Britain 1890 - 1918


Problems in 1890

The 1834 Poor Law said that those who wanted help had to enter the workhouse, where conditions were bad and it was considered "shameful" to enter.


  • Workhouse couldn't cope with large numbers of the poor
  • Didn't solve the problem of poverty
  • Treated the poor like criminals

But by 1900 some rules in the workhouse had been relaxed.

  • 1/4 of all children in slums died before 1
  • Children had to work
  • Some had to pawn their possessions for money
  • Employment was casual and low paid
  • More than 25% lived in poverty
  • Disease was common
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Poverty cycle

  • Poor housing meant that the poor often became ill, if they became ill they couldn't work.
  • Work was irregular which meant if people got ill they would immediately be replaced
  • This led to having very little money which meant they could not improve housing.
  • The poor conditions led to illness... etc.

When people got old they had to rely on their families because they couldn't work and this costed already poor families more money.

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Why Liberal reforms were introduced

  • People such as Rowntree researched the life of the poor and people were shocked by the figuires. The reforms were introduced to help people who could not help themselves.
  • They were also introduced to keep Britain strong. The army had to reject half of all men recruited because they were unfit, which was mainly due to illness caused by poverty. By introducing reforms to help the poor Britain would have a nation of fit men suitable for the army.
  • The Labour party were becoming stronger and the Liberals were worried they would lose support if reforms weren't introduced. They wanted to gain the votes of the workers in order to remain in power.
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Who campaigned for reforms?

- Seebohm Rowntree:

  • He said that 28% in York lived below the poverty line.
  • Divided poor into two sections. Primary would never earn enough to live (10% of population)
  • Secondary earned just enough to live on the edge but if an unexpected event occured they could not earn enough

- Thomas Hill Green was the first liberal to take into account social injustice, he believed that business' greed led to poverty

- The new Liberals provided inspiration for change, and changed the view that it was the people's fault they were poor

- David Lloyd George was a new liberal who wanted change

- William and Catherine Booth from the Salvation Army researched circles of poverty and agreed that povert was not the fault of the poor

- Charles Booth (no relation) researched poverty and the poverty line

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What were the reforms?

Reforms for children:

  • 1906 - free school meals introduced. 158,000 recieved a free meal every day.
  • 1907 - free school medical checks
  • 1908 - Children's Act protected children
  • 1912 - children treated for free in school clinics

Reforms for the unemployed:

  • 1909 - Labour exchanges set up to help the unemployed find a job.
  • 1911 - National Insurance protected workers against illness and unemployment.

The elderly:

  • 1909 - Everyone over 70 recieved a pension
  • They got 5 shillings a week each
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Why people opposed the reforms:

  • Some thought the poor were lazy and would end up relying on government handouts.
  • Some saw it as the first step towards socialism.
  • Reforms caused higher taxes to pay for the changes
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Rights women had

In 1901 women had most rights they had not had previously, like the right to study at university. They had these rights, but they did not have the right to vote.


  • In the mid 19th century women were in an inferior position in marriage.
  • They became property of their husbands.

Working class women:

  • Women had to work
  • 1/3 were domestic servants
  • Most working class girls did not go to school before 1870
  • Paid less than men for the same job.

Middle classes were usually eductated by a governess and grew up with the aim of being good wives/mothers. Some women's colleges were founded but a degree could not be awarded.

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Arguments for women having the vote

  • If women had the vote more laws favouring women would be passed
  • Women having the vote might improve men's attitudes towards women
  • Women pay taxes like men do so should have a say in where they're spent
  • Women already vote in local elections
  • In the USA, Australia and New Zealand women had the vote
  • It is a right women are entitled
  • Britain is not a true democracy until women have the vote
  • More and more men were getting the vote so why shouldn't women?
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Arguments against women having the vote

  • Women do not fight wars so shouldn't have a say in whether wars are fought
  • Men believed that politics was their business
  • People believed that if they gave the vote to women they'd have to give it to everyone.
  • Some women did not want the vote
  • Men believed that men have different responsibilities
  • Women were represented by their husbands
  • Some people thought the British political system worked well as it was
  • Giving the vote to some women might favour one party
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The Suffragists (NUWSS)

