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Arts and Humanities | European History | History


Cynthia Curran, History


At the onset of the Great War in 1914, Britain was already existing in a precarious economic situation as the state most dependent on foreign goods and trade, a role which was exacerbated by their unique economic and political history which had resulted in the rapid expansion of industry without any interference or protections of the workers by the government. The working class comprised over 80% of the population of Britain, the vast majority of whom were suffering the destitution and poverty brought on by the unrestricted industrialization that had begun over a century earlier. The beginnings of the Great War however, threw the working poor into even more dire straits, as the cost of food (the item which consumed the bulk of weekly budgets) inflated uncontrollably. The government responded to this crisis in various ways over the four years which followed, and historians often argue that the crisis response of the British Parliament actually improved the dietary and nutritional conditions of the majority of workers when compared to pre-war levels. However, my research shows that if one is able to appropriately use nutritional intake as a measure of standard of living, the actions of the British government towards this problem did not improve the quality of life of the working class, mostly due to the fact that there was little understanding of the way the other class lived. Because of the lack of comprehension on the part of the socially superior strata of British society, the nation spent a long period of the war suffering from unaddressed food shortages. The overall effect of Great War food policy however, did mark the beginning of a progression bridging the social gap between the lower classes and the elite. This was a process which would be required for the creation of the welfare state nearly three decades later, and which was brought about from a lasting change in both the economic conditions and social paradigm of the socially affluent as a result of Great War policy, as opposed to an economic improvement for the working class. Examining the perceptions of the governing classes towards government interference of the traditionally capitalist market will help further two primary historical dialogues. First, identifying the political and ideological shifts which took place during the Great War will help historians’ understanding of the rise of the post-World War Two social state. Second, answering the question of how the British social elite viewed the working class throughout the war will lay additional foundations for the study of historical classist issues.


Committee Members: Cynthia Curran, Elisabeth Wengler, and Gregory Schroeder