The Need for Reform

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Poor People in the 1890's

The main help available for poor people were the workhouses run by local councils which provided basic food lodging and in exchange the people had to work for long hours in brutal conditions. Going to workhouses was seen by many as shameful.

There was serious unemplyment in some industries and no unemployment benefits.

Old people with no savings or family suffered badly - no government pensions. Many old people had to go to the workhouses.

Housing in poor areas was damp, cold and didn't have proper sewage systems. This made it easy to become ill, leading to missing work and possibly losing your job.

Many people couldn't afford doctors or medicine.

Many children had to go to work from an early age so were not educated.

Large numbers of people couldn't afford to eat properly. Out of all the men reruited to fight in the Boer War, about half were malnourished.

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Public Opinion of Poor People

Poverty was often blamed on the individual.

People were believed to be poor because the were lazy and would not work, or they wasted their money.

Many politions believed that each individual was responsible for his or her own welfare so people should work hard and save for their old age.

The only way to get help if you were poor was to enter the workhouse. Conditions in the workhouse were deliberately harsh in order to discourage people from seeking help.

Charities existed to help the poor, but most people relied on their families for assistance.

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Social Reformers

Not everybody believed that poverty was all that bad - especially rich people.

Some social reformers produced proof of how serious poverty really was, the most important of which were Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree.

  • Charles Booth published the first edition of Life and Labour of the People in 1889. This showed that 30% of people in London were living in severe poverty, and that it was sometimes impossible for people to find work, however hard they tried. He showed that wages for some jobs were so low that they weren't enough to support a family.
  • Seebohm Rowntree had a factory in York. He didn't believe the problem was as bad there as in London - so he did a survey of living conditions. The report of his findings, Poverty, a Study of Town Life (published 1901) showed that 28% of people in York were so poor that they couldn't afford basic food and housing.

This helped public opinion towards the poor to start to change:

  • People realised that poverty could be caused by many factors.
  • They felt the government should give some help to the poor instead of leaving it all to charity.
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Changes to Public Opinion on Helping the Poor

  • Popular and well-respected writers like George Bernard Shaw, J.Galsworthy, Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells wrote about how poor people lived. They said that the poor needed help, and the government should pass laws to make sure it happened.
  • People involved in public health and medicine said the government should get more involved in health issues.
  • Socialists argued that wealth should be more equally spread between working people and the people like factory owners and land owners, who were traditionally the richest.
  • The Labour Party was the only mainstream socialist political party. They argued that the government should give financial help to the poorest members of society. This helped them attract more and more working-class supporters.
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The Boer War

In 1899 Britain went to war with South Africa.

Half of those who volunteered to fight were unfit for service.

The percentage of unfit recruits varied according to where they lived.

Many had been so badly fed as children that they had not grown properly.

This worried the government, as unless something was done, Britain would not have a strong army to defend its interests.

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