From Barbed Wire to the BBC: The Writings of Tom Burns


Throughout his career as researcher, lecturer and finally Professor of Sociology, Tom Burns was a prolific and engaging writer of journal articles, lectures, conference papers and reviews. His works include references to philosophers and political thinkers (Max Weber, Karl Popper, Antonio Gramsci to name a few) and are peppered with wonderful imagery, gentle humour and acute observation. The titles of his works are delightful: Sancho Panza’s Grandmother; The Revolt of the Privileged; Models, Images and Myths. He interweaves his subjects of interest, frequently using the organisation of factories to explore social interactions and urban planning, and technological change to inform notions of community and social status.

Early Works

“We did not feel that we had jettisoned decency for good and all, but that we had pocketed such things until the time came for employing them again”, Men and Barbed Wire

Tom Burns graduated from the University of Bristol with an English degree in 1933. A Quaker, he did not enlist in active service at the outbreak of war but volunteered with the Friends Ambulance Unit. Burns was captured in 1941 and spent almost three years as a POW in Germany. He wrote at least 3 pieces discussing his war time experiences, one in Finland before his capture – an unknown piece to which he refers in his collection of selected writings – Calamity Bay written while imprisoned, and finally Men and Barbed Wire, a raw and honest portrayal of a POW’s reaction to repatriation and memories of incarceration:

“…the great herd of men which had been driven through the streets of Kalamata on the morning of 30 April 1941 remained, for the most part, a herd. dirty, unshaven, undisciplined, shiftless, grubbing continually for bits of food and cigarette ends, indecent, selfish”

“I met a large number of interesting people; many very funny things happened; there were many enjoyable times; a pleasant sort of easy friendliness existed; I had time to read; I had time to think”

Friends and Enemies

Burns was working with the Bournville Village Trust and the West Midland Research Group, both concerned with post-war reconstruction, when he was appointed research lecturer at Edinburgh University.

His main research interest was in the organisational structure of industry, this being the subject of his book The Management of Innovation written with G M. Stalker and published in 1961. But he extended his findings to other branches of sociology, using them to explore and discuss social interaction, leisure time, and the organisation of family life.

His fascinating essay Cliques, Cabals, Confidants explores the behaviour and purpose of different groups found within the workplace and how they can be the force behind success and/or failure. Gossip, he writes, can be exchanged between colleagues or friends but be warned,  “it is always necessary to know with whom it is safe to gossip and with whom it is not.”

The manager of a firm is painted as an isolated figure, not a member of any clique or cabal, but often accompanied by a confidant “always available and correctly responsive for the direct expression of fears, doubts and desires“. Crucially however, “there is no mutuality between confidant pairs; merely a contract“.

In Friends, Enemies and the Polite Fiction, a companion piece to the above, Burns observes how easily members of an organisation can switch the way in which they interact with each other based on what particular role they have assumed at any one time; these different interactions can be justified because “we carry with us the capacity for acting out a number of roles, for occupying a variety of social positions“. He also includes an interesting discussion on the use of banter and irony as tools to navigate situations where an employee finds himself having to play and safeguard two distinct roles.

Of course, Burns was not just talking about the workplace. I have no experience of factories or multi national companies but the similarities with social interactions at the school gates is remarkable!

China Ducks and African Masks

Burns was also interested in how social status is communicated by social acts and visual clues both within and outwith the workplace.

“It is the easiest thing in the world to attach the correct social weighting to looped window curtains as against straight hanging ones, to flights of china ducks against African masks, to an assortment of table lamps as against the central light….the significance lies in the values to which these displayed signs attach their owners [Non-Verbal Communication in Human Society].

In Cold Class War, he laments the middle class re-ignition of a class war despite having thought it put to bed with the end of the Second World War. “The proletarian peril is back with us again, irrational, hostile, nihilistic, getting more and more and doing less and less” and calls for better acceptance and understanding of differences:

“If we admit that within the workers situation there may be standards, judgements and codes of behaviour different from those of the middle class then there may be a possibility of understanding”

Tea and Sunday Newspapers

Industrialisation had, Burns writes in The City as Looking Glass, “separated work from leisure and workplace from home”. He was interested in the notions of community and the impact of urban development. The Planning Movement, he wrote in Neighbourhood Planning, had it’s roots in the revulsion against the industrial city and that “the millions of bright little gardens which now make up the greater part of the area of urban Britain are as much part of our way of life as tea and Sunday newspapers”.

