The Transition from Workhouses: the 1930s

By the 1920s the workhouse system was anachronistic. Democratic reforms in 1918 meant wealth was no longer a qualification for the franchise. The 1929 reforms of relief of the poor led to the formation of Public Assistance Committees. This didn’t alter ‘Victorian’ attitudes towards claimants. The reforms began as the Great Depression wreaked havoc on Britain’s industrial heartlands. It was a baptism of fire for the new system. Brutal reductionist attitudes brought it into disrepute immediately. ‘Protecting’ the public purse saw the introduction of the Means Test, which humiliated claimants. It stripped them of all dignity. During the 1930s this was softened but remained intrusive and unrelenting.

Poor relief in workhouses was outdated by 1920. Millions of disenfranchised men were obliged to go to war after the Military Service Act, 1916 was passed. Men between 18 and 41 were conscripted when the army, unsurprisingly, ran out of volunteers. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, recognised this anomaly and introduced adult enfranchisement in 1918.

To prevent ‘free-loading’ by paupers, workhouses were deliberately inhumane. Entering a workhouse was a life or death decision. The replacement system was outdoor relief. This introduced new humiliations for the impoverished: the Means Test. The guiding assumption was the poor were lazy and needed brutal incentives to deter them from choosing to live on benefits.

In order to qualify for dole, a worker had to pass a means test. The Public Assistance Committees (PACs) put the worker’s finances through a rigorous investigation before they could qualify for benefit. Officials went into every detail of a family’s income and savings. The intrusiveness of the means test and the insensitive manner of officials who carried it out frustrated and offended the workers.*

Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government judged benefits were overly generous and reduced them by 10% in 1931.** Claimants were impoverished because of the Great Depression and so were the ‘deserving’ poor. They weren’t shirkers attempting to milk the poor relief system.

The global Great Depression made condemning the impoverished for moral failings entirely illogical. Nonetheless it took three years before steps were taken to mitigate the Means Tests impact. It was softened by the Unemployment Assistance Board. (UAB)

The UAB set up training schemes and provided help to workers who wanted to move to another area to find work. Older unemployed men were sometimes given allotments to grow vegetables or raise poultry and rabbits. Society went some way towards accepting that unemployment was not a failing of the people, dispelling the notion that the poor could work if they really wanted to***

The regional nature of the Great Depression mirrored the collapse of British manufacturing. A Regional Selective Assistance policy was formulated to protect industries under severe threat. For the first time the psychological impact of unemployment became known, “The Pilgrim Trust found that lengthy unemployment generally led to ‘depression and apathy’….”**** Destroying people’s spirit is counter-productive. The long term unemployed lose skills, making them less employable as well as losing psychological resilience.

The 1930s was a transition period in the history of poor relief in Britain. In 1930 the Victorian legacy was hard at work creating a deliberately harsh intrusive environment for claimants. Officials were hostile and dictatorial and mirrored the Board of Guardians that they’d replaced. But the Zeitgeist was against them. As new industries grew and with population movement there was marked reduction in unemployment but the bottleneck was broken in 1939 with the outbreak of war. Unemployment disappeared. The Beveridge Report, 1942, brought about a radical rethinking on welfare. The post-war welfare settlement began well before Nazi Germany was defeated.


* On a personal note when my father’s family were subject to ‘rigorous investigation’ they were told to sell a chair. They had seven chairs and as there were six in the family they clearly didn’t need the extra chair.

** This decision was rescinded in the Unemployment Act 1934


**** Crafts, N. F. R. “Long-Term Unemployment in Britain in the 1930s.” The Economic History Review, vol. 40, no. 3, 1987, pp. 418–432. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Aug. 2020. p424


For the role of charity in mitigating the workhouse experience see

For the Representation of the People’s Act 1918 see,to%20vote%2C%20to%20men%20aged%2021%20and%20over%2C

For the Military Service Act 1916 see

For ‘less eligibility’ see,that%20of%20%27less%20eligibility%27.&text=Effectively%2C%20a%20person%20who%20was,to%20qualify%20for%20poor%20relief.

For the Means Test see

For the 10% cut in benefits in 1931 see

For Ramsay MacDonald see

This entry was posted in Finance, History, local politics, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.