Citizens Advice…the First 80 Years!

It’s September 1939 and war has been declared – a time of anxiety and uncertainty for all. Doreen and Margaret, neighbours in East London, are waiting outside a terrace house on the corner of their street. This is the doctor’s surgery and his front parlour now serves as a local advice centre, an initiative just launched by the National Council of Social Service to help citizens navigate the many and various problems they may encounter in the wake of the conflict.

Doreen and her husband run the small grocery store opposite, and she wants to know if this counts as a ‘reserved occupation’. She has no idea how she’ll keep things running on her own if he’s called up. Margaret’s two boys, aged 8 and 6, left with their teacher five days ago for the safety of the countryside, and she still hasn’t heard where they’ve been taken Will anybody here know? It seems an odd place to come for this sort of help, but if this is unusual, within 12 months this house will be reduced to rubble, and the volunteers here will be dispensing advice as they shelter from the Blitz in the Underground station down the road!

Some 50 miles away in the market town of Haslemere in Surrey, Alice has welcomed Margaret’s children into her home – she has a spare room after all and everybody must do their bit. She has come to another of the new advice centres – one of the first 200 in the country, in premises ranging from council offices and church rooms, to mobile units, even a converted horsebox! – to find out what help she can get to look after them.

And so in 1939 the national network known as the Citizens Advice Bureau begins, and Haslemere, as one of the very first centres, is in the vanguard. From the first 200 bureaux, the Service will grow into a presence in some 3,400 community locations across the UK, manned by 22,200 volunteers. Its website, launched in 1999, providing access to information 24 hours a day. Over the next eight decades, CAB will continue to advise on a variety of issues, often prompted by the social and political landscape of the age.

The late 1940s, for example, will see many returning from war service struggling to adapt to life back on ‘civvy street’. The housing shortage is acute, many jobs no longer exist, and family relationships between those who’ve become strangers is often strained.

As families move into new modern housing estates in the 1950s and 60s, a new optimism encourages a consumer boom and the uptake of hire purchase agreements. This is a godsend for many who are able to set up home with the benefit of the latest household goods, but it’s problematic for others who aren’t used to managing their finances this way and run into debt.

The recession of the 1970s and the decline of certain large industries will see some facing unemployment for the first time in their working lives and struggling with redundancy payments.

Some issues will persist throughout the coming decades albeit for different reasons. The homelessness of the 1940s, caused by large-scale wartime destruction, will give way to a new homelessness in the 21st century, caused by a high demand for local authority housing and a lack of affordable alternatives. Debt will persist with hire purchase replaced by easy access to loans and credit cards, and problems accessing benefits; and where immigration is an important issue for refugees displaced by the war, it will be a big issue in 1972 when thousands of Asian families, expelled from Uganda, need help to settle in Britain. It is still an issue in 2019 as EU citizens across the country consult CAB about their status and security as the UK prepares for Brexit.

Throughout its 80 years, the essential ethos of Citizens Advice remains the same; it remains a charity, dependent on the generosity of the local community and delivered for the most part by a network of volunteers of all ages, from students with some spare time and career options to consider, to the retired with a lifetime of personal and professional experience. Volunteers are always welcome, whatever time you can give, so why not contact your local office and become part of this great story, as Citizens Advice moves towards its centenary and beyond?

To celebrate the 80th anniversary – and prepare for the next 80!- we will be holding a sponsored walk of 5 or 10 miles on Sunday 15 September. The walks will start and finish at the Haslemere office in Well Lane. If you would like to join the celebration please email for more information.


Citizens Advice Waverley is a registered charity.  You can help local people by making a donation at . Your donation stays local and will ensure we are here to help local people when they most need it.

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