Looking back over history tells us that the habit of thinking about disadvantage in terms of discrete single issues is as old as time - and so it is no surprise that this is how people continue to be portrayed.

This is necessarily a brief timeline - a complete history would be a huge project in its own right.

900 AD

First almshouses established

Almshouses, the ancestor of today’s hostels for the homeless, grew out of the monastic obligation to provide lodgings for those in need, and were established in England in the 10th Century, with the first recorded almshouse founded by King Athelstan in York. The word “hospital” derives from these almshouses that sheltered the sick and needy, although that word dates from rather later, the mid 14th century, and also subsequently gave modern English the word “hostel”.


Bethlem Hospital

Europe’s oldest psychiatric hospital, Bethlem, now part of South London and Maudsley NHS foundation, was founded in 1247 by Christians to provide shelter for the homeless, and over time became known as a place for the mad. Originally known as the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, its name contracted over time to Bedlam as it became a “hospital for the insane”. While the hospital nowadays is a renowned centre of excellence for the mentally ill, the old stigma lives on in the word “bedlam”, which survives to this day.


Poor Law Act

The Black Death of the mid 14th century killed around a third of the population, causing dramatic labour shortages, which a 1388 amendment to the Poor Law sought to address by restricting the movement of workers: servants who wanted to be moved needed written permission to do so, while beggars could no longer pretend to be itinerant labourers. That in turn meant that parishes had to assume responsibility for the poor, leading eventually to the introduction of workhouses.


Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars Henry VIII

By 1536, the year Henry VIII had Anne Boleyn executed, the need to provide for the poor had become a pressing problem. This act compelled local officials to ensure that the poor in their parishes did not need to beg. However, it prohibited levying a compulsory tax to provide funds, so parish officials instead organised collections to fund relief, while “sturdy vagabonds” could be set to work by local authorities after having been punished. This act is a watershed as it marks the start of considering whether to pay for the poor out of taxation.


Foundling Hospital for Orphans established

The growth of empire saw a mass movement of people into the booming cities – and a rise in child mortality and abandonment: children were routinely shunted into prisons or workhouses, or even hastened to their demise with a dose of opium and treacle. As a response to the growing problem, philanthropist Thomas Coram set up the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity. The establishment of Coram’s hospital was part of a wave of philanthropy, and Coram’s hospital in particular became London’s most popular charity. More importantly, Coram set a standard and a framework for this kind of charitable enterprise – and the charity survives to this day, helping more than 1m children and young people every year.


New Poor Law

The old system of poor relief was under pressure by the end of the Georgian era and the start of Queen Victoria’s reign thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which caused a sharp rise in unemployment, and a series of bad harvests. An endowment to the Poor Law Act aimed to reduce the cost of providing for the poor, and for the first time introduced a role for central government. A key point of this law, which echoes today, is that it compelled the poor to support themselves by working in return for shelter and education for their children in the workhouse.


Children's Charter

The early 1900s saw the establishment of juvenile courts. Local authorities were given powers to keep children out of the workhouse, preventing them from working in dangerous trades. Among other things, it also prevented children from purchasing cigarettes and entering pubs and eventually led to councils setting up social services and Orphanages.


The inter-war years

A period of consolidation and progressive thought towards the vulnerable in society. Courts were required to regard a child's welfare, the age of criminal of responsibility was raised to eight years old, and the death penalty was abolished for teens. In 1920, Britain's first formal drug legislation was passed - The Dangerous Drugs Act - significantly shifting power from the Ministry of Health to the Home Office in this field.

1940s and 1950s

The Post-war period

Widely regarded as a period of formalization of the modern British welfare state, post-war Britain was seen by many as an opportunity to improve the lives of the population. Many Britons lived in a state of poverty and there was a shortage of quality houses. William Beveridge, author of the 1942 Beveridge Report and Liberal politician, identified five issues that needed to be tackled “on the road to reconstruction” - poverty; disease; ignorance; squalor and idleness.

Outlining a network of social care for the individual ‘from cradle to grave’, the report paved the way for working age income support system, child benefit, a public housing scheme and the creation of the National Health Service (1948). This new build policy continued when the Conservative Party came to power in 1951, with 3 million new houses being built in Britain during the 1950s.

1960s and 1970s

Economic Growth; Civil Rights and Equality movements

A time of sustained economic growth and Britain reaching near full employment in the 1970s, leading to higher tax revenues and falling debt to GDP. However, by the late 1960s services for people facing disadvantage were increasingly discrete in their nature. For example, housing and homelessness was viewed as a problem facing single people and so separated from children’s and youth services and domestic abuse was barely tackled by the state.

The 1970s witnessed equality and civil rights movements across much of Europe and North America. In Britain, anti-discrimination laws primarily aimed at women and people from minority backgrounds were introduced including the Equal Pay Act (1970) the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976). These were seminal pieces of legislation, but programmatic response tended to be fractured with limited co-ordination across services and largely reliant on the voluntary sector with unreliable funding sources. Critically, there was no concept of ‘generalised disadvantage’.

1980s and 1990s

Rising Inequality

Mass redundancies, strikes and major industrial conflicts were typical aspects of 1980s Britain, characterised as the ‘sick man of Europe’. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, poverty increased under Thatcher by 8.8 % from 1979 to 1990 and with it came inequality. However, public spending as a percentage of GDP actually rose in the Conservative government’s first years of power, before going down.

By the mid 1990s, Britain was experiencing chronic levels of social disadvantage and inequality. The New Labour government set out an ambitious vision to end social exclusion as part of a project to re-build Britain as ‘one nation, in which each citizen has a stake’. In 1997, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) was launched as part of the Cabinet Office as a response to governments trying “to deal with each of the problems of social exclusion individually” and aimed to produce “joined-up solutions to joined-up problems". The unit was abolished in 2010.