Victorian Reformists

A 'poor house' in Victorian London

A 'poorhouse' in Victorian London. Complete families were sent there as punishment for non-payment of the most minor debt. 


It is not a new concept we are proposing. Our healthcare model is taken broadly from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), and how do you think that came about? Do you think that after the second world war, when Health Minister Aneurin Bevan launched a free NHS on 5th July 1948 at Park Hospital in Manchester (today known as Trafford General Hospital), he had simply conjured it up a month before and decided to announce it to the country? 

Well, obviously not. It was in fact the climax of a hugely ambitious plan to bring good healthcare to all. The history of the NHS is that of an organisation established after a century's discussion on the provision of health services to meet a long recognised need. It appeared at a time when Britain saw healthcare as a right of every citizen, and even as a part of the structure of a civilised society and not something bestowed erratically by charity; it was seen as crucial to one of the "five giants" that Beveridge declared should be slain during post-war reconstruction; namely want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. The cataclysm of war provided an opportunity that might not have been taken in quieter times.  

This ‘evolution’ that had started in the 19th Century, was not completely government led; it seldom is. The formation of the NHS was a giant step, but nonetheless a step, built on many others in a sociological pattern characterised by those who, throughout the ages, had striven for a fairer and kinder society. It has always been these people that bring about reform by standing up for the rights of the common man: philanthropists, philosophers, poets, thinkers and activists. They not only demand and lobby for reform but are the protagonists of change by taking steps to establish charitable institutions that provide much needed relief. The United Kingdom was fortunate to have a succession of remarkable philanthropists, thinkers, activists and reformers during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, who sought to improve the destiny of the disadvantaged. The list is formidable but only a few have been listed below:


Florence Nightingale (1820 -1910)  She was born in Florence and is remembered for the astounding revolution she wrought in nursing care in the Crimean War. Her concerns extended to the appalling nursing care in workhouse infirmaries. She pressurised Edwin Chadwick to support the thrust of her reforms and wrote a paper: Suggestions on the Subject of Providing Training and Organising Nurses for the Sick Poor in Workhouse Infirmaries.


Thomas John Barnardo (1845 -1905)   Barnado was born in Dublin into a Protestant family. He founded Dr Barnardo’s Homes in 1866 and which ultimately cared for nearly 60,000 children in 96 homes. Prior to Barnado, there was no system to care for orphaned children in Britain.


Joseph Rowntree (1836 -1925) Joseph Rowntree was born in York, a Quaker and a champion for social reform especially for workers at his chocolate factories. He created workers’ pension schemes, built the garden village of New Earswick, and set up charitable trusts to instigate social reform. Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), one of his children, became a researcher and social reformer.  He organised three major surveys of the living conditions of the poor in York, concluding that poverty was the result of low wages, which was contrary to contemporary opinion that the poor were responsible for their own condition.



George Cadbury (1839 -1922)  Cadbury was a contemporary, fellow Quaker and friend of Joseph Rowntree; and together they revolutionised the treatment of the factory labour force. He was a deeply religious man who believed in improving the lives of ordinary workers and who built one of the earliest and most successful model villages namely Bournville, so that working people could enjoy better lives than were available in the squalid cities of the time. George was born at the height of child-labour, poorhouses and other negatives of the Industrial Revolution. 

Engels published his study of poverty in the UK when George was just five and when he was nine Marx issued his Communist Manifesto. So the winds of change were sweeping through society and everyone knew that something had to be done to avoid a revolution.   George was the son of John Cadbury, a Quaker at a time when that faith created social limitations. He had, for example, been unable to attend university because Quakers were excluded from higher education purely on religious grounds. He had a small chocolate business in Birmingham since business was one area open to Quakers. Starting as a tea and coffee merchant he was instrumental in bringing chocolate, which was then a luxury item, into greater prominence into the British diet. George turned the small chocolate business his father founded into a global corporation. 

It is an awe-inspiring story of succeeding against all odds and serves as an inspiration to us all. The writer accepts that perhaps he has written more about George Cadbury than was perhaps necessary for this platform, but that is because of his personal adulation for the man; for the man who was denied a higher education gave him one; for as a teenager he attended Bournville College of Further Education and Bournville School of Art.  

Pakistani Philanthropy

So you see, the needs of the people are firstly addressed by such people and eventually, by a process of evolution, governments take responsibility. In Britain today, reformers, NGO’s and charities continue to play a vital role alongside government institutions. Pakistan’s political system is much younger and has not had time to evolve like those of older countries. Nonetheless, Pakistan too has produced many leaders in the field of social welfare that are held in no less esteem than their Victorian counterparts.