The outbreak of the First World War prompted the British government to introduce a national War Widows’ Pension scheme. All war widows were eligible, be they on-the-strength, off-the- strength, or widows of volunteers. Yet, the weekly payments made to them under this scheme were far too little to cover their living costs, and hardship increased as the war continued and inflation rose.
The Ministry of Pensions was founded in 1916 to deal with the administration of these payments, and the Special Grants Committee became the body that assessed war widows’ eligibility for War Widows’ Pension. The Special Grants Committee’s decision making process was famously flawed and widely criticised: the committee determined whether women were worthy of state support by assessing – sometimes by covert means – their moral and sexual behaviour, parenting practices, and housekeeping. Yet, at the same time as the state was thus policing and prescribing women’s domestic conduct, they also forced women to leave the home to work by setting pension rates so low that they barely covered basic living costs. In Angela Smith‘s words:
the war widows’ pension […] was devised to confine the woman to the domestic role of idealised mother whilst refusing to pay her sufficient money to keep her within the home. At around half the “minimum wage” of £1 a week, the payment was more of a token gesture.
In 1925, Neville Chamberlain introduced the Widows’, Orphans’, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, which built on the National Insurance Act (1911). This severely limited the number of state-supported war widows. It specified that women whose husbands had not been killed in military service were ineligible for War Widows’ Pension. It also determined that only those who were married to insured men and widowed after 4 January 1926 were eligible for state support. Widows of insured men who had died before this date only received a War Widows’ Pension if they had children younger than fourteen, and provision would cease once their children exceeded that age. The 1929 amendment bill lifted these limitations, to a certain extent, by awarding War Widows’ Pension also to women who were widowed before 4 January 1926, providing they were of or above the age of 55, or had children who were under sixteen years of age. This meant younger, childless war widows as well as war widows with children older than sixteen were not eligible for War Widows’ Pension.
Conditions for war widows worsened even further during World War II, when War Widows’ Pension began to be regarded as unearned income and was taxed at the highest rate of 50%. This meant many war widows had to deal with their grief, their children, and another severe reduction in household income when their pensions already could not cover living costs for them and their families. As Thomas Williams put it in the House of Commons at the onset of the Second World War, while politicians were keen to portray widows and veterans as patriotic heroes, the provision made for them by the state was not one fitting that status: “the government are prepared to feed these people on honour and not bread”, Williams said.
If you’d like to read in more depth about the history of pensions in Britain, please take a look at this document published by the Office for National Statistics, which features a useful timeline and concise explanations of how pensions legislation has developed in Britain during the twentieth century: “Pensions Legislation: An Overview” (Office for National Statistics, 2005).
If you’d like to know more about war widows’ lives during and between the world wars, why not take a look at our Library, where you’ll find links to newspaper articles, paintings, autobiographies, and other sources from this period.