Dr Michael Lambert, Fellow in Social Studies at Lancaster University – Friday 13th May 2022

An interesting talk was delivered by Dr Lambert, in which he brings to life the Social Survey of Merseyside, which became both an authoritative and influential text and an important policy reference point. He described the purpose of the survey, the overall context in which it was carried out and the key importance it provided to policy-makers as a focus of subsequent social and welfare policies. The Survey’s geographic coverage helped set in place a federation of boroughs; what today is known as the city region. The period covered by his talk was from the 1930’s up to the current day.

Published by Liverpool University Press, The Social Survey of Merseyside 1929–34 in three volumes, dealt with:  Volume I: Fact Finding, rich nuanced statistics of ordinary working people, day to day realities. Vol II: Impacts of the Great Depression on Merseyside and its managed decline, and Vol III: A Relationship to the problems at the time, to give a clearer understanding. Subject domains explored included: Facts, Poverty, Education, Migration and Housing. The Survey’s work built upon the foundations laid down by Charles Booth, a pivotal figure in the reforming movement of Victorian England, whose work in London set the scene for the expansion of contemporary social studies. Community initiatives to reform injustices and a focus on welfare issues already existed in Liverpool; Eleanor Rathbone is cited, however the appointment of the academic Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders to the Charles Booth Chair of Social Science, whilst politically contentious at the time, did add academic credibility and validated the scientific nature and objectivity of the survey. Carr-Saunders’ presence was key to the funding of the survey by the Rockefeller Foundation.  

The Review occurred when a national reforming zeal was very evident and there was a call for evidence of wider issues than those social pathologies, particular to Liverpool and Merseyside at that point. Evidence was provided about Shop Assistants work conditions, Unemployment Insurance, Sterilisation and a Family Budget Inquiry. There was a local, national and also an international interest in the findings, which would distinguish this survey from others. David Caradog Jones led a team of researchers who collated the information yielded from volunteers [included School Attendance Officers, Health Visitors, Personal Service Society and the Child Welfare Society] who undertook statistical sampling surveys of the population they encountered through their daily work. The results would be impactful and have national influence on policy changes at the very time that a welfare state ideology was supplanting the Poor Law mentality. There was also an ongoing intellectual curiosity, where eugenics was actually considered as a policy option; especially as a discussion of how defective genes could be managed and eliminated, a popular concept under consideration being explored across Europe and beyond.

The Survey was wound up in 1950, as new or more nuanced directions were taken by the University of Liverpool. However, information yielded over time had influenced both local and national policy and helped to influence future welfare policies.

Phillip Chalmers

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