The impact of the South African War (1899 – 1902) on working-class British women and families
In this blog Dr Eliza Riedi discusses her article Assisting Mrs Tommy Atkins: Gender, class, philanthropy, and the domestic impact of the South African War, 1899–1902 which was published in The Historical Journal.
The South African – or Boer – War of 1899-1902 is something of a ‘forgotten war’ for most people in Britain (though not in South Africa). For contemporaries it was eclipsed almost immediately by the First World War; our present ‘Great War’ centenary commemorations again tend to overshadow it today.
At the time, though, Britons saw the South African War as a major event, the biggest conflict since the Crimean War nearly fifty years before. Fought by thousands of reservists and volunteers as well as regular troops, the war directly affected local communities across the country. For historians, this imperial war has long been used to explore the impact of the empire upon British society at home.
Only recently, however, have women have been included in these analyses; and working-class women are still almost invisible in the British history of the South African War. Yet one major effect of the war was to render some 200,000 working-class soldiers’ families partly or wholly dependent upon charity.
Usually it was the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association (SSFA) which assisted them. I came across the SSFA through researching elite women’s patriotic philanthropy – women like May Lloyd-Baker whose diary records intensive work for Gloucester SSFA and other war charities interspersed with days spent fox-hunting.
Soon though I became more interested by the position of the soldiers’ families themselves, left reliant upon charitable aid – and by the huge cross-class fund-raising effort which made this aid possible. These were important social consequences of the war so far largely unexplored.
Moreover, it became apparent that many of the policy decisions regarding the treatment of soldiers’ dependants made by the SSFA during the South African War were subsequently echoed in the government’s policies towards soldiers’ families during the First World War. In this way, as with many other aspects of British military life, the South African War served as, in Kipling’s prophetic words, ‘a first-class dress parade for Armageddon’.
 R. Kipling, ‘The Captive’ in Traffics and Discoveries (London, 1904).