Home discomforts of war

The Friarage School, Scarborough.
The Friarage School, Scarborough.

Fortunately for the poorest people in the United Kingdom, by 1914 pre-war Liberal governments since 1905 had done much to mitigate the worst consequences of old age, unemployment, sickness and low wages.

By the outbreak of war, more than a million men and women over 70 were receiving means-tested, non-contributory weekly pensions. At only five shillings the old-age pension was minimal, but it saved the elderly poor from pauperism and dependence on the charity of the Poor Law’s “outdoor relief” or the indignity of the workhouse. As the reports of Scarborough’s Board of Guardians show, the Dean Road workhouse was not swamped by an increase in the numbers of paupers from August 1914 onwards.

On the contrary, in May 1915 the number of inmates there of 271 was actually lower by 31 than the corresponding figure a year earlier and those receiving outdoor relief in the form of money, food, clothing and coal, 764, was the same as in May 1914. The North Riding County Council asked for a rate increase of a penny in the pound only to cover the rising cost of food and fuel.

A major source of working-class poverty, identified and emphasized in a succession of surveys from Seebohm Rowntree’s in York (1901) to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law in 1909, was low wages and irregular employment. Pre-war attempts to alleviate these deficiencies were Winston Churchill’s Labour Exchanges and Trade Boards Acts of 1909.

By 1914 more than 400 exchanges were registering over two million workers a year, thereby significantly improving the flexibility of the labour market. At the same time, ten trades where wages were particularly low, most of the workers were women, and none belonged to trade unions, were benefiting from higher incomes and employment security.

But the issue that affected the whole community of all ages, in or out of work, was health. Recruitment of young men during the South African war (1899-1902) had drawn public attention to the appalling physical condition of Britain’s urban manhood. In Manchester, for example, only 1,200 out of 12,000 volunteers were considered medically fit for the army. Malnutrition, disease and chronic infections had produced stunted weaklings not able to meet even the military’s low minimal standards of height, weight and health.

Thanks partly to the caring initiative of a backbencher, the Liberal MP for Scarborough, Walter Rea, a series of measures had been passed by Parliament to improve the medical welfare and nutrition of the nation’s school children. By 1914, as a result of the Provisions of Meals Act, more than 300,000 needy infants in England and Wales were receiving free midday meals and three quarters of local authorities were giving free medical examinations and treatment to under 12s. One of these authorities was the North Riding of Yorkshire. Walter Rea never forgot his visit to Friarage School where he saw children who were diseased, unshod, unwashed and undernourished.

Illness put a breadwinner out of work and kept him unemployed. Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act (Part One) which came into effect in 1913 was the most radical and far-reaching of all these Liberal welfare reforms. Though bitterly opposed by the Conservatives, the British Medical Association representing doctors, and the friendly societies and trade unions which ran their own insurance schemes, Lloyd George drove the measure through with his customary energy and guile.

It was a vast contributory scheme to insure the whole working-class population against sickness impoverishment. Compulsory contributions were collected weekly from employers and workers in the form of stamped cards. Employees paid 4d, employers, 3d, and the state added 2d. “Ninepence for fourpence”, Lloyd George called it. Reluctantly, the doctors, friendly societies and trade unions, but not the Conservatives, were won over when they were persuaded to take part in running it. In effect, as a result, most general practitioners were better paid, their numbers greatly increased and the “approved societies” which cooperated enlarged their membership and bank balances.

It so happened that one of these “approved societies” held their bi-ennial conference in Scarborough in 1915. About 120 delegates of the United Order of Druids assembled on St Nicholas Cliff on Sunday June 13. Along with local representatives of the Manchester Unity Society, the Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters and led by the Town Band, they marched to St Mary’s church. There the vicar of Scarborough, the Rev CH Cooper, conducted a short service. The next evening, the mayor, CC Graham and mayoress, Miss Graham, welcomed the Druids to a musical concert at the Municipal School. Present were about 120 delegates and most of the town’s councillors.

On Tuesday June 15, 118 delegates, representing over 50,000 members, gathered at Westborough Methodists for their meeting. They discussed the terms and effects on their society of Lloyd George’s Act. World-wide the Druids had 212,000 brothers, but their largest lodge in England was in Scarborough.

Six thousand Druids had already volunteered for the armed services, but it was decided that they should continue to pay their subscriptions and qualify for benefits. There was loud applause when reference was made to “those brethren who had sacrificed all their home comforts in the battle for freedom, Christianity and God”.

After a “farewell smoker” at the Sun Inn in St Thomas Street, the Druid delegates left Scarborough the following Friday morning.

Meanwhile, town councillors and their officers were trying to minimise the rising costs of the war. The increase in the price of coal from 15s 6d to 23s 6d a ton during the past nine months was especially hurtful. The town’s water rate had to be raised to pay for the extra expense of pumping it by steam engine to customers and Scarborough Gas Company announced in capital letters that”in consequence of the ABNORMAL ADVANCE IN THE COST OF COAL” the price of domestic gas would rise by 4d per 1,000 cubic feet after the next meter reading.

At the same time, councillors were considering whether they should grant a “war bonus” to the town’s employees to make up their wages. A week later, there was a discussion on how savings could be made in street lighting, cleaning and repairs, even if that meant that standards had to fall below the recommendations of the borough engineer. Should the Town Hall reduce the number of its bricklayers, masons, joiners, wheelwrights, painters and blacksmiths and contract out their work? Should the Council buy in asphalt for road surfaces rather than make its own? A century later, all these questions sound far too familiar.

Still Madam Monlee was doing her bit for King and Country. From her premises at 3,4 Museum Terrace, as a self-proclaimed palmist, clairvoyant and crystal gazer, established in 1892, she offered “free readings for all soldiers”, but only after 6pm. The wives and mothers of soldiers might have “cheap terms”. One wonders what Madam Monlee pretended to see in her crystal ball.