From home-grown initiatives to household names

As NCVO marks its centenary this year, we have been reflecting on a century of voluntary action, what charities have collectively achieved and what can be learned from this. Last night saw the launch of ‘100 Years of NCVO and Voluntary Action: Idealists and Realists’ by Dr Justin Davis-Smith, a book documenting this organisation’s history, and the many challenges and successes it has faced along the way.

As the book details, a number of NCVO initiatives down the years became well-known organisations in their own right, and their services are just as relevant today as they were in the inter-war years when they were founded.

This post looks at the beginnings of three of those organisations which today are among the UK’s largest household-name charities: Age UK, the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) and Citizens Advice.

The basement beginnings of Age UK

World War II brought hardship to everyone, but older people were especially vulnerable.

When the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) – which was later renamed NCVO – was asked by the government’s National Assistance Board to bring organisations together to discuss what could be done to help older people, an air raid meant the inaugural meeting took place in the safest place – NCVO’s basement kitchen under its Bedford Square office in London.

As a result of that basement meeting, an old people’s welfare committee was established and NCVO agreed to provide the secretariat to get the organisation up and running. By the end of the war there were over 100 local old people’s welfare committees providing services such as home visiting, lunch and social clubs and residential homes.

In 1970 the National Old People’s Welfare Committee became independent from NCVO and re-constituted as Age Concern. By 2010, Age Concern had joined forces with Help the Aged to form Age UK, dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances.

People outside youth hostel in Castleton, Derbyshire in the 1940s.

Convening the Youth Hostels Association

When Captain Ellis, from what was then the NCSS, invited 22 organisations to meet in March 1930, a national initiative was born to create a distinctive network of places where people could stay.

A total of 28 people met at NCSS’ Bedford Square offices where they heard about a system of affordable hostels in Germany and agreed to set up something similar in the UK. A provisional executive committee was appointed and elements of a constitution were agreed. Regional councils would have local authority while a central co-ordinating council would provide national headquarters for the Youth Hostels Association. Fees for accommodation and membership were also discussed.

Another meeting was held a month later and by May, the Times reported the NCSS had started a British version of the youth hostels’ movement of Germany.

YHA’s offer of affordable accommodation was an antidote to the poor air quality, cramped housing and harsh conditions of inner-city life. It gave young working people an unprecedented opportunity to spend leisure time in fresh air and open countryside, on a scale only previously possible for the wealthy.

Today, YHA provides great value accommodation in towns and cities, as well as in the countryside and on the coast. It offers premium and family en-suite rooms as well as dorm rooms and the option for exclusive venue hire. 

Supporting Citizens Advice

As the prospect of another war loomed, the NCSS established a group to look at how to meet the advice and information needs of the civilian population in wartime. This working group came up with the idea of local Citizens Advice to provide such a service when war broke out.

Citizens Advice started in 200 locations on 4 September 1939, the day after World War II started. NCSS provided administrative support and secured funding from the Ministry of Health to support local development and contribute to the running of a dedicated advice service from within NCVO’s office.

CAB horsebox and staff during WWII

By January 1942, more than 1,000 local Citizens Advice were in existence, dealing with enquiries ranging from help finding somewhere to go after an air raid to whether you could get an egg ration if your hens didn’t lay any.

In 1945, the Ministry of Health recognised the valuable role that Citizens Advice played in setting up and running local information centres and asked local councils to continue funding these in peacetime. Support from local authorities helped keep some services running though many were forced to close.

By 1960 Government funding to Citizens Advice was reinstated as a result of policy work on housing and consumer issues. It became fully independent of NCVO in 1978.

Today, Citizens Advice gives people the knowledge and confidence they need to find their way forward – whoever they are and whatever their problem. It provides free, confidential advice, face-to-face, online, and over the phone on everything from debt and money management to benefits, employment issues, housing issues and consumer rights. Last year it had 25m visits to its digital advice service while its 1,500 web pages were viewed 34m times. Citizens Advice uses this evidence to show big organisations – from companies up to the government – how they can change policies to make things better for people.

Centenary year

Today, NCVO is the largest network for charities and volunteering. We represent and support over 14,000 voluntary organisations of all sizes, from the biggest household-name charities to the smallest community groups – we’re especially proud to have played a role in creating a small handful of the myriad of organisations that make up the voluntary sector. Despite sweeping changes in societal values, our digital culture, politics and the economy, their work remains just as vital today.


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Peter Kellner Peter Kellner is chair of NCVO

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