CPAG History: Witness Seminar

Photo credit: Simon Oosterman

The Child Poverty Action Group will soon be entering its 50th year. Such an anniversary is a great excuse to spend some time thinking about the past. Georgina Brewis has neatly summed up in eight points why it’s good for charities to maintain their archives and explore their history, from celebrating the contribution of generations of volunteers to demonstrating long-term impact and learning lessons about what works (and what doesn’t). And Professor Pat Thane has put this into practice, working with Tanya Evans on the history of the single parent group today called Gingerbread and using it as the basis for an excellent book on the history of unmarried mothers. So it made perfect sense for the Chief Executive of CPAG, Alison Garnham, to ask Prof Thane to undertake some research into the group’s history. I was then delighted when she asked me to assist her in the project.

Charity archives are hugely important, and luckily a great collection of CPAG records remains and has recently been deposited in the LSE special collections. They haven’t yet been catalogued and made publicly available but, thanks to generous funding from the British Academy, Prof Thane and I have been able to start working with them already. These go almost back to the very beginning, with Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend uncovering the extent of poverty that remained in Britain under the welfare state, presented in their seminal publication The Poor and the Poorest in 1965. That year also saw them group together with other academics, including Harriet Wilson, and representatives of the Quaker Family Service Units, such as Fred Philp. By December they had a host of high-profile signatories for a memorandum for the Prime Minister. An accompanying letter declared: “The existence of poverty in this country today tends to be over-looked and, indeed, denied.” Yet the lives of at least half a million children were blighted by poverty, they said. And they called upon the government to address this with significant and generous reforms of family allowances.

A simple and short early history of CPAG is well remembered and often incorporated into accounts of late 1960s politics. For some, the group symbolises the discontent with the lack of radicalism from Harold Wilson’s Labour government as it tackled economic crisis. The dramatic high-point being the run-up to Labour’s surprise election loss in 1970, when CPAG, under the leadership of Peter Townsend and Frank Field, claimed the poor had gotten poorer under Labour. For others, the group represents the new generation of campaign groups, built around policy experts who could speak directly to and intimately with government ministers and the civil servants whilst being far more media savvy. Certainly the group gained much favourable attention on TV, the radio and in the print media. Although as the Secretary Tony Lynes, who sadly died this October, noted in 1968: “Our influence does not yet extend to the Daily Mail…”

What I have seen so far in the LSE archive suggests the group was both – and much more besides. And I plan to begin blogging about this as I dig further into the archive. However, the exploration of CPAG’s history will not only be a matter of Prof Thane and myself wading through boxes in the LSE library. Witness seminars have been used twice before to gather recollections – first in 1993 on the subject of the group’s formation, and then again in 2000 focusing on the ‘The Poor Get Poorer Under Labour’ campaign of 1970. Alongside the archival work, two more witness seminars will be held. And the first will be taking place next month, bringing together a group of people active in CPAG in the 1970s and 1980s.

The seminar will be introduced and chaired by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw (University of York), who is currently a member of CPAG’s Board of trustees and Chair of its Policy Committee. The ‘witnesses’ will be: Jonathan Bradshaw (Chair), Fran Bennett, Ruth Lister, John Veit-Wilson, Adrian Sinfield, David Bull, Virginia Bottomley, Jane Streather, John Ward, Gary Runciman and Frank Field.

The event will be held in Room 2.31 (second floor) of the King’s Building, King’s College London, at 2-5pm on Tuesday 6 January 2015. If you would like to attend, please contact Uche Opara by 19 December at

John Veit-Wilson, Jonathan Bradshaw, Virginia Bottomley, Frank Field, Adrian Sinfield, Ruth Lister and Garry Runciman
John Veit-Wilson, Jonathan Bradshaw, Virginia Bottomley, Frank Field, Adrian Sinfield, Ruth Lister and Garry Runciman

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