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War Widows and their Pension. It Dictated Their Everyday lives and Decision Making

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

By 1919 there were 200,000 war widows and a third of a million children receiving a pension. The provision of a pension was of great importance to First World War widows. The pension dictated their everyday lives and decision making.

Wives Deemed to be On the Strength

It was a tradition on the British Army that men could not marry without permission and each battalion restricted the number of men given permission. Wives of married men were then deemed to be ’on the strength’ of the battalion and would be provided for and permitted to follow their men abroad. Many of the men were posted to the far flung outposts of the British empire. If their husband was to be killed in action then the wife was permitted to remain on the strength for up to six months by which time she had to have had remarried or returned to Britain. Needless to say remarriage rates were high.


Those Not On the Strength

For those wives and their children deemed not to be on the strength they had to fend for themselves in the event of their husbands death. Following the Crimean War and for the period up to the Boer War of 1881, widows and orphans had to apply to the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation (RPFC), set up to distribute the funds received from public donations. From 1881 the War Office paid a pension to wives whose husband had been killed in action or had died of wounds, the amount paid was one year’s salary and it was only paid to those wives who were ‘on the strength.’ Charity was filling the gaps that the state had left and the RPFC, supported by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association (SSAFA who are still in existence today) assisted those wives in need. Charity was the benevolent type associated with the Victorian and Edwardian era with middle and upper class women, who were members of the Charity Organisation Society, sitting in judgement on the working class and distributing financial support to those they considered to be in need of support. This support included the working class poor women applying for support and being subjected to home visits, income assessments to ensure that there were no double payments from multiple sources, how they spent their money and to their moral fortitude.


Wives of Reservists Promised a Pension

With the onset of the war in August 1914, Reservists who had served their time in the army were recalled to the colours. Many of these men had wives and children and to assist with recruitment the wives of these men were promised by the state a pension in the event that their husband was killed in action. Rather cynically this was made on the basis that their husband enlisted rather than our of any moral obligation.

The pension card of Sgt Alexander Fleming Strachan He was the husband of Williamina Fleming who resided at 9 Victoria Road, Falkirk. He was killed in action. She received a pension of 16/- per week (Western Front Association Pension Records)

There was not attempt by the state to provide the wife with an allowance or pension in line with her husbands civilian earnings. The War Office deemed this to be a complex issue and the men were all soldiers now and would be treated equally according to their military rank. A differential rate was applied whereby one man man’s life was worth more than another’s for example, a miner’s widow received more than a labourer’s despite the fact they may have died side by side. There was certainly no distinction between officers and men, with, for example, the wife of a Colonel receiving £200 per year on his death and a wife of a private living on an annual income of £13.

Pension for Wives 'Off the Strength'

The Under Secretary of State for War gave an undertaking to Parliament that those wives ‘off the strength’ would not lose out in either separation allowances or in pension. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith subsequently assured Parliament that all wives would be taken care of with orders being issued by the Army Council on 16 August. The allowances were by no means generous with the widow of a private receiving 5/- per week on his death, this was the same amount paid during the Boer War of 1899, and if the widow remarried she received a one off sum of £13.


The allowances payable to the soldiers children began at 1s 6d per week. These allowances were set out in the Royal Warrant on military pay in August 1913. An increase in these allowances was announced in October 1914, with the widow of a private now receiving 7s 6d per week and the remarriage payment being tripled to £39. The Royal Warrant of 1913 made it clear that pensions were not payable to anyone, but was the reward for the service of the husband. The regulations that the core principles of the pension policy were built around, they were modified during the course of the war, included: the couple had to be married at the time that the man enlisted, and at the time he received the injury from which he died. The death had to be due to military service and not caused by the man’s negligence, and had to have occurred within seven years of his original injury. How these regulations were interpreted and adhered to caused the widows a great deal of distress and in addition, a pension could be withdrawn if the widow was deemed to have indulged in adverse conduct.

Officers' Wives Treated Differently

An Officers’ wife was treated very differently from that of the other rank soldier in that they qualified for a pension if their husband died of natural causes, and the payments were scaled and varied depending on the circumstances of his death. If he died in action the widow received a higher payment. The Officers’ conduct was taken into consideration and any adverse conduct could disqualify the wife from receiving a pension, and like the other ranks wife the Officers’ wife could have the pension withdrawn for not conducting herself in an acceptable way. If an Officers’ widow remarried then the pension ceased, and unlike the ordinary soldiers’ widow, she could reapply for her pension if she was to be widowed a second time.

