THE LIBERAL REFORMS 1906-1914external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQAGSNSSiIIiaviDIhlr9cQqdG0tkIETj9ZvjfuymwmnZ5pRw1K3A
How was British society changed, 1890-1918?

What were working and living conditions like for the poor in the 1890s?
How were social reformers reacting to the social problems of the 1890s?
Why did the Liberal government introduce reforms to help the young, old and unemployed?
How effective were these reforms?

Poverty and distress in the 1890s;
The work and impact of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree;Reasons for the liberal victory in the 1906 election;Reasons for the liberal reforms for example the extent of poverty;New Liberalism, the roles of Lloyd George and Churchill;The threat from the recently formed Labour Party;The Children’s Charter, compulsory medical inspections in schools;Free medical treatment and free school meals for the poor;The establishment of juvenile courts and borstals;Old age pensions 1909, Labour exchanges 1909, the National Insurance Act 1911;Attempts to reform the Poor Law.

SKILLS THAT YOU NEED TO DEVELOPEvaluation of image and text based sources of evidence;To use contemporary evidence to answer questions about: motivation; propaganda; purpose; reliability;Comparisons of sources in terms of their reliability and usefulness;Weighing up evidence into groups that support and oppose a statement;Recall relevant and specific own knowledge that can be usedto help explain and contextualise contemporary sources.

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How was British Society changed, 1890-1918?
The obvious technological changes that have occured since the turn of the twentieth century are as apparent as the huge social changes that have taken place, whether it is in the rights of the individual or fashion or youth culture. Many of the developments have been down to individuals setting trends, whilst the majority of changes have either been led by, or focused against politicians who have the ability to change life styles, whether for their own good or the safety of the nation. The video below is from a Hovis advert from a few years ago showing changes in British society since the late 1800s. You might just see some familiar changes related to our course in the first 40 seconds:

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Your knowledge of the topics are of course going to be vital to support the evidence that you're presented with in the exam. A good background to this period is shown by Andrew Marr in his Making of Modern Britain.

BBC: Andrew Marr's The Makign of Modern Britain - A New Dawn

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What were working and living conditions like for the poor in the 1890s?
Working Conditions

  • Most people at the beginning of the twentieth century worked in the ‘old industries’.
  • These were the industries that had developed during the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Steel-making and shipbuilding 1,570,000
Transport 1,440,000
Agriculture 1,400,000
Textiles 1,350,000
Building 1,220,000
Clothing 1,210,000
Mining 940,000

  • The Old industries had depended upon steam power and developed where there was coal and iron.
  • They were mostly in the North West, North East, South Wales and Scotland. They had been the basis of Britain's industrial success since the Industrial Revolution.
  • They were heavy, concentrated industries. They produced raw materials or very large products like ships.
  • In all of these industries Britain had been the leading country in the nineteenth century.
  • But by 1900 other countries were beginning to catch up.
  • During the First World War, when Britain was busy fighting, the USA and Japan both overtook Britain in some of these industries.
  • The most mechanised industry was textiles. In cotton and wool factories all production was carried out by machine.
  • Most workers in these industries were men. Only textiles and clothing employed large numbers of women.

Why did women found developing a career very difficult at the beginning of the twentieth century?

  • Women were often not as well educated as men. Before 1876 education had not been compulsory and it was not free until 1880. Some families educated their sons, but not their daughters.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century only about one girl in fifty stayed at school after the age of ten.
  • Women were expected to get married and have children. Men were the head of the household and could tell women what to do.
  • Women’s pay was always less than a man’s, it was usually about two-thirds.
  • The law offered very little protection to women when they tried to get a job. There was nothing like ‘equal opportunities’.
  • Women did not have the vote and so could do little to change the situation.

The employment opportunities for women in the years to 1914

  • The largest employer of women was Domestic Service. About 2,300,000 people worked as domestic servants, including about 1,600,000 women.
  • Many girls went into domestic service when they left school at the age of twelve.
  • Women also worked in large numbers in the textile industries (cotton and wool) and in clothing.
  • Often the work in the clothing industry was carried out in small workshops which were in the house of the employer. These were part of the ‘Sweated Trades’.
  • These workers faced very bad conditions and very low pay. Women had no way of protesting as they usually worked in small groups and had no trade unions.
  • They often needed the money and had no alternative but to accept the conditions.
  • Women were also beginning to work in newer industries with inventions, such as telephone exchanges and using the typewriter.
  • Women worked in telephone exchanges connecting calls and in offices using typewriters. They were usually quicker than men and had smaller hands and fingers.
Domestic service

