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Friend to the Worker: Social Policy at the Ministry of Agriculture Between the Wars*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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The interwar period posed unprecedented challenges to the English government. Unemployment, poverty, and fiscal crisis dogged policy-makers throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Governmental efforts to deal with the social and economic dislocation caused by the world-wide, post-war depression did not meet with much success. Opinion, both popular and scholarly, has tended to judge the government's domestic record rather harshly. The growing range of government activity overseen by an increasingly homogeneous civil service centralized under the direction of the Treasury has engendered some suspicion about the role of official advice in formulating policies widely regarded as, at best, ineffective and, at worst, wrong-headed and even oppressive. The Ministry of Health seemed more concerned to stem the demands on the Exchequer than to ameliorate living conditions among the poor. The Ministry of Labour, engulfed by the administrative nightmare of unemployment insurance, could not also devise programs to reduce the rate of unemployment. The Treasury not only failed to produce any innovative strategy for the country's fiscal problems, their insistence on reducing government expenditure and maintaining a balanced budget—the so-called “Treasury view”—hung like a millstone around the necks of the spending departments. Even if officials had pressed aggressive and creative programs of social welfare upon political leaders, the Treasury obsession with what we now call the “bottom line” would have effectively denied them the resources necessary to implement any new program.

The 1986 Denis Bethell Prize Essay of the Charles Homer Haskins Society
Albion , Volume 19 , Issue 2 , Summer 1987 , pp. 193 - 208
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1987

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A grant from the American Philosophical Society supported the research upon which this essay is based.


1 See Davidson, R. and Lowe, R., “Bureaucracy and Innovation in British Welfare Policy 1870–1945,” in The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany 1850–1950, Mommsen, W.J., ed., with Wolfgang Mock (London, 1981), pp. 277–79Google Scholar for a summary of this literature.

2 See Lewis, Jane, The Politics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare in England 1900–1939 (London, 1980), pp. 61113Google Scholar; Macnicol, John, The Movement for Family Allowances 1918–45: A Study in Social Policy Development (London, 1980)Google Scholar; Ryan, P.A., “‘Poplarism’ 1894–1930” in The Origins of British Social Policy, Thane, Pat, ed., (London, 1978), pp. 7278Google Scholar; Crowther, M.A., The Workhouse System 1834–1929: The History of a Social Institution (Athens, Georgia, 1981)Google Scholar; and idem., “Family Responsibility and State Responsibility in Britain before the Welfare State,” The Historical Journal 25 (1982): 131–45.

3 See Lowe, Rodney, “The Ministry of Labour 1916–1924: A Graveyard of Social Reform,” Public Administration 52 (1974): 415–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; The Erosion of State Intervention in Britain 1917–24,” Economic History Review 31 (1978): 270–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bureaucracy Triumphant or Denied? The Expansion of the British Civil Service, 1919–1939,” Public Administration 62 (Autumn 1984): 291310Google Scholar.

4 See Skidelsky, R., “Keynes and the Treasury View: The Case For and Against an Active Unemployment Policy 1920–1939,” in Mommsen, , The Emergence of the Welfare State, pp. 167–87Google Scholar, for a sympathetic account of the Treasury position during the interwar period.

5 Davidson, and Lowe, , “Bureaucracy and Innovation,” pp. 263295Google Scholar.

6 Royal Commission on the Civil Service, 1912. Appendix to First Report, Minutes of Evidence. Cd. 6210, pp. 218, 219–21.

7 Departments with promotees among their senior administrative officers included only Customs and Excise, the Post Office, the Ministry of Labour, the Board of Trade, and the Ministry of Agriculture. Kelsall, R.K., Higher Civil Servants in Britain (London, 1955), pp. 15, 41–42, 51, 107, 109Google Scholar.

8 Daniel Hall, K.C.B. (1918). Born in 1864, Hall attended Manchester Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford. Hall was Director of the Rothansted Experimental Station of the Lewes Agricultural Trust before becoming Permanent Secretary of the Board of Agriculture in 1917. He became Chief Scientific Advisor of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1920, a position he held until 1935.

9 Whetham, Edith H., The Agrarian History of England and Wiles 1914–1939 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 8788Google Scholar.

10 See Whetham, Edith H., “The Agriculture Act, 1920 and its Repeal—The ‘Great Betrayal,’Agricultural History Review 22 (1974): 3649Google Scholar for a detailed account of this episode.

11 Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, The Agricultural Output of England and Wales, 1925. Cmd. 2815, Table 30, p. 152.

12 Ibid.

13 Stanley, 16 Jan. 1923, MAF 47/25. MAF is the designation for the papers of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries deposited at the Public Record Office.

14 Stanley, 21 Dec. 1923; Thompson, R.J., “Notes to be considered in Establishing A Wages Board,” 21 Jan. 1924Google Scholar; Stanley, , “Wages Board Bill Possible Points of Contention,” 31 March 1924Google Scholar. MAF 47/25.

15 R.J. Thompson, “Memorandum on the desirability of including a Statutory Minimal Wage of 30/-per week” n.d.; Stanley, , “Statutory Minimum of 30s,” 21 March 1924Google Scholar. MAF 47/15.

16 SirFloud, Francis, “Agricultural Wages,” 8 Feb. 1924Google Scholar; Rogers, A.G.L., “Low Wages in Gloucestershire,” 23 May 1924Google Scholar; Stanley, , “Low Wages,” 21 July 1924Google Scholar. MAF 47/25.

17 Groves, Reg., Sharpen the Sickle! The History of the Farm Workers' Union (London, 1949; repr. New York, 1976), pp. 164, 172, 207–08Google Scholar; Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars 1918–1940 (Boston, 1971), pp. 252–53Google Scholar.

