British Depth Study:
How was British society changed, 1906-18?
Britain changed in many ways in the period 1906-18. The government began to get more involved
in the lives of ordinary people, helping children, the poor and the old. During this period women
campaigned for the vote and some received it in 1918. By that time, Britain had been at war for four
years and war brought many other changes.
Why did the Liberal government introduce reforms to help the
young, old and unemployed?
How was British society changed, 1906-18?
To answer questions on changes in British society during 1906-18, you will
need to be familiar with the Key Content on the period.
You will need to have a good working knowledge of:
• Major social problems in Britain in the early 1900s (especially poverty,
old age, unemployment and welfare of children)
• The measures introduced by the Liberal governments, 1906-14
• Women and the vote: the aims and methods of the suffragist
• Women and the vote: the aims and methods of the suffragette
• The role of women in Britain during the First World War
• Government measures on recruitment, rationing and propaganda
during the First World War
• Why did the Liberal government introduce reforms to help the young,
old and unemployed?
• How effective were the Liberal reforms?
• What were the arguments for and against female suffrage?
• How effective were the activities of the suffragists and the suffragettes?
• How did women contribute to the war effort?
• How effective was government propaganda during the war?
• Why were some women given the vote in 1918?
• How were civilians affected by the war?
The simple answer to this question is that these groups needed help. There was terrible poverty in
Britain. Another important point is that by the early 1900s both politicians and the majority of
ordinary people in Britain felt that the government should provide that help. Bear these two points
in mind as you look at the rest of this section.
For most of the nineteenth century, most people believed that people were poor because they
wasted their money. By 1900, public opinion was changing. People realised that poverty could be
caused by many factors. They also felt that the government should give some help to the poor
instead of leaving it all to charity.
This change in attitude was partly because of the work of social reformers. They produced
undeniable proof of the scale of poverty in Britain. The most important reformers were:
• Charles Booth – he carried out research into poverty in London and published Life and
Labour of the People in London in seventeen volumes from 1889 to 1902.
• Seebohm Rowntree – he studied poverty and its causes in York and published a report
called Poverty: A Study of Town Life in 1901.
Both researchers found that 28-31 per cent of the population lived around the poverty line. The
poverty line meant being unable to afford decent housing, food, clothing, health care or even an
occasional luxury such as a newspaper.
The Boer War
In 1899 Britain went to war in South Africa. Half of those who volunteered to fight were unfit. The
percentage was even higher in recruits from some areas. Many had been so badly fed as children
that they had not grown properly. This was extremely worrying for the government. Unless
something was done Britain would not have a strong army to defend its interests.
Political factors also help to explain why the Liberals brought reforms in.
Two leading Liberal politicians, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, believed strongly in
reform. They believed social reform would make the people better off and the country stronger as a
Rivalry with Labour
In 1906 the newly formed Labour Party did well in the general election, gaining 29 seats. The
Liberals wanted to win over ordinary people with their reforms, so that they would vote Liberal and
How effective were Liberal reforms?
This is another very difficult question to answer because improvements in areas such as poverty,
health and the welfare of children and old people were difficult to measure. We know exactly what
the Liberals did, but the evidence is less clear on how far their actions worked. Here’s what they
Actions taken This was a good
This was not a
trying to help because
Children Free school
The old Old Age
Working people Labour
Part 1, 1911
Part 2, 1911
The third and fourth columns in the table of Liberal reforms are blank. Make your own copy of the
table and complete it using the following facts and figures.
• All people aged over 70 received 5s a week, or 7s 6d for a couple. It was paid for by the
• By 1914, over 150,000 children were getting one good meal a day from local councils.
• Children became protected persons: parents who neglected or abused their children in any
way could be prosecuted.
• Children convicted of crimes were sent to special prisons called borstals, not to adult prisons.
• Children got free, compulsory medical checks.
• If a worker became ill, the worker could get 10s a week sick pay for 13 weeks. It was paid for
by contributions from workers, government and employers.
