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The Origins of the British Welfare State: Social Welfare in England and Wales, 1800-1945

Author(s):Harris, Bernard
Reviewer(s):MacKinnon, Mary

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)

Bernard Harris, The Origins of the British Welfare State: Social Welfare in England and Wales, 1800-1945. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xii + 402 pp. $26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-333-64998-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mary MacKinnon, Department of Economics, McGill University.

Bernard Harris, who is Reader in Social Policy at the University of Southampton, aims to combine a description and explanation of the development of government-run welfare provisions with a similar discussion of the roles of voluntary and informal means of support. Studies of the British welfare state range from sweeping statements about capitalism, industrialism, and democracy to research on death rates from particular diseases or of daily life in a workhouse. An attempt to synthesize such a wide-ranging and often contradictory literature is both ambitious and commendable.

The Origins of the British Welfare State has two introductory chapters that survey the (vast) historiography and summarize some of the main approaches previous researchers have developed or adopted (nine groupings are set out in Chapter 2). The next sixteen chapters (almost 280 pages) survey a wide variety of formal and informal institutions, with some discussion of other aspects of the economic, political, and social history of Britain. Chapters are divided into several subsections, with a brief introduction and conclusion for each chapter. Chapters 3 to 11 focus on the period up to 1914, with chapters devoted to the Poor Law, charity, self-help and mutual aid, medicine, public health, housing, education, and the Liberal welfare reforms. Chapters 12 to 17 deal with 1914-39. There are chapters on the effects of the war on social policy, charity, unemployment, health, housing, and education. The last chapter mainly discusses the impact of the Second World War, with the final eight pages briefly mentioning events up to 2002.

As the title suggests, the focus is very much on England and Wales, although there are occasional comments about conditions in Scotland. Ireland (and Irish Nationalists) rate only four one-page entries in the index. I assume that a deliberate choice was made not to index references to other countries. The world outside does occasionally rate a mention in the text, but infrequently. For example, one paragraph points out that the Old Poor Law was a distinctively English institution, and there is mention of the impact of Froebel and Montessori on the development of nursery schools. Emigration does not merit an entry in the index, while immigration appears in the context of charitable responses to Irish and eastern European immigration. Thus readers are not likely to come away with the idea that policy-makers thought about developing or modifying English institutions in light of experience elsewhere, or that many people who hoped to improve their family’s lot in life decided that their best option was to leave the U.K.

The material presented in tabular form reinforces the English orientation of the volume. For example, table 10.3 shows (for every year 1870-1902) attendance at different types of elementary schools. Table 17.3 shows (for every year 1920-1938) secondary school attendance, and Table 17.4 gives annual data on university enrolment, staff, and income. Data for a handful of years would have been adequate, and pruning these tables would have allowed space for a table comparing across countries the proportions of adolescents at school. Thus Harris could readily have made the point that relative to its level of average income, the English invested little in formal education.

I have great difficulty working out what Harris thinks about the development of the welfare state. A lot of the volume is devoted to relating the views and conclusions of other scholars. In ten chapters, the very first sentence either uses the name of some researcher/commentator, or refers more generally to “historians.” These introductory sentences set the tone for what follows. To my way of thinking, there is too much discussion in the text of what various researchers have claimed. Usually Harris confines his assessment of the disparate views to the last page of each chapter.

Harris has clearly read an enormous amount to write this volume, and his knowledge covers a wide span of history and topics. For readers of EH.Net, possibly the most useful section of the book will be the sixty-nine pages of notes. You will find a tremendous range of material cited: monographs, scholarly articles, parliamentary debates, parliamentary papers, and contemporary newspaper articles. Many of the 37 tables have been worked up from a variety of sources, sometimes not sources most of us can easily put our hands on. If you cannot recall what the Sturges-Bourne Acts were, or the recommendations of the Sheepshanks Committee, or whether the Children Act of 1908 attempted to prevent children from smoking tobacco, this is an excellent volume in which to search.

Harris does not describe his book as a textbook. His stated aim is to “provide a much more rounded picture of the development of social welfare provision in Britain” (p. xi), based largely on the literature of the post-1970 period. It seems to me that he feels the book is a successor to The Evolution of the British Welfare State (Fraser, first edition 1973) and at least an enrichment to The Foundations of the Welfare State (Thane, first edition 1982) (which does not include the industrial revolution period). These are widely used as textbooks, so I think it is fair to consider whether The Origins of the British Welfare State could be used with undergraduates.

I agreed to review this book because I often teach an advanced undergraduate economic policy course on welfare state issues. I want my students to have a somewhat richer understanding of the context within which the British welfare state developed than they pick up from The Economics of the Welfare State (Barr), Growing Public (Lindert), or relevant chapters of The Cambridge Economic History of Britain (Floud and Johnson eds.). I usually require them to read passages from the Poor Law Report of 1834 or from Poverty: A Study of Town Life (Rowntree). Similarly, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic history courses, my students have little background in British history. Sociology / social history readings can be a valuable addition to reading lists for these kinds of courses. I hoped that I would find several chapters in Harris’s book suitable for use with students. Unfortunately, this is not so. Perhaps in the U.K. upper-year undergraduates in social policy have already studied enough about welfare states and about British history to be able to cope with the level of detail and the range of views Harris presents. I cannot imagine this is true for any North American undergraduates — it seems to me that there are too many “trees” in the book and not nearly enough “forest.”

Despite my criticisms of the book, this is a work of careful scholarship. If you do research on the history of social policy, you will want to consult it from time to time. Your university library should certainly purchase a copy.


N.A. Barr, The Economics of the Welfare State (first edition 1987, third edition 1998).

Derek Fraser, The Evolution of the British Welfare State (first edition 1973, third edition 2003).

Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of Britain, volumes 1-3 (2004).

Peter H. Lindert, Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, Volume 1 (2004).

B.S. Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1902).

Pat Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State (first edition 1982, second edition 1996).

Mary MacKinnon, with Alan Green and Chris Minns, has written “Dominion or Republic: Migrants to North America from the United Kingdom, 1870-1910,” Economic History Review (2002) and “Conspicuous by Their Absence: French Canadians and the Settlement of the Canadian West,” Journal of Economic History (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII