The Story of
The Citizens' Advice Bureaux



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One of the catch-phrases of the last war's early days might be taken as the original, and the continuing, motto of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux: 'We're all in it together'. They were planned, well before the beginning of the war, as an emergency service of free and unbiased information and advice for citizens and by citizens. No two worlds here. No 'we' and 'they'. Anyone - poor or rich, educated or illiterate, young or old, native or foreigner - was welcome at the 200 bureaux which opened on the day war was declared, and whose numbers were to grow to 1,000 in the next few years. Many people, if ready to accept training and some discipline, could find a use for their experience, knowledge, common sense, or expertise on the other side of the counter; except that there never was, or is, a counter, only a table where papers that need explaining can be spread or, in the time of air-raids, floods, and the like, perhaps a piece of wall for the enquirer and the answerer to lean on as they talk.

The conviction that we should all be in it together if war came was the reason for the central discussions which, in the autumn of 1938, the National Council of Social Service initiated between some national and local voluntary organisations to discuss how they could best help the ordinary citizen in the transformation of social life which would inevitably follow the outbreak of world conflict. If, as seemed certain, civilians would be as much involved as members of the armed forces, they would need guidance through the labyrinth of restrictions, provisions and personal problems which no one authority would be responsible for giving them.

Out of these consultations a national plan took shape for the establishment of local centres of advice and information to which any citizen could turn in his perplexities, and as far as was humanly possible be provided with reliable answers or guided to the places where he could get them. Already in the autumn of 1938 there was ample evidence to indicate how great this need would be in the event of war. The crisis of Munich and the first emergency evacuations of children, particularly in London, had demonstrated the kind of personal and social problems which would arise and the pressures which would descend on the civilian population.

The dimensions of the national emergency could only be guessed at but there was much experience available which had a decisive influence on the main features of the plan. Casework and personal service societies in London and other cities were familiar with the problems of providing skilled advisory services to people in many forms of want and distress. A number of national organisations were experienced in the work of advising their members on social and personal problems. Some councils of social service had experimented with information centres freely available to the public. With this experience, and the readiness to share in the responsibilities of an emergency service on a national scale, the way forward became clear.

The greatest need would be in the more densely populated parts of the country. The centres would have to be available to all sections of the community; should be linked together by advisory services so that reliable information could be supplied from the centre, help and guidance provided in their management, and the co-operation of government departments and authorities secured. The workers at the centres would usually need careful preparation for their tasks, to gain some skill in interviewing, and a sensitive awareness oflocal conditions and services. So what emerged was a plan for a national service of information and advice through local centres conducted by local organisations and committees.

Naturally there was much debate about the name. It was agreed that the centres should have a common title which would indicate clearly their common purpose. Finally, the name 'citizens' advice bureau' was selected, and was soon to become one of the best known appellations of war-time organisation. The familiar owl, designed by the creator of Mr. Therm, became the popular emblem of the bureaux throughout the country.

The co-operation and initiative of many societies experienced in personal service was largely responsible for the fact that at the outbreak of war 200 citizens' advice bureaux at once began work. These were mainly offshoots of established organisations in London and the large provincial cities and towns: for example, the Charity Organisation Society (now the Family Welfare Association) and the London Council of Social Service, the Liverpool Personal Service Society, the City of Glasgow Society of Social Service, the Birmingham Citizens' Society (now the Birmingham Council of Social Service).

This was the usual pattern of responsibility in the main centres, but there were of course smaller places where there was no experienced casework organisation or council of social service, and here opportunities were taken by a variety of organisations. For example, in one small Yorkshire town it was the local branch of Toc H which started the bureau and professional men who formed the rota of part-time workers. In a Midlands spa the Rotary Club took the initiative and planned to staff the CAB entirely from its own members, but soon found the need for a few people who could give more time and continuity to the work. In another place the Soroptomist Club made itself responsible for the bureau and male workers were a rarity; whereas in one coastal town the schoolmaster and his friends ran the bureau and refused for some time to admit a woman to the staff. The personal service society in one great city, seeing that several centres were needed, housed the main one in its own offices and the others in the welfare department of a multiple tailors' business, a youth centre, a room lent by the United Hebrew Congregation, a YWCA club, and a public library. Later, when air-raids destroyed premises or created new needs in obscure places, the haunts of CABx became even more varied. One worked for long in Chislehurst Caves serving the shelterers; and in Sheffield, when one of the original offices was bombed, the bureau set up in the cloisters of the cathedral.

When war broke out the National Council of Social Service was ready through its regional officers to guide the establishment of CABx in those towns and areas where no existing organisation had been able to accept responsibility for a bureau. In many cases it was necessary to create a special organisation for the purpose, usually through the medium of a town meeting, presided over by the mayor or chairman of the council, and representative of all the societies, clubs and groups in the place; of employers, workers, councillors; of the churches, and of individual people who were interested. From among them was chosen a small committee to organise the bureau and to find staff and premises. The premises were often provided by the local authority, perhaps in an annexe of the town hall or council offices. The staff for these bureaux were usually part-time volunteers, sometimes with social work training or experience, or members of some profession; people drawn from every walk of life and having a wide range of knowledge and experience, as well as the ability to relate this to the problems with which they were confronted. One of the most important responsibilities of the National Council of Social Service was to provide a headquarters for this rapidly developing service, to maintain a steady flow of reliable information on essential matters and through its regional officers to maintain close and often daily contact with the bureaux as they came into action.

The information might be hard to collect in the first few weeks of the war; with difficulty extracted from a harassed government; quickly assembled and duplicated in Bedford Square. This was the bureaux' main link with government plans, laws, regulations, and with the social policies that were quickly evolving. Soon the National Council was able to organise a regular, detailed, and nation-wide service of information and guidance to the bureaux.

So the CAB service took shape. It was a flexible plan which distributed responsibility and which proved capable of adjusting itself to the rapid and often far reaching changes of social life in war. The confidence of the public which it so quickly won was a tribute both to the the excellent service of the many voluntary societies who co-operated and to the devotion and skill of the thousands of workers who manned the bureaux.

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