How should we interpret the humanitarian narratives of early social work? This article suggests that we explore the ways in which bodies and detail were used to establish the grounds for humanitarian action in the late-Victorian period. Drawing on case material from a child welfare organization in Manchester and Salford, it explores how the ‘filthy body’ of the child and the failings of ‘worthless’ parents were used to justify interventions to ‘rescue’ children from urban slums. Thus, progressivist and revisionist accounts of history are dispensed with in favour of a form of cultural history that recognizes the multifarious activities that comprise social work past and present and the fluidity of categorizations that are deployed in the practice of intervening in the flow of lives of the poor. This, it is argued, moves us beyond the tendency to focus on secondary sources relating to a few prominent organizations such as the Charity Organisation Society and the metropolis. Instead, emphasis is placed on the contribution of regional histories and localized, fine-grained empirical studies to broadening analytical approaches and deepening understanding of social work past and present.

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