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Poverty and the Welfare State in Post-War Britain - Semester 1 - HIS00178H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Chris Renwick
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

For 20 years after the Second World War – when, according to the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, many people in Britain had “never had it so good” – it was commonly believed that the welfare state had eradicated poverty. In the mid-1960s, however, politicians and the public were shocked by a very different picture: more than 10 million people living in either abject poverty or struggling to get by. These revelations, known as the “rediscovery of poverty”, initiated a far-reaching debate, changing the way poverty was understood and represented, as well as the ways Conservative and Labour governments alike tried to tackle it.

Utilising a wide range of primary source material, including political pamphlets, social policy documents, think tank papers, social scientists’ field notes, and television and film, this special subject explores these events and their impact on politics, society, and culture in Britain from the 1950s to the 1970s. In so doing, the module enables students to investigate questions about how poverty was studied and debated during the early years of the post-war welfare state, including controversies over how to define and measure poverty, the difficulties that different ideas about how to tackle it faced, and how new forms of campaigning transformed the way politics is done.

Related modules

Students taking this module must also take the second part in Semester 2.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to in depth study of a specific historical topic using primary and secondary material;
  • To enable students to explore the topic through discussion and writing; and
  • To enable students to evaluate and analyse primary sources.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp key themes, issues and debates relevant to the topic being studied;
  • Have acquired knowledge and understanding about that topic;
  • Be able to comment on and analyse original sources;
  • Be able to relate the primary and secondary material to one another; and
  • Have acquired skills and confidence in close reading and discussion of texts and debates.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight three-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. The Beveridge report and the welfare state
  2. Mission accomplished? Seebohm Rowntree’s third survey of York and the popular perceptions of the welfare state in the early 1950s
  3. The cost of the social services: critics of the welfare state
  4. Researching the welfare state: think tanks and politics
  5. The social distribution of welfare: Richard Titmuss and the shadow social services
  6. Affluence: private opulence and public squalor?
  7. Pensions and old age
  8. Richard Titmuss vs the IEA: the futures of socialism and market liberalism

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay/coursework
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules

None

Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will be given the opportunity to produce text commentaries in seminar, including a written commentary.

For the summative assessment students build a portfolio of two parts, to be submitted together:
a) Two text commentaries of 500-750 words; and
b) One 1,500-word essay which reflects on the significance of the chosen texts in light of scholarship and sources from across the module.
The commentaries comprise 50% and the essay 50% of the overall mark for this module. Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.

Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay/coursework
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative work will be live marked in seminar and supplemented by the tutor giving oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For summative assessment tasks, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Pat Thane, Divided Kingdom: A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  • Peter Sloman, Transfer State: The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  • John Welshman, The Underclass: A History of the Excluded Since 1880 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).



The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.