18 Whetham, , Agrarian History, pp. 4748Google Scholar; Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Agricultural Tied Cottages, 1932. Cmd. 4148, pp. 5, 20–21.

19 Stanley, 18 Nov. 1929. MAF 48/207.

20 Thomas, 18 Nov. 1929; Stocks, 30 Nov. 1929; French, 6 Dec. 1929. MAF 48/207.

21 Thomas, 10 Dec. 1929; Buxton to Greenwood, 23 Dec. 1929. MAF 48/207.

22 French, 1 Jan. 1930; Stocks, 6 Jan. 1930; French, 8 Jan. 1930; Stocks, 9 Jan. 1930. MAF 48/207.

23 Meeting 10 Jan. 1930. MAF 48/207.

24 Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Agricultural Tied Cottages. Cmd. 4148, p. 32.

25 Addison, Lord, A Policy for Agriculture (London, 1939), p. 52Google Scholar.

26 Self, Peter and Storing, Herbert L., The State and the Farmer: British Agricultural Policies and Politics (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963) pp. 173–74Google Scholar. See Mills, F.D., “The National Union of Agricultural Workers,” Journal of Agricultural Economics 16 (19641965): 244CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Whetham, , Agrarian History, pp. 156–57, 236–37Google Scholar.

28 Sir Francis Floud, “Agriculture and Unemployment.” MAF 53/61.

29 Description of operation of drainage scheme, n.d. MAF 47/2.

30 Dobson, 23 June 1922. 13 July 1922. MAF 47/2.

31 Morgan, Kenneth D., Portrait of a Progressive: The Political Career of Christopher, Viscount Addison (Oxford, 1980), p. 197Google Scholar; Floud, Francis L., The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (London, 1927), p. 261Google Scholar; Final Report of the Unemployment Grants Committee, 1933. Cmd. 4354, Appendix II, p. 33.

32 Report of the Committee of Unemployment Insurance in Agriculture. Cmd. 1344.

33 French, 15 Jan. 1931; Addison, 16 Jan. 1931. MAF 47/15.

34 French to Blunden, 11 Feb. 1931; Price to French, 13 Feb. 1931; Thomas to H.B. Usher, 10 March 1931. MAF 47/15.

35 This revision led to legislation that created the Unemployment Assistance Board. The issue of the position of agricultural workers with respect to unemployment relief and unemployment insurance constituted a relatively minor subplot in the larger drama of conflict and controversy surrounding this attempt to achieve a definitive solution to the problem of large-scale unemployment relief. For the full story see Miller, Frederick M., “National Assistance or Unemployment Assistance? The British Cabinet and Relief Policy, 1932–33,” Journal of Contemporary History 9 (1974): 163184CrossRefGoogle Scholar; The Unemployment Policy of the National Government, 1931–1936,” The Historical Journal 19 (1976): 453476CrossRefGoogle Scholar; The British Unemployment Crisis of 1935,” Journal of Contemporary History 14 (1979): 329352CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Briggs, Eric and Deacon, Alan, “The Creation of the Unemployment Assistance Board,” Policy & Politics 2 (no. 1): 4362CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gilbert, Bentley B., British Social Policy 1914–1939 (London, 1970), pp. 162192Google Scholar.

36 Miller, , “National Assistance,” p. 175Google Scholar; Gilbert, , British Social Policy, p. 182, n.1Google Scholar.

37 H.L. French, 3 July 1933; record of discussion, 4 Aug. 1933. MAF 47/15.

38 French, 17 Aug. 1933; Minister, 18 Aug. 1933, Nathan to Blunden, 22 Aug. 1933. MAF 47/15.

39 Miller, , “National Assistance,” p. 180Google Scholar.

40 Betterton to Elliot, 26 Sept. 1933; Nathan, 7 Oct. 1933; Floud, 9 Oct. 1933; note of discussion, 17 Oct. 1933. MAF 47/15.

41 Stanley, 7 Nov. 1938; Mitchell, 9 Nov. 1938; Secretary, 16 Nov. 1938; Minister, 21 Nov. 1938. MAF 47/22.

42 “Memorandum sent to Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee on Agricultural Unemployment Insurance,” 19 Dec. 1938; “Notes on the Agricultural Account of the Unemployment Insurance Fund,” 17 Nov. 1939; “Agriculture Unemployment Insurance. Observations by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries,” 9 Jan. 1940. MAF 47/22.

43 See Savage, Gail L., “Social Class and Social Policy: The Civil Service and Secondary Education in England during the Interwar Period,” Journal of Contemporary History 18 (April 1983): 261280CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Roseveare, Henry, The Treasury (New York, 1969), p. 266Google Scholar.

45 Morgan, , Portrait of a Progressive, p. 197Google Scholar.

46 Quoted in Whetham, , Agrarian History, p. 63Google Scholar.

47 See, for example, Dale, H.E., Daniel Hall: Pioneer in Scientific Agriculture (London, 1956), pp. 128–30Google Scholar. When Hall gave evidence to the 1919 Royal Commission on Agriculture he was called upon to explain his supposed view that most farmers were “deficient in brains and capital.” Hall did not accept this as a totally accurate description of his views, but he did not reject it outright either. In reply to this question he observed philosophically, “you have to take people, including farmers, as you find them. If you want the land cultivated, they are the only people who can cultivate it. You have not another race of heaven-made farmers to put in their place.” Royal Commission on Agriculture, Minutes of Evidence (1919) Cmd. 345, p. 11.

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