The Department of Pensions and its Special Grants Committee – which oversaw the administration of war widows’ pensions – were heavily criticised almost since their inception during the First World War. Many people claimed that the committee attempted to award as few pensions as possible instead of seeking to veterans and widows.
This article from the Manchester Guardian records a debate that took place in the House of Commons on 14 April 1938. Labour MPs questioned the administration of pensions, particularly to ex-servicemen and their dependents. Mr Kelly (Rochdale) highlights that some war widows were deprived of their pensions by the Special Grants Committee after someone gossiped about them.
At the time, it was well-known that the committee judged a woman’s worthiness of a war widows’ pension not simply by the circumstances of her husband’s death but also by her parenting practices, and her sexual and moral conduct. War widows lost their pensions if they remarried as their new husbands would be expected to provide for them. Therefore, if a woman was reported to have been seen with or visited at home by a man to whom she was not related, the committee was able to withdraw her war widow’s pension because of her extra-marital relations, and because she should be seeking for her gentleman lover to provide for her.
Widowed mothers also often had to find employment in order to make up for the loss of her husband and his income, and to supplement their tiny and heavily-taxed war widows’ pensions. Naturally, this meant childcare could become more difficult to manage, especially for those who did not have an extended family or neighbours to rely on. Yet, if parenting standards were deemed of an insufficient standard, the Special Grants Committee could remove a widow’s pension and even initiate a review of whether her children should be taken away from her.
Many war widows thus found themselves under intense scrutiny while receiving a pension that usually did not even cover their basic living costs. The article below details politicians complaints about pensions for ex-servicemen and for war widows’ in particular, giving us an insight into the problems veterans and war widows were facing during these already difficult times.
“Many Deserving Claims”, Manchester Guardian (16 April 1938), p.6