History of Age Concern
• The First Public Conference
• Preparation for retirement
• The role of the voluntary sector
• The Age Concern name
• Policy debate
• Strategy developments
• Constitutional title
Origins of Age Concern
The origins of Age Concern at a national level are inextricably linked to the upheaval of the Second
World War, which made life more difficult for older people in many ways but also revealed their
existing problems, particularly the unsuitability of Poor Law provision. The Old Age and Widows
Pensions Act (1940) introduced the system of supplementary pensions for elderly people.
Claimants were visited at home by officers of the Assistance Board who felt that other forms of
support were needed and the Assistance Board requested the help of the National Council of Social
The NCSS had itself already seen the necessity for a committee to consider the welfare of older
people, and decided that a new co-ordinating body was needed to deal with the increasing number of
enquiries from older people and to promote new services for them.
Twenty national voluntary organisations concerned with older people, three government departments
and experienced individuals were called together to a conference on 7 October 1940 to consider the
issues raised by the Assistance Board. They also chose to consider the evacuation of older people
from London. This conference, chaired by Eleanor Rathbone, formed a committee, the Committee
for the Welfare of the Aged.
This Committee was the origin of Age Concern England. The NCSS agreed to provide it with offices
and clerical assistance.
In its first year this Committee for the Welfare of the Aged decided to call itself the Old People's
Welfare Committee (OPWC) and quickly gained official recognition. £2,000 was raised through a
radio appeal for resources. It also decided that it would not simply attempt to deal with the problems
of war-time conditions for older people, but would discuss future provision and reconstruction.
One early example of the work of the OPWC was the arrangement made by OPWC and the
Assistance Board to encourage voluntary organisations to open residential homes. During the war
years the OPWC also established visiting schemes for elderly evacuees and an Old People's Homes
Advisory Service which ran a referral and placement service until 1944. Such work was achieved at a
time when older people were a low priority.
Looking ahead, the OPWC campaigned for increased provision for the "elderly infirm" and reform of
the large public assistance institutions (workhouses) which housed many older people. It was able to
make effective representations because of wide-scale public interest in post-war social reconstruction.
In 1944 the OPWC adopted the title National Old People's Welfare Committee (NOPWC) to
distinguish it from the growing number of local committees.
The First Public Conference
The end of the war did not mark an immediate improvement in the lives of older people as there were
still great disruptions and shortages. However, 1946 did mark the end of the initial phase of the
NOPWC; Eleanor Rathbone died and a new chairman was elected. Its first public conference looked
at the role of the NOPWC and local committees within the approaching welfare state deciding that
voluntary work would still be important and exploring co-operation and responsibilities. Also in 1946,
the NOPWC agreed upon a model constitution for local OPWCs, deciding that their functions would
be to co-ordinate and facilitate local action.
Under the National Assistance Act 1948, local authorities (Councils of Counties and County
Boroughs) were given permissive powers to contribute to the funds of any voluntary organisation
whose activities included providing recreation or meals for older people. In many areas, development
of work in this area was completely dependent on voluntary organisations. In 1949, a Ministry of
Health Circular (51/49) also gave local authorities power to grant-aid OPWC's for administrative
expenses. In 1950 the Ministry reminded local authorities and voluntary bodies that they needed to
co-operate. Such circulars illustrate that the newly established welfare legislation did not exclude
voluntary organisations. They stressed the vital role of volunteers and the urgent need for more
voluntary services in work such as visiting older people in their own homes. These financial powers
had a dramatic effect on the numbers of local committees. In the two years following 1950, the
number of local OPWCs rose from 378 to 831. The NOPWC relied totally on voluntary donations until
1949 when it received its first annual grant from the Ministry of Health.
Although the network was growing throughout the 1950s, few local committees had paid organisers to
cope with the administration and many were short of finance and volunteers. By the end of the
decade central government, which had initially stressed that voluntary organisations should take on
the development of domiciliary services, was aware of these problems. The NOPWC made efforts to
improve the situation and to help local committees with obtaining finance for some staff and
administrative costs. In 1955 the NOPWC became a Council rather than a Committee to emphasise
and explain its co-ordinating function.
