A History of the Welfare State in Britain

By Tim Lambert

The Elizabethan Poor Law

In the 16th century, society was faced with the problem of what to do with the poor. Eventually, the Elizabethan government realized they would have to introduce some kind of system to support them. By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had the power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for.

The overseers were meant to provide work for the able-bodied poor. Anyone who refused to work was whipped and, after 1607, they could be placed in a house of correction. Pauper’s children were sent to local employers to be apprentices.

A law of 1697 said that paupers (people supported by the parish) must wear a blue or red ‘P’ on their clothes. On a more cheerful note in the 17th century in many towns, wealthy people left money in their wills to provide almshouses where the poor could live.

During the 18th century, the Poor Law continued to operate. In the 17th century, there were some workhouses where the poor were housed but where they were made to work. They became much more common in the 18th century

19th Century Poor Law

In 1792 magistrates met at Speenhamland in Berkshire and devised a system for helping the poor. Low wages were supplemented with money raised by a poor rate. Many areas of England adopted the system but it proved to be unpopular with the wealthy and the government decided to change things.

In 1834 they passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. In the future, the poor were to be treated as harshly as possible to dissuade them from seeking help from the state. In the future, able-bodied people with no income were to be forced to enter a workhouse. (In practice some of the elected Boards of Guardians sometimes gave the unemployed ‘outdoor relief’ i.e. they were given money and allowed to live in their own homes).

For the unfortunate people made to enter workhouses, life was made as unpleasant as possible. Married couples were separated and children over 7 were separated from their parents. The inmates were made to do hard work like breaking stones to make roads or breaking bones to make fertilizer.

The poor called the new workhouses ‘Bastilles’ (after the infamous prison in Paris) and they caused much bitterness. However, as the century went on the workhouses gradually became more humane.

The Modern Welfare State

Life was hard for the working class at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900 surveys showed that between 15% and 20% of the population were living at subsistence (bare survival) level. Worse between 8% and 10% of the population were living below subsistence level.

In 1906 a Liberal government was elected and they introduced several reforms. From 1906 local councils were allowed to provide free school meals. In 1907 school medical inspections began. In 1908 an act limited miners to working an 8-hour day.

In 1909 the Trade Boards Act set up trade boards that fixed minimum wages in certain very low-paid trades. Also in 1909, an Act set up labor exchanges to help the unemployed find work. In 1908 an Old Age Pensions Act gave small pensions to people over 70. The pensions were hardly generous but they were a start. From 1925 pensions were paid to men over 65 and women over 60. Widows were also given pensions.

In 1911 the National Insurance Act was passed. All employers and employees made contributions to a fund. If a worker was ill he was entitled to free treatment by a doctor. (Normally you had to pay and it was expensive). If he could not work because of illness the worker was given a small amount of money to live on. However, his family was not entitled to free medical treatment.

From 1911 workers in certain trades such as building and shipbuilding who frequently had periods of unemployment all contributed to a fund. If unemployed they could claim a small amount of money for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year. Again it was hardly generous but in 1920 the scheme was extended to most (not all) workers.

By 1912 most people had Saturday afternoons off work. However, shop workers were usually forced to work all day on Saturdays. An act of 1912 compensated them by stating they must have half a day off during the week.

Pensions and unemployment benefits were made more generous in 1928 and 1930. In 1931 unemployment benefit was cut by 10% but it was restored in 1934. Furthermore, prices continued to fall during the 1930s. By 1935 a man on the ‘dole’ was about as well off as a skilled worker in 1905, a measure of how much living standards had risen.

The Labour Party won a general election in 1945 by a landslide and Clement Attlee (1883-1967) became prime minister until 1951. Labour set about introducing a welfare state. By the National Insurance Act of 1946, everyone was entitled to unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, old-age pensions, and widows pensions. The National Health Service was introduced in 1948. (Many of the ideas for the welfare state were laid out by a Liberal named William Beveridge 1879-1963).

Last revised 2023

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