A leather Gladstone bag with medical implements and glass bottles District Nurse's Bag, Shotts, 1950s

Rise of the Welfare State

5 min read

The Industrial Revolution changed the social, economic and political face of Lanarkshire. Increased competition in trade and industry saw employers attempt to reduce labour costs. Unsurprisingly this resulted in an increase in industrial injuries, disease and various forms of poverty, particularly in places like the ‘Iron Burgh’ of Coatbridge.

In the nineteenth century, poorhouses were one of the few institutions providing free care for those in extreme poverty. Most people relied on home remedies for treating the sick and often fell victim to ‘quack’ medicine. The Liberal Government acted according to the laissez faire principle that individuals were solely responsible for their own health and welfare. Poverty was widely regarded as the result of moral weaknesses like drunkenness and idleness.

Industrialists often took a paternalistic approach to welfare. To combat the evils of liquor and all-day Sunday drinking, they encouraged religion and education, often establishing works churches and schools for this purpose.

By the 1850s many temperance societies such as the Independent Order of Rechabites had been founded across Lanarkshire. Some of these accepted alcohol in moderation, while others promoted total abstinence and prohibition.

At this time, coal and iron workers frequently became indebted to their industrialist masters through the use of ‘truck shops’. These company shops were set up to provide a source of food and clothing to workers housed beside the new pits and ironworks but the products were often over-priced and of poor quality.

Workers were paid in tokens so were tied to spending their meagre income in the truck shops. Ironically, most also sold beer and liquor on credit, creating a vicious cycle of debt and poverty.

In the context of a laissez-faire government and profiteering industrialists, work-related voluntary organisations provided vital support to the working classes. Known as friendly societies, these co-operative organisations were the forerunners to trade unions, credit unions and the ideals of the welfare state.

The earliest known record for a co-operative organisation is the Fenwick Weaver’s Society in East Ayrshire, Scotland. Founded in 1761, it is believed to be the first of many grassroots organisations in Western Europe, North America and Japan.  A host of friendly societies were established across North Lanarkshire from the eighteenth century onwards, including the Airdrie Weaver’s Society (established 1781).

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society formed in Lancashire, England in 1844. The Pioneers are regarded as the founders of the modern Co-operative Movement, which aimed to help workers to regain some financial independence. Retail branches of the Co-op offered affordable alternatives to company products.

The Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (SCWS) was created in 1868 to make and supply a wide range of food, household products, clothing and furniture to local co-operative retail societies. Co-op Society members could purchase goods in exchange for Co-op commodity tokens, while benevolent funds were available to members in need during times of industrial strikes or economic recession.

Into the twentieth century, welfare for the people was slowly introduced as government policy. The Labour Party was emerging as a popular socialist party affiliated to trade unions and organisations such as the Co-operative Society Women’s Guilds were campaigning for change.

In response, the Liberal Government introduced a series of social legislation between 1906 and 1914, known as the Liberal welfare reforms. These were somewhat limited but did include publicly-funded welfare for the old, young, sick and unemployed. Midwifery and other maternity services also improved during the 1910s.

During the Second World War, the Coalition Government proposed a series of welfare acts. The Beveridge Report advocated the creation of a British welfare state, founded on what Liberal economist William Beveridge termed ‘the Five Giants’ of Poverty, Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness and Disease. Beveridge’s proposals formed the basis of the post-war Labour Government’s welfare reforms.

The reforms of the 1940s included the implementation of social security, council housing, free education, nationalisation and mass employment. Legislation included the National Assistance Act 1948, National Insurance Act 1946, and National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1946, while the National Health Service provided free medical, optical and dental care for all.

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