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Sharing Time & Talents: 131 Years of Volunteering

Our Summer Party, with around 400 attendees, in 2018 Photo credit: (c) Alex Brenner

Last night, we held a thank-you celebration for some of our c. 150 volunteers. Alongside thanking people, I felt, as Director at Time & Talents, that it was important to remind people why what they do is so important – and how it relates to an incredible history, and a vibrant, ever more necessary future.

Time & Talents was set up by volunteers in Bermondsey 131 years ago. Those volunteers were concerned about the terrible poverty they saw in the docks and local slums. People lived in degraded, dirty, unsafe conditions. Opportunities for education were minimal. Opportunities for employment, especially for working class women, were dangerous or worse – prostitution was rife, after all. The contrast between a thriving wealthy London raking in the profits of mass-industrialisation, and the destitution of the slums housing those who were doing the work itself couldn’t be starker. Something, they agreed, had to be done.

The women who set up Time & Talents said: we have the time, and we have the talents. Let’s use them for the benefit of our fellow human beings.  Most of them were ‘women of education and leisure’. They didn’t need to work. But many of them also felt their own talents were underused. They deplored the waste and futility of the protected lives of the majority of young girls who were only expected to be decorative and obedient.Their ambition was to help girls of leisure and education use their Time and Talents in the service of others. So they recognised an opportunity to do something to help people around them – and to feel more useful themselves, contributing to a world which often still saw limited value for women.

The immortal Joyce Grenfell

Now, when you think of ‘women of education and leisure’, you might think of something like this (see left) – and you’d be sort of right. This is the fabulous Joyce Grenfell, a comedienne and actress who was our President for 40 years in the middle of the twentieth century. Have a listen to this clip: she is still an absolute hoot.

It’s true that those original volunteers were a bit, well, how can we put it?  Posh. But make no mistake, compared to what had gone before, they were doing something quite revolutionary.

First of all, they were women. Even among the other settlements and similar organisations, T&T is one of the few set up and run by women. And while they wouldn’t have called themselves feminists, the women certainly didn’t believe in waiting around for men to sort things out.

But there was another even more important reason this was revolutionary – since the 18th century, the predominant model for ‘charity’ from the wealthy was to donate to churches or poorhouses – the latter specifically designed to keep people in poverty, dependent, and malleable. If they went anywhere near the poor’s woeful habitats, it was to tour the slums, perhaps on Sundays, handing out coins. Sure, people were grateful at the time. But when they went back, they were still poor. So these women thought, does that really change anything? Can’t we help people in a more permanent way?

Settling Down

What those amazing volunteers did was settle here, right in the heart of the poverty and degradation. Hence the term ‘settlement’. By being here, being present, by using their time and talents, they were able to make a real long-term difference to poverty, to health, to education.

This is the model – or at least, its modern-day incarnation – that you still see thriving so strongly here in Southwark at T&T, Pembroke House, Blackfriars Settlement, Bede, and across the river at Toynbee Hall. It was taken up across the world: Bristol, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Chicago, all did similar work in industrial hubs, working against conditions of abject poverty.

A later edition of the world-renowned T&T India Cookbook

Indeed, T&T has a long-lost sister organisation in Mumbai – where wealthy Parsi women set up a Time & Talents club. If you’re very lucky, you can still find a copy of their amazing cookbook on ebay, for substantial money – it features an incredible mixture of dishes from Lobster Thermidor to hamburgers, to Biryani Madras and Mango Prawns.

But modern day volunteering, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, pretty much started right here, in Southwark, in T&T, and places like it.

Mutuality, history, intergenerationality

As time went on, the T&T and settlement volunteers got to know their communities better than anyone else. They became fully part of that community. Importantly, people who were helped then became helpers. Everyone had something to give. Mutuality was absolutely key, and the sense of egalitarian joint enterprise, and of communities raising themselves up together, became stronger.

It continued over the years. When there were two World Wars, the volunteers of T&T were here to support the community through the loss of generations of husbands and sons in the trenches. Later, in the Blitz, a highly organised support network helped people made destitute by German bombs in areas surrounding the docklands.

They even decided to let in men – as long as they promised not to mess everything up again.

And the work became naturally intergenerational: our earliest members (volunteers and beneficiaries) of T&T were in their 80s by the 1930s. Their grandchildren were in the play clubs and nurseries, while they took part in the knitting circles and debate clubs. We were supporting people from the Cradle to the Grave.

