The County in Depression

The County in Depression

The end of hostilities in 1918 brought hopes of the promised ‘brave new world’ for the county and for its working class. Overseas, the country’s aggressor, the county’s main pre-war economic competitor, had been forced into economic submission. At home, prosperity began to return to the county’s key activities, not only coal-mining, but to shipbuilding, iron and steel, and engineering. Moreover, following wartime state control of coal-mines, there were indications that the government might look favourably on nationalisation of the industry and on other union demands. When in the county council elections of 1919 Durham became the first authority to elect a Labour majority, it seemed that the age of the working man had dawned. Certainly the working class had produced a leader of stature, appropriately from the mining industry. Peter Lee, who was working underground at the age of 10, and educated by night-class, had been chairman of Wheatley Hill parish council and Easington rural district before accepting county chairmanship. He was also general secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association and was later to become president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain . Unfortu­nately the grand vision was not to be, as it vanished in the face of forces emanating beyond the county’s boundaries. Unions had to concede defeat as the vulnerability of Durham’s economy was cruelly exposed. The repercussions have become part of our social history.

The county’s economic prosperity throughout the 19th century had been increasingly built on a wasting resource, coal, and on a narrow range of heavy, capital goods. All were dependent on the export market, and all had received stimulus in the years leading up to the First World War. Durham, highly vulnerable to national and international vagaries, was therefore greatly disadvantaged by the depression into which the industrialised world sank in the 1920s. Overseas countries exploited their own energy sources and manufactured their own products. Naval vessels were no longer needed and there was a surfeit of merchant vessels given the slump in world trade. Consumer industries for the home market became the basis of prosperity, for which other areas were better located. The effects of the inter-war depression were therefore severely felt in the county as its major industries went into sharp decline or showed disastrously wide fluctuations. Unemployment was well above the national level: on average over a quarter of the workforce was idle from the 1926 General Strike onwards; in the worst year of the slump in 1932 the county unemployment level reached 40 per cent; locally it was much higher.

The fortune of coal was critical, as the basis of industry and major employer. The early promise of a post-war recovery brought a peak employment figure of 170,000 in 1923. Since the most easily-exploited seams had been exhausted, extra manpower was needed to satisfy the demand for coal shipments, but then the market collapsed and, with it, the numbers employed. By 1933 they had dropped to 101,000 and, with increasing mechanisation, had only recovered slightly by 1939, a decline of one-third overall. Even these figures conceal the amount of under­employment; also that average earnings – the lowest of all coalfields – were barely above subsistence level. Further, the level of earnings was reduced for many years by the repayment of emergency relief granted during the 1926 strike, besides any debts run up with the local co­operative society. Durham miners had been ill-prepared for the six-month strike in the industry which followed the brief 1926 General Strike, for they had barely recovered from the 30-week stoppage in 1921 during which, it being deemed a trade dispute, the men had not been eligible for relief, and following which they had had to settle for lower wages and longer hours. During the desperate conditions of 1926, with the financial resources of the Durham Miners’ Association exhausted, Poor Law Unions gave relief to almost a quarter of the county’s popu­lation; the county education authority gave meals to school children in over 300 centres; for adults there were soup kitchens run by voluntary labour, with the aid of gifts and parcels ‘on tick’.

During the 1920s a series of alleviatory schemes was inaugurated. There was London’s Lord Mayor’s Fund for the distressed mining areas of Durham, Northumberland and South Wales, while other organised groups, from villages to counties, ‘adopted’ particular Durham mining villages to target money and clothing to help relieve poverty and distress. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain organised a National Distress Fund to provide food and clothing parcels. Then there was Ministry of Labour help with lodgings and removal expenses to unem­ployed miners who could find work in other parts of the country; in like manner, Juvenile Unemployment Centres were set up throughout the county to transfer ’employable’ boys. The Durham Labour Exchange and Durham Miners’ Association even arranged to train unemployed miners for farmwork abroad. A measure to alleviate boredom and restore some human dignity was the setting up of centres by the Council of Social Service to teach unemployed miners a variety of subjects, from cobbling to country dancing and art. The ‘settlements’ were run by voluntary social workers; those at Spennymoor and Seaham were par­ticularly notable. There were also projects to level some slagheaps. A more common activity on slagheaps, however, was the gathering of waste coal. This epitomised the continuing poverty which, in some villages, stemmed from an unemployment figure of 90 or 100 per cent.

