Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_welfare reforms i

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

Source 1

Report of a speech by Winston Churchill to a local Conservative Party Association, dated 5 November 1898


CHAR 2/1/2-3

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

There are different types of pensioners. As far as I’m concerned, the money given to old soldiers or sailors isn’t enough. Too often old heroes end up in misery. We need more institutions like the Greenwich one which takes care of former sailors. We owe our servicemen a debt.

So far I’ve only mentioned military pensions. At the moment there’s no provision for ordinary civilians who become elderly. This has to change. The present government is planning to introduce a measure on old age pensions, even though it didn’t promise to do so in the election. There’s a lot of argument about whether the pension should be a radical or a moderate measure. I favour a moderate measure.

Original Transcript

There are pensioners and pensioners, and I have no hesitation in saying that any money given to disabled soldiers was inadequate and insufficient to enable the recipient to live in comfort, and in how many such cases does that wretched hero sink in drink, vice, misery and shame? I shall perhaps have your support if I say that the remedy for such a sad state of things is provision of further institutions along the lines of that which already exists at Greenwich, to which the worn out defender of his country may retire and end his days in dignity and comfort. The expense would, of course, be heavy, but not more heavy than this wealthy country could easily afford. It was after all no little thing to hold up high before the eyes of the citizens of this great Empire the ideal of duty, of courage, and of patriotism. (Hear, hear!).

I do not wish to leave the subject of pensions yet. I have only alluded to the subject of military pensions. The present position of the question of Old Age Pensions is very unsatisfactory. Many of the members who make up the powerful majority of the present Government are pledged to definite legislation on the subject. I think you will agree with me, gentlemen, if I say it cannot be allowed to remain so. I do not say that the present Government came into power on the question of Old Age Pensions. Such a statement would be wholly untrue. They came into power because there was a growing consciousness in the country in foreign and Imperial affairs.

In regard to this question of Old Age Pensions we are come to the old deadlock … One set of people said it must be done, another set that it is impossible. I recall a remark of a famous man whose name, if I may judge by your kindness to me, you have not forgotten, Lord Randolph Churchill (Loud Cheers). He said that he had noticed that when people went about saying something must be done something very stupid usually was done, but in spite of this remark it is evident that the present Government cannot possibly let the matter drop, for even descending from the broad plains and principles to the narrow valleys of political conduct it is far better for the present Government to introduce a moderate and tentative measure in this subject than allow the Radicals to bring in some sweeping revolutionary one for which every other interest in the world would be recklessly sacrificed. (Hear, Hear).

What is this source?

This extract is from a newspaper report of a speech by Winston Churchill to a gathering of Conservative MPs in southern England in November 1898. It was a long speech – and a long report – and this source is just an extract which focuses in on one particular issue. The rest of the report covered issues such as wider social reform and the importance of defending the British Empire. When you see phrases like ‘Loud Cheers’ or ‘Hear, Hear’, this is referring to the reaction of the audience.

Background to this source

There are a number of background issues which help historians to make sense of this source. It is helpful to know something about the audience Churchill was speaking to. This was a Conservative Party meeting in Hampshire which was held to honour one of their own members. The issues Churchill was talking about – social reform and the British Empire – were important concerns at the time. Churchill wasn’t a member of the government or even an MP at this time but he had political ambitions and was elected the following year as a Conservative MP.

Winston Churchill was invited to give a speech for several reasons. First, he was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a fiery and well-known Conservative politician who’d died in 1895. So the Conservatives regarded Churchill as one of their own. Second, he was something of a celebrity in his own right as a result of his many newspaper articles written while he was involved in conflicts in trouble-spots around the world.

In 1898 Britain’s empire was the largest the world had ever seen and it was still expanding. Empire was important to Britain, especially the wealth and resources of India and South Africa. However, other nations were also building up empires, especially France and Russia. And Germany was a new rising power which was showing an interest in an empire as well. So there was a keen rivalry between the great powers.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember, we’re hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why British politicians began to see the need for welfare reforms in this period. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. According to Churchill, what often happens to disabled soldiers?
  2. The Greenwich Hospital looked after former Royal Navy sailors. What does Churchill think of the scheme?
  3. What are Churchill’s views on the cost of pensions for former servicemen?
  4. According to Churchill, what are the government’s plans about pensions?
  5. According to Churchill, are pensions a more important issue than foreign and imperial affairs?
  6. Were politicians agreed about the need for pensions?
  7. What did Randolph Churchill say and why was Winston Churchill (his son) quoting him?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

  On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill wanted more spending on military pensions.    
The fact that Churchill made pensions such a major part of his speech shows that welfare reforms like pensions were an important issue.    
Welfare reforms weren’t traditionally an area that Conservatives had supported so this audience wouldn’t have liked what Churchill said.    
Churchill was completely opposed to any measure to bring in old age pensions.    
Churchill was reluctantly in favour of old age pensions.    
This source suggests that the top people in society were starting to believe that welfare reforms like pensions were necessary in Britain.    

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Attitudes towards poverty were generally very unsympathetic and hard-line at this time so you need to see this source in that context.
  • Most of the men in the audience wouldn’t have been very sympathetic towards the poor for most of their lives. Most people blamed the poor for their own poverty.
  • The Greenwich scheme was similar to the Chelsea Pensioners scheme. Basically old soldiers were cared for and given a small pension.
  • Britain had the world’s greatest Empire at this time but other states including France, Russia, Germany and the US were rising up to challenge Britain’s dominance.
  • If you were old in the later 1890s and could not work then you had to rely either on your family or the workhouse. There were no state pensions as there are now. Social reformers had discovered that old age was one of the major causes of poverty in Britain.

Source 2

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