Self-taught pioneer of the Welfare State honoured
The social policy analyst Richard Titmuss (1907-1973) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 32 Twyford Avenue, Acton, London: his home from 1951 to 1973, where he was living when he wrote many of his most important works, including Essays on the Welfare State (1958), Income Distribution and Social Change (1962), Commitment to Welfare (1968), and The Gift Relationship (1970). The plaque will be unveiled by his daughter, sociologist and writer, Ann Oakley, at 11.30 am on 26 October. Other members of his family, including some of his great-grandchildren, will also be attending.
Hailed as ’the high priest of the welfare state’ Titmuss is generally credited as one of the founders of the study of social policy. With no formal qualifications, he rose to be Professor of Social Administration at the London School of Economics, receive five honorary degrees, and be appointed CBE in 1966. Titmuss’s works were led by a concern for social welfare: in the words of one commentator, it was he who ‘wrenched social work away from psycho-analysis to a serious concern with actual social problems’. In Austerity Britain, David Kynaston has identified him as the ‘key propagandist’ for the infant NHS. He remains, in the words of one critical observer, a ‘massive presence’ in the study of the welfare state and the post-war settlement.
Richard Morris Titmuss was born at Stopsley, Bedfordshire, to Morris Titmuss, a small farmer, later a haulage contractor, and his wife, Maude Farr. On leaving school at fourteen he trained as a book-keeper, and following his father’s death in 1926 he became the family breadwinner as a clerk for the County Fire Insurance Office. The sixteen years he spent there equipped Titmuss with skills in statistics and demographics that he would later put to more creative use. In his spare time he interested himself in politics and social affairs; an active Liberal in the 1930s, he later aligned himself with the Labour party after the war.
In 1937 he married Kathleen ‘Kay’ Miller with whom he had a daughter, Ann. Kay was a vital support throughout his life, and it was with her encouragement that he had his first book published, Poverty and Population (1938), a largely statistical study that influenced contemporary debates about chronic unemployment and population decline. Other early works – all written and researched in Titmuss’s spare time – included Our Food Problem (1939), written with F. Le Gros Clark, which suggested the provision of free school meals and milk, and Parents Revolt (1943) – co-authored with Kay – which addressed contemporary concerns about the falling birth rate.
In 1942 – alongside his work as a fire warden at St Paul’s – Titmuss was commissioned to write an official history of the social services during the war. The resulting book, Problems of Social Policy (1950), broadly demonstrated the effectiveness of state intervention in meeting wartime needs of health and evacuation from bombed areas. Scholarly, readable and frank about official failures, it made his reputation, and resulted in his professorship at the LSE, a post he held until his death. His chief protégés at the School – sometimes known as the ‘Titmice’ – were Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend; with the former, Titmuss wrote The Cost of the National Health Service in England and Wales (1956), a rebuttal of the idea that universal health provision was beyond the country’s means. In other works, such as The Social Division of Welfare (1956) and Essays on ‘the Welfare State’ (1958) Titmuss showed that there was as yet no end to poverty. His belief that in a healthy society, self-interest should not be the prime motive force was cogently expressed in a later work, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970), a comparison of the commercial market in human blood that operates in the US with the voluntary system used in the UK.
32 Twyford Avenue, Acton, is a large semi-detached two-storey red brick house, to which the Titmuss family moved in the autumn of 1951 from a flat in Chiswick (where Titmuss now has a street named after him). Dating from the early years of the twentieth century, this unostentatious family home recalls one obituarist’s comment that Richard Titmuss managed ‘far more than most people to live according to his principles’. He lived there until his death from lung cancer, aged 65; it is recorded that when his study downstairs filled up with paper, his work overflowed to an upstairs bedroom. Prominent among the LSE colleagues who visited the house was the economic historian R.H. Tawney, who also has a blue plaque. His daughter Ann notes that he routinely signed off prefaces to his books ‘R.M.T., Acton’ – the address lies on the borders with Ealing, and it is noteworthy that Titmuss chose the more ‘impressively egalitarian’ area designation.
Ann Oakley, Richard Titmuss’s daughter, said: ‘My father’s work established social administration as a scientific discipline, and pioneered an analysis of social policy based on both science and ethics. His defence of the ‘good society’ was egalitarian, rationalist and mindful of human beings’ need for a sense of social connection. What he had to say is hugely relevant to the social problems we face today, and particularly to the escalating divisions of a class society which has lost its way in prioritising welfare as the right of all citizens.’
English Heritage blue plaque historian Howard Spencer said: ‘Titmuss established the academic respectability of the new discipline of Social Administration, and shaped the attitude of a generation on social policy issues. Despite not being a household name, his work contributed to welfare policies that would touch the lives of many.’