Victor Gollancz.

Bennett, A. (1968) 40Years On, London: Samuel French.

Davies, N. (1999) The Isles, London: Macmillan.

Jeffs A. J. (1979) Young people and the youth service, London: Routledge Kegan Paul.

Longmate, N. (1971, 2002) How we lived then, London: Pimlico.

Spence, J. (2001) Lambton Street Boys Club and the first world war (NYA Leicester)

Temple, W. (1942) Christianity and the social order, Harmondsworth: Penguin Special.

Wilkinson, A. (1978) The Church of England and the First World War, London: SPCK.


The full text of the circular is in the archives

Acknowledgement: Picture – Boys at the Canterbury Club (Webb Street) of the Oxford and Bermondsey Boys Club take part in a sing-song round the piano. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons – Imperial War Museum – public domain.,_London,_England,_UK,_1944_D18615.jpg.

How to cite this article: Roberts, J. (2004) ‘The significance of Circular 1486 – The Service of Youth’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

Jonathan Roberts works in the School of Social Sciences and Law, University of Teesside.

© Jonathan Roberts 2004