The history of the British welfare state, from the Tudors to the post-WW2 era

Prime Minister Clement Attlee (© George Harcourt (1946) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Staunch capitalism and ruthless conservatism plagued the lives of the working-class before the Second World War. If you were working, you were likely working somewhere owned by one of the richest people in the country. And if you were in a place owned by one of the richest people in the country, they could not give one damn about your rights — including pay (see the conditions set out in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls). And because the richest people in the country wielded a lot of power, the government couldn’t help… because those very people, pitiless in their demeanor and actions towards those in need, made up all of the country’s representatives. The electoral law of the land, too, was rigged in their favor through the denial of suffrage to women, non-land owners, and those under 21 (despite all of those categories of folks working relentlessly for power, money, and more).

However, during both World Wars, the British Government had no option but to help the masses. Rich and poor. Men and women. Children and adults. Nationals and immigrants. The disabled and the not. In this realization of changing public policy and opinion, along with an unforeseen increase in public morale and community, suffrage expanded to all males over 21 and all women over 30 — around 70% of the female population in 1918. As the minds of those in the political arena changed in accordance with the war, there was no doubt that the public would require sustained high amounts of economic aid in the following years and decades to help rebuild structures destroyed by air-raids and help repair finances in the home, in the banks, and across the world.

The Poor Laws and modern welfare’s early days

Although the Industrial Revolution infamously exacerbated poverty in Britain, a “welfare system” — that term being used incredibly loosely — has been in place since as early as 1572. It started in that year through the Vagabonds Act (‘vagabond’ in those days meaning ‘unemployed homeless person’), which introduced a tax that set up funds for the poor, consequently setting up staff to go around the streets and register who was in poverty and unwell. Goods were distributed accordingly. Records of this piece of law and its impact have not survived, so therefore its impacts are regarded as marginal.

While not a poor law, it’s also important to note that tensions, divide, and hate for people in poverty — a topic of welfare that will be covered throughout — has existed for more than half a millennium. The Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1494 mandated that homeless people and beggars were to be put in feet restraints (‘stocks’) for three days and be only given bread and water.

The first paragraph of Chapter 2 of the Vagabonds and Beggars Act 1494

The Vagabonds Act was soon improved — by Elizabethan standards — through the ‘Old’ Poor Law in 1601 and subsequent acts of reformation to the system. I use the phrase ‘improved by Elizabethan standards’ for some very important reasons; it legislated accommodation and employment in workhouses for those who were “lame, impotent, old, [and] blind,” the conditions of which would be considered atrocious today. Those who were ‘idle’ or disabled poor were sent to prisons, for the most part.

Knatchbull’s Act of 1723 — named after Sir Edward Knatchbull, the representative for Kent — enacted legislation that mandated anyone who wanted payment under the Poor Law had to undergo a ‘Workhouse Test’. This was a set amount of work in a workhouse to ensure the person wasn’t taking out an ‘irresponsible claim’. More than 500 workhouses were built as a direct result, to be able to facilitate demand for people who needed access to the relief.

Following Knatchbull came the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws, which took out investigations to prove the system needed a radical overhaul. The group had nine members, most of them being Benthamites — a welfarist ideology following on from Jeremy Bentham. He, alive from 1748 to 1832, was one of the most progressive people of his day, including advocating for the separation of church and state, the decriminalization of homosexual acts, and the abolition of slavery, capital, and physical punishment. Although by the standards of the day the changes were definitely seen as radical, the commission proposed what was essentially just centralization of the Poor Law system. That means the control of workhouses was brought under one authority, including the trade unionization of their inhabitants.

All of these laws display how much derision the poor were subject to for so many decades, which highlights the unsurprising reality that tension and contempt still exists towards those in poverty to this very day. The vicious Poor Law system remained the same from 1834 until 1906, when the Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and H.H. Asquith took power from 1906 through 1916.

Prime Minister H.H. Asquith

A year before they took office, there was another commission — the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905–1909. It produced two reports: the Majority Report, and the Minority Report. The former was produced by the Charity Organization Society, which sought to ban outdoor relief — the act of giving to people without requiring them to enter an institution; therefore, they argued that more people should go to workhouses to prevent systematic abuse, and hence, the Poor Law should stay. On the other hand, the latter was produced by members of the socialist Fabian Society, who advocated for a system completely different from the Poor Law.

