Liberal Reforms (1906-1918)
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Attitudes towards poverty in the 1890s 

  • Poverty was often blamed on the individual which was blamed in laziness (laissez-faire). 
  • Politicians believed that people were responsible for their own welfare and that they should work hard and save for their old age.
  • The only way to get up if you were poor was to enter the workhouse. Conditions in the workhouse were poor to discourage people from seeking help. 
  • Charities to help the poor existed, but many relied on family. 

Living conditions in the 1890s

  • Many people moved from the countryside to the cities in hope of jobs in factories from an industrialising Britain.
  • The problems the poor faced:
    • Poor housing
    • Low wages
    • Unemployment
    • Illness
    • Irregular work
    • Little help for elderly, sick or unemployed.

Why did the Liberal Government introduce reforms to help the young, old and unemployed?

  • By 1900, public opinion was changing as people realised that poverty was a cause of several factors. 
  • Charles Booth - he carried out research into poverty in London and published a book to display this.
  • Seebohm Rowntree - he studied poverty and its causes in York and published a report on it.
  • Both researchers found that 28 - 31% of the population lived around the poverty line. The poverty line meaning unable to afford decent housing, food, clothing, healthcare or even a luxury, such as a newspaper.

The Boer War

  • In 1899, Britain went to war with South Africa. Half of those who volunteered to fight for the army were actually unfit for the service. The % of unfit people varied according to where they lived. 
  • Many had been so badly fed as children that they had not grown fully. This was worrying for the government. 

Dynamic Individuals

  • Two leading politicians, Lloyd George and Churchill believed strongly in reform. They believed social reform would make the people better off and the country stronger.

Rivalry with Labour

  • In 1906, the newly formed Labour Party did well in the general election. This worried the Liberals as they wanted to win over ordinary people with their reforms so that people would vote Liberal, not Labour. 
  • It is evident that in 1906 - 1910, Labour Members of Parliament increased so this could be a factor as to why reforms were brought in. However, the number of Labour Members of Parliament is so miniscule compared to that of the Liberals, so Labour may not have even been an issue. 

How the Liberal Reforms helped the children (The Children's Charter)?

Education (provision of meals) Act 1906

  • Allowed local authorities to provide free school meals to needy children
  • Originally Labour Members of Parliament private members’ bill


  • Raised debate of state responsibility for welfare of nation
  • Passing of bill meant significant advance in role of state
  • Gave poor children chance of one hot meal per day
  • By 1914 14 million meals were provided for 158,000 children


  • Only voluntary basis, many local authorities failed to provide meals
  • Imperialists’ motives to help National efficiency after failures if Boer War

Education (administrative procedures) Act 1907

  • Required medical inspection of children and permitted medical treatment


  • By 1914 most local authorities were providing children with some medical treatment
  • Helped cut child mortality
  • Gave children chance of medical help when previously received none


  • Imperialist motives after poor standard of health in Boer War recruits
  • Did not compel local authorities to set up clinics
  • Only gave children free care, parents unable to receive any

Children’s Act 1908

  • Dealt with child neglect
  • Set up juvenile courts and remand homes
  • Prohibited imprisonment of children
  • Banned children from pubs buying cigarettes


  • Highlighted difference between children and adults
  • Gave children protection from parents and adults

How the Liberal Reforms helped the unemployed?

  • All male householders now had the right to vote.
  • Working hours had been reduced and working conditions improved.
  • Limitations: N.I.A. had trades where seasonal unemployment was common, including buildings, shipbuilding and engineering. 

How the Liberal Reforms helped the sick?

  • The National Insurance Act meant that they were insured if they got sick. They also got free medical treatment and maternity care. Three groups paid for this : Taxpayers, Employers, Workers.
  • Limitations: N.I.A. only for people who were on low income (less that £160 a year) 

How the Liberal Reforms helped the old?

Old Age Pensions Act 1909

  • Introduced pensions which gave weekly pensions from Government funds to the elderly of 5 shillings per week to those over 70 and married couples get: 7s 6d (later made 10s)


  • Break from past
  • State offered security for first time without stigma of poor law relief
  • Gave pensioners chance of a better life


  • Small amount, bare minimum to survive
  • People under 70 did not qualify, many people did not live to this age
  • Those who had been in prison or failed to work were excluded
  • Had to be living in Britain for 20+ years
  • Income of below £21 a year
  • However, better than nothing, a start to progress from and a break from the past

More reforms passed during this period:

  • 1906 - the Trade Disputes Act reversed Taff Vale judgement; gave unions right to strike and picket; gave unions more power
  • 1906 - the Workmen's Compensation Act granted compensation for injury at work.
  • 1907 - school medical inspections.
  • 1908 - eight-hour day for miners.
  • 1910 - half-day a week off for shop workers.
  • A Merchant Shipping Act improved conditions for sailors.
  • From 1911, Members of Parliament were paid. This gave working men the opportunity to stand for election

How effective were Liberal Reforms?

