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In the beginning


Since Tudor times, workhouses organised by local parishes provided support for the destitute, elderly, sick and unemployed. But the Victorians viewed poverty and unemployment as personal moral failings to be deterred by harsh conditions. The stigma of pauperism caused reluctance to use the Poor Law.

Friendly Societies provided insurance for sickness, but not pensions for old age. Many workers could not afford to pay subscriptions. By the end of the 19th century, pioneering social surveys showed widespread poverty. Among the elderly, half were forced onto Poor Law support.

The Old Age Pensions Act 1908 created the first right to benefits paid without stigma. National Insurance for sickness, unemployment and other risks followed. In 1935, a national scheme of means-tested benefits superseded the Poor Law for unemployed people who had exhausted insurance. But there were many gaps and inconsistencies in provision, and 9 Government Departments were involved.

In 1941, Sir William Beveridge was asked to recommend improvements in this patchwork. His report Social Insurance & Allied Services, published a year later, led to the creation of the Welfare State .

Workhouse - copyright Mary Evans Picture Library

Marylebone Workhouse in 1900, when 227,000 people were confined in workhouses like this. Another 584,000 received "outdoor relief". Workhouses continued to provide the only support for many poor people until 1948.


Lloyd George - copyright Mary Evans Picture Library


Lloyd George, as Chancellor, introduced means-tested old-age pensions in 1908 and National Insurance for unemployment and sickness in 1911. Sickness benefits were paid through "Approved" Friendly Societies. Contributory pensions and widows' benefits waited till 1925.



Cartoon - Beveridge slaying the Five Giants on the Road to Reconstruction



Beveridge slaying the Five Giants on the Road to Reconstruction ­ Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. In fighting poverty, he thought education, housing, health and help in jobfinding were as important as benefits.

Journalist, civil servant, academic and finally politician, Sir William Beveridge helped introduce labour exchanges (jobcentres) in 1909, as well as working on the 1911 unemployment insurance scheme. His great Plan for universal social insurance summed up a lifetime's interest in poverty and unemployment.

The Beveridge Report

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In the beginning
Setting up Social Security: 1948
Paying contributions
Communicating with the public
Changing technology
The Social Security "Family Tree"