“[The Minority Report’s purpose is] to secure a national minimum of civilised life … open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes, by which we meant sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged”

At that point, it was estimated that one-third of the country lived below the bread line. The caucus realized that with the modernization of industry and technology, some sort of basis was needed to comply with workers’ dignity and rights. Therefore, the barbaric system of workhouses et al. was completely trashed, in favor of a much, much more compassionate and ethical system. The Poor Laws ceased to exist, and the modern welfare state of Britain was created. According to the National Archives, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, and finance minister David Lloyd George (who would go on to become PM himself) focused on three categories of people when it came to their welfare system: young, old, and working.

Some of the new schemes and laws introduced by them, for the young and old, were:

  • Free school meals
  • Severe punishments for the abuse of children
  • Prohibition of the sale of cigarettes to children
  • Prohibition of sending young people out to beg for money
  • Creation of an entirely new court system and range of detention centers to deal with child criminality, as opposed to sending them to prison
  • An Old Age Pension for all Britons and Irish over seventy years old, starting at £27-£40 a week

For the working classes, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, and Lloyd George implemented:

  • ‘Labour Exchanges’ (the 1940’s answer to the Jobcentre), as a place for the unemployed to discover their skills and find a new job
  • National Minimum Wage for most industrial jobs to ensure that workers could pay for essential goods
  • National Insurance, encompassing sick pay that covered up to 15 million Brits automatically.

Even at this early time in the novel welfare system, its implementations increased the public morale and the labor force of the country — a great benefit, given the start of the First World War less than a decade later.

The 1945 election

Such a system of generous national aid to recover after the Second World War was, politically, never going to be delivered by the Conservative Party of Winston Churchill. Despite recognizing the struggles of the wars, he was ideologically more focused on the re-development of big businesses as opposed to helping the working class… the people who make those businesses function. Britain wanted a leader that wasn’t just good at foreign affairs and diplomacy, but also adequate at controlling unrelated domestic issues that plagued society outside of war. Housing was declared to be the biggest of those issues, with four to five-tenths of the public saying so in an unnamed opinion poll. While Churchill was incredibly popular, the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee was seen as a much better option to improve those domestic problems now that WW2 was over.

It was at the 1945 election, called early by Churchill two months after the end of World War Two, that Britain had to make a choice about its post-war future; the choice was between himself — a popular but adrift leader on the internal front — or Labour’s Clement Attlee, a leader with a novel ideology and novel party who — while not seeming as much a raring-to-go character as Britain’s war hero — looked perfectly capable to be able to guide Britain past the domestic ills of the devastation.

Despite Parliament having not held an election for ten years —being in a state of war-time coalition instead — Churchill still had a scandal from ten to fifteen years earlier plaguing his ’45 campaign to continue on as Prime Minister: high unemployment in the 1930s. Alongside a manifesto that was progressive albeit quiet on the economy, the British public viewed Churchill as being incredibly weak on the issue of getting the nation out of the dire issues it found itself in as a result of the Blitzkrieg. In turn, the campaign of the rather new Labour Party was the opposite, with an incredibly heavy tone being placed on the economy, with Attlee waging his war on poverty and conditions of grim squalor faced by the working and ‘lower’ classes.

Wellcome Images CC BY-NC 4.0)

I mentioned An Inspector Calls five paragraphs up from here. It’s important to recognize just how monumental this change of public heart was, and AIC puts that into practice. Priestley’s play was released just after the Second World War but was set in 1912, where the Birling family is oblivious to the issues of the working class and the grave sociopolitical issues that lay ahead, including the Titanic disaster. One of the protagonists, Inspector Goole, is a mouthpiece for the socialist movement, and strongly highlights throughout his work of literature that the Victorian era of public perception still lives on.

But this opinion change, paired with the expansion of suffrage, brings to light how much the young impact politics in Britain. Women, too. You may also be able to infer and match how the older generation in the play — mostly born with a silver spoon — is stuck in the Victorian era of rigid economic conservatism, while the young but wealthy generation of their offspring are placed in this liberal-conservative split represented in the real political arena by PM David Lloyd George, while the young working-class generation rode the Attlee revolutionary wave.

Churchill found himself to be rather disliked in this election campaign by the populous for a number of reasons:

  1. Under the National Government — a government including members of all parties during the inter-war and wartime period — ministers who were from the Labour Party typically polled higher and performed stronger in their posts, such as Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour.
  2. The Tories’ campaign, rather than introducing new programs, was focused solely on capitalizing on their popularity during the war.
  3. Despite the public’s desire for a welfare state, Churchill shot the idea down, citing funding issues, and mostly refused to reform the system left by the Liberals on that basis. This made the populous think of the Tories as the ‘out-of-touch’ party for most of the campaign.
  4. Previous Conservative Prime Ministers were still seen as deeply unpopular for contributing to the start of WW2, especially through Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy which enabled Hitler to expand his lebensraum.
  5. Churchill accused Attlee of wanting to use a Gestapo-like force and act like a dictator to implement the socialist policies outlined in his campaign. Hitler had labeled himself as a socialist (along with his then-party, the NSDAP) before declaring himself Führer, at which time he became a fascist. Given the fact that World War Two had just ended and Hitler’s suicide was only a few months passed, his comparison did not go well with the British public.
  6. Contrary to belief, there was mass support for Labour within the Armed Forces, especially given the suspected housing crisis that would arise upon their return from the frontline.

