Welfare was not of great concern to governments in the nineteenth century. However, the twentieth century saw a considerable increase in the number and scope of welfare measures, whereby the state sought to help and support individuals and families in difficulty.

Some laws have aimed to protect/assist women. There have been measures to support the elderly. But governments, when they have been concerned about welfare, have usually focused on those least able to look after themselves, the children.

For many years there was no specific government department for welfare. The courts and Justice Department had responsibilities from the 1840s but most obligation for child/youth welfare lay with Hospital Boards and religious/charitable organisations. Other significant welfare responsibilities lay with the Education Department from the 1880s.

For much of the 19th century private charitable aid was the main form of welfare for adults and, by extension, their families. But a number of older people suffered from illness and destitution in the 1880s and 1890s. Fear that poverty would lead to criminal activity and concern that people who had worked hard all their lives should not be left paupers in their old age, helped lead to the first small governmental measures concerned with adult welfare, such as Old Age Pensions 1898.