“War is the locomotive of social change.” To what extent do you agree with this for World War Two in Britain?


As the severe uncertainty and burden of war fell upon the British people on September 3rd 1939, they  found themselves being tested and pushed to the limit. Often being referred to as a ‘total war’, the war meant a social revolution was brought upon Britain; the struggles and hardships of the war were difficult for anyone to escape1. The effort of the collective home front and the British Government was claimed to have resulted in profound socio-economic changes for the British people. Pre-war class divisions and prejudices were said to have been banished as a new social order was developed under the image of the common people and experiences of the war. Women began to be recognised as free-willed and strong, seeing their lives change before their eyes, abandoning the bias that women belonged in the home, cooking and raising the children.  Events within the war such as evacuation and the Blitz assisted in allowing the issues of class and social poverty to permeate through into the media and then society. Moreover, the introduction of the Beveridge Report completely changed the expectations of the British post- war as Labour was elected and took it upon them to transform Britain into a ‘New Jerusalem’.

‘The people’s war’ was the idea that the British people developed a greater sense of community consciousness during the war. Historical opinion is divided on this and the extent in which war did in fact act as a locomotive of social change. Though considered a ‘traditionalist’, Mark Donnelly perfectly outlines this in his book “Britain in the Second World War”. For example, he mentions Richard Titmuss2 argument that war did in fact create a new social awareness in regards to such areas as poverty, gender and social policy. Indeed, allowing them to make common sacrifices, work together regardless of class, gender or age and to pursue a shared goal of maintaining morale and winning the war for their country.  The media, particularly the BBC emphasised this and so the story of national cohesion and a sense of unity grew while under the attack of a common enemy. Other historians such as Nick Tiratsoo dispute this, arguing that it was only brief and a considerable number of people expressed a deep desire to return to the normalcy of pre-war life3. Despite this, historical opinion is divided between the traditionalist view that war was a locomotive of social change and the revisionist view which expresses reservations to the social change thesis of the war; Henry Pelling being one who argues against traditional historians and questions what extent World War Two did in fact change Britain4.

Despite this, to claim that World War Two led ultimately led to complete social transformation for areas such as the emancipation of women, acknowledgement of poverty and social policy would be an extreme failure to recognise and comprehend the severely complex issues that begun in the 1930’s and remained post-war. It can be argued that the war revolutionised many aspects of British society and cause permanent social change. Regardless, war to varying degrees had an impact on women, social policy and class. Therefore, war did act as a locomotive of social change and thus this dissertation will assess and evaluate the duration and effectiveness of three key areas that are said to have promoted social change in Britain. Chapter one will entail and analyse the impact the war had on the social and economic status of women. Furthermore, chapter two will discuss how the Blitz allegedly torn down class barriers and how evacuation acted as a locomotive of social change. Finally, chapter three will analyse how Labour and The Beveridge Report had an effect on British society.

The changing role of women 


The most pertinent and well-known factor claiming that the war acted as a locomotive of social change for the people of Britain was in the form of social and economic emancipation of women; Arthur Marwick being one to maintain his view that without the crucially important social change for women it, “brings one to the heart of the whole question of whether the war brought about significant social and economic freedom5”. The war was said to emancipate women from their pre-war oppression and they were able to act and live more freely than ever before. Conscription in 1941 was particularly significant in regards to allowing women to become employed in previously male dominated work forces; forcing society to re-examine the previous social and economic biases, and gender roles that hung-over women. This view has led many historians to argue that the war produced fundamental socio-economic changes for women, Arthur Marwick being of particular notability; claiming that social change during the war consisted of four dimensions. The third being relevant to women as it defines conditions by means of “participation6”, which he believes allowed a person who, up to the time of the outbreak of war, had been deprived of the right and power to participate in a plethora of social activities, to finally be socially accepted to participate in them7. Although, this has drawn particular criticism from historians who argue that many of the changes that occurred for women in Britain during war-time were often transitory. Furthermore, the likes of Penny Summerfield argue that gender based discrimination and roles persisted post-war, despite the social freedom women appeared to be given8.