• If a worker was unemployed the worker received 7s 6d per week. It was funded by worker,
employer and government contributions.
• Many of the jobs in the exchanges were short-term or casual. The government did nothing to
make jobs secure.
• Measures protecting children were difficult to enforce; Borstals were not always better places
for children than prisons.
• Medical treatment for children did not become free until 1912.
• School meals were the responsibility of local councils. They did not have to provide them.
• The average working family could not survive of 7s 6d per week. Also, unemployment pay
ran out after 15 weeks.
• The pension was not a generous measure and could be refused to those who had failed to
work to the best of their abilities in their working life.
• The poorest workers resented having to pay 4d per week from their wages.
• Unemployed workers could go to government labour exchanges to find out what jobs were
available in their area. By 1913 exchanges were finding 3000 jobs a day for workers.
What were the arguments for and against female suffrage?
In the early 1900s there were several important political issues. One of them was the question of
female suffrage – the right of women to vote in general elections to send MPs to Parliament.
The arguments for female suffrage
People supported female suffrage for a range of reasons. Some simply believed in votes for all
adults as a democratic right. Others were more interested in getting the vote for women because
this would help solve particular social problems such a low pay for women. The main arguments
they put forward were:
• Votes for women would improve life for all women. It would mean equal working conditions,
better access to education and other benefits.
• Some countries, for example Australia and New Zealand, had given women the right to vote
in national elections. In the USA, women had the right to vote in some States.
• Many women were already involved in politics at the local level, especially on boards of
education and poor law boards.
• Women paid the same rates and taxes as men, so they should be able to vote for the
politicians who spent those taxes.
• By the early 1900s the vast majority of men could vote. Britain was not a democracy if 50
per cent of the adult population was denied the vote.
The arguments against female suffrage
A wide range of men and women opposed female suffrage. Their arguments also covered a wide
range of issues:
• Women and men had different responsibilities or ‘spheres’. Men were suited to work and
politics while women were suited to the home and caring roles.
• Most women either did not want the vote or were not interested in it. They were irrational
and would not vote wisely.
• Giving the vote to some women would mean giving the vote to all men, some of whom were
not worthy of it.
• Women did not fight in wars, so they should not be able to vote for governments which might
have to declare war.
How effective were the activities of the suffragists and suffragettes?
There were many societies campaigning for the vote in Britain during the nineteenth century. In
1897 the various societies came together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
(NUWSS), often called the suffragists. The NUWSS was led by Millicent Fawcett.
Were the suffragists an effective movement?
• The obvious argument that the NUWSS was not effective is that it had failed to get the vote
for women by 1914.
• However, they did manage to get women’s suffrage bills proposed to Parliament several
times between 1900 and 1914. the closest was the Conciliation Bill, put forward in 1910 but
then abandoned by the Liberals. They also managed to keep the issue of women’s suffrage
in the public eye, at a time when the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith and many other MPs did
not want even to consider the issue.
• They built up an impressive organisation and membership. By 1914 the NUWSS had over
400 branches in all parts of the country. There were over 100,000 members.
• The membership was mainly middle-class women. However, there were branches in some
of the northern textile towns. There were also quite a few male members of the organisation.
• There were very good at propaganda. They produced newspapers and posters. They
organised petitions and wrote letters to MPs. They held large rallies, such as the Hyde Park
Demonstration in 1908 and the Women’s Pilgrimage in June 1913 when thousands of
women from all over the country marched on London and won great praise for their discipline
The suffragettes was the name often given to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The
WSPU was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel.
They were more radical than the NUWSS. They were frustrated by the lack of progress of the
campaign to win women the right to vote. They decided that they way to achieve female suffrage
was by direct action. They believed this would make female suffrage such a major issue and attract
such publicity that the government would en its opposition. Direct action began in 1908 with
suffragettes breaking windows in Downing Street and chaining themselves to railings. The WSPU
called off violent protest in 1910, but then began again in 1912 with a campaign of arson and
vandalism after the failure of the Conciliation Bill. The most famous incident came in 1913. The
suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and was killed.