  • Stood for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Society (NUWSS)
  • Led by Millicent Fawcett
  • Orderly and Law abiding to prove that women were respectable and deserving enough of the vote
  • Attracted mainly middle class women but some members recognised that the movement needed the support of working class women
  • Well supported by over 500 branches
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The Suffragettes (WSPU)

  • Stood for Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)
  • Led by Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.
  • Militant group that thought radical methods were needed to get them noticed and make politcians realise that they were serious
  • Consequently they recieved more attention than the Suffragists. 
  • Emmeline Pankhurst was a member of the NUWSS but she decided to break away and set up her own society.
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Were the Suffragettes effective?

Not effective:

  • The government did not want to be seen to give into violence, which made them reluctant to award them the vote
  • Women were seen as violent and undeserving of suffrage
  • The Suffragists' peaceful methods gained support


  • Attracted lots of publicity (more than the suffragists)
  • Their war work made women look responsible and more deserving of the vote after the violent militancy was called off by the Pankhursts for the war
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How women got the vote

  • In 1918 the vote was given to all men over 21 and all women over 30 who were householders or married to householders by the Representation of the People Act.
  • The war work done by by women ruined many MP's arguments about women not having the vote
  • Many men believed that women had "proved themselves"
  • One argument against female suffrage was that they couldn't do men's work, but this argument was destroyed.
  • The campaigns before made suffrage an issue that would never go away
  • The Liberals and Labour were happy that most people of all classes got the vote because it menat that not all would vote conservative.
  • The government were worried that violent campaigning would start again after the war, and felt they couldn't imprison those who helped so much with the war effort.
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How the army was built up for WW1

 Building up the army was a priority so that Britain could win the war.

  • At the beginning of the war Britain had a voluntary army, posters were used to try and persuade people to join, e.g. by using anti-German propaganda
  • In 1916 the Military Services Act meant that men had to join the army from 18-41 if they were unmarried. Then it extended to include all men.
  • 16,000 conscientous objectors refused to fight and 1500 were imprisoned for refusing to help the war at all. 
  • Those not wearing uniforms were handed white feather representing cowardice by women
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The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) gave the government emergency powers to take over land, industry etc. in order to help the war effort.

  • Industry needed large amounts of coal and steel so profits of coal owners were fixed and surplus given to the government, all miners paid the same wages.
  • Miners were needed to mine the materials needed for the government so didn't have to fight in the war.
  • The war effort needed a lot of ammunition and in 1915 there was a chronic shortage of this. Therefore new factories were built and all munitions controlled by Lloyd George. The state controlled 20, 000 munitions factories
  • Troops needed to be moved quickly around the country and railway companies feared losing profits. So all railways were controlled by the government and profits were fixed.
  • In 1917 German U-boats sank 3.7 million tonnes of shipping which caused a food shortage. Voluntary rationing was introduced which failed, after which compulsory rationing was introduced.
  • Bread prices were too high so the government lowered them and to stop the rich hoarding it posters were published to encourage people "eat less bread"
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Women in the war

  • Women did not fight in the trenches but served in the Women's Auxilary Army Corps (WAAC)
  • The Suffragettes called off their campaign and decided to help their country with the war effort
  • In 1915 women demanded the "Right to Serve" and become involve in war work
  • Women began to take over jobs that men previously did, e.g. making munitions
  • Women gained greater freedom and financial independance
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How information was controlled

  • Newspapers did not report bad news and no casualty lists were published until 1915.
  • Only 4 official war photographers were comissioned and they couldn't take photos of the dying or the dead
  • But in 1917 the minister of information wanted a war report so photographers could work more freely
  • 2 - 5 million copies of 110 posters were issued, mainly targeted at recruitment
  • The film "The Battle of the Somme" provided a more truthful view of war but was not filmed at the actual battle and was edited hugely
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