However, he also hinted at a more sinister and uncomfortable side to suburbia:

” it is the vast random disorder of suburban development – the utter unrelatedness of the next bit of brick or concrete to anything else which dismays people. Then it was the octopus of ribbon development and urban sprawl; now it is the outrage of subtopia”.

These new “communities” now pose perpetual choices about whom to know, what to do and where to go.

Mass Communication

His paper presented to the Manchester Broadcasting Symposium in 1976, The Meaning of Local Radio in Community, actually says very little about local radio but a lot about community and community studies.

Burns observed that “the awkward, indeed appalling, fact is that the more conflict ridden a place is, the more deeply involved in the community itself are the people who live there” and posed the alarming question – could the practice of broadcasters to lead with death and disaster be an attempt, albeit unconscious, to awaken our sense of community?

Latterly Burns conducted research within the BBC, again he was interested in organisation but also in mass communication and the role of state broadcasting. In The Politics of Broadcasting: The BBC and the British Government he lists the many times government ministers, left and right, have accused the BBC of, in the words of Norman Tebbit, “bias, incompetence, low professional standard or simple error”.  It would be fascinating to know what Tom Burns would have made of the current political climate’s impact on society, industry, communication and community.

The following publications can be found in the University Library:

Description, Explanation and Understanding: Selected Writings, Tom Burns, 1994

The Management of Innovation, Tom Burns and G.M. Stalker, 1961

For the last 20 years of his life Tom Burns worked on a book on Organisation. It was never finished. Several early drafts exist within the material being catalogued as part of this project. The most recent draft can be access online at:





A New Profession

From 1 October 1928 The Edinburgh School of Social Study and Training, established in 1918, was to be incorporated into the University. Students at the school had been entitled to a university qualification since 1922 but they were now to become students in the newly created Department of Social Studies and Training with Miss Nora Milnes as it’s director and also lecturer in Social Economics. Professor Kemp Smith at the University’s AGM said the move recognised that “a new profession was coming into existence”.

Who were the students who wanted to pursue this new profession? Where did they come from and what became of them? And how, in the first 20 years, did this new university course develop?

Some answers to these questions can be found in the collection of student admission files belonging to the department and covering the period from 1929-1956. As with any records containing personal information they are subject to Data Protection regulations, however the earlier files can provide a wonderful insight into the interests and progression of some of the department’s very first students.

Why social work?

On their application forms, each potential student was asked to explain why they had chosen this career path.  It is quite remarkable how the answers to this question, although varying in detail, all allude to the overriding wish to work with people and not things, and not just to work with people, but to help them overcome whatever difficulties they may be facing.  Being of use to the community and pursuing a worthwhile career also frequently appear as reasons. One student showed particular dedication by stating they wanted a career that “did not finish on leaving the office”.

The files include details of practical placements and serve to demonstrate some of the careers the students hoped to pursue – almoning, personnel management, child welfare to name a few:


Who were the students?

“I enjoyed my two years at Edinburgh and how much I value the broad lines of the course before plunging into a more specialised portion of social work”

Enrolment form for Jean Inglis, one of the last students to graduate from the School of Social Study and Training before it became incorporated into the University

Despite all sharing a goal to pursue a career in social work and welfare, the files show that the students were an interesting mix of young and old, British and overseas, male and female. Below are just a few examples of the diverse body of students who enrolled:

Marlene Kwok b.1932 d.2013

Marlene Kwok

Students came from India, Singapore, Australia, USA, Burma and all over Europe. Marlene Kwok hailed from British Guyana and attended Edinburgh University 1955-1956 graduating with a Certificate in Social Study. She returned home and wrote to Marjorie Brown in 1961 saying she was awaiting the general elections in August that year when the country’s new constitution would come into effect. Marlene wrote “Scenes from the History of Chinese in British Guyana”, a copy of which she presented to the University Library.