Unemployment and poverty were felt no less among other industries, especially shipbuilding and repair. The graph of output showed wild fluctuations, with boom years and bad years; 1919, 1924 and 1929, for instance, were good years, but increasing foreign competition and the stagnation of international trading meant that the troughs became disastrously low. Activity remained extremely slack throughout the first half ofthe 1930s. In 1932 the tonnage launched was a mere five per cent of that in 1919. Casualties in economic and human terms were inevitable, the common experience being emphasised by the concentrated nature of shipbuilding communities. Workers lived near to the yards because of the ‘market system’ in recruiting for a fluctuating industry. The market was the pool from which the foreman drew skilled workers, who in turn selected from the market for their unskilled helpers. Workers therefore needed to be at hand for selection. In the early 1930s unemployment in both Hartlepool and Sunderland exceeded 40 per cent, but even this figure pales into insignificance compared with the experience ofJarrow.

The shipyard at Jarrow was among the six largest British shipbuilding firms, with its efficient, modern yards occupying, in the words of the President of the Board of Trade, ‘one of the best sites in the world’. In 1931, however, only a single ship was launched; the next year saw the last ship completed, and when a hoped-for Admiralty order did not arrive, the yard closed, bankrupt. In 1934 all hope of any recovery was lost when it was bought by the National Shipbuilders’ Security, for the consortium’s aim was to ‘take out’ excessive capacity in the industry in the name of rationalisation. Any yard purchased had a moratorium against further shipbuilding for 40 years. In one of the poignant coinci­dences of history, in the same month in which the yard closed, a collier, the Villa Selgas, sank off the Spanish coast. Renamed several times during its long working life, the vessel had been launched at Jarrow in 1852 with great ceremony and in the presence of Palmer himself: it was the John Bowes.

The shipyard, although sound technically, was financially vulnerable. With hindsight, recent share policy and the purchasing of subsidiary companies was imprudent, while the overhead charges of a steelworks, idle throughout much of the 1920s, was an additional burden. It remains a matter of speculation whether history would have been different had any of the company’s directors been on the N.S.S. board. That Jarrow was up against national forces was further emphasised when an American firm wished to purchase its steelworks to establish an integrated unit. A consultant’s report showed that the site would produce steel at considerable cost advantage; the response of the British Iron and Steel Federation was to demand that a fine be levied on every ton equivalent to that advantage. Not unnaturally, the scheme was dropped. The government claimed it could ‘do nothing’ in the situation, and that ‘Jarrow must work out its own salvation’. Little wonder that the town’s M.P., Ellen Wilkinson, should entitle her history of Jarrow, The Town that was Murdered.

In 1933 Jarrow’s unemployment figure reached 77.9 per cent and official estimates were that 23,000 from a town population of 35,000 were on relief. It was out of these ashes that the Jarrow ‘Crusade’ was born. Officially organised from the Town Hall, 200 men were selected from hundreds of applicants after vetting from the borough medical officer for a 300-mile march to London. On 5 October 1935, following a blessing by the Bishop of Jarrow, the column set off with Ellen Wilkinson at the head, accompanied for the first stage by the mayor and mayoress. Marching in step to the music of their mouth-organs by day and holding public meetings by night, they carried a 12,000-signature petition to be presented at the opening of Parliament.

Although the Jarrow March has gone down in the annals of the nation’s social history, the ‘great folk movement’, as Ellen Wilkinson called it, in fact achieved little in material terms. There were even those who had been against such a demonstration. Thus, while the organisers saw it as a non-political crusade, the Bishop of Durham warned against ‘revolutionary mob pressure’. He had earlier considered the miners’ strike ‘immoral’ and warned against charity ‘rotting the character’. It was the impetus of rearmament in the late 1930s which eventually brought some industrial life back to Jarrow, not least in the re-opening of the steelworks in association with Consett Iron Company.