  • This employed one person in every eight in 1900.
  • It was also one of the few jobs that employed women in large numbers.
  • There were two types of domestic service. Some ‘lived in’ in houses of their employers, others ‘lived out’.
  • Domestic servants often worked in very bad conditions and it was almost impossible for them to do anything about them.
  • Servants who lived in had rooms in the attics of houses and worked very long hours as cleaners, cooks or chambermaids.
  • Their pay was often very low, sometimes only 5 or 10 pounds a year. They often only got one half day a week, or even a month, off.
  • Servants who lived out were usually married. They were better paid

Why did so many women work in Domestic Service?

  • The school leaving age was 12; many girls went straight into service. They were able to earn some money to help the family budget until they got married.
  • Because there were so many girls looking for work, pay was very low.
  • It was a job, which did not require a high level of education. Most of the work was manual.


  • Coalmining was a major employer at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • In some parts of the country, such as South Wales, South Yorkshire and parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, towns and villages depended entirely on coalmining.
  • Sons went down the pit with their fathers at the age of fourteen and worked all their lives underground.
  • Mining could be very dangerous. About 1,000 miners were killed every year. 20% of miners suffered some form of injury during their lives.
  • Many miners who did not suffer injury caught pneumoconiosis from inhaling coal dust. This gave them a terrible cough and their lungs filled up with coal dust.


  • British agriculture had suffered from increasing competition from the USA at the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Frozen meat had also begun to be imported from Australia and New Zealand
  • Many British farms were very small and the workers had very little machinery to use. A lot of work was still done by hand at harvest-time and haymaking.


  • Dockers were men who unloaded ships when they arrived in British ports.
  • Most of the work was done by hand. Dockers were expected to carry as many as 1,000 sacks off a ship in a day.
  • Dockwork was 'casual'; this meant that many dockers did not know if they would have a job from one day to the next.
  • Dockers were ‘taken on’ each morning by a foreman. Dockers sometimes had to bribe the foreman to persuade him to pick them every morning.
  • There were often fights between dockers as they tried to get work in the morning.

The Sweated Trades

  • In the sweated trades workers worked in tiny workshops, in dreadful conditions for very low pay.
  • Other workers worked at home and were paid piece rates. They made jewellery, painted toy soldiers or addressed envelopes.
  • Most of these workers were women. They needed to earn money, but had to look after their children.
  • There were laws to stop this happening, but they were very difficult to enforce. The worst conditions were in very small workshops, often in the house of the employer. It was almost impossible to check on every workshop.
  • The workers could not afford to complain or they would lose their jobs.

  • This was one of the most successful industries in Britain. One third of all of the world’s ships were built in Britain.
  • Skilled shipbuilders, such as rivetters, were among the highest paid workers in Britain.
  • Other industries, such as coal and iron and steel, depended on shipbuilding for many of their orders.

Living Conditions
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  • Until the mid-nineteenth century, housing was generally very poor in the centres of cities.
  • From the late 1850s, proper drains began to be built and fresh water was supplied to most houses.
  • However, in some areas, such as the East End of London, most working people lived in rooms or parts of houses.
  • In the North of England, houses were often ‘back-to-back’ with no gardens.
  • In London, houses were built around courtyards with a water tap in the middle.
  • Some people were lucky enough to move into brand new flats in Peabody Buildings
  • These were built by an American George Peabody, who came to live in London and was shocked by the dreadful standard of housing for many people.
  • He set up a charity that built many blocks of flats in central and East London. Many of them are still standing today.
  • However, many families lived in one room in a tenement building.
  • In London, in 1902, only 3 out of 8 water companies filtered supplies before they were pumped into houses.
  • Average life expectancy was less than 50 for both men and women.

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Poverty in the 1890s

  • At the end of the nineteenth century central government did not provide any help for poor and sick people in Britain.
  • There was only one major way that that help was provided, through the Poor Law.
  • Many people did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility. There was also a strong belief if somebody was poor it was their own fault.
  • People blamed poverty upon laziness, drunkenness or crime.
  • The worst effects of poverty were found in areas like the East End of London.
  • Many people assumed that poverty and ill health were linked to the area that people lived in.

