Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




R.A. Rempel


During the Great War, the dependents of all servicemen in each branch of the British Armed Forces became theoretically eligible for maintenance at public expense. In August 1914, only a fraction of all Army wives and no Navy wives were eligible for allowances or pensions; by November of that year all were entitled to some level of assistance. The organisational chaos caused by the Liberal Government's decision to grant "universal" benefits to dependents sparked an extensive press campaign and inspired the formation or expansion of a large number of charitable agencies. 1915 and 1916 witnessed attempts on the part of the Asquith Liberal Government and the Asquith Coalition Government to respond to these expressions of concern with a series of half measures. By the summer of 1916, however, the issue had been complicated by the looming problems of reconstruction and predictions of the collapse of the system under the demands of millions of demobilised servicemen. Before the resignation of Asquith in December 1916, the Ministry of Pensions Act was passed. Thus, between August of 1914 and December of 1916 the system had been completely transformed from a disparate, and limited trickle of maintenance for a select few to a widely dispersed benefit controlled by the state.

The accelerated pace of social policy in this arena has attracted some attention particularly from feminist historians who describe this system as the cornerstone of the gendered British welfare state. In illuminating some important issues in the debate over these benefits, this approach has obscured others. While it is crucial to understand the roots of inequity in the British welfare state, too narrow a focus has tended to obscure continuity in practice and theory and minimise the impact of contemporary attitudes on the development of these policies. This thesis counteracts the tendency of feminist historians to apply presentist models by demonstrating that charities and governmental agencies responsible for the welfare of servicemen's dependents owed as much or more to traditional Liberal, Conservative and patriotic conceptions of poor relief as to New Liberal ideals of state responsibility. As well, by focusing on the process of decision making at the highest levels of government, this thesis demonstrates the heterogeneity of people and ideals influencing the formation of policy in this period.

Both pragmatic and theoretical concerns inspired the drive for reform in this arena. During the Great War, the traditional role of women as the first victims of any war had been partially superseded by the necessity to convince them of their centrality to the war effort. Some perceived the moral and physical power wielded by women in wartime as a promise, others as a threat; both sides of the debate used the treatment of servicemen's wives and widows as a bulwark for their arguments. Servicemen's wives and widows fit neatly into the dichotomy of the female role in wartime; their image could be used to promote an idealised form of passive female bravery and to counteract the "masculinising" tendencies of the war. The ubiquity of such images contributed to the conception of these women as inherently "deserving" of public maintenance. Through the examination of such images, this thesis demonstrates the link between the vagaries of public opinion and the often haphazard formation of social policy.

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