LSE Library’s current exhibition, A Time for Revolutions: The Making of the Welfare State, coincides with the 75th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report and shows the development of social welfare in Britain from the Poor Laws to Universal Credit. Exhibition curator Inderbir Bhullar, looks at William Beveridge via his archives and his connections to LSE.
A telegram arrived on the desk of William Beveridge’s secretary at his lodgings in New College Oxford in early December 1942. Beveridge had for a little while been something of a celebrity following the publication of a report called Social Insurance and Allied Services. Somewhat uniquely for a government white paper, it had become a best seller, capturing the imagination of a war-weary public. The report, which set out of the blueprint for the welfare state, would go on to overshadow all of his other work and become so indelibly associated with him that most people refer to it today as the “Beveridge Report”.
The telegram was, in many respects, like most other correspondence from the time, written asking for Beveridge’s time and company and for a chance to chat to the man of the hour. It differed though in one clear way as it was sent from Alexander Hardinge, Private Secretary to George VI, and was an invitation to Beveridge to visit Buckingham Palace. “The King would be glad if you could come and see HM”.
Beveridge’s biography, written by Jose Harris, confirms Beveridge attended the meeting although it seems like a bit of an anti-climax as meetings with royalty almost inevitably are. The King “wanted to hear not about national insurance, but about the doings of the ‘queer people’ reputed to inhabit the London School of Economics”.
Beveridge had been appointed Director of LSE in 1919, remained in post for almost 20 years and had been a close associate of the School’s co-founders Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Whether they were the “queer people” referred to is alas lost to time. Beveridge as a young researcher had assisted the Webbs as part of their 1909 Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. His work on the subject of unemployment and the inefficiencies of the labour market proved especially useful. The Minority Report rebuked existing methods of social welfare and the Poor Laws and suggested approaches which would find close kinship with those in Beveridge’s later wartime blockbuster.
The Webbs in turn helped introduce a young Beveridge to a young Winston Churchill at one of their dinner parties in March 1908. Churchill, who was at the Board of Trade at the time, was impressed with Beveridge’s ideas for a nationwide system of Labour Exchanges (which he’d seen in operation in Germany) and later that summer made him Director of Labour Exchanges.
Social policy was a lifelong interest for Beveridge and his appointment years later in June 1941, to oversee the Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, gave him scope to investigate and shake up a welfare system which had become an array of confusing patchworks.
Welfare provision and support still owed something to the Poor Laws, which had been in place for hundreds of years and which were only formally repealed with the 1948 National Assistance Act. Many different benefits and services were administered by different government departments and local government agencies, with other help provided by or with the support of the voluntary and charity sector and Trade Unions. Beveridge recognised this as an opportunity to reconfigure and reshape post war social services, to remake them. As he wrote in the early pages of his report:
Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.
Beveridge in the archives
Given Beveridge’s longstanding connection to LSE it’s no surprise to find that his archives are held in LSE Library. Documents relating to his famous report and the Social Insurance Committee which helped give it life, are held in a sub-series called Beveridge/SIC. The folders are filled to the brim with typescript memoranda and evidence given by over a hundred different organisations who sought to influence and share their thoughts with the committee about the future of social welfare.
One such idea was received from Dr Frank Ellis, who proposed regular health checks for all members of the public, seemingly led by the notion that prevention is better than cure.
The vitality of a nation must depend on its individual members, and will increase in proportion to their vitality. Thus it is in the national interest to raise the general health of the individuals as high as possible.
Many other proposals were received and have been kept for you to look at. Personally, probably my favourite section of the archive is the general correspondence much of which was sent to Beveridge after the report was released. There is a hefty glut of letters and telegrams offering (in the main) congratulations from individuals and organisations who had helped in the report’s composition and requests for meetings and interviews from the press (and the odd monarch).
Occasionally there are also letters sent from members of the public or from those involved in the ongoing war. The report offered hope for a time after the fighting had ceased. Some were so moved by Beveridge’s plan that only poetry was effective in capturing their thoughts and emotions. This one was written by a soldier who is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery and who died as Beveridge’s plans were still being fully implemented.
It ends rather poignantly with the verse:
When the Beveridge Plan has finally passed through
And all today’s valiant deeds recalled to you
Never allow the heroes to become nobodys
Remember the nobodys that were somebodys
Posts about LSE Library explore the history of the Library, our archives and special collections.