At the beginning of the war, Chamberlain and his government made no effort to include women in war-time work, seeing no need for such a thing despite pressure from numerous women’s rights groups such as the British Federation of Business and Professional Women who continuously campaigned for increased opportunities for war-time work9. However, this situation halted when the new Minister of Labour, Bevin, read reports of the number of workers required that would allow Britain to continue to be successful during the war published by the Manpower Requirements Committee in 1940. Following this, the Government began to acknowledge that the employment of women in the war-time work force was extremely vital. Thus, in 1941 Bevin implemented conscription for all able women, meaning they would become part of the war work force. By 1943 the number of women in work peaked to approximately 1,500,000 compared to pre-war employment levels; 46% of all British women aged between 14 and 59 were employed and fulfilling paid work10.

Some 470,000 young women were conscripted into the armed forces during the war period; effectively allowing them to become socially free within such areas as the Territorial Service, The Land Army, Air Raid precaution and the Auxiliary Fire Service: “ The uniform was widely seen as a form of emancipation in itself 11,” according to historian Pugh.  However, although conscription had a large influence on single women between 19 and 39, it did not affect married women. Married women who wanted to enter the work force had to volunteer. This was often done to provide an additional source of income while their husbands were in the armed forces; women’s income became crucial in order to keep families running sufficiently. Wives all over Britain volunteered to take part in war-time work, with nearly three million women being employed, compared to the pre-war one million12.

Yet, despite this new found social and economic independence women were given due to war work, employment peaked in 1943 and then steadily declined between 1944 and 1947. By 1951 levels had declined to pre-war levels of employment; according to Summerfield, social attitudes towards women also changed during the war. Respect towards the working women increased through propaganda and the eventual victory of Britain, however, this was only temporary and attitudes reverted back to the pre-war stance- “War work did nothing to change centrality of women in the home.13” While many women chose to seize the opportunity of employment, many married women chose not to volunteer as there was 8.7 million housewives in Britain compared to the 7.3 million women workers that existed during the war14.

To conclude, while war briefly presented many women with socio-economic freedom, increased their self-confidence and abilities; it overall did not leave a significant lasting impression. Despite the media presenting the idea that woman had become strong and independent, a majority of the prejudices that existed pre-war returned. Many women who had become socially independent during the war found it considerably difficult to return back home under the rule of their husbands and as said by historian David Kynaston, “She had become more independent (often working in a factory and running the home) – the possibilities for tension and strife, even when both were emotionally committed to each other, were endless.15” Divorce figures soared after the war and may have acted as a mark of the disruption that war brought on the British people. Therefore, it remains a matter of controversy whether the war did indeed act as a locomotive of social change for women. Despite their huge contributions to work forces and their war-time efforts, it can be argued that while women become socially liberated, they remained enslaved economically16.


The impact of the Blitz and evacuation on society 


The exodus that took place within Britain during world war two began with the government’s decision to evacuate mothers, children, teachers and those with disabilities. The government had begun discussing the likelihood of evacuation during the early 1920’s onwards due to the previous World War and the fear of air attacks on major urban cities. Therefore, Britain was well prepared when the time came to evacuate due to the Second World War. Moreover, evacuation begun on September 1st 1939 because of the widespread fear of an enemy air attack; two days before war was officially declared. The government and the ARP heavily pushed families, particularly those in cities such as London, to evacuate their children as it was believed to be the safest option. However, this was during the period of the Phony War and as a result many whom were evacuated returned home; it is estimated that 80% had returned home by 1940. Nonetheless, the German Luftwaffe eventually did attack with extreme air raids in the autumn of 1940 lasting 24 nights- The Blitz- and thus evacuation resumed; something Angus Calder argues was “solely a military expedient, a counter-move to the enemy17.”


By the end of World War Two, over one million city civilians had been evacuated to the countryside18. According to Arthur Marwick, evacuation played an indispensable role in promoting social solidarity as town met county and working class met the middle class19. Agreeing with this, John MacNicol argues that evacuation was the most crucial life-event during World War Two after the Blitzkrieg bombing20. Moreover, evacuation has been identified as an enormously important casual factor in the construction of the reformist consensus that led to the Welfare State legislation of the late 1940’s.

Traditional historians take the view that the mixing of the classes led to a breaking down of social barriers. It is believed that the interaction of previously distinct social classes helped raise a national awareness of the issue of urban poverty, as reception halls across the country filled up with apparently malnourished and lice-ridden children, lacking adequate clothing and basic rules of civilization and education. For example, in Newcastle of 31,000 children registering to be evacuated, 13% were found to have unsuitable footwear and 21% were found to have unsuitable clothing; in Scotland it was a similar story with 39% of children having clothing that was described as ‘deplorable’21. Stories of these events filled the media and speeches were made at parliament about the need to address these serious socio-economic issues. Churchill promised that action must be taken and according to Titmuss, evacuation provoked the nation’s conscience and thus allowed the government to introduce a number of policies and reforms to combat the social deprivation that permeated through the evacuation of thousands; for example, the implementation of the 1944 Education Act and free milk and meals at school22. Moreover, Titmuss argues that after July 1940 the number of school children receiving school meals increased by almost half within a twelve-month period of the policy being implemented, and those taking milk increased by half. Furthermore, he argues that evacuation stirred the government’s conscience and thus led to a direct extension of welfare reform from the more liberal administration of National Assistance to the 1944 Education Act23.


However, reports discovered that while evacuation was beneficial in increasing awareness of the social deprivation of many city civilians and the equality of sacrifice, it also falsely promoted the unity of classes in Britain’s hour of need. Middle and upper homes became reluctant to allow evacuees to stay in their homes; reports showing that evacuees were happiest in homes of a similar social background to theirs. Evacuation was far from the happy picture the media promoted; there was little cross class cooperation. Contrasting with Titmuss’ view, historian MacNicol furthers this argument by suggesting that far from pricking middle-class conscience and promoting social welfare reform, evacuation only reinforced pre-existing class prejudice about ‘feckless working-class parents24’ and that what was required to solve the problem of lice ridden children was better parental education and not a state-run welfare system.


However, there are an extensive number of interpretations of the British experience of the Blitz; often being referred to as the ‘peoples war’. Similarly to evacuation, there was popular imagery emphasized by the Blitz of common endeavor and shared fear, ultimately forcing national and social cohesion25; “Bombs, unlike unemployment knew no social distinctions, and so rich and poor alike were affected in the need for shelter and protection.26” From shared air raid shelters, shops that refused to close despite the relentless air attacks forced upon city dwellers of the UK, and volunteer firefighters and rescue workers risking their own lives to save others. For the first time in British history, air raids and enemy attacks not only pronounced the reality of warfare, but caused it to permeate through directly in British cities and towns.


The bombing by the Luftwaffe caused significant social impacts on Britain; both negative and positive. Thousands of families were left with tragic loss or separation from their children or parents; indeed, evacuation being the driving force behind this. Some 60,000 civilians were killed and more injured, permanently scarring the families they left behind. Moreover, education was undermined as many teachers were evacuated to the countryside; in bombed areas the majority of the schools were closed. In fact, in 1941, 92,000 children in London were left without education, some having to stay in school a year or two passed their initial leaving date. The Blitz also saw an increase of crime as many criminals saw the opportunity to rob and steal from houses and shops during blackouts while there were only wardens to avoid. British crime rates were reported to have increased by 57% from 1939 to 1945.


Once rationing was introduced for food and luxury goods, many criminals took advantage of this, leading to widespread abuse of the rationing system. In 1943, over five million clothing coupons were stolen leading to the government cancelling the entire issue. By 1945 more than 114,000 prosecutions for black market activities had taken place, although some of these prosecutions were for remarkably minor offences, sometimes being seen as understandable and necessary criminal offences27.


