People and Places gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census People and Places

The War Widow

The War Widow

State pensions for the widows and orphans of ordinary soldiers who had been killed on active service were introduced for the first time in 1901. This helped pave the way for the introduction of state old-age pensions in 1909.

One such pension claim was that made by a Mrs Josephine Downey, who had been left a widow with two small children when her husband, Private James Downey of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, was killed in South Africa in August 1900. In June 1901, she wrote to the War Office enquiring whether she was entitled to a pension under the new regulations. The application was turned down on the grounds that Private Downey had not been killed in action or died of wounds, but had instead died in a tram accident at Paardekop. Pension regulations were subsequently amended to include such cases.

The war widow: sentimental depiction of a grieving woman whose husband has gone to fight in the South African War  -  link to an enlarged version
1901 Census entry for Josephine Downey and family Letter from Mrs Josephine Downey, Manchester, about her pension entitlement  -  link to an enlarged version

Before 1901, widows of soldiers killed in action relied on private charities such as the Royal Victoria Patriotic Fund. Lists of names of widows who received such pensions were printed with the Fund's Annual Reports as parliamentary papers. In 1881, the War Office had agreed to pay a gratuity of one year's pay to such widows, but had turned down proposals that they should be given pensions.

Pressure in favour of pensions however grew with the coming of the war in South Africa. In 1899, the Daily Mail commissioned Rudyard Kipling to write a poem, 'The Absent-Minded Beggar', sales of which were to go to a public fund for soldiers and their dependants.

By the end of 1900, there had been 11,797 casualties, leaving 2,359 widows.

Pensions were introduced in April 1901. The widows and children of black soldiers were excluded from the scheme, although discretionary payments might be made. A widow would forfeit her pension if she married again or committed 'misconduct'. A selection of pension case files at The National Archives (record series PIN 71) includes the case of one widow who was granted a 5s pension in 1901, only to have it stopped in 1902 as she had given birth to an illegitimate child after the death of her husband. It was restored 22 years later.

The Dockyard Worker The Composer The Metropolitan Policeman The Refugee The Army Officer The Actress The War Widow The Soldier The Railwayman The Naval Officer The Telephone Operator The Typist
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