During the late Victorian and early Edwardian period references to ‘social work’ in the UK emerged in the context of the movement for social reform. Using a wide variety of contemporary literature, archival sources and Internet searches this article finds that, alongside charitable and philanthropic work, the term ‘social work’ referred to a particularly wide range of social, health, educational, industrial welfare and recreation activity. Few attempts were made to attribute an explicit meaning to the term and it was not used as frequently as is sometimes implied by commentaries about the period. However, voluntary and paid workers were increasingly referred to collectively as ‘social workers’ and became the subject of increasing discussion about their roles and need for training. This article traces the developments in references to social work and social workers in the literature and highlights the early debate that took place in the UK and USA about the relative importance of practical work and study of the social sciences, introducing the tension which characterised social workers’ subsequent difficulties in establishing a professional identity.