Responding to a National Crisis: Social Work at Times of Great Need

(illustrated with images from the University’s art collection)

We find ourselves living through remarkable times. A global pandemic has taken hold and life has changed completely in just a few short weeks. The impact of coronavirus has presented numerous challenges for social work practitioners and students. Social workers are working hard to respond, and to ensure that clients are supported at a time when resources are stretched to the limit. There is a tangible determination to ensure that people who need help and support will receive it.

commitment to clients

In the social work profession, a commitment to clients is found throughout its history. If we look at the social work archives at the University of Edinburgh we find intriguing insights into a time of previous national crisis when social workers and social work students stepped up to meet this challenge. The Second World War, lasting from 1939 to 1945, was a time when British society changed drastically, with virtually every aspect of life touched by the impact of the war. The student admission files in the social work archive show the large numbers of past and present students in Social Study at the University who worked to improve the lives of so many people during and after the Second World War, and we can see this in a number of different areas examined below in which they either worked or volunteered their skills. Their stories remind and encourage us that individuals can make a difference, even in the face of widespread adversity.

officialdom disappeared

The mass evacuation of children from British cities to rural areas, beginning in June 1940, was designed to protect them from aerial bombing raids by the Germans. The evacuation took place rapidly with thousands of children being evacuated in a matter of days. Several former and current students from the department were involved in arranging the evacuations, and working with evacuees once they had arrived in their new homes. Times of emergency have always required different ways of working, often dispensing with normal protocols; one student, Margaret Rose, wrote positively of the speed and efficiency at which the evacuation process took place:

It really was marvellous, during the evacuation, to see how officialdom disappeared, and how things were done in a few hours, which normally would have taken weeks of correspondence and long committee meetings!

Extract from correspondence of Margaret Rose, Student Admission File EUA IN1/ACU/S2/8/1/756

Another former student, Marjorie Brown, worked as part of the evacuation of children to Westmoreland in the north of England. Westmoreland was a rural area and the impact on the local community was tangible. The schools in the town of Kirkby Stephen had to work double shift to accommodate all the pupils. Interestingly a longer term effect was the raising of school standards as the evacuees came with a higher level of education than local children.

the old, the chronic and the destitute

Other students served in some of the home front forces during the war, including the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). These forces provided key services in the war effort at home with personnel working in a wide range of roles including as wireless operators, weapons analysts, electricians, and in catering, aircraft maintenance and nursing. One student, Dr Mary Gregor, signed up to undertake the Certificate of Social Study in 1942 having worked in the VAD for two years. Ironically she had been based at the other side of George Square from the Social Study Department during the latter part of her service, working with the Red Cross at the Hospital Supplies Depot.

George Square, South Side, 1958 by Paul, Lord Ayshford Methuen, EU0599, copyright: Lord Ayshford Methuen’s estate

Jean Bewes Paterson volunteered with Red Cross almost immediately after graduating. She found herself in Hong Kong, a few months after it’s liberation from Japanese occupation, working in a home for “some 500 people of all different nationalities who are for one reason or another destitute or have “frozen” assets until the new Government comes in next month and releases these. Many are waiting repatriation others are the widows and dependants of Civil Defence and Police personnel and British soldiers who fell in the fighting in Hong Kong and the remainder are the old the chronic and the destitute one finds in every community”.

Her correspondence echoes the financial problems brought about for many by the the present pandemic and also illustrates that, in addition to casualties of any crisis, those in social care are also having to support those who were already at risk and vulnerable before the crisis hit.

if an end it can ever have

Jean went on to write that her work is “really interesting, if sometimes discouraging, and we expect to be here till August to finish it – if an end it can ever have”. Those on the frontline in any crisis must summon the strength to carry on despite the strain of what they are witnessing first hand and very often without a definite end in sight.

Another important role undertaken by Social Study students was in military intelligence. There are records of two students, Mary Branford and Elsie Ann Craig, who worked in this area, both at Bletchley Park. The centre of the Government Code and Cypher School was where work was undertaken to break the codes used to communicate by the Germans and their allies. This work was of paramount importance to the war effort, and the fact that the code was eventually broken was key to supporting the British war effort . Both Mary Branford and Elise Craig worked in signal intelligence at Bletchley, Mary as Foreign Office civilian staff and Elise as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).

doodle bugs

Isobel Robertson Stirling who went into the field of psychiatric social work, was put in charge of the newly created Sunderland Child Guidance Clinic in 1939. Her correspondence showed that she feared the outbreak of war would mean the clinic was shelved but in fact owing to problems posed by evacuation, the authorities saw it as a priority. She also found herself assisting the British Hygiene Council with the health of troops stationed in the area, and became the local BFSW (British Federation of Social Workers) representative for the Ministry of Health Schemes created to meet the emergencies of war in her area.