Therefore, the number off offences committed by young people drastically increased and the courts found that the need for care and protection rose. Yet the difficulties that were provoked by the Blitz led to a response from the government. The decision was made to open day nurseries for mothers working in factories. Local authorities were instructed to become more proficient when dealing with the injured and homeless, and the government began to control medical services more carefully and closely. Indeed, it is believed by many traditional historians that the Blitz created and contributed the belief that ordinary folk had the ability to mold an increasingly equal and fair society; ultimately contributing to the Labour landslide victory in 1945 and therefore, the creation of the welfare state. Put perfectly by historian AJP Taylor, “The Luftwaffe was a powerful missionary for the welfare state.28”

The impact ofthe Beveridge Report


The historic landslide Labour win of the 1945 post war election created a political earthquake. Less than 12 weeks earlier, wartime leader Winston Churchill called the election to be held early July, confident that the British people he fought so valiantly for would back him, however, of Churchill’s colossal misjudgments; this was most certainly the most misconstrued. Voters wanted to end wartime austerity and certainly did not want to return to the pre-war economic depression that gripped the 1930’s. The British people wanted change and saw the Labour party, headed by Clement Attlee, fit for the job. The landslide victory for the Labour and the swing to the left due to common sacrifice and want for serious social change in Britain was certainly fueled by the harsh truths the war revealed.


During the war, trade union pressures forced the government to appoint a specialist committee to study pre-existing schemes of national and social security and insurance created by the Liberals. William Beveridge being in this committee; this allowed him to create the Beveridge report which detailed aims that could provide a comprehensive system of social insurance that would provide help to the British people from the ‘cradle to the grave’. The report detailed ‘5 giants’ that were said to be a huge part of the reasons why Britain faced such extreme poverty; the report declared, “Want is only one of the five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.29” Beveridge wanted to ensure that there was an acceptable minimum standard of living in post-war Britain in which no-one would fall under, once famously stating, “Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching30.” Once the report was published, it was generally well received. Polls reported that 95% of the public had heard of the report and indicated that 84% of the public had an overwhelming agreement that Beveridge’s proposals should be put in place31.


World War Two had put a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty within the British public in regards of the economic state, housing, and health care. Therefore, it seemed logical for the state to follow suit and use the report to implement new policies to rectify what had been lost during the war. Social change was pushed by the needs of the public which were extremely emphasized by the war. This also highlighted Labor’s engagement with the role, the Conservatives lack of post-war policy plans and their Churchill driven manifesto.


The Labour party were extremely supportive of the report, and as their election campaign suggested, were pro post-war social change. This resonated with the British people as it was as if they had a government that was fighting for solely the people’s needs. The needs and issues of women and children had been widespread during the war; Churchill saw no need to address them and therefore, there was a shift to the left in the British public’s political opinion, “The trend was essentially one towards left-wing attitudes, with the Labour party as the natural beneficiary.32”


Briefly following the guidance provided by the Beveridge report, Labour implemented a number of revolutionary policies and reforms. In regards to the severe poverty many British people were succumbing to, a scheme of insurance was created. The first step Labour took to address this giant was in 1946 with the implementation of the National Insurance Act. This allowed workers to make regular contributions to the scheme in return for benefits in the event of sickness or unemployment; the act also covered maternity payments, widow’s benefits, and death grants. This policy was said to cover the British people from “the cradle to the grave” which was rather significant as it meant that most had a safety net to protect them from poverty throughout their lives.33.


As well as creating policies to combat the giant of want, Labour set out to tackle disease. They achieved this through the creation of the National Health Service. The NHS was created to provide free health care for all; historian R.C. Birch often being quoted n stating that the NHS was “greatest single achievement of the story of the welfare state.”


Furthermore, on their way to achieving free health care to all, the Labour Government was paving the path to allow those in poverty to receive an adequate education. They began doing this in 1944 within the coalition government by reforming the education system to make it fairer and more modern34. The 1944 Education Act allowed the government to raise the age at which people could leave school to 15 as part of a drive to create more skilled workers; something that Britain lacked at the time. Moreover, they introduced a two-tiered schooling system which meant that those who were intelligent enough to pass the ‘11+exam’ were put into grammar schools and those who weren’t, were sent to secondary modern schools. This was an attempt to suit student’s capability but ended up limiting hundreds of children’s opportunities especially those who came from deprived, working class areas.


