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

Source 2

Extract from a letter from Winston Churchill to Mr Moore Bayley, a leading figure in the Conservative Party in Birmingham 1901


CHAR 28/115/29-31

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

Simplified Transcript

Will you please send me your speech about the price of property? I’ve recently been reading a book about poverty by the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree. I’ve been very impressed. He uses figures to show that American labourers are generally better off and healthier than British workers. Those who simply want to extend the British Empire seem to ignore this problem under our noses. I see little glory in an Empire which can’t flush its own sewers and keep its people healthy. Sadly those who want social reform and those who want to extend the Empire can’t agree on anything. Those of us in the middle aren’t heard.

Original Transcript

Dec. 23rd. 1901.

J. Moore Bayley, Esq.,
47, Temple Row,

My dear Moore Bayley,

... Will you please send me a copy of your Speech on the Housing Question and the outline of your practical suggestions as to purchase of property? I have been lately reading a book by Mr Rowntree called ‘Poverty’, which has impressed me very much, and which I strongly recommend you to read. It is quite evident from the figures which he adduces [uses as examples] that the American labourer is a stronger, larger, healthier, better fed, and consequently more efficient animal than a large proportion of our population, and that is surely a fact which our unbridled Imperialists, who have no thought but to pile up armaments, taxation and territory, should not lose sight of. For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers. The difficulty has been so far that the people who have looked abroad have paid no attention to domestic matters, and those who are centred on domestic matters regard the Empire merely as an encumbrance. What is wanted is a well-balanced policy midway between the Hotel Cecil and Exeter Hall, something that will co-ordinate development and expansion with the progress of social comfort and health. But I suppose the Party machinery will carry everything before it, and, as before, the Extremists on both sides, whether progressive or reactionary, will set the tune and collar the organisation, and all we wretched unorganised middle thinkers will either be destroyed between the contending forces, or compelled to serve in support of one disproportionate cause or the other.

Yours v[er]y sincerely,
Winston S Churchill

What is this source?

This extract is from a letter written by Churchill to a leading Conservative figure in Birmingham. It was part of an exchange of letters between the two men and this exchange covered a range of different topics, including the British Empire, attitudes to it and social reform.

Background to this source

The letter was part of an exchange about riots which had taken place in Birmingham in 1901. At the time, British forces were fighting in a war in South Africa (the Boer War). The war was divisive for a number of reasons and in one incident in Birmingham protesters had attacked the Liberal MP David Lloyd George for criticising the war and tried to throw him out of the hall in which he was speaking. Churchill was criticising those who’d tried to silence Lloyd George even though he did not really agree with him.

The Boer War was fought between British forces and the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers who’d colonised South Africa before the British took it over. The Boers wanted freedom from British rule, but this was the height of the British Empire. Many powerful figures in Britain wanted to expand the empire, not give parts of it away. The war therefore had a powerful effect on Britain. It caused disagreements between those who supported and opposed British imperialism (building up the empire). It also threw poverty in Britain into the headlines, because a large proportion of the recruits who signed up for the army weren’t healthy enough to serve. Churchill, and many others like him, saw this poverty as a threat to Britain’s future.

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

  • What has Churchill been reading and what has he learned from this book?
  • What do we learn about imperialists from this document?
  • What does Churchill want?
  • What obstacles are in his way?

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 seems frustrated in this source.    
Poverty is a high priority on the political agenda of the time.    
Churchill wanted action because he felt sympathy for the poor.    
Churchill was worried about a future British army and workforce for Britain’s industries.    
This source indicates that social reformers were having an impact on British politicians at the time.    

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • 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.
  • Britain itself was divided about its Empire – some in Britain believed that the Empire was a drain on Britain, while others saw it as immoral.
  • Churchill refers to Hotel Cecil and Exeter Hall. Hotel Cecil refers to Cecil Rhodes, one of the most enthusiastic supports of British imperial expansion. Exeter Hall was a building where policy makers and commentators met to discuss overseas affairs and, on the whole, those who met there were opposed to expanding the Empire and taking new colonies.

Source 3

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