However, local authorities became more insistent that legislative change was necessary so that they
could develop adequate and uniform domiciliary services for older people. Once central Government
agreed, the reduced pressure of work on OPWCs, who were in some cases freed from developing
services with few resources, meant that they could work to their own pace and priorities. The
National Old People's Welfare Council (NOPWC) was also more free to concentrate on developing
and improving services and policies.
Preparation for retirement
The issue of pre-retirement provides one early illustration of the way in which the NOPWC could be a
useful forum drawing upon its wide links with the public and private sectors. The NOPWC set up a
study group to consider preparation for retirement in 1954, although it had been looking at the subject
for some years. The study group met 23 times and in 1959, following its final report, a Preparation for
Retirement Committee was established. This developed into the Pre-Retirement Association, formed
in 1964, which is now an independent organisation.
Although there were some early difficulties in some local committees in the 1950s it is important to put
this into context. The number of local committees continued to increase, and a 1960 study of the
variety and quality of work undertaken by local London committees revealed a great deal of
achievement despite their difficulties. The NOPWC in the 1960s was active in "pioneer work",
developing new services and local groups; it also ran an advisory service, produced a quarterly
journal, held national conferences and promoted a number of courses. It did not see itself as a
pressure group but was consulted by government and gave information and advice to several
government departments. For example, the Council was approached to give its views on a series of
government Housing Manuals.
Also in the 1960s, political arguments about the level and provision of pensions were prominent in
policy discussions about retired people. Part of this was the recognition that many older people had
not shared in the prosperity of the rest of the population. Their situation was part of the "rediscovery of
poverty" by social scientists. During this time some OPWCs began to develop their work of informing
older people about their entitlements and assisting them with social security claims. The NOPWC
began to give more guidance for local groups and individuals, producing detailed information about
relevant legislation, benefit and services. Today this work is a key part of Age Concern England's
activity. The organisation is respected as an authority in its field.
The role of the voluntary sector
The fragmentation of services for older people has been a complaint for many years. The NOPWC
gave evidence to the Seebohm Committee on local authority personal social services and welcomed
the Committee's recommendation of a comprehensive service. However, it was concerned that the
proposed family service might exclude or marginalise the problems of elderly people. The NOPWC
also contributed to debates about the role of the voluntary sector and volunteers. The Younghusband
Committee (1959), Seebohm Committee (1969) and the Aves Committee (1969) confirmed the
relevance and importance of voluntary work in personal services.
This optimism about the role of voluntary organisations was matched by legislative developments that
enabled many local OPWCs to receive financial and other help from local authorities. Many voluntary
agencies at local and national level blossomed in the combination of circumstances; official interest
and encouragement, growing central and local expenditure on voluntary organisations, public and
political awareness of the social problems of vulnerable groups in society.
These debates about the role of the voluntary sector had a direct influence on the organisational
status of the NOPWC. In 1971 it moved from the status of an associated group of the NCSS to
complete independence. This allowed the Council to develop a more distinct image, greater control
over its own finances, increased staffing and its own premises. The cover name of Age Concern was
adopted in the same year, to be carried alongside the constitutional title of NOPWC reflecting a new
emphasis on the organisation's role in bringing public attention to the needs of elderly people.
The Age Concern name
During the 1970’s the great majority of local groups, known as Old People’s Welfare Committees,
gradually began to use the name Age Concern. They benefitted from a unified image, a well-known
public name and a name which correctly suggests they are no longer simply co-ordinating bodies but
also instigators and providers of direct services.
A few had pre-dated the NOPWC change by their own attempts to change their title. During the 1960,
for example, some Old People's Welfare Committees changed their names to "Association" or
"Council". Some also felt that "Old People's Welfare" was not an appropriate title and began to call
themselves "Associations for the Elderly". The new Director of Age Concern England, David Hobman,
who was appointed in December 1970, was instrumental in explaining the reasons for change. A
former Secretary of the Cumberland Old People's Welfare Committee and a former member of the
National Council, he appreciated the fears of local committees that the change might not be
Unity was developed further through a highly successful "Manifesto" debate. A total of 8,000 people
around the country met in groups to discuss the policy of Age Concern. The debate started with the
publication of a series of papers by experts on topics of relevance to older people - for example,
retirement to the seaside and welfare rights. Policy discussions were based on these but also on a
study of the attitudes of 2,700 retired people. This resulted in a policy document, the Manifesto on the
Place of the Retired and Elderly in Modern Society (1975) which emphasised the need for more
positive attitudes towards older people and put forward specific proposals for improving the quality of
During the 1970s, Age Concern England acted as both an interest group, re-presenting and
championing the welfare of older people in general, and as a promoter of local services for older
people. It has identified itself with many specific causes, including the elimination of hypothermia, the
retention of the death grant and the problems of social security claimants.