Were the suffragettes an effective movement?
• The suffragettes certainly didn’t achieve the vote by 1914.
• They also divided the women’s movement. From 1909 onward the suffragISTS distanced
themselves from the suffragETTES. They thought suffragette actions damaged their cause.
• Suffragette violence turned some MPs against female suffrage. It also turned sections of
public opinion against female suffrage.
• However, the suffragettes’ actions meant that the issue of female suffrage was never
• The WSPU (Womens’ Social and Political Union) were effective campaigners, publishing
posters and leaflets. Their newspaper, Votes for Women, had a circulation of 40,000 by
• Many women (and men) admired the willingness of the suffragettes to suffer for their cause.
Many suffragettes were arrested and some went on hunger strike.
• The police and the government treated suffragettes very harshly. They were often assaulted
• Suffragettes were harshly treated in prison and went on hunger strike in protest. The
government responded with force feeding, which was painful, degrading and potentially
harmful. The hunger strides gained the suffragettes a lot of sympathy and support. The
Liberals then introduced the “Cat and Mouse” Act in 1913. Hunger strikers were released
in order to recover and then returned to prison to finish their sentence.
Why were some women given the vote in 1918?
In 1918 the government passed the Representation of the People Act. Under this Act:
• All men over the age of 21 could vote
• Women over the age of 30 could vote
• Women over 21 who were house holders or married householders could vote.
Around 9 million women gained the vote, usually older, better-off women. All women finally got the
vote in 1928.
War work by women was a vital factor in women getting the vote. However, you should remember
that the suffragists and suffragettes played their part. As well as supporting the war effort, they
continued to campaign for the vote at the same time.
When war began, most of the differences between suffragists and suffragettes disappeared. They
also raised money for the women who were left behind when their men went off to fight. The
Pankhursts concentrated on encouraging young men to volunteer for the army.
Because so many men were fighting for their country, the government decided on a new
Representation of the People Act to given all men the vote. Since the government was bringing in a
law giving the vote to all men, the suffragettes and suffragists argued that they should give the vote
to women in the same law. They publicised the massive contribution of women to the war effort.
Their cased was also helped when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1916.
He supported female suffrage.
By June 1917, most members of the government seemed to accept that some women would get the
vote in the new Act. Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett decided to accept the restriction that not all
women would get the vote. The Act was approved by the House of Commons in 1917 and then by
the House of Lords in January 1918. Women voted in their first general election in December 1918.
How were civilians in Britain affected by the war?
The First World War was a total war, which meant that the entire population was involved and
affected – not just the front-line troops. The government took control of many aspects of life which
would never have happened in peacetime.
Between August 1914 and March 1916, 2.5 million men volunteered for the British army. The
recruitment campaign launched by the government in 1914 worked far better than was predicted.
Around 750,000 men joined up during the first few weeks of the campaign alone. Sometimes,
whole groups of friends from one area joined up together as a ‘pals’ battalion’.
However, despite the steady flow of volunteers, there was a high casualty rate at the front, so more
troops were needed. By late 1915, the British government was considering conscription
(compulsory military service).
This was highly controversial and a debate raged through the winter of 1915-16. the original
proposal was for only unmarried men to be conscripted. However, by May 1916 the needs of war
and unrest in Ireland meant that the government was given the power to conscript all men aged 18-
41 under the Military Services Act. According to the Act:
• Only men involved in ‘reserved occupations’, such as munitions work or mining, were exempt
from military service.
Conscientious objectors (often known as ‘conchies’) had to appear before local tribunals to explain
why they refused to fight. (Most conchies joined up to do war work in the medical or support
services. About 1500 conchies went to prison until the end of the war.)
Government control – DORA
In August 1914 the government passed the Defence of the Realm Act, usually known as DORA.
The Act gave the government wide-ranging powers over the media, food production, industry and
many other areas.
