The Enquiry Department of Central Office was entrusted with the task of inquiring into fraudulent charities and exposing and, on occasion, prosecuting promoters of bogus charities and writers of begging letters. The work was supervised by the Administrative Committee who delegated this function to the Supervision Sub-Committee 1874-1875, succeeded by the Enquiry Supervision Sub-Committee 1875-1876, renamed the Mendicity Sub-Committee in 1876 and again renamed the Enquiry Sub-Committee in 1878. In 1884 the Administrative Committee resumed direct supervision of enquiry work until a new Enquiry Sub-Committee was formed in 1903.
The Charity Commission established in 1853 was only concerned with the proper management of endowed charities. A great number of voluntary charities had been founded in the 19th Century which were subject to very little legal control or supervision. The C.O.S. was concerned that charitable donations were going to largely worthless charities whose real objects were the financial gain and public reputation of the founder, to the loss of reputable charities. It was also unhappy about the many small illorganised charities with very similar objectives. The purpose of the Enquiry Department was to direct charitable giving away from unscrupulous imposters and almost worthless charities to philanthropic organisations not only of unimpeachable financial rectitude but with what the C.O.S. considered the most effective methods and most worthwhile objectives. For instance, the C.O.S. disapproved of voting charities, missions which distributed indiscriminate relief, charities run by an individual or a family without the backing of a committee, charities which failed to publish annual reports and lists of subscribers and donations, homes for children, fallen women or old people which investigation showed to be badly run, and the proliferation of small special hospitals.
The C.O.S. published a cautionary card listing notorious writers of begging letters and suspect charities which it distributed to its subscribers. It also produced reports on individual charities which were sent to anyone requesting information. For examples of the cautionary card, see A/FWA/C/A/03/035, p.284 , A/FWA/C/A/03/043/01, p.248 1907, A/FWA/C/A/03/049/01, p.78 1913, and A/FWA/C/D/02/001, 1936-1947.
The work of the Enquiry Department in the 1930s has been described by B. E. Astbury, later Secretary to the Family Welfare Association, in an article in Social Work for January 1956 (reference A/FWA/HF/A/09/019. Largely as a result of recommendations made by the C.O.S., the House to House Collection Act was passed in 1939 "requiring every charitable organisation making such collections to obtain a police permit, to satisfy the authorities that the objects were not only charitable but, so far as could be ascertained, a necessary activity. Accounts showing the amount collected and the amounts spent on the objects of the charity had to be submitted, with the result that, overnight, hundreds of questionable charities were put out of business".
The Enquiry Department maintained a series of files on charities. Those that survive, only a small proportion of those that existed originally, were deposited in the Great London Record Office on 7 November 1983 (Acc.1898). The files contain copies of annual reports and appeal literature produced by the charity, letters from individuals inquiring into the bona fides of the charity and copies of the C.O.S. report on the charity. Sometimes they contain reports of a visit by a C.O.S. agent to a hospital, orphanage or other institution. They may include newspaper cuttings and correspondence and accounts of interviews with people concerned about the way in which a particular charity functioned.