In a bid to meet all aspects of the Beveridge report, the Labour Government began improving housing provision. Post-war there was a great shortage of housing due to war-time aerial bombing, which was a severe problem that Labour had to try and combat. The solution to this was pre-fabricated houses. These were houses that were built with cheap materials as a quick, simple solution to the huge problem. Labour’s target was to build 200,000 new homes per year; they never met this target and instead 157,000 were built to satisfactory standard. The New Homes act of 1946, aimed to decrease the rate of overcrowding in inner-city areas; by 1950 the government had designed 12 new communities to do so.


By 1948, the “five giants” depicted in the Beveridge Report were under severe attack, the state was now providing a ‘safety net’. In fact, when Seebohm Rowntree investigated social conditions in York in 1950, he discovered that primary poverty had decreased to 2% compared to a massive 36% in 193635; Atlee’s New Jerusalem was underway and an adequate living standard level was set. Therefore, the publishing of the Beveridge report and the historic Labour election win prompted the British people to know longer accept the poor living conditions that war had highlighter but that Britain had ultimately been facing pre-war. Labour had won the election, pushing through revolutionary social reforms that would leave an imprinted legacy on British politics forever. War had proven and provided the British People with the knowledge that a welfare state and government intervention worked, and while a complete political swing to the left in Britain was unlikely, Labour proved that they could sufficiently provide and for Britain and her needs.



The argument premising whether World War Two brought social change to Britain is extremely expensive and complex. However, to argue that no social change occurred would be considered a fault in reasoning. World War Two did in fact bring un-doubtable social change for the people and nation of Britain; however, it was not as true and apparent as many traditional historians argue.

In regards to gender, WW2 has been regarded as the most important factor for promoting emancipation for women. By allowing women to enter previously male dominated work forces such as engineering and munitions, women were able to create a brand new independent identity for themselves; as well as being known as mothers and wives. Yet, post-war many women refused the war time mentality and despite new found socio-economic freedom, many wanted to return to normality; being housewives.

In addition to this, one of the most un-doubtable successes of the war was the promotion of social change that the Blitz and evacuation brought to the attention of the British eye. This ultimately led to the historic Labour election victory of 1945. With the Beveridge report gaining impressive support, the Labour government took the opportunity to use this to their benefit and thus allowed them to implement revolutionary reforms and policies. Many of which have successfully lasted to this day despite their 1951 loss. Therefore, World War Two, to a certain extent acted as a locomotive of social change in Britain.



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Addison, P. (1977). The road to 1945: British politics and the Second world war. 3rd ed. New York: Quartet Books.

  • While this source detailed British politics, it was only of minute relevance to Aim 2; having only one chapter titles “The peoples William” that I found particularly useful. It only briefly discussed social change and focused particularly, and in extreme detail about British political parties.


Archives, N. (n.d.). beveridge report document. [online] Available at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/docs/beveridge_public.htm [Accessed 2 Mar. 2017].

  • This source was particularly useful in giving me insight and in-depth knowledge about the Beveridge Report and its aims and proposed policies.


BBC (2011). History – British history in depth: Women under fire in world war Two. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwtwo/women_at_war_01.shtml   [Accessed 27 Jan. 2017].

  • This web source was insightful and useful in providing well laid-out and basic facts about women during the war time. It contained well-titled sections detailing basic knowledge about women in the war, their changing roles and women’s work.


Bbc.co.uk. (2017). BBC – WW2 People’s War – Timeline. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/timeline/factfiles/nonflash/a1143578.shtml  [Accessed 28 Mar. 2017].

  • Again, this was useful in providing me with basic and relevant facts and quotes about the Beveridge report, its aims and social policies.


Calder, A. (1971). The people’s war: Britain, 1939-1945. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

  • This book was of great relevance to my topic. It contained extremely detailed and in-depth knowledge about almost every aspect of my chosen topic, particularly my aims about women and social policies. However, the sheer size and writing style of this book made it difficult for me to grasp certain concepts and understand what exactly Calder was trying to discuss.


