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

Source 3

A letter from a Mr Mayne of Portsmouth to Winston Churchill about Mr Mayne’s father-in-law, 1903


CHAR 2/9/26

Simplified Transcript

Dear Sir
Please forgive me for writing to you. I wonder if you can help my father-in-law by vouching for him so that he can be looked after in the Greenwich pension scheme? He’s fifty nine now and his eyesight is failing him and he can’t now do manual work.

Original Transcript

Eastney, Portsmouth 18.11.03

Dear Sir

Pardon me for taking the liberty of writing to you, hoping you will favour me with my request, Dear Sir my request is this:- it is on behalf of my Father-in-law who is a marine pensioner & he is now 59 years of age & his sight is failing fast & isnt able to do any laborious work. Dear Sir it is possible for him to get the Greenwich age pension if he can get some gentleman of note to intercede for him, Dear Sir my Father-in-law had two sons & myself who served in the late War Dear Sir you will remember that I am Corp[ora]l Mayne who sent you the Bearing of the armour train & if you will kindly favor me with this request I shall be most thankful to you for your kind services, hoping to have a favorable reply from you. Believe me to remain your humble servant

E Mayne

What is this source?

This extract is from a letter written to Winston Churchill by the son-in-law of a man asking for help to obtain a particular type of pension.

Background to this source

The letter was sent in 1903, just after the end of the Boer War in which British forces fought to keep control of South Africa. The writer had served in the war, and so had his brothers-in-law. Mayne was using this to demonstrate that his father-in-law and the rest of his family had given loyal military service to Britain (his father was a marine pensioner, which meant he’d served in the Royal Navy).

As well as the issue of pensions for servicemen, this letter touches on another issue which was beginning to come to prominence – poverty. Research by social reformers had shown the scale of poverty and also the causes of it. One major cause was old age and the lack of a pensions system. However, there were much wider discussions about poverty and how far the government should go in doing something about it.

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. What problems was the writer’s father-in-law facing?
  2. What was the letter-writer asking Churchill to do?
  3. How does Mr Mayne try to get Churchill on his side?

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?
The author isn’t an experienced letter writer.    
This is a very useful source about the scale of poverty in the early 1900s.    
This is a very useful source about the causes of poverty in the early 1900s.    
The source isn’t helpful in understanding why politicians began to take an interest in welfare reform at this time.    

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • At this time there wasn’t any system of state pensions. Old age was a particular cause of poverty as people descended into poverty once they were too old to work.
  • If you were old in the later 1890s and couldn’t work, you had to rely either on your family or the workhouse. There weren’t any state pensions as there are now. Social reformers had discovered that old age was one of the major causes of poverty in Britain.
  • The Greenwich pension scheme was similar to the Chelsea Pensioners scheme. Basically, old soldiers were cared for and given a small pension. It wasn’t a great deal but they were better off than old people with no pensions at all.
  • The armoured train to which the letter-writer refers was probably a gift sent to Churchill as a token of esteem and in recognition of his capture by the Boers, when the armoured train on which Churchill was travelling during the Boer War was ambushed and derailed. He later famously escaped captivity.
  • Remember that the transcript is a faithful reproduction of a document – with original spelling (and misspelling) and punctuation retained.

Source 4

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