War was the main engine of reform of government policies to tackle poverty during the period 1834-1948

As far as possible the Whig government of the 1830s followed a policy of ‘laissez-faire’ and tried to remain detached from any deep involvement in the country’s social problems. When circumstances forced it to introduce the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act it produced legislation which was intended to force people to work by providing only a minimum amount of relief and involved the personal disgrace of those who asked for it. By 1948, however, the poor could claim the right to a decent home, protection from ill health and hardship, and even the right to equality of opportunity and employment.

In just over a hundred years government policies towards the poor had changed dramatically and the question is posed as to which circumstances caused it to do so. This essay will be considering whether war was the main catalyst for the reforms which improved the lot of the poor between 1834 and 1948 or whether other factors such as economics, the increasing enfranchisement of the British population or individual personalities had a larger impact.

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The consequences of war certainly did have a profound impact on governmental intervention between 1834 and 1948. In 1834, although the Napoleonic Wars had ended at Waterloo fifteen years earlier, their effects continued to create upheaval in British society. Many returning soldiers had not still re-found employment which meant more people than ever were claiming relief, and emergency relief measures, such as the Speenhamland system, which had been tolerated in a time of crisis were becoming progressively less accepted.

Ratepayers were becoming increasingly agitated at the cost of poor relief which had continued to grow though it was peacetime and were becoming unsettled by the fact that some destitute now seemed to regard relief as a right. Furthermore rural unemployment had also risen sharply. The end of the war had signalled the removal of blockades, resulting in cheap food imports and the bankruptcy of many despairing farmers.

The Whig government, increasingly aware of many growing pressures for change, instituted a series of enquiries the most important of which was the 1832 Commission of Enquiry into the Poor Laws which subsequently led to the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In a rather similar fashion, it is possible to attribute many of the roots of the Liberal Reforms of 1906-14 to the 1899-1902 Boer War. It was recruitment for this conflict which finally drew governmental attention to the appalling physical condition of the poorest sections of British society.

In some areas two thirds of volunteers failed the basic army medical examination, and this statistic highlighted a more general concern regarding the potential efficiency of the British working man. A spate of legislation to improve the situation for the poor quickly followed. The impact of the First World War likewise influenced government policies towards the poor. The loss of many oversees markets following the conflict resulted in a long period of high unemployment and general hardship which encouraged an ever increasing degree of government intervention.

It was also government policy in anticipation of the Second World War that finally created a million jobs in the munitions industries and played a major role in ending that great depression. Some historians believe that the experience of this particular war precipitated a break from earlier attitudes and it has been suggested that the common experiences of The Second World War finally helped to break down Britain’s social barriers, making the middle classes more aware of the extent of the evils facing the affecting the working classes.

When the Coalition Government commissioned the Beveridge Report in 1941 the resulting document encapsulated the feelings that had developed throughout the country. Britain had to be made a better place for everyone to live in when the war was over. Thus the first peace-time government that followed introduced the all-supporting Welfare State. However, war was not the only factor that influenced government policy towards the poor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and economic factors also played their part.

When the pressure of financing poor relief in the early 1830s finally resulted in the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which intended to abolish outdoor relief completely, the philosophy underpinning the workhouse system remained grounded upon a belief that, despite a period of war and hardship, the fabric of the country remained sound and everyone was capable of finding employment in the rapidly industrialising British society. By1906 weaknesses in this 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had emerged and forced various governments to intervene, but these weaknesses were again largely of economic origin.

The 1834 Act had not foreseen the development of periods of trade depression that became characteristic of the new industrial economy and plunged thousands of workers into short-term unemployment. By 1847 it had become patently clear that it would be impossible to abolish outdoor relief, and in 1863, as a response to a particular crisis in the Lancashire cotton industry, the Public Works Act was introduced, again allowing local authorities to set up work schemes to employ paupers.

The 1860s in fact witnessed a 25% increase in spending on outdoor relief with many Boards of Guardians favouring it as the cheaper alternative. The British population also doubled between 1801 and 1850 and then doubled again before 1900, and with increasing industrialisation the second part of the nineteenth century saw a huge population migration to the cities.

The implications of this largely economically stimulated factor also had an impact upon governmental attitudes to the poor especially with regard to general public health, and following the Great Exhibition of 1851 concerns developed over the efficiency of the economy as Britain’s industrial prowess was increasingly challenged by Germany and the United States again provoked governmental concern about the conditions under which poor workers lived By the early twentieth century the commonly held view that the poor were simply the economic burden of the parish had largely been replaced by an acknowledgement that the state needed to take a wider responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. It was further acknowledged that the causes of poverty were often beyond an individual’s control. From 1906-48 Britain’s share of world trade continued to diminish and the period up to 1914 saw major restructuring in British agriculture so that hardship became a rural as well as urban experience.

