• Describe reasons that the Liberal government
introduced various social reforms
• Social campaigners
• National security / threat of war
• National efficiency
• Political advantage
• Municipal socialism
• Other countries’ influence
The Liberal Reforms
marked a huge change in
The end of ‘laissez faire’
meant that the government
would now play a big role in
But why did this happen?
The deserving poor
Before the twentieth century, many
people’s attitude to the poor was
that it was their own fault. As a
result, the government did little or
nothing to help them.
The very poor had to rely on
charity to meet their basic needs.
But this began to change in the
late-1800s; the ‘deserving poor’
Booth and Rowntree
Most middle and upper class
people in Britain had no idea what
life was like for the very poorest in
society. Two famous reports
helped change this.
Charles Booth, a London
businessman, did not believe that
extreme poverty existed in the
capital city. He carried out an
investigation to prove this.
In fact it was Booth who was
surprised; not only did
extreme poverty exist in
London, it was worse than
anyone had imagined.
Booth carried out his reports
between 1889 and 1903. He
warned that if people’s lives
were not improved, a
revolution might occur.
“Few of the 200 families who lived there
occupied more than one room. 15
rooms out of 20 were filthy to the last
degree. Not a room was free of vermin
(mice or lice). The little yard at the back
was only sufficient for a dust bin, toilet
and water tap, which served 7 families.”
Excerpt from one of Charles Booth’s reports
The Chocolate Kings
Many of Britain’s most famous
sweets and chocolates came
from the Rowntree family in
York, including Kit Kats, Jelly
Tots and Fruit Pastilles.
The Rowntree Family also
helped show Victorian Britain
just how bad poverty was.
Joseph Rowntree was the
owner of the world famous
Rowntree factory in York.
Although very rich he believed in
treating his workers fairly, offering
benefits such as education,
medical help and pensions.
He inspired his son’s interest in
these issues too.
Seebohm was influenced by his
father Joseph and Charles Booth
and conducted a study into
poverty in his home town of York.
His study found that 30% of
people lived in extreme poverty. In
particular he recognised that
poverty was often not the fault of
those living in it.
Primary poverty meant that
some families – regardless of
how they spent their money –
could not afford the minimum
amount needed to live on.
The publicity this created
helped persuade the Liberal
government of the need to
However Rowntree’s report
did also give people opposed
to helping the poor an excuse
He talked about secondary
poverty – this meant that a
poor family had just enough
money to live on but wasted it
on luxuries such as alcohol or
Proving that many poor
people wasted their limited
money meant that some
opposed giving them any
Rowntree did argue though
that often this ‘wasted money’
was actually to help people
escape the problems caused
The Boer War
In the late-1800s Britain was
still very much the head of an
empire which spanned all
across the world.
As a result it would periodically
find itself involved in wars and
needing men to join the armed
forces. A conflict in South Africa
created a real worry for Britain.
The Boer War
In 1899 Britain began fighting a
war against the South African
Britain still had a volunteer army
and 25% of people who tried to
join the army were rejected
because they were not fit enough.
The number was even higher for
recruits from industrial cities.
The Arms Race
At this time, Britain was not the
only country in with a strong
military and desire to control
parts of the world.
Germany was arming itself and
there was a fear that war may
soon come. If Britain did not
have the soldiers to fight South
African farmers, what hope had
they against Germany?
Fighting fit for Britain
In 1904, two reports showed that
all across Britain many adult males
were not fit enough to fight
because of their poor living and
Improving living conditions was
not just about helping the poorest
in society, it was about protecting
Reforms for war?
Many of the Liberal reforms were
aimed at people who would be the
right age to fight if war with
Germany came (School Meals,
Health Inspections, etc).
However a great many reforms,
including Old Age Pensions,
would not have helped win a war,
suggesting national security was
not the only consideration.
The Industrial Revolution may
have its origins in Britain – but
other parts of the world were
fast catching up.
Britain still lead the world in
manufacturing – including goods
such as jute and ships – but this
could change, meaning Britain
would lose power and influence.
The USA and Germany
In particular, worried looks were
going towards Germany and the
United States of America.