• The government took over the coal mines. Miners were not conscripted into the army and
the government fixed profits and wages.
• Similar action was taken with the railways and with shipping.
• Early in 1915 it was clear that private enterprise was unable to supply the munitions the army
needed. David Lloyd George became Minister of Munitions. He reorganised production and
set up new state-run factories. By the end of the war the government controlled about
Food and rationing
• DORA also allowed the government to take control of food supplies. Britain did not suffer
serious shortages before 1916, but food prices did rise dramatically (about 60 per cent).
However, when the German U-boats began to attack shipping on a large scale the situation
• The government tried to increase food production by bringing all available land into
production (3 million extra acres of land by 1918). There were also women workers in the
Women’s Land Army to help harvest the crops.
• However, this was not enough. Voluntary rationing schemes in 1916 and 1917 did not work
so the government introduced compulsory rationing in 1918.
• Sugar, meat, butter, jam and margarine were all rationed. As a general rule, most people
supported rationing because it was fair and kept prices under control.
• There was a black market in goods, but penalties under DORA were very severe.
Civilian casualties were very light in Britain compared to the military casualties. Nevertheless, about
1500 civilians were killed by enemy actions:
• In December 1914 German warships shelled towns in north-east England.
• In January 1915 giant Zeppelin airships began bombing raids on England. They made a
total of 57 raids.
• In Mary 1917 German Gotha bombers began the first of 27 raids on British towns.
DORA allowed the government to control newspapers and other media during the war. There was
censorship, particularly of the national press. The pacifist newspaper the Tribunal was shut down
and the Socialist paper the Daily Herald was closely monitored. However, the general impression of
historians it that British people and publishers largely supported the war effort.
• After the war, twelve newspaper owners were given knighthoods for their wartime services.
Circulation of patriotic newspapers such as the Daily Express went up dramatically during the
• Leading authors – Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells – all produced patriotic
material for no fee. These were bought in their thousands.
• Propaganda was aimed directly at children through books, games and toys. This seems to
have been the most effective type.
• Patriotic films such as For the Empire and The Battle of the Somme reached huge audiences
at the cinema (possibly 20 million for The Battle of the Somme). These films were not
produced by the government by they were distributed by the War Department. It is also
worth noting that The Battle of the Somme was a more realistic view of warfare compared to
some of the earlier films made during the war, even though many of the scenes were faked.
How did women contribute to the war effort?
When Britain went to war in August 1914, women seemed no nearer getting the vote. Despite this,
the women’s movements threw themselves behind the war effort. Of course, even more women
who were not part of the suffrage movement also threw themselves into the war effort.
Women on the front line
Women did not fight in the trenches but they were close to the front-line action.
• The British army soon copied the French system of hospital units in France and Belgium
staffed mainly by female nurses.
• Thousands of women worked for voluntary organisations. In France and Belgium, the
Salvation Army provided soup kitchens, many of which were run by women, for convalescing
soldiers and front-line troops as well.
• The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was formed in 1918. These women worked
mainly as drivers, secretaries and officials on the Western Front.
Women and recruitment
• Women members of the Active Service League encouraged young men to enlist.
• The Mothers’ Union published posters criticising mothers who stopped their sons joining up.
Women and war work
• Government departments took on 200,000 women during the war.
• There was a bit more resistance to women workers in industry. Trade unions feared women
would work for less and wages for make workers would drop. However, by the end of the
war hundreds of thousands of women were working in industry. For example, 800,000
women worked in engineering by the end of the war.
• Around 260,000 women worked on Britain’s farms in the Women’s Land Army helping
farmers to produce as much food as possible.
• Women even kept some of the works football teams going during the war!
Women and munitions
The best known work done by women was in the munitions factories. Thousands of women worked
in private and government-owned munitions factories. On the one hand, munitions work gave
women status and money. On the other hand, it was dangerous work because of the chance of
explosions and also adverse health effects of dangerous chemicals in the munitions.