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October 19, 2004

The Luftwaffe and the Collapse of British Charity

Posted by Frank Prochaska

The aerial bombing of the UK in World War II, and the social dislocation the war caused, did huge damage to both the physical and the social infrastructure of the British voluntary sector. Frank Prochaska argues here that this, as much as any perceived failure in the voluntary provision of health and social services, enabled the 1945 Labour government to nationalise these sectors. Frank Prochaska, Lecturer in History at Yale University, is the leading historian of British philanthropy and is the author of Royal Bounty: Making of a Welfare Monarchy, Philanthropy and the Hospitals of London: King's Fund, 1897-1990, Voluntary Impulse: Philanthropy in Modern Britain and Schools of Citizenship: Charity and Civic Virtue. Dr Prochaska will be writing regularly on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit.

The impact of the Second World War on the creation of the welfare state has attracted so such attention that its impact on charity has been obscured. Historians of welfare, meanwhile, have paid scant attention to an important cause of the Labour government's nationalization of the health and social services - the effects of the German aerial bombardment. Looking back on the issue of war and welfare in the 1940s, they have largely seconded the case made by contemporary socialists that government expansion was inevitable, given the inadequacies and inefficiencies of charity. How different things looked from the perspective of charitable campaigners, who defended their work on grounds of personal responsibility and civic democracy. And how different post-war social provision might have looked had the bombing not been so devastating to the infrastructure and morale of the voluntary sector. As A. J. P. Taylor put it, 'the Luftwaffe was a powerful missionary for the welfare state' [A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), p. 455].

Among the casualties of war was community life and all it represented. Even before the bombing of British cities began, the crisis accelerated the process of co-operation between charities and government departments, which increasingly nationalized welfare and enmeshed volunteers in bureaucratic regulation. As the number of civil servants mushroomed, the continual calling up of personnel for the forces put the churches and charities under considerable strain. Thousands of women deserted their local institutions to assist the war effort. Thousands of clerics became chaplains to the forces, leaving parochial societies in further disarray. The shift to a war footing led to smaller congregations and an erosion of charitable activity, which fractured parish life. As Donald Soper, then Superintendent of the bomb-damaged West London Mission, lamented: 'congregations evaporated, coffers depleted, subscriptions halved' [Philip S. Bagwell, Outcast London a Christian Response: The West London Mission of the Methodist Church 1887-1987 (London, 1987), p. 113].

The Second World War took a much heavier toll on the infrastructure of Britain than the First. Nearly four million houses - about one third of the nation's total housing stock - were damaged during the bombing raids. The effect on household visitation, for example, arguably the charitable sector's most significant contribution to relieving social distress, was little less than catastrophic. Across Britain, those visitors who were still available for work often found nothing but ruins, or families broken up by the evacuation of children. The most destructive phase of the aerial bombardment that ended in June 1941 left about 2,225,000 people homeless [For a detailed discussion of the bomb damage to housing, schools and other facilities see Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London, 1950)]. It also damaged or destroyed up to 4,000 schools, many of them centres of charitable activity. Nor were charitable buildings spared. Bombing damaged thirty-eight missions of the Ragged School Union, for example, which resulted in a dramatic decline in its services [Shaftesbury Magazine, vol. xcvii (June, 1945), p. 11]. Meanwhile, the authorities requisitioned rooms in which charitable meetings and bible classes had been carried out and turned them into wards for casualties of the blitz or recreation centres for servicemen.

Total war unsettled charitable traditions as nothing before in the nation's history. But the blitz was also a turning point in the history of British Christianity, for it devastated a large number of churches and chapels, Sunday schools, and other religious institutions. By 1942, over 1,000 Anglican places of worship, from parish churches to Lambeth Palace and Coventry Cathedral, had been destroyed or badly damaged, a number that rose in 1944 with the onset of flying bombs [The Official Year-Book of the National Assembly of the Church of England 1942, p. 3]. The devastation was so significant that it destabilized traditional parish life in the Church and required a new system of parochial organization to be created. The Methodists had, if anything, more to endure, for the blitz destroyed or badly damaged 2,600 of their churches out of a total of 9,000 in Britain. Across the denominations, it was estimated that 15,000 ecclesiastical buildings, including churches, convents, and mission halls, suffered damage [G. Stephen Spinks, Religion in Britain since 1900 (London, 1952), p. 217]. The number represented one building damaged or destroyed for every parish in England and Wales. The loss of spiritual and social capital, built up over the centuries, was immeasurable.

As the churches and their associated charities collapsed into ruin, so too did large numbers of voluntary hospitals and dispensaries (and municipal hospitals as well). According to statistics compiled by the King's Fund at the time, forty-three of the 158 voluntary hospitals in London reported that they had been severely damaged, thirty less seriously, by July 1941 [F. K. Prochaska, Philanthropy and the Hospitals of London: The King’s Fund, 1897-1990 (Oxford, 1992), p. 136]. St. Thomas's, which was hit particularly hard, lost 508 beds out of a total complement of 682. As early as 31 October 1940, a departmental minute from the Ministry of Health suggested the ominous implications for the hospitals [quoted in Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy, p. 449]:

As a result of the dislocation of hospital services in London, the partial closing of voluntary hospitals, and their damage by air raids, questions are arising that threaten the continuance of certain of these hospitals as independent institutions. Action by the Ministry may determine their continued existence as independent units, or make such existence impossible.