From the Cradle to the Grave

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Clement Atlee

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William Beveridge

And that’s a phrase you may have heard before. The model – of genuinely wrap-around care and support, delivered in the community, free, and when it was needed, and regardless of individual resources – was so sound, that a certain William Beveridge and Clement Attlee cut their teeth as volunteers in Settlements (in their case, as residents at Toynbee Hall). When they went on to draft the Beveridge Report, and institute the NHS and Social Security, many of their ideas had been influenced by working directly in Settlements like T&T.

Modern social work, most of all, was originally based on the work of the Settlements, and T&T was one of the specialists. So it’s true that volunteers – in places like T&T – essentially conceived, shaped, and created, the NHS, social work, and the welfare state.

What we do best

Today, as ever, the work of the NHS and social services is vital. We don’t necessarily want voluntary neurosurgeons (although we’ve asked Dave, our intrepid volunteering lead, to look into it…). But there have always been things that volunteers are so much better at. Often, people come to rely on the NHS or social workers for things that volunteers, and community organisations, are much better placed to help with – like providing simple fun, friendship, and mutual support.

One thing that has been noted in recent writing on social work is that in some ways, it lost its ‘social’ quality. One it became about dealing with individual needs and solving individual challenges, as vital as that was, it started to lose track of that fact that people are social creatures. Without looking at their social relationships – with their wider community, as well as their dependents – you lose the ‘social’. Hence, ‘putting the social back in social work’ has become a mantra for some – and rightly so.

Even Beveridge and his contemporaries later regretted that they had left a lot of things out when trying to replicate the success of Settlements in British social care systems.

One was a sense of mutuality. That everyone can help each other. Another was that a lot of social support is best delivered in your own community, in the places you belong.

And most of all, it was the knowledge that community itself is vital to everyone’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. A thriving community, of supportive neighbours who care for each other, helps to keep us well.

Our time has come again

As our own website has it, ‘after the war, the introduction of the welfare state meant that many settlements such as Time & Talents had to change the emphasis of their charitable work, and gradually the older settlement buildings were relinquished.’ This is certainly true, and we’re grateful that we are not alone responsible for helping the poor and the destitute. But what isn’t true is that the welfare state has ever in any way eclipsed or replaced the work of volunteers.

Many Settlements have gone. Many of us, like T&T, sold our property long ago and no longer have residential premises (Pembroke House, locally, is an exception). But today, at T&T, we’re still thriving – because of our volunteers. T&T is bigger than it’s been in 25 years. We think that the time for settlements and for voluntary action has come again. Not that it ever really went away.

There are two main reasons. One is that, everybody can see, there’s less help around for people. The work of the NHS and social services is vital. We work with them every day and couldn’t do without them. But whatever you think of the economic reasoning, NHS budgets, social care, and all manner of state support, are in retreat. Sadly, we see the negative effects on the lives of the most vulnerable every day. But because of that, the Settlement model of being able to muck in and help each other, and ourselves, will be part of our political and social reality – and a social necessity – for some years to come.

But it’s about more than that. We think that volunteers, and the work of the voluntary and community sector, are valuable in and of themselves. Community, and a supportive network of care, is a basic requirement of any functioning society. Without it, we are all less human, less happy, lonelier, and eventually, sicker. With the talk of an epidemic of loneliness, fragmented societies, and ‘bowling alone’, it must be time to turn back to tried and tested ways to rebuild the supportive communities that have been lost. We also ask whether councils, social workers, NHS staff, or the state are the best people to do this. Is this what they’re there for? We think not – in fact, we think it’s what we are here for. We do the things that vitally impact on what those services do, but are not things they could ever really do themselves.

Creating fun, friendship, and mutual support, is the thing that settlements, and volunteers, do better than anyone else. We do it for ourselves and for others; we do it because care about each other; and because we care about the world we live in. Volunteering – or just giving your time and talents – is the most profoundly social thing you can do.

And dare we say it, community work like that done by our volunteers creates a little ray of sunshine and kindness. They do that a world that increasingly seems like it isn’t kind, or sunny, enough.

In the work of our volunteers, you see community in action. And they make community better than anyone else ever could.

So a huge thank you to the volunteers of Time & Talents – from me, from the staff, from the trustees, from the people you help, from the whole community. We couldn’t be prouder, or more grateful, to work with you.

Alex Evans, Director

2nd August 2018

If you’re inspired, why not find out more about volunteering at T&T?

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