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Title: 'Our Soldiers' Widows': Charity, British War Widows and the South African War (1899-1902)
Authors: Riedi, Eliza
First Published: 2019
Publisher: SAGE Publications
Citation: War in History, 2019, In Press
Abstract: In October 1900 Elizabeth Ridgard learnt by telegram that her soldier husband had been killed in South Africa. A few days later his last letter arrived, ‘couched in affectionate terms’ and, believing that his regiment would soon be ordered home, ‘expressing his joy and gratification at the prospect … of meeting her again’. Ridgard was one of almost 5,000 working-class British women widowed by the South African War of 1899-1902. Some 17,000 British other ranks soldiers died in South Africa, of whom nearly a quarter (many of them reservists) were married; numerous others died from combat-related conditions in the immediate post-war years leaving wives and families behind them. Almost two years into the war the British state for the first time began paying pensions to the widows and orphans of rank and file soldiers. Before mid-1901, however, Boer War soldiers’ widows could look for assistance only to charity, and many remained partly or wholly reliant on philanthropy even after the introduction of pensions. Some three-quarters of a million pounds was raised by public donation for widows and orphans. Yet, despite a substantial historiography addressing the impact of the South African War on British society, both the plight of war widows and the voluntary effort mobilized to support them have been almost entirely overlooked. Nor, notwithstanding some academic interest in British commemoration of the South African War,6 has the emphasis on bereavement, mourning, and widowhood in First World War scholarship been extended to the earlier conflict. This article examines the work of the three national war widows’ charities in the South African War: the Royal Patriotic Fund, the Shilling Fund run by the Daily Telegraph in conjunction with the Scotsman, and the Imperial War Fund. It traces the transition in the financial support of war widows from philanthropy alone to state provision supplemented by charity. It draws attention to a particularly neglected form of war philanthropy, the newspaper war fund, and suggests the effects of newspaper appeals for soldiers’ dependants were more concrete and sustained than other alleged forms of ‘manipulation’ by the jingo press. It investigates the role of the Shilling Fund especially in redefining the rank and file soldier as a citizen whose family was ‘deserving’ of support in recognition of his services to the state. Highlighting the experiences both of the widows themselves, and of the many veterans who returned home only to die prematurely from the effects of the war, it emphasises that any evaluation of the South African War’s impact upon British society must include its effects on working-class soldiers’ families. In exploring the regional effects of the war with particular reference to Scotland, the study lends further weight to calls for a ‘fournation’ history of empire. Analysing the sources of public giving for soldiers’ widows and orphans, and the motivations of the donors, confirms Andrew Thompson’s observation that for many Britons charity was central to their experience of the conflict, either as beneficiaries or as subscribers. Since many of these subscribers were working-class the widows’ funds offer insights into the broader debate regarding British popular responses to empire at the peak of ‘high imperialism’ – a debate largely polarised between followers of John M. MacKenzie’s ‘propaganda thesis’ and those (notably Bernard Porter) sceptical that the flood of imperial propaganda from 1880 onwards had any meaningful impact on working-class audiences. The South African War has often served as a test case for popular imperialism, though war charities have rarely been included in these analyses. Richard Price’s 1972 conclusion that the ‘typical working-class reaction’ to the war was ‘not imperialist, patriotic or jingoistic’ retains considerable historiographical traction. Yet key aspects of Price’s argument have been significantly challenged by later research on working-men’s clubs, volunteering, and the 1900 ‘khaki’ election. As Thompson has reminded us, ‘we need to take more seriously the possibility that working people embraced the empire on their own terms’. Building on Brad Beaven’s study of how imperial ideas were disseminated and received at local level, this article suggests that war funds for soldiers’ dependants succeeded by fusing imperial sentiment to class solidarity and local identity.
ISSN: 0968-3445
eISSN: 1477-0385
Embargo on file until: 1-Jan-10000
Version: Post-print
Status: Peer-reviewed
Type: Journal Article
Description: The file associated with this record is under embargo until publication, in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy. The full text may be available through the publisher links provided above.
Appears in Collections:Published Articles, School of Historical Studies

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