The Poor Law/Workhouse system

  • The whole country had been divided into ‘Unions’ and each Union had built a workhouse.
  • If people were unable to support themselves, they could apply to be admitted to the workhouse, where they would be fed and housed.
  • In a Workhouse families were separated. There were rules to obey, such as: silence during meals, wearing workhouse clothes, no drinking or smoking, only seeing your family once a week.
  • It was intended to try to persuade people not to go into the workhouse.
  • By the late nineteenth century, workhouses were much better. Children were educated apprenticed to learn a trade.
  • Poor Law Hospitals offered free medical treatment.
  • From 1886 Poor Law authorities were allowed to provide work for the unemployed. From 1905 they could raise money for this purpose.
  • About 80% of paupers received outdoor relief. Only about 150,000 were in workhouses. By the end of the century married couples were not split up.
  • Paupers were properly clothed and fed, but workhouses were still very unpopular. However, they continued to operate until 1929.

The Workhouse Virtual Tour

How were social reformers reacting to the social problems of the 1890s?
Charles Booth

  • Charles Booth began a survey of life in the East End of London in 1886.
  • Over the next seventeen years he and his workers visited every house in every street and questioned the occupants.
  • They found out how many people lived there, what work they did and how much they earned.
  • His findings were published in ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ in 1903.
  • He showed how many people lived in dreadful conditions, with families squashed into one room in damp tenement blocks.

You can have a look through the Booth Report and see exactly what he and his colleagues discovered, in a location that you will be familiar with:

Seebohm Rowntree

  • Seebohm Rowntree did almost exactly the same in York.
  • In 1901 he published Poverty: ‘A Study of Town Life’, which was based on interviews with every family in York.
  • Booth and Rowntree came to very similar conclusions.
  • Both found that about 30% of the population lived in poverty.
  • Both Booth and Rowntree worked out that a family of five, two adults and three children, would need about £1.08 each week.
  • Rowntree also worked out why each family did not earn enough to live on. The most common reason was low pay, which accounted for 52% of the families.
  • The other reasons were: unemployment, sickness, death of the main wage earner, large families and old age.
  • But despite the dramatic findings of Booth and Rowntree, the government did not act. It took something else to bring about changes.

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Who made a greater impact on changing peoples attitudes towards poverty?

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Why did the Liberal governments introduce reforms to help the young, old and unemployed?

Reasons for the Liberal Reforms
The political background
  • The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 had given the vote to many more people and almost all working men. By 1900, 7,000,000 men could vote.
  • Political parties now had to persuade voters to support them in general elections by publishing manifestos and making promises.

The Labour Party

  • In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was founded. It became the Labour Party in 1906.
  • The LRC (Labour Party) wanted to improve conditions for working people.
  • The LRC offered to support the Liberals if they would introduce reforms.
  • In 1903 the Liberal Party and the LRC formed the MacDonald-Gladstone Pact. The two parties agreed not to fight against each other in the next general election.

The Liberal Party

  • David Lloyd George wanted to improve the lives of ordinary people.
  • He helped to develop the idea of ‘New Liberalism’, which was aimed at working people.
  • So when the Liberal Party won the general election in 1906, they decided to introduce some reforms to improve the health and the welfare of the British people.

Social and Economic change

  • Throughout the nineteenth century more and more reforms had been passed by governments. Government had taken responsibility for many areas of people’s lives and had protected them from harm.
  • Factory Reform had begun in the early part of the century. Public Health reform had begun in 1848. The first Education Act was passed in 1870.
  • In 1906 the Liberal took everything step further.

Important personalitiesLloyd George.JPG

  • The most important people in the Liberal Party were:
  • Herbert Asquith, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1905 to 1908 and Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916;
  • David Lloyd George, who became Chancellor in 1908 and introduced the People’s Budget of 1909.
  • Winston Churchill, who was President of the Board of Trade.

The Boer War

  • In 1899 Britain went to war with the Boers, the Dutch settlers in South Africa.
  • Altogether about 450,000 men were recruited.
  • For the first time, however, volunteers had to take a medical and many failed. Overall, about 37% of volunteers were rejected.
  • But in some inner city areas of Britain, the figure was as high as 90%.

How did the British government react?

