British War Widows Of The First World War

On November 2nd the guest speaker was Andrea Hetherington, an independent researcher and writer with a particular interest in the First World War. Her talk was based on her published book with the above title.

She took one aspect with reference to what happened to wives whose husband had died in the war and issues of compensation and widow’s pension. At first the government and society did not react well.

There were no pensions available to widows during the Victorian period. Only in the Boer war was some compensation paid to some widows.

There were over 200,000 widows from WW1 and it wasn’t until 1914 that some received a sliding scale of pensions from Officers to privates ie the latter got a lot less than officers. Initially it was a charity organisation, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Family Association, that helped with some compensation. By 1916 under the Liberal government, a Ministry of Pensions was set established.

Using one family as an example, Andrea explained how the death of a husband killed in action affected a family. Private Joseph Lamb a miner from Northumberland had a wife and four children. The criteria that was used to determine if a pension could be awarded depended on several things eg was the soldier married at the time of enlistment; was death due to war service; did death occur overseas or at home. Again, a widow could lose out if her husband had a criminal record or if she had taken up with another man and remarried. Widows who remarried got a lump sum of one year’s pension and then nothing.

There were charities that did help such as the Salvation Army, Poor Law Guardians and Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Family Association. It wasn’t until 1919 that the British Legion was formed and with the pressure on the relevant ministry from these organisations a widow might receive a decent pension.