Both those countries had strong
workforces (although they also
had poverty problems too). If they
caught up with Britain, they could
take over its role as the world’s
Poverty existed all around the
world – but Germany had taken
action to fix this.
Germany had already introduced
benefits including pensions as
long ago as the 1880s. Britain
needed to do the same too if it
was going to compete with them
(both economically and militarily).
The need for Britain to compete
with other countries was a major
influence. However it’s debateable
whether the changes actually
helped achieve this.
Most working conditions remained
difficult with long hours and often
unsafe conditions. Bigger changes
were needed – but these may not
have been supported by
employers and some politicians.
Working class votes
The Reform Acts of 1832,
1867 and 1884 had made big
changes to British politics.
The increasing number of men
– particularly working class –
who could vote demanded that
politicians listened to them.
This meant dealing with the
concerns of the poor.
The Labour Party
The establishment of the Labour
Representation Committee in
1900 gave working class men their
own authentic voice.
This was a major worry for the
Liberals. If Labour attracted
working class votes, this could end
the Liberals as a political force.
The Liberal Reforms could help
them keep these votes.
However it is too simple to say that
the Liberals only brought in reforms
to beat Labour.
One major point to consider is that
in the 1906 General Election the
Liberal manifesto makes almost
no mention of social reforms.
Other issues must be more
The New Liberals
Another reason for reform was that
new Liberals – with very different
opinions – took over the
Prime Minister Henry Campbell-
Bannerman – an ‘Old Liberal’ -
died in 1908 and was replaced by
Herbert Asquith. He gave jobs to
people supportive of reforms, such
as David Lloyd George.
The People’s Budget
Lloyd George introduced the
People’s Budget in 1909. This
aimed to raise money from the
wealthy to tackle poverty and fund
The Budget was voted down by
the House of Lords. This lead to
two General Elections in 1910 and
then the 1911 Parliament Act.
Socialism was the belief in
economic equality, meaning the
rich should pay to help the poor.
Although most help for poor
people came from charities, from
the 1850s onwards other changes
began to be made by local and
national governments, particularly
by local (municipal) government.
Local social reforms
Local government across Britain
began spending local taxpayers’
money on social reforms which
improved many lives.
By the 1860s in Glasgow, the
Council controlled city lighting and
the water supply. A new pipeline
from Loch Katrine brought clean
water to parts of the city that had
never enjoyed this before.
These changes happened across
Britain. Some councils provided
better water; others chose to
spend money on free school
meals for poor children.
The success of these reforms –
by Labour and Liberal councils –
helped show how government
could change people’s lives.
Delay national action?
‘Municipal socialism’ certainly
helped show what government
could achieve. Although it could be
argued it delayed national action
by giving small help in areas which
needed it most.
In addition not all local councils
participated in these social
reforms, meaning that their impact
Furthermore, the Liberal
reforms often did not go far
enough to copy what had been
done in local areas.
For example, free school meals
had been tried in different
areas. However the initial
School Meals Act only gave
councils the option to do it, they
did not make it compulsory.
Revolution in Britain
Unlike many other countries,
Britain has never had a genuine
political revolution. However since
the 1790s, many countries close to
Britain (politically and
geographically) had done so.
Many people believe this was a
reason for political reform. Social
reforms could help stop revolution
Sharing (some) power
The argument was simple.
Britain’s ruling classes realised
that if they did not give away some
power and wealth, the working
class could take it all by force.
Revolutions had occurred in the
USA, France, Italy and other
countries since the 1790s. Britain
had avoided these events.
Protests in Britain
In 1905 there was a failed
revolution in Russia. Meanwhile in
Britain there was growing political
unrest – including violence – over
issues such as the right to vote.
There was also social unrest
through strikes involving workers
and trade unions that wanted
better rights. Some people feared
revolution was coming next.
German Social Reforms
Germany was increasingly
Britain’s main rival in the world.
This was both in an economic and
Germany – under Chancellor
Bismarck’s leadership – had
introduced various social reforms
including Old Age Pensions and
Sickness Benefits too.
Lack of support
Although some people feared
revolution, there was no real
national revolution movement.
Many of the protests, strikes and
riots from that time were located in
specific areas, rather than being
part of a wider national revolt.
Also, many people still lacked
awareness of life elsewhere.