In the light of the volcanic public and political reactions that now surround issues of child protection it may seem surprising that in Scotland it was a voluntary society and its officers (popularly known as ‘Cruelty Men’) that carried many of the statutory duties of inspection and prosecution of cases of neglect or cruelty through much of the 20th century. Though the Society’s role was subject to decline it was only in the aftermath of the Orkney scandal of the 1990s that it was terminated. In this paper we focus on the second half of the last century. Using the records of the Society, particularly the case books of the officers, and the transcript of a witness seminar held in 2008 which brought together 30 individuals who worked in various capacities under the old system, we illustrate how these duties were undertaken and describe and analyse the main changes that took place during these years. For example in the 1960s the officers were exclusively male, but by the 1990s no men were involved. Equally marked were changes in the understanding of the purposes and priorities of protection, yet the greatest contrast was in the styles of intervention that officers felt entitled to undertake. For example officers found it perfectly normal to intervene in the redistribution of family finances from husbands to wives, or to instruct inefficient parents to clean their house and to supervise them while they did it. There are also indications that when cases came to court there was a shared determination on the part of officers and sheriffs that the imperative of child protection should not be compromised by procedural accidents. One reaction to this material when it was put in the public domain was a blanket condemnation of officers as imposing an unacceptable degree of ‘social control’. While we acknowledge changed circumstances demand new approaches such a blanket condemnation is ahistorical and misleading. If useful lessons are to be drawn they demand a more nuanced approach.
We shall conclude by asking whether there any general conclusions to be drawn on the basis of the experience of the RSSPCC concerning the efficacy, desirability, political expediency, and safety in lodging issues of social governance with voluntary bodies. We shall also ask whether the meaning of ‘voluntary’ has changed so radically in the course of the 20th century as to render it problematical.