Couple who chose to cohabit than marry

A concession, that reflected the reality of working class life in an era were divorce was difficult and expensive to obtain, was to couples who chose to cohabit rather than marry. A woman did not have to be married to a soldier in order to be able to claim a pension. All she had to do was provide proof that the soldier had supported her financially, and if she had children to him, then she and the children could claim a pension. The difficulty for the woman was that the burden of proof lay entirely with her and it was not uncommon for her claim to fail because the man had not mentioned her when he completed his enlistment papers. Objections to the payment of pensions to unmarried women came from the Church of England and SSFA members, the largest meeting in the history of SSFA was held in January 1915 by members protesting against payments to unmarried women. SSFA did eventually support the allowance being paid to unmarried women however, the attitude of their volunteers at a local level when assisting these women was probably not very helpful. It was ironic that unmarried women were actually better off than a women who had married their husband after he had enlisted as the original regulations stated that those marrying after a man had enlisted were not entitled to a pension on the husbands death.


That the woman was ’In every respect deserving of the grant of Pension.’

A widow did not automatically receive a pension and had to apply by completing the relevant forms that had been sent to her with the notification of her husbands death. It was not enough that the husband had named the wife on their enlistment papers they had to complete a form with the full details of their marriage and of the birth of any children. This form was then taken to a Justice of the Peace or a police officer above the rank of sergeant to sign and vouch that the information contained in the forms was correct and that the woman was ’in every respect deserving of the grant of Pension.’ The forms then had to be sent to the War Office along with copies of the marriage certificate and birth certificates for any children. Many saw the withdrawal of their pension for not living up to being deserving of their pension. It should be pointed out that the costs of the necessary marriage certificates and birth certificates, particularly to working class women, were significant with each costing 3/- per copy and for widows with a large family the costs were not inconsiderable. The Bradford committees in charge of administering war relief recognised this cost and recommended to registrars that a widow need only present the relevant forms to obtain a birth certificate at a cost of six pence. On completion of her application the widow collected her pension from the local Post Office although the reality was somewhat different with many widows having to wait sometime for the War Office to make the transition from the separation allowance to a pension which meant that many women had to rely on charitable payments until the War Office paid their pension.


The myth that women were incapable of managing their money

With the payment of pensions there followed the myth that women were incapable of managing their money and that they were spending their money on drink and other items rather than on their families. This idea was certainly one that was prevalent amongst those middle class women influenced by the Charity Organisation Society and who saw poverty and its causes as a moral as opposed to economic issue. The level of pension paid to widows was, as we have seen, absurdly low and any idea that they had money to spend on luxuries equally absurd. In 1915, the Select Committee on Pensions made a number of recommendations to improve the administration of pensions which included setting up a Statutory Committee of the royal Patriotic Fund corporation to administer the pensions so removing this role from SSFA. Naturally SSFA did not relinquish their role and influence without a fight. Despite this, the local committees were made up of those who had the same attitudes towards the underserving poor as they saw them. Pension rates were increased to 10/- minimum and with higher amounts if the widow was over thirty-five, it was assumed that women in this age bracket would find it more difficult to remarry or get work. Widows who did remarry would now receive two years gratuity rather than one and the payments to unmarried women remained, with the distinction of pre and post enlistment being removed. Charity continued to fill in the gaps that had been left by the Royal Warrants as the huge number of cases that had not been covered by Royal Warrants meant that Parliament voted to give £1 million to the Statutory Committee to meet demand. This was still not enough and charity continued to play a part in the lives of the widows and children of the soldiers.


The FWW saw a change take place in State Aid

In 1915 the Pensions Issue Office employed twenty people to administer pensions and by 1919 this had risen to 4,262. In 1921, there were 235,233 war widows receiving a pension and the demand from both widows and disabled veterans for pensions saw the establishment in December 1916, of the Special Grants Committee. There then followed the Ministry of Pensions with the First Minister of Pensions being Labour MP George Burns. Any hope that this new ministry would interpret the rules to favour the widows and disabled veterans in their claims was to be dashed by Treasury penny pinching. The First World War saw a change begin to take place in state aid and this would eventually lead to the present day welfare state.

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