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Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 13:50 UK

Serving society

Jackie Rand
Liverpool Personal Service Society

Some of the seeds of modern day social work were sown in Liverpool 90 years ago.

The Liverpool Personal Service Society (PSS) was a charity established by social reformer Eleanor Rathbone in 1919.

Eleanor Rathbone founded Liverpool Personal Service Society
Eleanor Rathbone founded Liverpool Personal Service Society

It has been at the forefront of some of the country's most innovative developments in welfare and care, many of which have gone on to influence and shape national policy responses to social problems.

PSS was founded in response to the slump that followed the end of the First World War a year earlier.

The four-year conflict had severely weakened the British Empire; men returning from the war found work hard to find and living conditions were terrible.

Liverpool's economy, with its reliance on trade linked to its port - at the time the busiest in the world - was particularly badly affected by the downturn.

Devastating hardship

Rathbone, along with some of Liverpool's leading figures from the worlds of commerce, politics and academia, could see the devastating effects the hardship was having on people's welfare and health.

As a result they set about providing food, clothes and shelter to some of the city's poorest denizens.

Christmas gifts for poor children
Christmas gifts gifts provided for needy children

Robin Currie, Chief Executive of PSS, says the move marked a cultural shift in society.

"Things changed after the war. There was a feeling of euphoria that the war was won but they were economically hard times.

"Ordinary people had played a big part in the war effort and the old world order was no longer appropriate. It marked a break from Victorian times."

Victorian morals, standards and lifestyle had dominated British society, despite Queen Victoria herself dying in 1901, right up until the end of the war.

Different approach

This was also reflected in the welfare state prior to this, with charity being largely linked to work and religion.

Currie says PSS took a different approach to deprivation.

"In the early part of the 20th century the whole concept of social work, with a set of principles and values, was growing.

"Rathbone took up the idea and wanted to put these values into effect."

Connecting with the disadvantaged

Disabled Children
PSS provided care and support for disabled children

Rathbone came from a family of social reformers: her parents were leading figures in the anti slavery movement and in the creation of the district nursing service in the 1800s.

She went on to become an independent MP, and her ability to connect with society's disadvantaged and champion their causes has greatly influenced the development of PSS.

In its first 25 years PSS:

  • Created an after-care scheme for hospital patients (one of the country's first home care services) and supported the drafting of a Parliamentary Bill to "curb the evils of money lending"
  • Formed the Old People's Welfare Committee, a direct antecedent of Age Concern
  • Was a key contributor to the formation of Liverpool Improved Houses (now the Riverside Housing Association) and took on responsibility for another famous Liverpool charity, the Society for the Relief of Sick and Distressed Needlewomen
  • Formed a service for placing disabled people in industry, one of the UK's first sheltered employment schemes
  • Launched the nation's first ever Marriage Guidance Scheme, and two years later established the UK's first Citizens' Advice Bureau at 34 Stanley Street in Liverpool city centre
  • Launched a pioneering home help service, which during the course of World War Two helped a total of 453,232 people.

Spreading the word

In more recent times PSS:

  • Pioneered the creation of adult placement services (around 300 adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities are currently cared for)
  • Established one of the first support schemes for young carers
  • And, in 2006, launched the Dementia Café, the first internet chat room for people with dementia and their families.

Women sewing
Women sewing in adult placement centre

It now employs 500 staff and around 700 volunteers across projects covering the North West of England, Staffordshire, North Wales and parts of Scotland.

In 2009, PSS plans to develop a 'move on' placement service for recently released prisoners.

Over the past year, PSS has helped more than 30,000 people to live happier, healthier and more rewarding lives.

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