Elizabeth Milroy was another graduate who found herself supporting those at home affected by the war. Her correspondence records the long hours experienced in times of crisis, but also the rewards and satisfaction:

I am still working at Croydon in the Billeting and Rehousing Office so you will understand that we are busy. We have been working 12 and 13 hours a day ever since the doodle bugs started and Croydon has had its fair share of the trouble. However, it is immensely interesting and one has a certain sense of achievement whenever one gets anything done.

pristine white

In spite of all the hardships of life during this time the files often show that a sense of humour was still possible, and perhaps often necessary to get people through their various situations. One former student, Winifred Cable, wrote to Nora Milnes, Director of the Social Study Department, about her experience working at the Redhill County Hospital in 1944 when it was hit during a bombing raid. She describes in very good humour how she was wearing the pristine white uniform of an almoner, neatly starched and pressed when the siren went off. She was forced to throw herself onto the ground, rising after the raid had finished, thankfully unharmed, but covered in thick, brown mud, looking thoroughly ridiculous.

casualties of the conflict

While often the reports from the students of the work they undertook are stoic and even light-hearted the serious impact of the war was very real. Sadly, two Social Study students are known to have died during the War. Anthony Beilby died on war service in 1943, while Helena Bathgate, a civilian casualty, was killed in 1941. Their deaths highlight the fact that the very important work which the former students of the Department did during the Second World War was often sacrificial in its nature.

The Invalid, 1962, James Cumming, EU0219, copyright: James Cumming’s estate

An inspiring story is that of Freda Patience Wilson, originally from Scone, who was 2 years into her nursing training when she was caught up in an air-raid on Plymouth in 1941. She lost an eye, both her legs were broken and she sustained injuries to both arms. Unable to continue nursing Freda was determined to pursue a career in social care and enrolled on the Social Study course gaining a Certificate in 1946. While still undergoing extensive treatment for her injuries, she took a number of Assistant Almoner posts, reflecting that she “certainly saw a lot to justify the nationalisation of hospitals”.

research and reconstruction

Periods of crisis leave their mark, even after the threat of immediate danger has passed. As we are seeing, our world will face new challenges as a result of Covid-19 and it was no different in the aftermath of the war. Edinburgh University Social Study students played a part in the post-war reconstruction and identified areas of concern and/or change.

Several students worked with refugees in Europe following the war. There were at least 11 million refugees at the end of the Second World War, many of whom had been moved to Germany from Eastern Europe to act as slave labour. Although work began quickly to help them return home or find alternative homes this work took years to complete .

Before beginning her Diploma in Social Study at Edinburgh Katherine Barbour worked as a Liaison Officer in Austria for the Adopting Group of Refugees and United Nations Association, International Service. Elspeth Ogilvy-Wederburn and Arthur Clarke both worked with refugees in Germany in the late 1940s. Arthur worked for the British Red Cross Society, while Elspeth worked with troops and refugees at the Church of Scotland canteen in Celle in 1948. The Church of Scotland’s huts and canteen scheme had started during the First World War and aimed to provide huts and canteens to serve troops at home and abroad. The canteens provided a place where troops could rest and relax, where religious services and chaplaincy outreach could take place and where meals could be given out . The scheme proved to be supportive and popular and was quickly re-established following the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Canteen, 1947, Marjorie B Wallace, EU4850, copyright: Marjorie Wallace’s estate

The call for social study students to assist with the challenges of the post-war world was strong. Margaret Monkley who had graduated in 1938 and spent most of the war years working with the Innuit in the Labrador region of Canada, wrote to staff at the department that “if I come back I should want to come to a bombed area – it wouldn’t be at all satisfying to sit around in the peaceful places.”

The topics explored by diploma students for their dissertations illustrate some of the new challenges which social workers found themselves facing as a result of the Second World War: “Refugees: A Comparative Study in the Aims and Methods of the Various Organisations Engaged In Relief Work for Refugees in Europe and the Middle East during the Immediate Post-War period”; “Post-War Housing”; “Poles in Scotland 1945-51”; Juvenile Delinquency During the War”.


Within the Social Study Department there was recognition of the special nature of the work which many had done during the war. There was also an understanding that for some who had served during the war their experiences had awakened in them an interest in working with people and with social work as a career. The Department therefore made special provision for those who had served in the forces so that they could undertake Certificates or Diplomas in Social Study, both during and after the war, with war work often being considered sufficient experience to gain entry to the course.

brighter and less tired

The archives show us that social workers and social work students have been active in previous times of national crisis, and it is no surprise that the same values and motivations of caring for others and a desire to assist and support are being seen again now and will continue to be seen when we find ourselves returning to our lives and adjusting to whatever the new normal will be.

And return to our lives we will. Graduate Jean Fillingham wrote from London, “in spite of rockets, people’s faces are looking brighter and less tired – due to the grand news of the war. One really begins to think that the European part might soon be over and everyone is reflecting the same thought on their faces!”

You can read about the current concerns of the social work profession in relation to Covid-19 here: and find information about actions taken by the Scottish Association of Social Workers here:


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