Over 700,000 British soldiers were killed or declared missing during the First World War and many of these left behind a widow.
At the outbreak of the War, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and the British government introduced a War Widows Pension scheme to support the families left behind. Under the scheme, all war widows were eligible, whether their husbands were ‘on the strength’, ‘off the strength’ or the wives of volunteers.
However, little work had been done to work out how these payments would be administered. The Ministry of Pensions, set up in 1916, was not prepared for the huge numbers of men signing up to the War effort. As the War continued, the Ministry was inundated with claims from wives of the fallen soldiers. The Special Grants Committee was set up to assess whether a woman was eligible for support but often caused long delays and incredible hardship as they struggled to authenticate claims.
The restrictions placed on War Pensions were so harsh that many women suffered from poverty or were forced into work. As one example, a woman who married a soldier after he had been discharged could not claim a pension even if he died from his War wounds. The outcomes of some claims were determined by whether the Committee believed the woman was worthy of receiving a pension. This could be decided by assessing the woman’s parenting skills, moral behaviour and even housekeeping.
Even when awarded a pension, women were still under scrutiny and risked having support withdrawn if they were deemed to have behaved in the wrong way. For example if they were accused of drunkenness, lived with another man out of wedlock or neglected their children. The rates awarded to widows depended on the rank of their husbands.
The weekly rates below apply to the widow of a soldier who was killed in action, as a result of wounds or died of disease caused or aggravated by active service, within seven years of being discharged:
Warrant Officer, Class I 21s 3d Non-Commissioned Officer, Class III 16s 3d
Warrant Officer, Class II or Non-Commissioned Officer, Class I 18s 9d Non-Commissioned Officer, Class IV 15s
Non-Commissioned Officer, Class II 17s 6d Private, Class V 13s 9d
For widows with children under 16 years an additional weekly allowance was available:
For a first child 5s For a third child 3s 4d
For a second child 4s 2d For each child after the third 2s 6d
Motherless children or those who were independent of their mothers could receive a weekly pension of 7s. If there was more than one child claiming, this amount was reduced to 6s per child. Illegitimate children were eligible for 5s a week if an affiliation order was in place or, if the mother was not married or supported by the soldier, where there was proof that he was its father.
By March 1919, only 191,317 widows had been provided with a pension and in many cases the rates given to them were so low that they were still forced to look for work.
Oswestry had its own Naval and War Pensions Committee that met regularly at the Guild Hall. Research of their cases is ongoing in this area. There was help available from local groups set up to help women. The Women’s Club is one example of this. Started on 1st February 1915 and based at 79 Willow Street, The Women’s Club was run by women for wives whose men were overseas. It was a members club and provided a safe place for women to go to socialise, take part in activities such as needlework and to get advice. It is likely that war widows would have been helped by the club when trying to obtain pensions. Lady Harlech was on the committee and helped to raise funds. In 1915 another room at the club was opened for girls aged 14 and over at a subscription of 2d a month.