With no universal pensions or benefits system in place, in the nineteenth century for many wives the loss of their life partner also meant the loss of their entire household income, or at the very least a significant portion of it. According to the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), widows were entitled to outdoor relief – meaning assistance outside of the workhouse in the form of money, medical services, food, coal, and/ or clothes – for the first six months of their bereavement in most districts. Women did have the option to apply for further relief after their initial six months of widowhood, but the application of the law was highly inconsistent from region to region. In addition, the physical, financial, and psychological cost involved in repeatedly travelling to, appearing before, and answering the probing questions of the Board of Guardians could be considerable for some women.
To be eligible for a pension from the army, the widow’s husband had to have held at least the rank of officer, and had to have served for ten or more years on full pay, or been killed in action. As a direct consequence of the Crimean War (1853–56), in 1854 the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation (RPFC) was created to help on-the-strength widows of other ranks, and in 1885 the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association (SSFA), too, was established to alleviate the hardship faced by widows of ordinary soldiers, be they on-the-strength or off-the-strength. But while numerous similar charitable organizations and friendly societies would spring up in the course of the Victorian period, the provision for war widows remained, as for the majority of widows in general, highly sporadic and inconsistent.
Many charities – including the RPFC and SSFA – also abided by the principles set out by the Charity Organisation Society (COS), founded in 1869. The COS advocated a home visiting system to assess whether households were deserving or undeserving of assistance, and this was usually determined by women’s adherence to middle-class standards of respectability, housekeeping, and parenting. The image of the poor these narrow criteria perpetuated is perhaps best illustrated in the comment of a defender of the COS in 1881. They insisted that, “in a large proportion of instances, investigation shows that nothing can be done, that advice would be pearls for swine, that money given would go straight to the publican, or that the applicant trades in obtaining charity by false representation”. Indeed, in the same year the COS’s own monthly journal makes clear the organisation’s views as to the causes of poverty among the working classes. Poverty and destitution, they explain, result from “improvident habits and thriftlessness”, which could only be addressed “through self-denial, temperance and forethought”.
Many widows had to survive on a combination of patchy pensions, relief through the Poor Law, charity from friends, family, and benevolent societies, and whatever work they were able to secure. It’s not surprising that newspapers and periodicals sometimes featured calls for donations for the widows of men who had been well regarded in society, or for widows whose circumstances were particularly dramatic. These pieces would usually detail the widow’s – and, where applicable, her children’s – situation, illustrating her husband’s importance and/ or achievements to convey her deservingness. In March 1844, for example, Punch reported that Colonel Fawcett’s widow, despite his distinguished military career, was refused a pension because her husband had died in a duel. A fortnight later, Punch published an article titled “A Handsome Thing Handsomely Done”, announcing: “the Duke of Wellington, Earls Winchelsea and Cardigan, the Attorney-General for Ireland, and other distinguished heroes of twelve paces […] will charge themselves with the payment of the pension denied to her by Sir Robert Peel”.
A small number of widows were granted a civil pension for the services their husbands had rendered to the country, but – ironically – these pensions were usually reserved for the wives of high-ranking military heroes, politicians, and, on occasion, scientists and authors of note; that is, those who were unlikely to be in need of financial assistance. One commentator, Douglas Jerrold, cynically observed that in order to receive £200 via the civil pensions lists, a widow would first have to convince the Prime Minister that she was already worth at least £10,000.
If you’d like to know more about war widows in the Victorian period, why not take a look at our Library, where you’ll find links to newspaper articles, paintings, autobiographies, and other sources from this period.