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Why did British politicians see the need for welfare reforms in the early 1900s?

Winston Churchill, in South Africa, having escaped from the Boers, in 1899. (Reproduced from the Baroness Spencer Churchill Papers with the permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London, on behalf of the Master, Fellows and Scholars of Churchill College, Cambridge. Original held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.)

This is Winston Churchill.

He was born into a wealthy and powerful family. He was educated at some of the most exclusive schools in England. He had an impressive career, both in the army and as a journalist, winning fame with his adventures which included conflicts in India, North Africa and the Boer War in South Africa in 1899.

In 1900 he then went into politics, as his father had done. He became a Conservative, as his father had been. He was ambitious.

He wanted the powerful jobs in government which allowed him to make a real impact. He understood how important finance was. He understood how Britain had to make deals with some countries and fight others. He believed in the importance of Britain having a strong military.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that a dashing, privileged, ambitious young man like Winston Churchill was soon very interested in the problem of poverty in Britain and what to do about it. And he wasn’t alone. As you might have already seen here, other members of the ruling classes were also looking at the issue of poverty.

The book Lord Morley mentions is by Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree was one of a number of investigators who were gathering information about poverty around this time. Another was Charles Booth. Rowntree gathered detailed information about the lives of the poor in York. Booth produced maps and notes which showed the scale of poverty and misery in London. Booth and Rowntree were probably the most well-known but there were other researchers and also many writers and artists who were highlighting poverty, too. Arthur Morrison’s novel The Child of the Jago was typical of a raft of novels designed to raise awareness of the hardships faced by the poor.

An ‘ambitious’ young Churchill
(© Churchill Archives, Broadwater Collection)

Here are some suggestions for Liberal Party Campaign posters and leaflets for the 1910 General Election from the Churchill Archive, with ‘Old Age Pension Facts’. See the full document in the Archive here.

So is this the reason why Churchill and others like him were suddenly becoming interested in measures to tackle poverty? The reformers and campaigners certainly made a difference. However, other factors may also have been at play here. Although Britain was the world’s leading power, there was a sense of unease. New powers were rising, especially the US, Germany and Japan. When Britain went to war in South Africa in 1899 there was a national panic as around forty per cent of the recruits who signed up were unfit for military service. Was this the reason why politicians wanted a healthier population?

We also can’t rule out old-fashioned factors like political rivalry. The majority of welfare reforms were passed by the Liberal Party. But was this a passion for reform among the Liberals or were they trying to score points over their political rivals? In the 1906 election the new Labour Party gained twenty-nine MPs. It wasn’t a huge number but if the mass of working men began to support Labour, then the Liberal Party was under threat. But the Liberals were quite happy to use their record on welfare reform against the Conservatives as well.

Finally, let’s not rule out the importance of personal ambition. The main drivers of social reform were Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George. Each was ambitious and eager to show they’d achieved something. Was this why politicians started to act on poverty?

Investigation page

The sources

Notes for teachers

Find out more

Charles Booth online archive
Spartacus Education Seebohm Rowntree
London Fictions A Child of The Jago
Spartacus Education David Lloyd George
Class and Politics, by Martin Pugh