The implications became more ominous with the renewal of German aerial attacks in 1944, which damaged another seventy-six hospitals in the London sector alone. This figure included several of the fifty or so municipal hospitals in the capital. [Prochaska, Philanthropy and the Hospitals of London: The King’s Fund, 1897-1990, p. 151].

That the Second World War triggered a change in hospital administration is obvious. But in their analyses of the making of the National Health Service, historians have made little of it. Rather, they have emphasized the deficiencies of hospital provision in the 1930s and the extension of government controls under the Emergency Medical Service, which brought greater coordination to war-time hospital provision. Disregarding the contradictory evidence, they have exaggerated the growth in public support for state intervention. They have also ignored the support for the survival of voluntary hospitals, not least from working-class contributors, who occasionally served as hospital governors. Well over half the income of several general hospitals in the North of England came from humble contributors [B. Abel-Smith, The Hospitals, 1800-1948 (London, 1964), pp. 250-51]. As Ministry of Health files record, many of them opposed government intervention because they preferred local control of what they saw as 'their' hospitals [National Archives, MH/77/76]. The bombing softened them up.

The mountains of rubble lowered the morale of subscribers and charitable campaigners, whether they served the hospitals, the churches or other institutions. The damage necessitated compromise in the voluntary sector and weakened its position in post-war negotiations with government. This was a point well understood by Aneurin Bevan when he turned his mind to hospital reorganization as Minister of Health. It is worth remembering that the capitalized assets of Britain's thousand or so voluntary hospitals were worth about 300 million pounds before the war. Even after the bombing, the hospitals were worth a sum large enough to put a gleam in Bevan's eye and worth fighting over by the charitable campaigners who had raised the money to pay for them. The nationalization of the voluntary hospitals in 1948 was not 'mass murder', as Sir Bernard Docker, Chairman of the British Hospitals Association, called it [Quoted in John E. Pater, The Making of the National Health Service (London, 1981), p. 122]; but it did represent the greatest takeover of property in Britain since the dissolution of the monasteries.

The experience of war placed an enormous burden on charitable finances generally across the country. But the demands on welfare services mounted just as the cost of rebuilding loomed. Unhappily for charitable campaigners, the strains of war had emptied the philanthropic purse at the moment when government planning excited expectations of universal state benefits. For its part, the Church of England, demoralized and in financial trouble, knew that reconstituting parish charity would be difficult, if not impossible. At the end of the war, the bishops abandoned the tradition of parochial visitation, which in 1939 had occupied 60,000 Anglican volunteers [Brian Heeney, The Women's Movement in the Church of England 1850-1930, (Oxford, 1988) p. 27; The Official Year-Book of the National Assembly of the Church of England 1941 , p. 284]. In an historic break with Christian traditions, the bishops resolved in 1948 at the Lambeth Conference 'that the State is under the moral law of God, and is intended by Him to be an instrument for human welfare' [The Lambeth Conference 1948: The Encyclical Letter from the Bishops; together with Resolutions and Reports (London, 1948), part I, p. 32]. Not surprisingly, church membership continued to slide. What was the point of worshipping in Westminster Abbey when Jesus had departed for Whitehall?

With the New Jerusalem on the horizon, along with higher taxation, the public, like the Church, now looked to government as social saviour. Within a decade, the state largely displaced the vast array of charitable institutions in the provision of health and social services. The expansion of government had been in train for a century or more, but the creation of the post-war welfare state signalled that there was a decisive winner in the longstanding battle between collectivism and voluntarism. In the post-war democracy, social policy shifted dramatically from the religious to the secular, from the local to the national, and the parish bowed to the constituency. The collapse of voluntary provision played its part in the process. The bombing took a heavy toll of the self-governing institutions of civil society, which made the prospect of state planning all the more palatable to an exhausted citizenry. This is worth remembering when assessing the popularity of the post-war welfare state, which owes its origins to the Luftwaffe as well as to Clement Attlee.

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University. Dr Prochaska's other essays on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.


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Let me get this straight. The Lufftwaffe drops bombs on buildings which housed the voluntary and charity organisation on the poor and the needy. Am I right ? Sooooo........
1. There are layabouts,scroungers and asylum seekers milking the welfare system.
2. Which was created by Social Democrats through the establishment of the NHS and the Welfare system.
3. Which forced the take over the old hospitals and help for the poor charities from the voluntary organistations.
3.Because they were bombed the germans.

So you knock the Germans, immigrants, poor people and socialist do-gooders in one historical article.

Christ. Was this for the Daily Mail ?

Posted by: Alun Williams at October 23, 2004 12:15 AM
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A question to the last commentator, where exactly does Dr. Frank Prochaska - in his very thoughtful and interesting article - mention 'layabouts, immigrants, asylum seekers'? These terms - or terms alluding to them - simply do not appear in Dr Prochaska's excellent and intelligent article.

Posted by: Jim at October 24, 2004 09:30 PM
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This is a truly excellent article. I have long admired Frank Prochaska's excellent writing - including his book 'The Republic of Britain' and it is brilliant to find his comment available on the web. Thank you to the Social Affairs Unit for enabling Frank Prochaska to reach a new audience.

Posted by: Gillian at October 25, 2004 12:19 PM
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I am afraid I do not follow Alun's comments. At no point does Dr Prochaska mention scroungers or asylum seekers. It seems to me that this is less an attack on the welfare state than an attempt to set the record straight about its origins. Far from being Daily Mail propaganda, this an important and interesting historical argument which deserves to be more widely discussed.

Posted by: Gareth at October 26, 2004 11:48 PM
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