In 1929 the Wall Street Crash plunged the world into financial crisis. In the immediate aftermath British exports fell by 50% and unemployment rose to almost 3 million. People were required to accept pay-cuts and for the first time some of the middle classes saw their income eroded by factors beyond their control and began to appreciate the plight of the poor. In response the government was compelled to take radical measures to try to relieve the worst of the situation and this resulted in the introduction of such things as the Unemployment Assistance Board in 1932 and the Special Areas Act in 1934. However no unified national structure was put in place to help the poor.

The economy gradually recovered over the 1930s and any remaining unemployment was absorbed by the munitions industry prior to the Second World War. During the period 1906-48 every section of British society felt the threat of poverty and by the mid 1940s there was a general consensus that everyone was entitled to protection from the evils of poverty through government intervention. The period between the 1830s and 1940s was characterised by an increasing enfranchisement of the British population and this too had a significant bearing on government policies tackling poverty. The 1832 Reform Act increased the electorate by approximately 50% but still only offered the vote to the most affluent 20% of the population.

This meant that the great landowners still retained a firm stronghold on high office and the new electorate remained members of the propertied classes who primary concern regarding the poor was to limit the escalating costs of maintaining them. An oppressive, cost motivated regime for the poor therefore followed the 1832 Commission of Enquiry into the Poor Laws. After 1867 the electorate was extended to comprise of a little less than two million, and in 1884 to encompass an additional three million males. A majority of males (60%) had become enfranchised following the third reform bill and this finally broke the controlling power of the landowners. From this point forward the major political parties had to pay regard to the working population if they were to amass and retain power.

During the 1890s a new way of political thinking that became known as ‘new liberalism’ took hold of the more radical tendency within the Liberal party. This period saw the ‘laissez-faire’ attitudes of ‘Gladstonian Liberalism’ finally replaced by a belief in far greater governmental involvement in social issues and direct intervention on behalf of the poor. The first decade of the twentieth century was a political watershed which brought about both the creation of the Labour Party as a major political force representing the interests of the working man and the Peoples’ Budget which boldly introduced the concept of taxing the rich in order to finance state help for the poor.

As sections of the British population continued to be enfranchised so the poorer members of the population gained greater emancipation and after the experiences of the depression which touched almost every level of British society substantial governmental intervention on behalf of all members of the population in 1948 was a politically astute as well as a socially courageous development. A number of key individuals also influenced political policies to tackle poverty between 1834 and 1948. In 1832 it was the findings of the Royal Commission into the Poor Laws that radically changed the operation of providing poor relief. It could be argued that the actions taken were in direct response to the recommendations made by the commission’s two dominant members, Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick.

Chadwick had himself been heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus who believed that problems regarding poverty stemmed from overpopulation. It was such ideas that caused Chadwick to propose a workhouse system whereby conditions should be less appealing than those endured by the poorest of labourers living outside the workhouse. In 1848 it fell upon Mr M’Dougal the Andover workhouse master to abuse his position that a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to investigate further into the alleged abuses. This episode brought the full impact of the workhouse regime to public attention and succeeded in gradually softening the harsh attitudes towards the poor.

In 1859 Samuel Smiles published ‘Self-help’ which immediately became a best seller amongst the middle classes. The book reaffirmed an opinion that with determination and hard work even the most humble could raise themselves to a position of prosperity. Whilst Smiles was reinforcing middle-class attitudes towards the poor journalists, such as Henry Mayhew, were challenging them. Mayhew concluded that the level of poverty he had encountered in London was unacceptable and that the effects of poverty were largely beyond the control of the individuals concerned. In the period that followed both Charles Booth in 1885 and Seebohm Rowntree in 1901 both found statistical evidence to support Mayhew’s assumptions.

Novelists such as Charles Dickens then helped to make the populace brutally aware of the desperation of the true living conditions of the poor. By the turn of the century the combined forces of social investigators and writers had helped to bring about profound changes in social attitudes. It was no longer generally believed that poverty was the result of individual weakness and society as a whole, and the state in particular, was beginning to accept responsibility for supporting the poor. If we trace the policies introduced by governments to help the poor between 1834 and 1948 a pattern develops which shows significant legislation generally following each major conflict and a firm connection between war and social development does seem apparent.

However it is equally apparent that major reforms were also brought about by significant shifts in Britain’s economic circumstances irrespective of whether these were in part brought about through a conflict, as a consequence of the progressive enfranchisement of the British working man, and later woman, and through the work of key individuals who did much to change the social attitudes which dictated feelings about how the poor deserved to be treated. Key circumstances themselves, in particular The Great Depression also played a part. In reality the consequences of war, economic circumstances, politics and social development all intertwine when we look for the issues which brought about reform in the period in question, but on balance I feel that the single issue which had the greatest impact upon changing attitudes towards poverty was the progressive enfranchisement of the population, and war was not the engine which clearly appears to have always brought this about.