Voluntary Action History Society Conference

Paul Beard reports back on a fascinating few days in Liverpool discussing voluntary action history.

The 7th International conference of the Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) took place at the University of Liverpool between 13th and 15th July 2022 and brought together a myriad of new and exciting research into the history of voluntary action. Drawing on the theme ‘Voluntary Action in changing times: creating history or repeating it?’, the conference brought together a mix of researchers and practitioners to examine the changing role of voluntary action in society. Opening the conference, Colin Rochester’s plenary set the tone for conference, providing his own reflections on his career both as a charity practitioner and a researcher, and was a personal highlight of the conference for me.

The first session I attended focused on shifting social attitudes and the impact of public opinion on voluntary action. The panel brought together three excellent papers: Anna Bocking-Welch’s research into donor protest over Oxfam’s controversial banking with Barclays, Anna Maguire’s research into refugee organisations and multi-culturalism in the 1980s, and Peter Grant’s investigation into recent backlash to The National Trust and the ‘culture wars’. The panel traced patterns of public opinion and the wider political and cultural contexts voluntary action occupies.

The next panel was one organised with my PhD supervisory team that offered an overview of recent interventions in preserving charity archives, and was chaired by Georgina Brewis. I opened the panel with a paper outlining my own PhD research, presenting some emerging findings from my first year of study. Next was Kathryn Preston, a sector development manager at The National Archives, presenting her work in developing the Charity Archives Development Plan. Finally, Helena Smart provided local context by discussing charity records held at Liverpool Central Library and Archives.

Day two offered a smorgasbord of fascinating papers into a wide variety of different topics. I opted to attend the panel on voluntary action by faith organisations, which also seemed to be the first choice of the local delegation of seagulls sitting directly outside one of the open widows. Amy Grant opened, presenting her research into responses from church groups to conflict over asylum and refugees from the UK government in the 1980s. This was followed by Caroline Adam’s work into the history of fundraising by Anglican women in Adelaide. The panel presented different ways that faith organisations have engaged in protest, fundraising, and the role of the Anglican church in challenging government agendas.

Next up was a panel that focused on the variety of different types of volunteer engagement undertaken by women since the 19th century. The panel of three papers included Jayne Lacny’s research into female philanthropists, Philip Milnes-Smith’s work on Mary Wardell and the Convalescent Home for Scarlet Fever in Stanmore and finished with Ana Kladnik’s study into Women Firefighters at the Firefighting Olympics. The three papers presented a broad spectrum of different types of volunteering undertaken by women, and served as crucial reminder of the important role of archivists and other heritage professionals to ensure diverse stories are recorded and preserved for future generations.

In the afternoon a trip was arranged to see the International Slavery Museum, part of National Museums Liverpool. The visit opened with a talk from the curator, outlining the history of the museum and provided local context into the role of Liverpool in the Atlantic slave trade. The talk was followed by a fascinating and emotive guided tour of the gallery and discussed the challenges of displaying the violent legacies of colonialism and white supremacy – the museum is closing soon for a full refurbishment and re-curation of these topics.   

Rounding off the conference, I attended a thought provoking panel that outlined recent work into the challenges of research voluntary action and its use in practice. Jurgen Grotz and Colin Rochester discussed the establishment of the Institute for Volunteering Research. Next was Meta Zimmeck’s study into PPE voluntary action during the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of defining ‘proper’ voluntary action and history. Finally, Rhodri Davies reflected on his own practice and the powerful impact charity history has had on the work of the Charities Aid Foundation.

This conference highlighted the wide variety of fascinating work and research that is being undertaken into voluntary action. Although postponed due to the pandemic, it was certainly worth the wait. An unanticipated highlight was a visit to the men’s toilets at the Philharmonic Hall, which boasts an impressive claim to fame – John Lennon using the facilities no less than 47 times commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque! With three days of insightful papers, I, like many of the other attendees, am looking forward to the next VAHS conference scheduled for 2024.  

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