At the end of the campaign, the extent of change became very apparent, through the release of the election results. The Labour Party won in an unprecedented landslide — its first-ever majority — with a seat increase of 239, totaling 393. Churchill’s seats almost halved, dropping by 197 to 189, a petty size given his perceived heroism in leading the country through the war.

Attlee entered office, determined as ever.

The Beveridge Report

In 1942, during Churchill’s premiership, the progressive economist and Liberal politician William Beveridge — in conjunction with a coalition committee — released a highly-anticipated report on Britain’s poverty-related social ills. In this 300-page document, he listed five categories upon which the country needed solving through a systematic overhaul: squalor, idleness, ignorance, want, and disease, which was to be remedied by a social insurance system that would award the British people for their effort and input in the World Wars. It would build on the Asquithian welfare state, to create a truly socialist design that ‘few countries would stand comparison with’. The report focused on two main factors for the system’s change: social insurance (its funding, mainly through National Insurance and flat tax), and social policy (its gift to the people, including pensions and improved healthcare access).

He argued many issues throughout the document, including the messy and uncoordinated administration of the pre-war system, the lack of proper care in family assistance, arbitrary differences between the unemployed, employed and self-employed, and much more. After all, Mr. Beveridge’s complaints about the system do take up about fifty pages from Parts One and Three.

“The first principle is that any proposals for the future, while they should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, should not be restricted by consideration of sectional interests established (…) A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”

Beveridge, despite being a Liberal and not a Labourite, recognized the need for this reform to the benefits system to be truly revolutionary, as opposed to giving it the same treatment the Poor Laws received — constant small revisions — over their four centuries of existence. He pitched it to both parties as such. However, there was opposition from the very start, starting at the Prime Minister himself.

In 1943, Churchill led a public attack that focused on arguing that money shouldn’t be put into a system like this just after a long-lasting and economically crippling war. He wanted a system that could be ‘turned on and off’ during times of crisis and times of stability. And, as a Conservative, it was typical that he would back solutions that kept these systems of welfare in the private sector. He would stick with this stance all the way to the election of Attlee in 1945, complimenting it with more electoral attacks — like the Gestapo comparison.

Resistance came from the inside too, with Beveridge and the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin regularly having arguments over funding and what should be prioritized. One of these was whether the NHS should use a Westminster-run system or regional administrations; another was whether funding of the system was more important than its workers’ wages. Bevin also believed that — in line with the Coalition Government — the report should be implemented after the war, but most of the Labour caucus went against this and voted for immediate action, which did not happen.

“For Ernest Bevin, with his trade-union background of unskilled workers… social insurance was less important than bargaining about wages.”

The Report proved incredibly popular with the public, both in opinion and in physical form. According to a Hansard transcript from April 6, 1943, the full report was sold 250,000 times, the shortened edition 350,000, and the American edition 42,000.

When the Labour Party won its 1945 landslide, it got to work with implementing everything that the Beveridge Report laid out, as it promised it would do two years earlier. This all came, in the form of the National Health Service Act 1946, National Insurance Act 1946, Pension (Increase) Act 1947, and many more pieces of legislation.

What did the public get from the welfare revolution?

National Health Service

Transforming the country into a revolutionary socialist state wasn’t just done with a bit of parliamentary chin-wagging and a few ‘division, clear the lobby’ cries from the Speaker. It took a lot of work behind the scenes, especially when it came to the founding of the NHS, nicknamed the ‘Tredegarization of Britain’.

Bevan at Park Hospital, Trafford, on July 5, 1948 (© University of LiverpoolCC BY-SA 2.0)

Aneurin Bevan, better known as Nye — not related to the Labour Minister, Ernest Bevin — became Health Minister upon Attlee’s 1945 election win. Thus, the boat began to sail on the implementation of the report and the campaign. He, from the start of his teens, worked as a miner in the south of Wales, falling in and out of employment, and in and out of the political stroke trade-union world.

