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The History of 18 Plus

Eighteen Plus as we know it today is not the 18 Plus of 50 years ago: in fact it has changed so drastically from its original conception that the people who founded it would not recognise it now. Indeed 18 Plus has changed several times over the intervening years and had many ups and downs - but the overall trend has always been one of growth and expansion.

The organisation came into being as a result of a report published in 1939 by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust on the lives led by young unemployed men in cities, called Disinherited Youth. Eighteen Plus was started to cater for those unemployed men but only a very few of them came into contact with it. Ironically, perhaps, it has only blossomed since the days when the country was told it never had it so good. We, today, with a different kind of time on our hands and with money in our pockets have inherited it.

Way back in 1934 a report on the leisure time activities of the 14-18 age range, who were unemployed, happened to spot the high rate of unemployment in the 18-21 range. The following year the Carnegie Trust decided to spend £2000 on a three-year enquiry into the lives of these men. One of the recommendations of the report was that mixed clubs should be set up to cater for them and that members should have a chance to plan their own activities.

Having read the report, the National Association of Girls' Clubs and the British Association of Residential Settlements decided, in December 1940, to try and set up some '18 Plus' groups and a council was formed.

Members were to be encouraged to organise their own social activities, inspire one another to find for themselves a faith or standard of values on which to build their lives, develop their own physical and mental powers by means of physical recreation and mutual education, and to give service and leadership, individually, through the group and to the community as a whole.

The trustees devoted £1000 to the experiment for the first year and in March 1941 a Conference was held at Oxford to discuss the formation of the Federation. The Council decided to start 12 groups in different parts of the British Isles and in different circumstances. To do this, the Secretary and her assistant visited towns throughout the country.

Groups became almost exclusively debating societies, with most of them meeting once or twice a week for discussions or debates. Only very infrequently was there a dance or other activity.

A further £500 was requested by the Council from the Trust and this was granted. At the end of 1942, at the second National Conference, the experiment was voted an unqualified success and it was agreed that 18 Plus should be constituted as a national body. At this time there were 23 groups scattered over the country.

It was minuted: 'In general members are against undertaking too much recreational activity lest the aims of 18 Plus be lost'. In the National files a note reads: 'Efforts have been made by a group to close a fairground of ill repute' - an example of the type of work that 18 Plus was prepared to undertake.

Members were running their own groups but they were not considered able enough to run the Federation and six members of the Council were elected on to the National Committee along with six 18 Plus members. Dr. John Nicholson, who had played a large part in getting the Federation to its feet, was elected Chairman.

Although the Federation was now a constituted body, the Trust made a grant of £1000 in 1943 to be spent over three years to tide the Federation over. At the National Conference that year, very few of the original groups remained. All groups started in conjunction with other bodies, such as youth clubs and community centres, had failed, the reason identified was conflict of Members' interests'. Membership was about 400.

The first crisis to face the Federation arose in 1944. With a London office, a paid Secretary, the organisation of week-long summer schools and losses on Conferences, it was costing £600 a year to run 18 Plus. The paid membership came from 160 members in 18 groups. A 'crisis conference' was held in July and the Secretary was given a months' notice, subscriptions were raised by a penny to threepence a week and the Committee was asked to find a cheaper office.

The Federation took a big step towards self-government when the clause in its Constitution stating that members of the Trusts Panel had to sit on the Federation's executive committee was scrapped but Dr. Nicholson remained as Chairman.

As a self-supporting organisation, the Federation struggled on, but by the summer of 1945 it comprised of only 10 groups. The first sign of another change in the Federation's character occurred when a conference delegate was asked to explain why 18 plus was so successful in South Hertfordshire, where three groups were thriving. The answer was that the groups met on social grounds.

The following year Dr. Nicholson stated he felt that the time had come when the Chairmanship of the Federation should be held by a member. But it was another year before a member could be found who was willing to take the position. Since then 18 Plus has been run entirely by its own members.

In an effort to expand, the Federation approached the Carnegie Trust for a grant to enable the appointment of a full-time organiser whose job would be purely to start groups. In 1947 The Trust obliged with a grant of £1500 to be spent over three years.

A married man in his twenties by the name of Gordon Horne, was given the post which carried a salary of £300 a year. His job was to open as many groups as possible in the Manchester area. This, the committee thought, would give the groups more chance of surviving than if they were spread throughout the country.

Gordon Horne went to work armed with an old motor bike provided from the grant and a list of clergymen. In a booklet he described 18 Plus as 'primarily discussion groups, with no subject barred'. There were then 12 groups and a membership of 150.

The list of his expenses for the first month included a one-inch map of Manchester, 2s. 3d.: bed and breakfast at Mrs. Clapcoates's, 5s. 0d.: fares, 6d.: telephone call, 2d. By the end of the year he had started 10 groups and total membership was just over 400 in 18 groups.

Gordon Horne continued his work in Manchester and by October 1948, 16 groups had been established. But soon after he left, the Federation started shrinking again. To help keep it solvent an affiliation scheme was started and members paid six shillings a year.

By 1956 only 10 groups were left in Manchester and three remained in the rest of the country - Central London, started in 1943, South London, formed by Central London in 1954, and Wolverhampton, due to die three years later.

The rebirth of 18 Plus can be said to have started with the formation of South London. The secretary of Central London group wrote a letter to a Sunday newspaper saying that unless more members could be found the group would fold. Over 40 new members were attracted which proved to be too many so South London was formed as an overspill group. One of the new members was Roland Oxley who, in 1958, moved to Tunbridge Wells. Finding facilities for the 18-30 age range lacking, he opened a group. It was at this group that for the first time a new policy was adopted - expansion. It was a startling idea at the time but with persuasion the group formed a development committee.

