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CPAG Research

CPAG and Quakerism

The Foundation of CPAG, and its Quaker Heritage

It is now clearly established that CPAG was founded by a mix of social researchers, social workers and Quakers in 1965. As Pat Thane has written: ‘CPAG was founded in 1965 in response to growing concern among social workers and social researchers about the extent of poverty they perceived in Britain, contrary to the widespread belief that it had largely been eliminated in the post-war welfare state. One group much concerned, especially about family poverty, was the Quaker Social and Economic Affairs Committee (SEAC). In 1964 it published a pamphlet by one of its members, social scientist Harriett Wilson, Poverty in Britain Today, based on her research among families in Cardiff, on the inadequacy of National Assistance benefits and the difficulties of families living in poverty.

When Labour’s first Queen’s speech failed to mention family poverty, SEAC decided to pile on pressure. Harriett Wilson organized a meeting at Toynbee Hall, the East London Settlement House, on March 5 1965, inviting people whose work - with local authorities, in voluntary organizations or universities - brought them into contact with poverty, to ‘register our alarm’ at the government’s failure to increase Family Allowances. They believed this was the essential first step to alleviating family poverty. She invited the LSE academic and Labour Party adviser on social security, Brian Abel-Smith, to address the meeting.  Abel-Smith[1] and his colleague, Peter Townsend[2], were researching poverty in Britain and revealing much higher levels than expected. The research was published in December 1965, as The Poor and the Poorest and much heralded as the ‘rediscovery of poverty’.In this way it was a mix of both social scientists, social workers and Quakers who can all claim a part of the establishment of CPAG.

Given the importance assigned to the Quakers (even in 1996 an introductory piece on CPAG’s heritage for the Act on the Facts Campaign noted that CPAG was formed by ‘a group of Quakers and others’) it is worth exploring the steps to the Group’s foundation using extra material from the archives. It is unsurprising that CPAG have a long-lasting association with Quakerism, the faith group nurtured the organisation and Quakers were notable amongst the early group, not only Harriet Wilson but also her son John Veit Wilson. Walter Birmingham, Maisie Birmingham, Beti Jones, a Quaker social worker from Cardiff, Geoffrey Rankin, a worker with Islington FSU, Annelies Becker, who acted as SEAC’s permanent secretary and Richard Allen, who chaired the early meetings were all involved around the period of launch. Rose Vera Pye, an FSU worker served on the EC later, as did Stephen Burkeman, then a welfare rights worker in Liverpool. In 1986 Fran Bennett and Ruth Lister wrote to all the founder members of CPAG that they could find in order to establish the roots of the Group. The letters make fascinating reading. 

Richard Allen, who chaired some of the early meetings, reaffirms the central role of Harriet Wilson and also the support of the Quakers, but noted that he, on behalf of the Quakers, actively chose not to be central to the campaign, for the reasons outlined below.

Letter from Richard Allen outlining early Quaker involvement with CPAG

His letter concludes ‘So far as the Society of Friends is concerned, the setting up of CPAG was a typical piece of Quaker pioneering … The part played by the Society as an organised body was minimal. Many Friends would be cautious about assigning the credit … for this to any particular individual or group … They would simply be glad that the original concern has prospered and borne so much good fruit.’ This sense of Quakers nurturing the Group early on was also reflected by Walter Birmingham in 1986 ‘No, indeed. We can’t celebrate with things as bad as they are for the poverty-stricken in our affluent society let alone the millions in the Third World. Even so this humiliation of this failure of we of the older generation is to some extent softened when we see the tree that has grown from our mustard seed of 21 years ago.’ The personal presence of Quakers diminished over the years, but as Carol Penn wrote in 1986 in an article on Quakerism and the Foundation of CPAG, while not dissenting from the decision to dissociate SEAC from CPAG she noted that beside the ‘restraining power’ of the Group’s influence ‘CPAG’s public campaigning has succeeded at least in ensuring that we no longer need to remain ignorant of the poverty in our midst.’ For that the founding Quaker members could be glad of the nurturing role that they performed.


[1] Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996), Professor of Social Administration at LSE, specialist in and advisor to the Labour Party on social security policy. See Sally Sheard The Passionate Economist .How Brian Abel-Smith shaped global health and social welfare. ( Policy Press 2014)

[2] Peter Townsend (1928-2009), Professor of Sociology, University of Essex, until 1963 a colleague of Abel-Smith at LSE, researched and wrote extensively on aspects of poverty, notably Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979). See Howard Glennerster ‘Townsend, Peter Brereton, 1928-2009’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2015).

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