In 1890, before he was even born, benevolent residents in his hometown of Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent, set up the Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund society, providing free at-point-of-use medical benefits in return for a cheap subscription-style payment of less than 50p per week in today’s terms. By the inter-war period, the society was serving more than three-quarters of Tredegar and the surrounding area. It was “far in advance” compared to the rest of the country’s local health systems, according to industrialists. They set up their own hospitals too, including the town’s General Hospital which only closed in 2010. Dentists, surgeries, mechanics, and more were established under its roof.

“All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to Tredegar-ize you.”

The Tredegar Medical Aid Society became Aneurin’s target in his creation of the National Health Service, scaling up its structure from a system of 20,000 users to 50,000,000. No one would be left out of the system, as it would compulsorily cover the entire nation. And, on July 5, 1948, Bevan’s dream came true as more than two thousand hospitals came under his control that day, in his role as Minister of Health.

That day, everything became free within reason, and the NHS was to be funded by general taxation, as it continues to be today.

Even despite heralding in a new era of socialism and health benefits for millions, opposition still existed, up until and continuing past July 5. Such as Attlee was compared to Hitler, Bevan was compared to Tito. Capitalists were furious, and he was despised by the British Medical Association for months, before making accommodations to please them. Bevan admitted that the NHS at its foundation was never going to be perfect, and it would be the job of successive governments to correct issues the system finds along the way.

It’s very important to remember that although the National Health Service is one of this country’s most beloved institutions, there was far more to the welfare state expansion from 1945 to 1951 than just that.


Bevan was given a difficult task in regards to housing, especially given his portfolios for it and health were conjoined. Slums had sprung up across the country following the Luftwaffe bombing of the country, as an alternative to structured and regulated housing, and the Labour government was tasked with clearing it. 700,000 homes required repair just in London. In response, Bevan had a view: it was to apply the NHS style to housing, with homes being owned by the people for the people. While this didn’t exactly happen to the extent he would have liked, the Housing Act of 1949 was introduced to enable local authorities to buy away homes for the purpose of improvements or complete transformation with 75% Exchequer grants — meaning 75% of the cost was covered by Westminster’s central bank account. This still exists in some form with council housing today, although their power has mostly been transferred to semi-private housing associations.

In addition to this, the New Towns Act of 1946 was passed to, among other things, remove the definition of ‘working-class’ housing from the law books, as Bevan thought that council housing should serve the needs of all, from ‘the working class [to] the doctor [to] the clergyman’.

National Insurance and National Assistance

The original National Insurance Act of 1911 gave 10 shillings per week for the first thirteen weeks to those who were sick and could not attend work, then 5 s. for the following thirteen, to avoid abuse of the system. Tuberculosis treatment became free for workers, and maternity benefits were given following pressure from womens’ guilds. However, this system was vastly expanded under the revision as part of Attlee’s welfare revolution. It was compulsory, per person, to pay 4s. 11d. a week (around £8/wk, or £400/yr), and in return, the populous received full sickness benefit to all workers — not just those in mechanical industry settings — plus widow’s benefits, unemployment benefits for all, pensions for women above 60 and men above 65, as well as both an allowance and lump sum to mothers upon the birth of their child(ren). Considering its extent of coverage, including services and users of the system, that price is relatively cheap.

The system was also originally fragmented, and welfare handed out through hundreds of individual charities, societies, and organizations, which Beveridge and the Labour government sought to bring under one centralized banner. A flat-rate contribution would result in a flat-rate benefit. National Insurance was extended yet again by Attlee within a few years, this time covering industrial injuries, which would provide compensation to those injured or killed.

However, National Insurance only covered insured workers. What about uninsured workers — those working in informal, non-tax-paying industries? This is where the National Assistance Act 1948 came in, which rather interestingly ended (legally and officially) the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, despite it being de facto already abolished through the introduction of the Liberal welfare state. This new act established National Assistance Boards, or NABs, which met with those who required benefits but were uninsured under their employer. It’s important to distinguish: earnings were never considered in these meetings. NAB centers also provided temporary accommodation, and the law mandated that all residential care homes for the elderly, the disabled, and vulnerable people of all ages be registered and subject to inspection, regardless of whether the state or enterprise funded them. Hence, this set a well-needed minimum for standards in these settings, and is still important today in keeping friends — such as my dear and close friend, Thomas C. — and the members of thousand of families across the nation safe.




British political journalist, Labour member, and NDP supporter, who is staunchly obsessed with Canada and its politics.

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British political journalist, Labour member, and NDP supporter, who is staunchly obsessed with Canada and its politics.

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