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  • 2017LambertPhD

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"Problem families" and the post-war welfare state in the North West of England, 1943-74

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2017
Number of pages540
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • Economic and Social Research Council
Award date30/03/2017
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This thesis examines the discourse, policy and intervention surrounding ‘problem families’ in post-war Britain from 1943 to 1974. Its contemporary salience is provided with comparisons of the Coalition and Conservative Governments’ Troubled Families Programme launched in 2011, committed to turning around the lives of Britain’s 120,000 ‘troubled’ families.’ Current historiography has emphasised its discursive formation in constituting an ‘underclass,’ linking it to the pathologisation of the behaviour of the poor. This thesis explores the operationalisation of the label by the state, and the processes of identification and intervention pursued to produce the desired outcome of self-sustaining citizenship. The principal source for the thesis are the surviving 1,817 case histories of 1,702 mothers and their children who attended the Brentwood Recuperative Centre for rehabilitation as a ‘problem family’ from 1943 to 1970. The North West provides a regional and local focus, as statutory and voluntary organisations operating within the county and boroughs council boundaries of Lancashire and Cheshire sent 1,196 of the 1,817 cases, permitting a closer scrutiny of the meaning and application of the label. Supplementing this archival source are the case paper and committee file evidence and minutes of the statutory or voluntary agencies which referred the families. By linking records of the mothers who went and the individuals who sent them, the process by which certain families were identified and the legitimation of their intervention, permits a deeper exploration of the conflicting roles of welfare and the state in post-war Britain. The reconstruction of this process of identification and intervention is undertaken on three interconnected levels. Firstly, the personal encounter between the family and the official, considering the role of professional, ideological and local discourses in singling out families for intervention. Secondly, the role of the local authority and council in structuring social service policies which framed the personal encounter and the workplace culture of officials: what Lipsky terms ‘street-level bureaucracy.’ Thirdly, the relationship of this pattern of personal and local practice to central government, national discourse and other ‘problem family’ policies in authorities beyond the North West. This demonstrates not only the need to return the state to analysis of the welfare state, but also that common experience and understanding of the welfare state is mediated through street-level bureaucrats and the subject of official discretion, rather than simply in legislation. Ultimately, the ‘problem family’ should be seen not as the preserve of a handful of experts, but embedded in the operational implementation of family welfare policy and practice across post-war Britain.