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Welfare Before the Welfare State & Housing the Workers


Was your ancestor a provider or a recipient of help? Join Doreen Hopwood to help you discover more about them. In this event, Doreen covers two subjects, with plenty of time for discussion.


Welfare before the Welfare State

Until the introduction of state welfare provision in the early 20th century in Britain, people depended on a wide range of bodies to look after them ‘from the cradle to the grave’. In this talk, Doreen explores how people were looked after in times of necessity, such as illness, unemployment and poverty. She covers the period from 1600 to the beginning of the National Health Service in 1948. 

Doreen discusses the kinds of assistance provided by charities, philanthropic organisations, the church and authorities. She then turns to how informal networks of help operated, together with some of the coping strategies individuals and families adopted to deal with problems.

To help you find out more, Doreen describes the key dates to bear in mind, in respect of welfare provision, and offers details of useful sources – whether your ancestor was a provider or a recipient of help.


Housing the Workers

In 1852, Charles Dickens observed that “Most people amuse themselves by fancying what sort of house they would like to live in”.  Whether this fancy became fact depended on where you lived in Britain, your place in society, and how much rent you could afford to pay. 

The Victorian middle classes aspired to the style of property occupied by the aristocracy. The working classes aspired to those of the middle classes. A ‘class’ was not a homogenous entity but had a hierarchy within it. The same applied to the houses in which people lived. A ‘home’ meant more than just the house a person lived in and its contents. The term ‘hearth and home’ became a symbol of status and respectability – whether it was a suburban villa, a country cottage or a ‘two-up-two-down’.

Between 1801 and 1901 the population of England and Wales quadrupled. By 1911, there were 49 towns with more than 100,00 inhabitants. These towns were home to about half the total population.

In this talk, Doreen explores the ways in which the growing demand for housing was met, from the late 18th century to the building boom of the middle 20th century.


She discusses:

  • Housing conditions in town and country.

  • The types of property that our ancestors called home – both inside and outside.

  • The impact on housing of town planning and speculative building, and the legislation that affected them.

  • Sources which can help you to discover more about your ancestors’ homes.


About the speaker: Doreen Hopwood was the genealogist for the City of Birmingham for over 20 years and have been carrying out family history research since the 1970s.  She has enjoyed teaching family, social and community history at all levels from absolute beginners to postgraduate and is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Birmingham. 

She has been a genealogical “agony aunt” by answering reader's questions for genealogical periodicals and is a regular speaker for the Society of Genealogists.

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