Cedric Mays

Cedric Mays b.1907

One of the department’s mature students, Cedric “Spike” Mays was 45 years old when he enrolled on the course in 1952. His application includes a letter of reference from Edwin Muir in his capacity as warden at Newbattle Abbey College where Mays was a contemporary of George Mackay Brown.

Originally from Essex, Cedric’s memoir “Reuben’s Corner: An English Country Boyhood” was first published in 1969 and subsequently re-issued as “The Only Way Was Essex” in 2013. He kept in touch with staff in the department and refers in one of his letters to his association with Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Wintle, subject of the book and biopic “The Last Englishman”, for whom he was organising a lecture tour of the USA following the Colonel’s six month imprisonment. The pair had met while convalescing in a military hospital.

Zbigniew Leszczynski (Les) 

Les was one of a number of Polish students who enrolled on the course.  Originally from Warsaw, Les arrived in Britain during the Second World War and graduated from the University with a Certificate in Social Study in 1948. A gifted artist he went on to study at Edinburgh College of Art and finally became an art teacher in the north of England. He also exhibited several works at the Royal Scottish Academy. He died in 2003 and his obituary can be read here.

Enrolment form for Marjorie Alice Brown who became Director of the School of Social Study in 1951

Students with Disabilities

It is also worth noting that at least four blind students studied at the department during this period. While attitudes of the staff varied as to the department’s capacity to cater for their needs, there was a general consensus that students with disabilities could be particularly suited to a career in social work. William Oliver, Professor of Organisation of Industry and Commerce, was especially enthusiastic, writing that he believed blind students “had a wonderful capacity for visualising the spoken word”.

Keeping it in the Family

The Ogilvy Wederburn sisters Janet, Katherine and Elspeth all gained their Certificates in the 1930s while Helen and Hilda Noble were both approaching 40 years old when they graduated with Diplomas in the same decade. In addition six other sets of sisters gained qualifications from the department during this period, including one set of twins, perhaps showing that a predisposition to follow a certain path can run in families!

Sylvia Perera came to study in the department from Singapore and graduated with a Certificate in 1957


The students went on to have varied careers: teachers, managers, almoners, ministers of religion. The correspondence of those who kept in touch with staff are full of wonderful details of their journeys both within and outwith the field of social work. One former student who went into personnel management wrote about her position:

“It is a complete contrast in every way to the Glasgow factory – that one had about 2000 workers – this one considers itself very large with about 700 workers. Here they have as yet no trained nurse so I pull out splinters and plaster up burns etc. as well as interviewing, engaging, follow-ups, absentee, health and personnel records, supervising canteen……..I visit our girls who are out sick too and the only difference between slummy bits in Glasgow and here seems to me to be that here they are rather more cheerful, they drink more and there are infinitely more religious devices on all the walls”

Yolanda Vitolins b. 1930 d.2006. Originally from Latvia, Yolanda gained a Certificate in 1955 and went on to work at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital where she supervised students from the department on their placements.

Of those that stayed in the field of social work there are some notable alumni, a few of which are listed below:

Dr Alexina McWhinnie (1923-2017) graduated from the department in 1943 and was awarded a Carnegie Scholarship to do her PhD which was on the subject of adoption. Her first book, “Adopted Children, How They Grow Up” was published in 1967. As a Senior Research Fellow at Dundee University Dr McWhinnie conducted research into IVF and Donor Insemination families and also edited Who Am I? a collection of essays written by DI adults. She was an advocate for the rights of adopted people and the donor conceived and was awarded an MBE in 2010.

Kathleen Kufeldt (nee Galvin) would go on to have a very distinguished academic career, earning a PhD in child welfare, publishing many books and articles on the subject and teaching at the Universities of Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

Mary Neilson and Margaret Adams

Former students Mary Neilson (Certificate 1937) and Margaret Adams (Certificate 1951) co-authored the following publications which can both be found in the University Library:


Read about more alumni at

These files are so much more than simple application forms; they can tell us so much about the beginnings and subsequent development of social work education at the University of Edinburgh and the personalities of those who taught and studied here.

They can also tell us about the progression of this “new profession” and as an added bonus can often give us first hand accounts of social history – the evacuation of school children to Brighton and the journey of WAAF members to Australia via Africa and Hong Kong being just two examples. As such they are a really invaluable and unique resource.