The ‘Big Society’ was alive and well during the First World War and responded to the challenges posed by it. The civic organisations and volunteers worked with local authorities on a wide range of fundraising and social welfare programmes.
This was the central theme of my short talk at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability event as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival on Thursday 29 May. The Hospital is celebrating its 160th Anniversary, and in the last couple of years has been working on its archive. Here is a summary of my talk.
The Liberal Reforms 1906-1914
Dieing in 1914 Colonel Holland, a member of the Hospital Board of Managers, specified in his will that no gifts were to go to socialist and suffrage organisations. He was probably reflecting the views of all those who had opposed the Liberal Government’s reforms from 1906 as interfering with market forces and as being socialist measures.
Those reforms are an important back drop to the First World War stemming from the concern exposed in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 about the poor health of the nation, and the challenge posed to the Liberal’s hold on working class voters by the Labour Party. The Liberals developed a new approach based on tackling the inequalities created by free market capitalism. The best known reforms were the introduction of Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, but were a range of other initiatives, such as labour exchanges, children’s health, diets and protection, greater wages protection for low paid trades. This reform programme had not been easy. There had been a fierce battle over Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909 designed to further reduce poverty. The budget of 1914 increased levels of direct taxation on the wealthy and invested more money in educational, health and social services. Although many of the details were criticised by those who wanted more, the welfare reforms did lead to a reduction in poverty by the start of the War, but continuing in-built health problems meant that many men were deemed unfit to serve in the War.
Charitable and Voluntary Organisation
The National Insurance Act was administered in partnership with the friendly societies and trade unions which provided their own benefits. The provision of health and social services was very complex, with charitable and mutual organisations at the heart of their provision: hospitals, dispensaries, homes for unmarried mothers and their infants, orphanages and almshouses for the elderly.
In Battersea as elsewhere a key role in setting up particularly the mutuals lay with the working class activists and their middle class supporters, while charities tended to be those initiated by the middle and upper classes. The Battersea parish vicar Erskine Clark was particularly instrumental in setting up Bolingbroke Hospital. Other hospitals included Battersea General, or the Anti-Vivisection. Putney Hospital had only opened in 1912. The Annie McCall Maternity Hospital Hospital was being undergoing extension works when the War started and the South London Hospital for Women would be completed in 1916. Hospitals were funded by voluntary donations, often raised at special events organised by local organisations.
The Work of the Medical Officers of Health
The War put increasingly enormous strains on local authorities and on charitable and mutual organisations involved in health and social welfare.
It was the duty of the local authority Medical Officers of Health to monitor the implementation of the various Acts, births, deaths, infectious diseases, infant mortality, report statistics, and to carry out a range of inspection work from factory conditions to unsanitary houses, check for adulteration of food, and initiate legal and remedial action when needed. Every year they presented an annual report to their local authority. Their staffing resources began stretched with enlistment and with new demands imposed on them by the War. The military authorities required inspections of premises used to billet soldiers and disinfection of bloody and infested clothing and bedding in their hospitals. Wandsworth’s birthrate dropped during the War, and in 1918 the death rate exceeded the birth-rate for the first time, partly due to the influenza epidemic in the autumn.
As the first casualties were brought back from the Front there was a need for special hospital provision and medical treatment. Several hospitals for wounded soldiers were set up including the 3rd General London at the Royal Victoria Patriotic School building. Women and men not eligible or fit for military service replaced orderlies who were needed at the Front. By August 1920 it had treated 62,708 patients from all over the British Empire.
The Military also took over the The Tooting Home for the Aged and Infirm off Church Lane from the Wandsworth Board of Guardians, and from April 1916 part of the Wandsworth Asylum for the Springfield War Hospital for severe or protracted cases for the care and treatment of soldiers and pensioners suffering from neurasthenia or loss of mental balance.
The Poor Law
The system of Poor Law administered by Boards of Guardians was continued providing a minimum level of support for the destitute, mainly living in workhouses and some receiving outdoor relief to stay in their homes. The Board, whose members were elected by the public, was largely funded from the rates. It was feared that the families of those who rushed to enlist would suffer financially, while the jobs of many might be adversely affected by the needs of the war economy leading to distress.