Voluntary organisations have a major role in innovating new services and Age Concern provides
numerous examples. One of the most important was the first publication describing the situation of
older people from ethnic minority groups by Age Concern England in 1974. Local Age Concern
Organisations and Groups have also developed initiatives in service provision for ethnic minority
elderly people in their communities, both as part of their mainstream activities and as separate
provision when this has been requested
Another development in the 1970s was the establishment of Age Concern's own Research Unit which
grew out of an advisory survey and research group set up in 1958. Initially funded by the Sainsbury
Trusts, this Unit was headed by Dr. Mark Abrams whose survey "Beyond Three Score Years and
Ten" (1978) is a key study of the lives of people aged 75 and over. The Research Unit moved into a
new phase when, in 1983, it became the Age Concern Institute of Gerontology, in partnership with
King's College in the University of London. Today the Institute conducts a wide range of research into
aspects of ageing.
The rise in unemployment in the late 1970s and 1980s affected Age Concern as an organisation. It
joined government job creation and training programmes as a national agent for schemes run by local
Age Concern organisations. At the policy level, while youth unemployment was most visible, Age
Concern drew attention to the plight of older workers who were unable to return to the work force
because of long-term unemployment or redundancy.
Age Concern has also been involved in government initiated programmes designed to encourage
unemployed people to take up voluntary work. A DHSS scheme, Opportunities for Volunteering,
(started in 1982) passed the money available for the scheme to the voluntary sector to distribute. Age
Concern England is one of fifteen specialist organisations who award and administer grants on behalf
of the Department of Health.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, reductions in public expenditure, new attitudes to social problems and
new expectations of the voluntary sector forced many voluntary organisations to re-examine their
work. Age Concern England developed a more sophisticated strategy to work in the area of legislative
change. Although Age Concern England has charitable status it is permitted to engage in political
lobbying work and public education as long as this is a subsidiary part of its work.
Age Concern England was the first major voluntary organisation with charitable status which, with the
explicit approval of the Charity Commissioners, provided a Research Assistant for a Parliamentary All-
Party Group. At the European level, Age Concern England was the founding force behind Eurolink
Age, a representative organisation concerned with the needs of older people in the European
Community. On the wider international stage, it has close associations with the International
Federation of Ageing.
It is obviously important for a charity which needs to make quick and detailed responses to legislative
change, and to be involved in policy discussion, that its own policy is clear and based on the widest
possible views. It is also important for a charity which works with older people and campaigns on
their behalf to involve older people in its policy making and setting priorities. At the local level Age
Concern works alongside pensioner action committees to promote campaigns. At a national level,
Age Concern England has established a Forum of organisations of retired people to contribute to its
policy making. Thus the co-ordinating role of Age Concern remains strong and vital.
Throughout its first fifty years there have been changes in the work of Age Concern England. In the
1990s the organisation has again had to shift its emphasis in line with social and political changes. It
faces the problem of deciding upon the appropriate role for voluntary organisations, not because the
state is expanding its services, but because a more plural approach to welfare is pre-eminent and the
voluntary sector is again providing some essential welfare services.
The next fifty years will see Age Concern trying to preserve the qualities that have made it distinctive:
independence; flexibility; responsiveness; and commitment to older people who are vulnerable or
disadvantaged. Maintaining Age Concern's traditional co-ordinating activity and campaigning voice
requires it to build on the strengths of its constitutional role as the National Council on Ageing.
Maintaining high quality services to older people in their local communities requires Age Concern
England to provide ever more support to Age Concern organisations and others in the field of ageing
through research, training, information consultancy and grants. Maintaining independence has
required more investment in fund-raising and marketing activities and the development of income-
generating partnerships across the whole Age Concern movement. Ultimately, however, Age Concern
can only maintain these distinctive qualities if it has the support of the public and in particular the
backing of those older people with whom it is privileged to work.