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BBC history series draws on academic’s war widows research

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Published on 10 June 2020

A first world war widow begging for money
A first world war widow begging for money

Professor Angela Smith’s exploration of First World War widows, gleaned from the National Archives almost two decades ago, continues to interest and attract attention and she has given numerous talks on the subject.

As a result, BBC producers who commissioned a third series of the history television programme, A House Through Time, called upon Angela to explain more about the lives and social context of some of the widows who lived at an old house in Bristol. The series has been showing on BBC2, and you can catch it on BBC iPlayer.    

Angela, Professor of Language and Culture, says: “I was delighted to provide context and background to these British widows of servicemen who died in the First World War and how they were represented in society.

“It’s important to reflect on the sacrifices that were made by all those caught up in war.”

The outbreak of the First World War prompted the government to introduce a National War Widow’s Pension Scheme, initially conceived as a recruitment tool. All war widows were eligible, however, the weekly payments of 12 shillings week, were too small to cover their living costs, and hardship increased as the war continued and inflation rose.

The Ministry of Pensions was founded in 1916 to deal with the administration of the payments and the Special Grants Committee became the body that assessed war widows’ eligibility. The process was famously flawed and widely criticised, the committee determined whether women were worthy of state support by assessing, sometimes covertly, their moral and sexual behaviour, parenting practice and housekeeping. At the same time forcing women to leave the home to work by setting pension rates so low, they could barely cover basic living costs.

Angela, who analysed the National Archives’ Ministry of Pensions correspondence - letters between the state and the widows - for her PhD research, explained: “A lot of widows had their pensions stopped due to some gossip connected to them, this was all in the letters I encountered.

“The 1920s was also the time of the Great Depression and many widows remarried very quickly, their pension stopped however within a year of marriage, even today that is still the case. Very few continued getting the pension for the rest of their lives as most re-married. The War Widows’ Association, founded in 1971, continues to campaign for a change in the law, to continue the pension regardless of marital status.”

She added: “Some women couldn’t survive on the pension, and with no state system to support their children, they could not go out to work, the most common job they could do at home was prostitution. That gets them sanctioned by the state, and you have this ridiculous situation where the only way they could maintain enough money to keep their heads above water was to resort to this life.”

“I looked at on one widow, Louisa, who resorted to prostitution and ‘misbehaved’, she lost her pension and began writing pleading letters to the state because her daughter did not have any shoes for wintertime. You can see in the letters this material poverty creeping into her life, the paper gets smaller and smaller and she stops writing in pen, only pencil, as she can’t afford the ink. She never gets her pension back and ends up in workhouse system.”

However, Angela says a lot of women did benefit from the War Widows pension and it saved them from abject poverty. “It does provide the model for how the state will interact with its citizens.

“It was a system that was having to feel its way when there was no other safety net. This was regarded as the first of those sorts of legislation that was in place and influential before the NHS and the social welfare system starts in 1948.”

The new series of A House Through Time was given the green light after enormous success of the recent Newcastle-based instalment.  The North East-born historian David Olusoga will once again present the show.

About Professor Angela Smith

Angela teaches mainly on the BA (Hons) English degree, where she specialises in English Language, particularly sociolinguistics. 

She specialises in language and gender, both masculinities and femininities, and also sexuality.  This intersects with her other research into children's fictions, particularly books for younger readers. She is also interested in media discourses and how politeness theory can be applied to unscripted media texts.