The years of the depression were spent by many in town and village among the worst housing conditions in the country. This was officially confirmed in a national survey of overcrowding in 1936, when Sunder­land (with 20 per cent of its working-class families in overcrowded conditions), Gateshead, South Shields and West Hartlepool were listed as four of the five most overcrowded county boroughs in England and Wales. The position was reiterated in the 1951 national census, when six of the nine most crowded urban districts were in County Durham. Following the First World War, conditions had been exacerbated by the initial impoverishment of local authorities, together with delay in any improvements in the housing stock of coal-owners for fear of nationalisation. The extensive ‘free’ colliery housing or ‘rent allowance’, it has been argued, perpetuated some of the worst evils. On the one hand, tied housing reduced the local authorities’ sense of responsibility; on the other hand, there were instances where coal-owners threatened close their mine if forced by the local authority to make particular improvements. Meanwhile, with alternative housing scarce and council rents high, families in their ‘free’ housing were tempted to remain, despite the frequent link between overcrowding and insanitary con­ditions.

Life in the inter-war environment of County Durham has been well captured in the writings of Sid Chaplin, born of mining stock in Shildon. Complementary, professional assessment of the settlements created by the industrial revolution was made by another native of West Durham, Thomas Sharp, who became a leading planner of his era. He summarised the striking contrast within the county in terms of ‘hills and hells’ and ‘beauty, beastliness and dereliction’. He brought at once an expert and insider’s eye to landscapes, to which Priestley on his English Journey of 1933 was to bring a comparative vision. Priestley saw a similar contrast, warning any traveller against alighting at Durham railway station allured by the attraction of the city or by the thought of Weardale, for the extensive coalfield area was ‘so unlovely, so com­pletely removed from natural beauty or anything of grace and dignity contrived by man’. The centres of manufacture were no better. The whole of Tyneside was ‘ruthlessly ugly . . . the very scragends of human life’, with Gateshead appearing as if ‘planned by an enemy of the human race’ and Jarrow ‘far worse’ than anything he had imagined in his own fictitious, derelict shipping town ofSlakeby. Here and in nearby Hebburn he was struck by the hundreds of skilled but unemployed men standing around, wearing ‘drawn masks of prisoners of war . . . waiting for Doomsday’. In summary, he reflected that mining and manufacturing in Durham ‘had done very well in its time for somebody, but not, somehow, for itself.

Priestley’s journey did not include Billingham, which was one of the few inter-war success stories. Here a wartime German blockade had induced government intervention to ensure production of synthetic am­monia for the manufacture of explosives; after the war the plant provided a key unit in the formation of the I.C.I. company. A fertiliser empire was built up, and in 1935 the hydrogenation of coal marked the first step in the subsequent expansion of a petrochemical industry.

Another portent of change was the ‘Special Areas Act’ of 1934, which marked the beginnings of political concern of central government in regional development. The whole of the county with the exception of Darlington was covered by the legislation and thus was eligible for resources to set up new estates with serviced factory premises in order to attract new industry. As a result ‘trading estates’ were established in Pallion (Sunderland), St Helen Auckland and Team Valley (Gates­head). Attention was especially focused on the Team Valley, since it was the country’s first estate. Set up in 1936, on its 700 acres there began to arise ‘Today’s Industrial City of Tomorrow’, with an eminent architect, William Holford, engaged to ensure careful design. Not only was the architecture attractive and the industry ‘light’, but the labour force – a modest 3,000 on the three estates by 1939 – was also distinctive in that over half were females. To this extent the amelioration of male unemployment was tempered.

The general revival in the economy towards the end of the 1930s was too modest and too late to undo the effects of nearly two decades of industrial change and depression. Perhaps the best concluding summary of the overall fortune of the inter-war years is in the county’s population figures. While the country as a whole increased by over nine per cent up to 1939,  County Durham declined by three per cent. This first reversal since the county had helped to launch the nation’s industrial revolution reflects a massive outward migration; had this movement not occurred, the tragic levels of unemployment in the county would have been even higher.