  • Proposal from Royal commission to abolish poor law were not carried out
  • Proposals to abolish poor law, workhouses and stigma were ignored
  • Nothing done for agricultural labourers who remained worst paid of all workers
  • Between 1900-14 real wages rose very little
  • Trade unions were little impressed by reforms as militancy escalated
  • By 1914 the percentage of army volunteers rejected through ill health was only slightly better than 1900
  • However Rowntree’s follow up survey in 1936 found that percentage of people living in primary poverty had fallen from 9.9% to 3.9%
  • Far better than anything offered before
  • Recognition from government of need for state intervention
  • Beginning of a social service state where government ensure minimum standards

Reform of the House of Lords

Crisis over the House of Lords erupted when peers rejected the Liberal government's budget in 1909. The Liberals hit back with laws to strip the Lords of power to reject legislation approved by Members of Parliament.


The Parliament Act of 1911 said "money" bills became law within a month if peers did not pass them without change. And Members of Parliament could force through other bills if the Commons passed them in three successive sessions after a two-year delay.


This video looks at how British society changed from 1890 to 1918:



  • Coal Mines Act 1908
  • Introduced maximum 8 ½ hour working day for coal miners
  • Impact
  • Milestone – first time British government had intervened to regulate maximum working hours
  • Limitations
  • Disliked by owners as would have to pay more to workers for overtime
  • Seen by many Liberals as interference into market forces and profitability
  • Labour Exchanges Act 1909
  • Labour exchanges set up
  • Employers with vacancies could advertise position in one place
  • Unemployed could easily see positions available
  • Impact
  • By 1913 430 exchanges in Britain
  • Made easier to find work
  • Limitations
  • System was voluntary
  • Those unemployed not living near exchanges could little afford to visit
  • Trade Boards Act 1909
  • Set up minimum wage in 4 occupations
  • Tailoring, box making, lace making, chain making
  • Impact
  • In 1913 was extended to cover 6 more sweated trades
  • Almost 400,000 workers were protected
  • Limitations
  • Only small percentage of workforce covered
  • Shops Act 1911
  • Gave shop assistants statutory half day per week off
  • Limitations
  • Did not set maximum working hours
  • Many workers forced to make up lost time during week
  • Payment of Members of Parliament Act 1911
  • Payment of £400 per year
  • Impact
  • Working class could now afford to enter politics
  • Limitations
  • Conservatives very critical
  • Said would attract people into public life for personal gain rather than to serve the people
  • Miners’ Minimum Wage Act 1912
  • Set up local boards to fix minimum wage in each district to help miners working difficult seams
  • Limitations
  • Emergency measure forced through to end strike that lasted from February to April
  • Did not satisfy miners who wanted more: 5 shillings per day men and 2 shillings boy
  • Trade Union Act 1913
  • Reversed Osborne Judgement
  • Trade Unions could now divide subscriptions into political and social funds
  • Impact
  • Gave Labour Party funds to allow push to become opposition party to Conservatives
  • Limitations
  • Gave trade unions ability to enter politics and cause further strikes and industrial action
  • National Insurance Act 1911
  • Introduced to help drive for national efficiency
  • Lloyd George concerned over 75,000 tuberculosis deaths
  • Both attempts to head off socialism in Britain
  • Out of population of 45 million only applied to 15 million
  • Part One – National Health Insurance
  • Health cover provided to workers in certain industries by automatically deducting 4 pence from wages
  • Employer added 3 pence and government 2
  • Impact
  • Workers got 10 shillings a week sick pay
  • Entitled to free medical care
  • Maternity grant of 30 shillings
  • Limitations
  • Benefits did not apply to family members only payee
  • Many workers paid voluntary health insurance schemes
  • Insurance companies lost business
  • Lack of hospital provision
  • Criticised by trade unions for taking money from already low wages
  • Part Two – Unemployment Insurance
  • Worked on same principle as health insurance
  • Benefit of 7 shillings per week up to 15 weeks in any one year
  • Impact
  • Gave some unemployment protection
  • Better than what had been in place before
  • Established idea that funds needed to be contributory
  • Limitations
  • Only applied to workers in particular seasonal trades where demand fluctuated
  • Building, shipbuilding, mechanical engineering, vehicle construction, iron founding and saw milling
  • Only covered small number of trades
  • Only for limited time, no cover if go over 15 weeks

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