Edward Birchall: The World War One soldier behind today’s NCVO

Edward Birchall, founding father of NCVO
Edward Birchall, founding father of NCVO

One hundred years ago today, the man regarded as NCVO’s founding father, Edward Birchall, died from wounds he sustained in battle in World War One.

Birchall had been a leading figure in the ‘guilds of help’ movement of the early 20th century. It was his legacy of £1,000 which allowed his friend SP Grundy, general secretary of the Manchester League of Help, to set up the organisation that is now NCVO.

A few years prior, Birchall and Grundy had co-authored a paper in which they proposed an organisation that would bring together the guilds of help, the Charitable Organisation Society, and the councils of social welfare. These various organisations represented a movement which had grown significantly in the early years of the 20th century and during World War One. With Birchall’s bequest, Grundy set about turning their plans into reality.

‘If I get scuppered…’

In the run-up to the centenary of his death, we unearthed a copy of a letter Birchall wrote to Grundy from the front line one year before his death. The letter shows that the social action pioneer was also a man able to retain a very British sense of humour even in the most challenging of circumstances. On the subject of the legacy, Birchall writes:

‘if I get scuppered (tears all round and shouts of God forbid) I’ve left some money to be used for NAGH [National Association of Guilds of Help, of which he had previously served as president] or any other old purpose in your absolute discretion: £1000 I think it is but don’t mention it till I’m tuning my harp please’.

Birchall goes on to suggest names for a secretary – it’s not clear whether he is referring to a new organisation or to NAGH again – and says to Grundy, ‘failing that, of course you’re the man’. Grundy went on to become the first secretary-general of the National Council for Social Services (NCSS), which was renamed NCVO in 1980.

In the letter, Birchall describes war as ‘absolutely the most futile undertaking ever invented’, and he passes on his sympathies to Grundy for the loss of his brother in action. Birchall himself had already seen his brother killed in action.

Birchall's grave at Etaples Military Cemetery
Birchall is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery in France

He signs off by saying, ‘So long now: keep cheerful and damn Northcliffe’ – a reference to the Daily Mail founder and propaganda minister, Lord Northcliffe, who was held to have promoted the case for war.

Birchall died on 10 August 1916 as a result of wounds received in action during the Battle of Pozieres. An account of the battle he led demonstrates his heroism, and he was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Order.

Read more on Birchall in our biography (PDF, 860kb).

The vision

It’s clear that from a relatively young age Birchall was active in society and pushing what were often considered new ideas at the time. In 1911 he founded the Agenda Club, a national organisation of men inspired by the Samurai’s ‘civic heroism’. The club introduced a ‘health week’, in which public health issues were to be discussed.

Birchall was part of the new philanthropy movement emerging in the early 20th century. The Charity Organisation Society (COS) had already attempted to move away from the Victorian model of giving alms, by basing the assistance given on actual need as assessed by volunteers who would keep a casebook on families.

The new movement endeavoured to make social work even less hierarchical by enlisting every section of society, not simply the middle classes. It also aimed to improve co-ordination within the voluntary sector in order to increase efficiency and ensure resources reached those who needed them the most.

The destitution caused by the first world war resulted in a surge in voluntary activity with thousands of new organisations springing up across the country. Birchall and his contemporaries recognised the need for a body that would connect and represent the vast variety of new organisations.

A memorial to Board of Trade staff located at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
Birchall’s name appears on a memorial to Board of Trade staff located at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

Those involved also tried hard to build strong links between the voluntary sector and the state in the provision of social services. Birchall’s own career embodied this: while he was heavily involved in voluntary activity with organisations like the Birmingham Civic Aid Society, Birchall was a civil servant, employed in the labour exchanges and unemployment insurance department of the Board of Trade. So it is little wonder he saw opportunities in forging closer links between the private and the public sector.

Birchall’s original work mirrors the goals and values that characterise NCVO to the present day. These issues continue to be key areas of work for NCVO. For example, this is how our strategy for 2014-19 describes some of the changes we want to see:

  • More people are inspired to volunteer and organisations are more aware of the value of volunteering
  • Easier collaboration and sharing: open, networked organisations face fewer barriers and make a bigger difference when they share knowledge, skills and assets with each other
  • Voluntary organisations and volunteering lead the development of a new generation of user-led, co-produced public services

The legacy

Birchall’s friend Grundy and the other philanthropists who founded the NCSS continued his legacy along the lines of his previous work and the new philanthropy movement. Of course, we now do some of these things differently, but the core values and objectives which inspired the creation of the NCSS remain the same.

Along the way, NCVO has given birth to other organisations, including Age Concern (now Age UK), Citizens Advice, and the Charities Aid Foundation, which were established as independent organisations in 1970, 1972 and 1974, respectively, as well as the charity bodies SCVO and Navca.

We will be looking in more depth at how voluntary action has developed over the last century during NCVO’s centenary year, in three years’ time – but for now I would like to take this opportunity to think about Edward Birchall and the many soldiers like him who lost their lives in World War One.

As part of the WW1 Centenary Art Commissions in 2014, I wrote a letter ‘to’ Birchall. I thanked him for his service and spoke of the legacy he left for so many people he would never have the opportunity to meet. It is almost impossible for us today to truly imagine the trenches of 1916, but it is right that we take time to acknowledge what all those lives and deaths in the war meant and continue to mean.


We are grateful to Justin Davis Smith and Peter Grant of Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness for their assistance with our work on Edward Birchall. They asked us to say that they are happy to correspond with anyone who has research questions on Birchall or the history of voluntary organisations.


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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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