The Government moved immediately into action to set up machinery to deal with these problems before they emerged. The aim was partly not to overwhelm the resources of the Poor Law Guardians and push up rates. In addition it was recognised that those who enlisted in the army and navy needed not only to have ‘comforts’ such as tobacco and books, but also basic clothing. The Mayoresses took a leading role in encouraging this, especially for sewn items.
Prince of Wales National Relief Fund
The Prince of Wales headed a National Relief Fund, under rules administered through the Local Government Board. Each Mayor was asked to set up a local authority area Relief Fund Committee to raise money for this national Fund. They were also allowed to set up their own relief funds for local needs. Both John Archer as Mayor of Battersea and Alderman Dawney, the Mayor of Wandsworth were quick off the mark. Ward committees were set up made up of local volunteers, representatives of organisations and ward councillors to monitor the needs of their area, take remedial action, and request funds for that action. There was a complex mix of central control by the Local Government Board and delegated flexibility down to the Borough and Ward Committees. The surviving minute book for the Wandsworth Relief Fund gives a fascinating picture of the work undertaken, but as is the nature of minutes, it only provides a framework of what happened. This is supplemented by detailed reports for the ward Committees in the Wandsworth Borough News. Tooting was the ward which experienced the most distress, and the issues involved became very emotional and fraught at times. The wives of men serving in the forces claims were dealt with through the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association. Many local organisations, political, educational, workers, cultural and sport raised money for the Relief Fund.
Voluntary War Workers Associations
The voluntary effort became such a complex operation that Councils were encouraged to set up Voluntary War Workers Associations, which responded to requests for comforts from a central Director General of Voluntary Organisations. The Battersea Committee started in January 1916.
The work of the Relief Fund Committees and the voluntary workers in Battersea and Wandsworth deserves to be fully researched and written up. But the fundraising for the Prince of Wales Fund and those set up locally by Mayors was not the only demand on the public. There was also fund-raising for Alexandra Rose Day,” for non-military hospitals, The Belgian Refugees Relief Fund and Russian, French, Belgian, British and Serbian Flag Days.
With so many fathers serving in the forces the issue of maternity and children services became an important issue to be addressed. Organisations like the Women’s Co-operative Guild had been lobbying for a long time on the need for improved provision. In the new circumstances they were able to persuade the Government to act. The Battersea socialist Caroline Ganley played an important role in this. Local authorities were required to set up maternity homes, and this became a new challenge for the Medical Officers of Health.
Food Crises and Rationing
Many of the anti-poverty gains before the War began to be eroded as the cost of living went up. Britain’s food supply was vulnerable as so much was imported especially the all important wheat from the United States and Canada used for the basic food staple of bread. In April 1916, Britain only had six weeks of wheat left. As food prices rose Battersea Trades & Labour Council organised a a local Food Price Campaign and lobbied the Government.
Then in 1917 the German submarines began attacking merchant ships sinking large numbers. The Government had to bring in a measure of price controls, with the establishment of local Food Control Committees, again operating as partnerships at the local level. To increase food production open spaces were turned into allotments and chickens etc. were kept in back gardens. In 1917, the government took over 2.5 million acres of land for farming. The Women’s Land Army was set up to work and conscientious objectors were also sent to work on the farms. Allotments societies were set up in both Boroughs. There survive minutes of meetings about co-ordinating and promoting allotments. The Government introduced rationing from January 1918.
Disruption to Services and Organisations
Administration of local services was disrupted by the initial rush to enlist. Then were then military recruitment campaigns supported by the local authorities. They lost employees to the armed forces. Because forces pay was lower the two Councils adopted schemes to make up the difference and give it to their dependents, with a guarantee that the men could return to the jobs when the War ended. Many of those jobs had to be covered by recruiting those not eligible or rejected for the forces. The costs rose and this led to political disagreements over the level of rates, leading to a split in the Progressives running Battersea Council, and also disagreements on the Board of Guardians.
Civic society organisations were adversely affected in many ways. Most saw members enlist, often as groups from their workplaces, e.g. 10% of Garton’s workforce, and later be conscripted, and with many being killed.
Three questions emerge from this preliminary review:
· Did the experience of introducing the pre-War reforms mean that the Civil Service was better to take speedy action on the central war-time initiatives?
· Did the attention paid to health and social problems during the war dampen down discontent and help prevent a more revolutionary climate at the end of the War and immediately afterwards?
· With so many members killed in the War what the effect on the viability of civic society organisations in the 1920s and 1930s?