Working-Class Women & War Widows’ Pension in the First World War

 

By Angela Smith

Angela Smith is Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland and author of Discourses Surrounding British Widows of the First World War (Bloomsbury, 2012). Using extensive data – mostly gleaned from the National Archives – the book examines the way in which British widows of servicemen who died in the First World War were represented in society and by themselves, exploring the intertwining discourses of social welfare, national identity, and morality that can be identified in these texts. 

After her husband Alec was killed in action in May 1915, Mabel Beadsworth was one of the first women to receive a war widows’ pension. She was just 25 years of age and had two children under the age of five. A third child, Amy, was born in January 1916. However, less than a year later, rumours of Mabel’s ‘immoral’ behaviour reached the Army Council (which oversaw war widows’ pensions at this point). Realising that Alec’s last home visit had been in February 2015, they requested that local police carry out an investigation. In one letter, the Army Council official instructs ‘confidential enquiries’ into ‘the woman’s general character and conduct’ in order to establish if she is ‘worthy’ of her war widow’s pension. The euphemism ‘confidential enquiries’ masks the intrusive nature of the surveillance of widows. Police involvement suggests this is a criminal activity, and worthy of a home visit by a detective chief inspector. Mabel’s ‘character’ is open to official discussion, and discourses of morality are being invoked in line with those of social welfare. Mabel had to prove herself ‘worthy’ of help more so than proving her financial need.

A letter to Army Council from the local Pensions Office in May 1916 presents details of the subsequent police enquiries:

The child is not the child of the late Pte Beadsworth. The father of the child is a man named Norton, with whom Mrs Beadsworth, wife of the late Pte Beadsworth, has been guilty of immoral intercourse for one year. [. . .] Mrs Beadsworth has been dismissed quite recently from her situation as barmaid at a Public House here, because of her immoral conduct. Is she a fit person to receive a pension?

Here, Mabel’s domestic arrangements are open to the bureaucratic gaze and moral judgement. Implicitly, her moral behaviour is called into question further by the details of her employment history, which, essentially, had no direct bearing on the conditions of her pension. If anything, her employment in any capacity should otherwise have been seen as a positive factor, showing her ability to earn money for herself and removing her from the ‘idle poor’ bracket so feared by the middle-class legislators. As unworthy, Mabel’s widow’s pension was withdrawn at a time when she most needed it. That her relationship with Norton appears to be a long-term one does not carry any weight as Mabel had committed the crime of ‘immoral intercourse’ with a man who was not her husband. This probably would have passed without much comment among the working classes, but as she was in receipt of a state pension on the strength of her marriage to a ‘fallen hero’, her behaviour became the subject of moral gaze.

How did the Army Council hear of Mabel’s relationship? In Mabel’s case it appears it was from her mother-in-law, who wrote to the Army Council six months after Amy’s birth. At this point, Mabel’s eldest child had been adopted by his grandmother, and Mrs Beadsworth Senior was writing in an attempt to obtain more money. However, she framed her argument by highlighting the supposed unfitness of her daughter-in-law to be a mother:

I was told that [Alec’s] pay would cease when she give birth to a bastard child, do you call that misconduct and motherless when she stay out all night with men […] it is a disgrace to the name of women.

Here Amy is referred to by the highly moralistic label of ‘bastard child’, implicitly noting her mother’s transgression. At this time, ‘bastard’ was still most commonly used in its legal sense, but in this letter it also carries highly negative connotations that were enforced through a response-demanding utterance: ‘do you not call that misconduct’. Mrs Beadsworth Senior goes as far as to say that her daughter-in-law’s children are effectively “motherless” because of Mabel’s supposedly frequent absence and immoral behaviour with men. Here, a woman leaving her children to go out at night is constructed as a crime against the natural, ‘moral’ order of things. Mrs Beadsworth Senior was taking up the moral crusade against her own daughter-in-law.

The only remaining letter from Mabel herself is dated September 1931. Written 15 years after cessation of her pension, her fate was one of destitution in this pre-welfare state. She was in a workhouse. Her appeal for financial help in the form of a reinstated pension draws on a highly personal narrative in the hope that her life experiences were valuable. In the absence of any state help after Amy’s birth, Mabel testifies that,

Since my second child of my husband’s was 3 years of age, I have lived with a man named Dakin by whom I have had eight children who has now left me since March of last year, thus my reason for being in the institution, and am told by my solicitor […] to apply to you for pension.

Again, Mabel seems to have found a man to take care of her and her growing family – she would have had 11 children, of whom nine would be under the age of 16 at this point – but has been abandoned by him, leaving her destitute. The gap in the coherence of her argument here may have hidden a series of desperate misfortunes that lead her to take the drastic step of entering the workhouse. Intriguingly, Mabel’s letter continues with her own attempt to engage with her moral surveillance:

I had endless trouble with my husband’s mother who I found was not legally married to my husband’s father, which I did not find out until I had to have my marriage lines to obtain Army pay as both his mother and father were witnesses at my wedding […]

The feud between Mabel and her mother-in-law is brought up as evidence of her own good character. The morality of legal marriage is used as a weapon by both women against each other. We can see that the surveillance of widows extended to family, employers and neighbours, all of whom were expected to contribute to and draw upon the official state surveillance and set any discussion within largely state-approved parameters.

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