Review of Essays in the History of Youth and Community Work

Essays in the History of Community and Youth Work.
Edited by Ruth Gilchrist, Tony Jeffs and Jean Spence.


We are starting to piece our history together. Typically for our sector this is a collective effort, and while a comprehensive history eludes any one individual, a number of individuals have been slotting together vital elements of our past and celebrations of projects, organisations and key personalities.

This collection grew out of the first, and very stimulating History of Community and Youth Work Conference held in Durham in 1998. Papers presented there have been worked up into chapters for this excellent publication which should be studied by all students and practitioners. Without knowing our roots we have no chance of seeing where our new buds will point.

As with any book of fifteen essays on areas as diverse as play work and HMI inspections, the bag is bound to be a bit mixed and to appeal in different ways to different readers. This in fact is part of the attraction. For my part I found two essays particularly illuminating. Bert Jones and John Rose have written well on the Early Development of the Youth Service in Wales 1830 – 1917 and, more successfully than many historians, sought to relate this development to economic and political determinants rather than just the benevolent policies of various governments or philanthropists. This essay points the way ahead for the rounded and social history that our sector awaits.

Keith Cranwell has produced an exceptional essay on the history of play and play work entitled Street Play and Organised Space for Children and Young People in London 1860-1920. This is a fascinating account of the interrelationship between urban and housing development and the nature of play and how early pioneers sought to enhance it – for good or ill.

Two essays infuriated me for yet again failing to make the link between the early women theoreticians of youth work, notably Pearl Jephcott and Josephine Macilister Brew and the forerunner of CYWU, the Club Leaders’ Association of which they were Vice Presidents. This continual failure by academics and policy makers to see the connection between the modern profession and the aspiration for a collective professional voice sixty years ago reflects the current separation between those who do the work and those who attempt to make policy for them. Put in another way those who really make policy in daily practice on the ground often lack the power and profile to pretend to be making a difference. In turn, this is part reflected by the tendency to focus on the great and the good and the ‘key figures’. This is a paradigm that shapes this collection also to some extent, while also being an inevitable feature of the newness of historical studies in our sector.

However, this slightly Kings and Queens version of history tendency that exists and which limits the first major attempt at an institutional history published last year by Bernard Davies, is tempered by the more socially oriented pieces mentioned above and work on the history of the Girls’ Friendly Society and the development of rural youth work by Ray Fabes and Alison Skinner, on Edwardian boys and labour in the north east and the impact of the first world war on youth work in Sunderland, by Jean Spence and Crescy Cannan’s study of social action and unemployment in the 1930s.

Altogether, without doubt one of the must haves in the growing little library of youth and community work classics that deserve an audience wider than just our own, often inward looking field. Our sector has made an unsung impact in all the decades of this century. It is time we sang a bit louder. Some of the old tunes are still the best.

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