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 5

A letter from economist and Labour Party activist Sidney Webb to Winston Churchill, May 1908


CHAR 2/34/19

Simplified Transcript

Dear Mr Churchill

I’m sending you in confidence my ideas for reforming the way the poor are treated. They may be useful to you in your plans for old age pensions. When you’re a little less busy you might want to look at the evidence we have about unemployment. If so, I could send this to you.

Sidney Webb

Original Transcript

41, Grosvenor Road,
Westminster Embankment
May 13

Dear Mr Churchill
I send you in confidence the scheme of Poor Law Reform that I am advocating on to the P[oor] L[aw] Commission and I think it may be useful to you in considering the old age Pension Scheme.

It occurs to me t[ha]t you might like, either now or when you are more disengaged, to look through the Evidence of the Poor Law Commission with regard to Unemployment? If yes, I could send you, in confidence, all the evidence taken before us, which bears on to the question.
Warmest congratulations on your great elections Exploits.
Sidney Webb

What is this source?

This extract is from a letter written to Winston Churchill by Sidney Webb. He was a well-known economist, Labour Party activist and supporter of social reform.

Background to this source

By 1908 Churchill was a leading figure in the Liberal Party and was a government minister in charge of the Board of Trade. He and the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George were very much in favour of a plan to introduce free Old Age Pensions. Webb had been investigating the issue of pensions and was trying to help by making his work available to Churchill.

At one level, Webb is genuinely trying to help and get the proposed Old Age Pension measure passed. At another level, he represents the Labour Party and he knows the Liberals see Labour as a threat. So Webb is probably pressurising Churchill a little as well.

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 is Sidney Webb offering to Churchill?
  2. Why does Webb think it might be helpful?

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?
Webb is just being helpful.    
Webb is trying to put pressure on Churchill.    
Churchill would have appreciated this letter and the scheme which Webb sent with it.    
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?

  • At the time this letter was written the Liberal government had brought in a number of welfare reforms. School Meals (1906) and Old Age Pensions (1908) were the most high profile. Churchill was eager to extend the welfare provision offered by the government.
  • What’s interesting here is Webb’s motivation. He’s trying to help Churchill but he’s also reminding him that Labour are keen to bring in welfare reforms like Old Age Pensions and might steal support from the Liberals if they don’t act.

Source 6

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