Groups were started at Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Maidstone and Cranbrook between 1960 and 1962. The London groups caught onto the idea and they started two more groups. Soon groups all over the country were doing the same.

It was also at about this time that group programmes started changing. Evenings became more informative than educational. Debates still played their part in a programme but items such as mock trials, quizzes, panel games and socials appeared more and more frequently.

With this kind of balanced programme, new members were attracted and the death rate of groups was cut drastically.

Expansion was the theme everywhere and only months after groups had been started they were forming new groups themselves. The spirit of this period is illustrated by one of the founders of the 'expansion-as-a-policy' movement, Gordon Adams. He was sent to Birmingham by his form for six weeks and in that time he opened four new groups.

Groups were also started in the North East, The South West and East Anglia and membership rose from 482 in 14 groups in 1960 to 1390 in 43 groups three years later.

By 1965 Area Councils were controlling the development drive. Instead of groups opening at random, members were asked to start new groups where they would benefit both the local population and the Federation in that they fitted into an overall plan for the country.

However, expansion brought financial problems. With the Executive Council meeting four or five times a year, travelling expenses were bringing the Federation to its knees. A money-raising competition was introduced and until 1967 the Federation was only kept solvent by this once a year gamble.

With membership approaching the 7000 mark and the National Officers and Committee consequently overburdened with administration work, talks were held with the Ministry of Education. The outcome was a £2500 a year grant which enabled the Federation once again to appoint a full-time secretary - a post still in existence.

In 1967 the Federation organised its first large-scale 'outward-looking' event. This was a conference at the Central Hall, Westminster, called Advance '67, to discuss what help the young could give for the benefit of the community. Many national and local organisations were represented along with 1500 18 Plus members. The meeting was chaired by Christopher Chataway, M.P., and speakers included Lord Soper, Anthony Steen, Des Wilson and Elizabeth Hoodless.

In 1969, the Federation reached a peak of almost 8000 members and 180 Groups but the strain of administration and financial management nearly precipitated a further crisis. The NEC fought hard to maintain effectiveness and in 1970 produced its 'Manifesto for the Seventies' accepted by Groups in conference at Hastings. However, a policy document of this type fails if the understanding and willingness to support is not forthcoming. Finances were very low and the gap between Groups and the NEC began to grow wider. Very harsh measures had to be taken in 1971 by the then National Treasurer and the membership fee was doubled to £1. Sound financial measurement became the order of the day and break-even budgeting became a firm NEC policy. Despite stringency and careful planning membership continued to fall away and by the end of 1975 had reached a low of 6000 members due mainly it is felt to a further doubling of the membership fee to £2.00.

Things had begun to change in 1974 however, when the NEC recognised the need for a comprehensive and on-going strategy. The Corporate Plan arose from the disappointments of the 'Manifesto'. In this, clear statements of policy and objectives for a five year period ending in December 1979 were set out for every aspect of Federation work. It was a very useful exercise for the NEC and introduced continuity into the challenging membership of the Council elected by the ANC.

During the life of this plan three important objectives were met, the purchase of the Federation's own headquarters building in 1978, the development of Yorkshire Area, and the growth of the Federation to 10000 members in 250 Groups by 1979. These achievements demonstrated that the Federation could undertake major projects in a variety of ways; the acquisition and renovation of Nicholson House was accomplished by a small dedicated committee with the support of the whole Federation, the development of Yorkshire Area and the increase in the Federation's membership were the result of a commitment to development, collective responsibility and team work.

The growth of the Federation was the result of the policies of the mid-late 1970's and a further five year plan was introduced in 1979 to take the Federation into the 1980's, with the objective of further growth in the number of members and Groups. However, the Federation had lost some of its momentum and this plan was not as successful as its predecessor; it was replaced in 1981 by a series of short term objectives to tackle specific problems. During this period changes were also taking place outside the Federation in the way people spent their leisure time, with an increase in sports facilities, holidays, and general entertainment marketed directly at people in the 18-30 age range. This increased competition for people's time couple with other factors, including in part a fall in the variety of activities and events within the Federation, caused the membership to decline.

In 1983 the Federation began to look carefully at the image it projected, and the activities it provided, with a view to bring these into line with the expectations of young adults in the 18-30 range. 18 Plus had in recent times publicised itself as a social organisation but this was redefined in 1985. At the Annual National Conference held at Southport that year a National public relations / publicity strategy was accepted, and it included the philosophy that 18 Plus is an 'activities organisation which presents its members with the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities, carried out in a friendly / social atmosphere.' This was an important change of emphasis and would help the Federation to market itself more effectively. To make 18 Plus more attractive to a wider range of young adults a number of National sub-committees were set up, to organise and promote new and varied activities and events throughout the Federation.

It was recognised in 1982 that a full time training officer would be able to assist the Federation, through a comprehensive training strategy, to carry out policies more effectively at all levels. A successful application was made to the Department of Education and Science for an increase in the headquarters grant, and an appointment was made in September 1984.

By the end of 1985 the membership of the Federation had declined to just over 7000 although the number of Groups had remained constant at 242. However, with the assistance of the full time training officer, greater emphasis on promoting a wider range of activities, and the public relations / publicity strategy together with associated recruitment drives taking effect, the Federation is well equipped to reverse this trend, and show an increase in membership in the late 1980's.

This article appeared in the 'Guide to 18 Plus' published in 1986.
If anyone has a more up to date version please email me to the address below.


In 2006 18 Plus became known as Plus. The national tier was slimmed down and the headquarters office was closed. The day to day running of Plus was handed over to the Areas.

HOW IT BEGAN - a further article on the History of 18 Plus

 Last updated 22 February 2007 by