History of Social Work

What Social Work?


Social work is a profession loved by many because of its involvement in helping people in the community. It involves diversity, intervention and evaluation of individuals’ well-being and development. Over the past years, the number of social work programs has increased tremendously because of the high rate of individuals who requires the services. According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Education Policy and Accreditation Standards (2008), social work profession aims to make sure that the welfare of the human and community is improved and promoted. Social work and human service practice originated from the time of the English Poor Laws and is viewed as a caring profession (Chenoweth and McAuliffe, 2012; McDonald, Craik, Hawkins and Williams, 2011). Here, help was given to people with personal struggles and to intervene in social problems (Chenoweth and McAuliffe, 2012).


When did the profession start?


Social work originated in England in the 19th century, and the wrought by the industrial revolution had its origins in the social and economic disturbance, in particular, the difficulties the society has to deal with in terms of the number of people who were living in poverty in urban areas and the problems associated with it.  Because poverty was the main focus of early social work, it was intricately linked with the idea of charity work. It all started with The English Poor Law which was developed out of the Tudor and medieval era and became codified in 1587 to 1598. Social work was further advocated for where the government took responsibility for the poor by providing them with assistance.


What led to the formation of social work?


The history of social work’s knowledge plays a vital role in identifying how social work was developed. According to Mendes, 2005, Poverty was the main focus of early social work when it started in England in the 1840s. According to Wilson et al., 2008, the first Charity Organisation Society (COS) was started and run privately by Philanthropists.  When they began their attitude and bases towards the social theory was not good. The way they analysed what caused poverty was limited and not complete. They did not look at the outside factors that created and affected poverty and the way people live. This organisation had so many people who work as volunteers to help their communities to minimise and solve social issues. Through the charitable works that started in England, America and Australia followed as well.

The training of social workers started in the twentieth century. Mary Stewart was the first appointed social worker at the Royal Free Hospital in London in the year 1895. It was not until 1929 when the first workers were first employed at a public hospital in Australia. The trained social work profession started In the city of Melbourne in Australia, according to Miller 2011, a course in ‘almoner’ as the name came from Britain which means a trained social worker who is solely responsible for the welfare of patients, started at the Melbourne Hospital and in Sydney that is when social work was begun in the late 1930s.


Who is the Founding Father of Social Work?

Ehrenreich, 2014 also talks of poverty in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century between the 1870s and 1880s, when the country was an extremely tense society. The middle class remained moderately self-satisfied, and this caused considerable unrest where social movements of the poor arose that the awareness of the crisis was forced on the people who were middle class. It was not until, Jane Addams (1860-1935) a young medical student and Ellen Gates Starr after they visited the settlement movement at Toynbee Hall in England which was started in 188  and were very overwhelmed by the way it worked, she went back to the United States and began a settlement House movement which influenced a lot of Americans. This movement that Jane started is considered the early influence of the profession of Social work in the United States. She began Chicago Hull House in 1889, for the poor and deprived which provided education and recreational facilities for the woman and children coming from Europe (immigrant).

Although the approach that she used was not the same as the one used in England charity organisations, Jane used macro approaches such as adult education or community development. Until now charity organisations are still providing support to the disadvantages through churches. Here in Australia, we have the Salvation Army and Anglican to mention a few. Through charity work, the profession of social work started.

Origins of Social Work in Australia


Three main events happened in England and the US that greatly influenced the adoption of social work in Australia. These events are: change in the political system, the introduction of Poor Law, and an increase in population.

Political System

During the Industrial Revolution, the political powers also shifted from the hands of the few elite people to a more democratic society. The elite few who previously held power used it to foster their interests and benefits at the expense of the protection of the general public and resolution of social issues. These few elites were also tasked with maintaining social order and security, but they hardly did anything to foster this. However, all this changed during the Parliamentary Reform Act in 1832 when a democratic parliament was formed (Blumer, 2018). As the political power shifted, government efforts also moved from maintaining law and order to more involvement in social order and welfare issues. Democracy meant that people wanted equal rights and deserved fair treatment. It is this motivation that resulted in social movements being born to fight for the rights of the poor. These movements aimed to defend the poor against discrimination, prejudice, and exploitation. This motivation began the social work movement.

Poor Laws

After the Feudalism era, the poor people were perceived as direct threats to the order of the society, and so the governments formulated the Poor Law as well as an organized system to provide care for them. Although industrial revolution brought about great scientific and technological advancements in society, the great movements towards urban areas throughout the entire Western World led to an increase in social problems and also social activism (Zastrow, 2016). It is during this time the social rescue organizations were established to provide support and also resolve the issues of poverty, prostitution, mental illness, disease, and many other social afflictions. Additionally, government officers had to ensure social order in whatever form especially relief. They had to ensure that workers opted for assistance as opposed to the lowest paying jobs. Poor Law officers had a lot of duties to perform such as carrying out assessments, exercising judgment, understanding human needs and problems, and carrying out financial administration duties (Thane, 2018). Because of all these duties, officers were overwhelmed, and their work quality was reported to be generally poor and inconsistent. Social advocates argued that these officers would be better off with some training and so in response to this, the National Poor Law Officers Association was started to fight for the interests of the officers. This issues began the social movement in labor.


Changes in Employment

The industrial revolution brought about many changes in the family structures from subsistence work to factory work. The invention of machinery brought about shifts in jobs from farms in to factories. People now opted to work in factories, and many migrated to urban areas in search of work, thus causing overpopulation in urban settings. Industrialization also transformed the employment industry because of the decline of fishing, agriculture, and forestry. Industries such as mining, manufacturing, and coding started emerging. These industries further led to a large pool of migration to urban centres (Blumer, 2018). This overpopulation largely contributed to the deterioration of living conditions. There was overcrowding, shortage of housing, poor sanitation, an outbreak of diseases, worker exploitation and increased rates of poverty. Poor people were not able to look after themselves, and the children were exploited, abused, and malnourished (Zastrow, 2016). This situation called for attention for immediate action. Social movements were formed to help these exploited workers and improve living conditions within urban settings, and this led to the formation of social movements and social work.

Many countries adopted social work and establishment of social movements following these events that took place in the US and the UK. These practices primarily informed social work in Australia because similar issues were present in Australia. Australia social entrepreneurs saw how social work had worked to improve the livelihoods of people in the UK and the U.S. and therefore they also established foundations in the country.

According to Mendes, (2018), from the mid -the 1970s, Australia followed on other cultural groups from the United Kingdom in adopting and implementing preventive and protective procedures that undermine the preservation of social responsibility in the society.  Mendes, 2018, also states that in the modern Australian welfare state there are tensions between the social rights and social control functions. He examined the history and speechmaking of the Australian welfare state from 1972 to the current day. In comparing the way the history of social work started, Midgley, 1997 mentions that in the United States it was practical, rather than philosophical, in origin as it depends less on the state and relied a lot on the private segment than its European counterparts

The Impact that the UK and U.S. on the Commencement of Social Work

In conclusion, the scope of social work profession has changed over the past years as a result of changes that are happening around the world, which are both caused by internal or external forces. Social work has done some significant changes in the lives of many, due to that it has given the profession a tremendous growth due to a high number of people who needs the services. Since the profession developed in Australia over the years, it has changed and promoted the social justice of some individuals and also restored their social status.




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