What have the Quakers ever done for us? Quite a lot really.

Quakers were at the forefront of the campaign against slavery, questioning the practice back in the 1700s, long before the abolitionist movement had gathered force. Quakers, Unitarians or Friends—as members of this religious group are variously known—were also involved in setting up Amnesty International, Oxfam, Greenpeace and other influential organisations. And, although few readers will have the pleasure of living in the Quaker-established neighbourhood of Southfields, as I do, it is hard to work in the charity sector and not attend a seminar or an event at a Friends House at some point or other.

I’ve been thinking about Quakers quite a lot recently. Particularly since attending an event last week to launch A History of The Barrow Cadbury Trust: Constancy and Change in Quaker Philanthropy.

The reception, aptly held in the cloistered surroundings of Church House in Westminster’s Dean’s Yard, highlighted the achievements of the family foundation established in 1920 by two well-known British Quaker families, the Cadburys and the Southalls. It was fascinating to hear about the origins of the trust that has become such a force in the foundation landscape in the UK today, and to read about its history in the beautifully produced book by Merlin Waterson and Samantha Wyndham.

The descriptions about the increasingly acute poverty and distress that Barrow Cadbury and his wife Geraldine witnessed in Birmingham in the 1890s would not be out of place today. Nor the reaction of policy-makers and the general public.

‘Human weakness’ and ‘the indolence of the poor’ were identified by many at the time as being at the root of poverty, and the Poor Law was attacked as ‘an inducement to dependence and idleness’. Substitute ‘Poor Law’ for ‘the welfare system’ and add in a reference to benefit scroungers and you could easily be reading a politician’s speech or newspaper comment piece about the “undeserving” poor today.

The Cadbury family’s answer to the debate that ensued about the role of the State and the role of private philanthropy was, as the authors show, ‘typically non-conformist’. Geraldine Cadbury, in particular, was a pioneering thinker. She broke new ground when advocating for reforms to the way that young offenders were treated. In the years that followed, the family directed profits from their growing chocolate business towards exposing the cruelty of the British concentration camps in the Boer War and supporting unfashionable reconciliation efforts in Europe in the late 1930s.

Later, the trust backed initiatives to promote understanding between Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast and ease racial tensions in Birmingham in the 1970s onwards. And today, the trust works on migration issues, supports young people at risk of offending and funds programmes to promote financial inclusion, among other issues.

Reflecting on the intractable social problems we’re currently facing and the evolving fallout from the welfare reforms, it’s clear that we still need organisations like Barrow Cadbury Trust and others like it. Funding programmes that tackle poverty (and the causes of poverty) and speaking truth to power is as important now as it was almost 100 years ago.

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