  • The Government became worried that there would not be enough men fit enough to fight in a war in the future.
  • In fact the figures were so bad that they were kept secret until after the war had ended in 1902.
  • After the Boer War a committee was set up to investigate the problem and it received some alarming reports.
  • The school leaving age had just been raised to twelve and teachers wrote in to their pupils were too tired to work and were unable to stay awake in class.
  • This concern for the health of the people of Britain became known as ‘National Efficiency’. The people of other nations, like Germany, seemed to be far more healthy
  • In 1905, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the Poor Law, but when it reported in 1909 there was no agreement on what should be done.


  • In Germany the situation was quite different. The Germans had a form of welfare system, in which workers received unemployment benefits, medical treatment and old age pensions.
  • It meant that Germans were fitter than many British people.

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How effective were the Liberal Reforms?

For more details and sources from the period click on the banner below:

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School children

  • In 1906 local authorities were allowed to offer free school meals to very poor children so that they received at least one decent meal a day.
  • Not all local authorities decided to do this and only about 100,000 children benefited.
  • The meals helped to prevent diseases like rickets, which were caused by malnutrition.
  • In 1907 the government began school medical inspections and dental checks.
  • These were intended to try to prevent children catching infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB), which was a major killer at the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Children who lived in poor inner city areas could be up to 10 cm shorter than children in other areas.

The Children and Young Persons’ Act (Children’s Charter) 1908

  • This set up juvenile courts and juvenile prisons called ‘Borstals’.
  • Children were also banned from buying tobacco, fireworks and alcohol.
  • The hours of work of children were limited
  • Parents became legally responsible for the upbringing and welfare of their children by.
  • Young offenders were sent to Juvenile Courts and then to Borstals

Old Age Pensions 1908

  • Pensions were paid for the first time at the age of 70 in 1909. These pensions were non-contributory. A single person received 25 pence a week and a married couple received 37 ½ pence.
  • Altogether, there were about 1,250,000 people of seventy or over, which was more than had been expected.
  • Pensions were only available for old people with an income of less than £26 a year, or £39 for a married couple.
  • Old people no longer had to go to the workhouse and did not have to rely on their children for charity.
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Trade Boards 1909 and 1913

  • These tried to help the low-paid. The worst conditions were in the ‘sweated trades’.
  • The Trade Boards Act set minimum wage levels for jobs where the workers could do little to help themselves. A second act was passed in 1913 to extend protection.
  • Trade Boards were made up of representatives of employers, workers and outsiders.

Labour Exchanges 1910

  • These were an idea of William Beveridge. Many workers had casual work and were frequently laid off.
  • Until 1910, the only way that a worker could find out where there were jobs was by walking from factory to factory.
  • In 1910, the Liberals set up a network if more than 400 Labour Exchanges (Job centres). These advertised jobs in one place.

The National Insurance Act 1911

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  • The Act covered about 14,000,000 workers in industries such as building, shipbuilding and engineering, who earned less than £160 a year.
  • The worker bought a stamp costing 4d (about one and a half pence). His employer added a further 3d and the government contributed 2d.
  • In return, when the worker was away from work because he was sick he received 10 shillings (50p) a week for twenty-six weeks in any year and also got free medical treatment. This was provided by doctors who agreed to be ‘on the panel’.
  • Workers also received disablement payments, and maternity benefits.
  • The second part of the National Insurance Act came into force in 1912.
  • This extended insurance to 2,500,000 workers in seasonal employment.
  • The worker, the government and the employer all paid two and a half pence.
  • The worker could receive unemployment benefit of 7 shillings (35p) a week for fifteen weeks in any year.
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School Clinics

  • In 1912, the Liberals set up children’s clinics. If the School Medical Service said that children should go and see a doctor, parents could take them to the clinics free of charge.

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How successful were the Liberal Reforms?

  • For the first time the government accepted responsibility for the well-being of some of the people of Britain.
  • Old Age Pensions were only paid at the age of 70, when average life expectancy was about 47.
  • Only the lowest paid workers were covered by National Insurance, and it only included men.
  • The medical treatment offered by the Act did not include dentists and opticians and only covered the worker, NOT his family.
  • Hospital treatment was only provided for TB, the most dangerous disease at the time.
  • The Poor Law and the workhouses were not abolished. When benefits ended after 26 weeks or 15 weeks, the worker had to go to the workhouse.
  • But the Liberal reforms were a start.
  • The Liberals had never intended to take over complete responsibility for the welfare of the British people.
  • They had wanted to provide some sort of a safety net to prevent people falling into absolute poverty.