Calder, A. (1992). The myth of the blitz. London: Pimlico.

  • This book detailed the story and the social and economic effects of the Blitz. It particularly focused on arguments that countered traditional arguments about how the Blitz diminished class and caused national cohesion. Thus allowing me to provide an in-depth counter argument in my aim.


Campbell, D. (2017). London in the blitz: How crime flourished under cover of the blackout. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/aug/29/blitz-london-crime-flourish-blackout [Accessed 21 Apr. 2017].

  • This web source provided basic background information and some useful statistics in regards to the Blitz and its impact. Particularly focusing on the increasing crime rates and the effects of such during the Blitz in Britian.


Collier, C. and Waller, S. (2008). AQA AS history Britain, 1906-1951. 1st ed. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

  • This book proved particularly useful as it was geared perfectly towards the contents of the AH History course, and in turn my dissertation. All of the information was extremely useful and trust worthy as this book is a text book. Additionally, because of this the content was straightforward and provided an easily to follow narrative.


Donnelly, M. (1999). Britain in the Second World War. 1st ed. London: Routledge,

  • I found this source particularly useful. It contained and discussed in depth, arguments and counter arguments that tied in with each of my chapters. This was definitely the case in regards to women during the war and evacuation. It was laid out in chapters and each chapter was extremely easy to read, understand and interpret. Additionally, it contained a number of different points of view and arguments and so was useful in allowing me to create balanced arguments.


Hess, S. (2006). CIVILIAN EVACUATION TO DEVON IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/3517/HessS_Vol2.pdf?sequence=3  [Accessed 28 Mar. 2017].

  • Presented me with information about evacuation and the effects of such, particularly the social impact of evacuation and the poor conditions many of the children faced.


Hylton, S. (2001). Their darkest hour: The hidden history of the home front, 1939-1945. Oxford, United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing.

  • Useful in providing me with basic, but detailed arguments and facts for my chapter about the changing role of women during the war.


Lynch, M. (2008). Britain, 1900-51. 1st ed. London: Hodder Education, pp.145-146.

  • A school textbook and so was geared perfectly towards the AH content. This in turn allowed me to easily find and understand information that I later used in my dissertation.



Marwick, A. and Simpson, W. (2000). Total war and social change. 1st ed. Milton Keynes: Open University.

  • Extremely useful in providing different interpretations of social change in Britain due to the war. Very easily understood and well written.


Pugh, M. (2017). State and society: A social and political history of Britain since 1870. Bloomsbury Publishing.

  • Well written and useful in regards to information on women in WW2 and how war work acted as a sort of emancipation.

Anon, (2014). Seebohm Rowntree and poverty. [online] Available at: http://www.rowntreesociety.org.uk/seebohm-rowntree-and-poverty/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2017]

  • Provided a survey and statistics from the time and therefore acted as a form of primary research.


Smith, H. (1986). War and social change: British society in the Second world war. Manchester University Press.

  • Straigh forward narrative that allowed me to easily understand and take information from this source. Contained, in detail, information about evacuation and the Blitz which I was able to interpret and use for my topic.


Summerfield, P. (2006). Reconstructing women’s wartime lives. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Helped provide detailed insight into women’s war work, whilst still being straight forward. As the book is solely focused on women’s war work I deemed it extremely useful and reliable to use for my thesis.


Summerfield, P. (2014). Women workers in the second world war. 1st ed. Routledge, p.146.

  • Similar to the previous Summerfield reference, this was solely focused on women’s war work and thus was extremely reliable and useful in allowing me to easily find arguments and opinions on the matter.


Who will take our children?: The British evacuation program of ww2. (2008). 3rd ed. McFarland & Co; Revised edition edition.

  • Provided a view into the social and economic conditions that many children faced when being evacuated, or due to evacuation such as the reduction in educated children. This source is reasonably small and so was simple to understand and allowed me to effectively manage my time.

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