The prevailing view of the interwar period. Unemployed people lining up in London, (1930)
Please excuse the delay in publishing this. My mind has been elsewhere during the Covid-19 lockdown
In this episode of History Fireside Chats, I discuss the extent to which the 1930s can be characterised as the ‘devil’s decade’ by exploring the disparity of experience during the interwar period.
Of course, this is a nuanced issue boiled down into a cursory chat. The experience of people at the time was incredibly complicated. The experience people had depended on where they live and what their jobs were. Some people experienced intense, long term unemployment. Some people experienced an improvement in their daily lives. Some people experienced both at different times. For a more extensive discussion of the period I would recommend the following books:
- For two contemporary accounts, I would suggest J. B. Priestley, English Journey and George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.
- An excellent introduction to the period, replete with lots of strong statistical evidence can be found in John Stevenson and Chris Cook, The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression.
- A. J. P. Taylor, English history, 1914-1945. Taylor presents a more positive view of the depression than previous historians have. In his words, whilst the depression had dark periods for many ‘Yet, at the same time, most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world.’
- Laura Beers, Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson. This biography of Wilkinson provides an excellent account of her time as MP for Jarrow, providing a good deal of context for her role in the Jarrow March and a broader impression of life during this period.
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell.
Fireside Chat 02: J. B. Priestley and the Three Englands
Hello and welcome to the third fireside chat.
Today I want to explore the socio-economic life of Britain during the 1930s. I want to challenge some of the prevailing images we have of life during the interwar Britain. In the last fireside chat we discussed second world war, this time I want to explore what life was like in Britain before the war.
The 1930s is often categorised as the Devil’s Decade, a period of unremitting Depression, replete with mass employment and hunger marches. The image we often conjure up is the one of misery. The 1930s were for a lot of people incredibly difficult years. Unemployment went from 1.5 million in 1929 to 3.4 million in 1934. And in places like Jarrow, life was especially bleak as 2/3 of men were unemployed. Their suffering and frustration was manifested in the famous Jarrow Crusade of 1936.
The writer, George Orwell, has contributed to this negative image of the 1930s. His book The Road to Wigan Pier published in 1937 presents a very bleak image of life in interwar Britain – and indeed there is a lot of truth in that depiction. At one point, a third of Wigan, for example, was unemployed.
The experience of unemployment was made worse by government attempts to reduce expenditure during this period. In 1931 unemployment benefits were reduced by 10% and the very unpopular Means Test was also introduced which made the experience of receiving benefits incredibly humiliating for a lot of people.
But this image of the Devil’s Decade is not the whole story. As A. J. P. Taylor notes, ‘most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages.’ In fact your experience of the 1930s really depended on where you lived and who you were.
During this period, real wages increased during the people and the 19 million people who were employed experienced better living standards than before.
Thus the historian should avoid thinking of Britain’s interwar experience as uniform. And we should reflect on the extent to which there were multiple Englands as J. B. Priestley argued at the time.
Priestley, a famous writer and broadcast (famous for An Inspector Calls) was asked in 1933 to record a book about contemporary Britain. The book, published by Victor Gollancz, English Journey, was based on Priestley’s travels across the country. In his words:
‘Southampton to Newcastle, Newcastle to Norwich: memories rose like milk coming to the boil. I had seen England. I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass.’
The first England according to Priestley was the old England of cathedrals and manor hours. It was merrie England. A timeless depiction of rural England and traditional values.
Then there was the Victorian England – the England of the nineteenth century. This was the industrial England ‘of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels,’ in his words. ‘This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not been added to and has no new life poured into it…’
The third England Priestley recognises is the New England. The postwar England, belonging far more to the age, he argues, than to a particular island. America, he suspected, was the real birthplace of New England. And this was the England of the twentieth century – an England full of giant cinemas, of leisure time and mass culture. And this forgotten England was the England of many people living in Britain at the time.
This was the Britain, for some people, with a longer life expectancy. In the south east, fpr example, infant mortality dropped quite a lot during this period. Health overall improved. Overcrowding was reduced, and we see a housing boom which saw a rise of suburbanisation. Homes during this period were increasing electrified, with indoor bathrooms becoming much more common, with separate kitchens and better lighting and ventilation than before. The streets of this England were full of motorcars. The number of cars on the road had increased from 300,000 in 1922 to one million by 1933.
But perhaps the most notable improvement during this period, was the rise of leisure. It was the age of the dream palace with 23 million people regularly attending the cinema in 1930, with most young working class men going to the cinema 2 – 4 times a week. The popularity of leisure is seen in the amount of money spent on it during the period. In 1920, 195.1 million pounds was being spent on leisure. Just one year before the Second World War this had increased to 262.5 million – and a lot of this went to the cinema. For young women, who tended to go to the cinema more than man, the silver screen became a form of escapism, a source of romanticism.
And this third England also enjoyed the rise of mass spectator sports such as football and ice hockey. In 1909 6 million people had watched a first division match, this more than doubled in 1937.
For those employed in the 1930s, they had more time off than ever. The working week declined from 54 hours to 48 hours and people were given paid holidays. People used that time to travel the country and tourism exploded as people ‘rediscovered the countryside’. The first Butlins was opened in 1936 in Skegness and we see beach holidays became incredibly popular in Britain. Blackpool was visited by 7 million people a year towards the end of the period.
But of course, it is worth remembering that in addition to the three Englands Priestley recognised, there was always that fourth England. The England with 6 million people on the dole. The areas up north, in Scotland and in Wales which suffered massively from massive unemployment. This England was deeply psychologically scarred by the experience of being unemployed. And many contemporaries at the time were concerned about the impact that unemployment had on the mental health of the nation. Maurice Robb, for example, stated that unemployment ‘undermines the character of the affected individual, destroys the socialising influences of training, and alters his attitude to life.’ Philip Eisenherg and Paul Lazarsfeld in 1938 also believed that there was a three stage step to unemployment.
‘First there is shock, which is followed by an active hunt for a job, during which the individual is still optimistic and unresigned; he still maintains an unbroken attitude. Second, when all efforts fail, the individual become pessimistic, anxious and suffers active distress, this is the most crucial state of all. And third, the individual becomes fatalistic and adapts himself to his new state with a narrower scope. He now has a broken attitude.’
Whilst this three-step stage is very deterministic and impersonal, it is broadly correct. Unemployment brought with it an erosion of health and self-respect, and an increase in apathy. Whilst unemployment benefits offered temporary release from the economic issues, they did not relieve the stress over the loss of income and indemnity – in fact, the introduction of the means test often exasperated it.
Of course it is also possible see these worlds aligning and existing together. We can view the rise of consumerism to be related to the rise of a culture of consolation – and for a lot of people buying cheap goods, cheap leisure and access to public libraries were a way for many working class men and women to avoid fatalism as Gareth Stedman Jones has noted. Whilst it is important to recognise that fourth England, the England of unemployment, it is also important to recognise that this experience was not uniform, nor was the experience of those who had a good interwar period. The interwar period in Britain is incredibly nuanced and complicated with different people experiencing different things during the period. And in fact for many people it was exactly that unfairness, that difference of experience, that made the 1930s so intolerable.
If you are interested in finding out more about Britain’s experience of the depression, I would thoroughly recommend John Stevenson and Chris Cook’s Britain in the Great Depression. I would also recommend A. J. P. Taylor’s magisterial work (English History, 1914-1945). If you want to look at the more conflicting views, I would recommend reading J. B. Priestley, English Journey alongside The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell.
I hope you will join me next time for a discussion of the life and legacy of Rosa Luxemburg.