The Twentieth Century
Before the First World War Lancashire had gloried in the strength of two of the country’s major industries, cotton and coal. The war stretched coal to its full capacity, while cotton suffered from a shortage of man-power and a reduction in shipping space. The ensuing peace exposed the industry’s underlying problems. Loss of export markets in textiles continued, as India, Britain’s largest pre-war market, became virtually self-sufficient, and competitors such as Japan and Italy proved more efficient with newer machines, lower wages and better industrial organisation. Coal deposits were running out, and the industry was beset by over-manning and low productivity. Many concerns were too small, in spite of reorganisation, to survive.
Streamlining and readjustment to postwar conditions were painfully slow. In human terms these meant wage-cuts and unemployment. The miners’ wages were cut in 1919, 1921 and 1926. The proposal for wage-cuts in 1929 sparked off the General Strike, but it only lasted nine days and demonstrated the weakness of the TUG. The miners’ strike lasted another six months, but, in the end, the miners’ leaders were forced to accept wage reductions. Union membership declined, and loss of funds made further action in the near future impossible.
In 1929 came the Wall Street Crash and the world slump. Unemployment in Britain jumped from 10% in 1929 to 21% in 1931. It struck hardest in the mining areas. At Wigan, unemployment rose to 35% in 1931, and at Hindley as many as 42% were out of work even in 1934, for many uneconomic pits were closed altogether.
The hopelessness of the unemployed miner and his family found a chronicler and a champion in the writer, George Orwell (Eric Blair), whose The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, was an eye-opener to many who had never seen the areas devastated by lack of work. Orwell estimated that the average income of a family out of work was 30s (£1.50) a week, of which about a quarter went on rent. Along with the dole went the means test or ‘meanest test’ as it was nicknamed, by which the whole family’s income was investigated to assess the amount of relief due to the unemployed. ‘Luxury’ items such as pianos had to be sold; tale-telling about unsold possessions and additional sources of income gave rise to much ill-will and occasional violence. One man struck the Pemberton relieving officer with a shovel when his relief was reduced from 27s (£1.35) to 23s (£1.15), after it was discovered that he had a paying lodger. The term ‘lodger’ even extended to elderly parents in receipt of pensions, who, in some cases, had to seek lodgings to prevent their children’s dole from being cut.
As Orwell noted, the miner’s weekly dole was not spent to best advantage. Nearly half the 32s (£1.60) of one miner’s family, of four had to go on rent, clothing club, fuel and power. Of the remaining half spent on food:
The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence halfpenny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. – . . The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet.
Orwell discovered nothing new, but he reached a wider public than many in pointing out the dangerous consequences for health of the combination of poverty and dietetic ignorance.
Unemployment was a long-drawn-out affair in the mining areas. With this in mind it is perhaps surprising how few moved away from Wigan to look for new jobs. From 1921 to 1931 Wigan’s population fell by only 4,000 to just over 85,000. The fact that many women worked at cotton mills which went on short time, but did not entirely close down, is one explanation. These jobs helped to provide an anchor for whole families. After drastic wage-cuts, many miners were not much worse off economically out of work than in.
Efforts to provide alternative work in the neighbourhood were not very successful. Wigan corporation produced a scheme for clearing slag-heaps with unemployed labour, but the Ministry of Labour was not empowered to give financial support. Very little new industry came into the town in the period. A few men profited from the ‘Upholland Experiment’, by which retraining for semi-skilled jobs was provided at Wigan Technical Institute but its work was looked on with suspicion by the rest of the community. The unemployed were somewhat envious, while those still in work or self-employed feared competition. The Experiment did not get under way until the late 1930s and, although successful with its membership, only solved the problems of a small proportion of Wigan’s unemployed.
Demoralization was perhaps the worst result of unemployment. The unemployed went picking coal and hung about at street corners. The public library reading-room became a popular place to go. Orwell shared a lodging-house with a man who did nothing all day except read the newspapers. The advertisers aimed their wares at such unfortunates. ‘Half your difficulties are illusions’, encouraged one advertisement for patent pills. ‘Ill health makes them seem real.’ There were not many clubs for the unemployed, but evening classes were popular, and billiard halls and cinemas were packed out. Orwell commented on the cheapness of Wigan cinema seats; ‘You can always get a seat for fourpence, and at the matinee at some houses you can even get a seat for twopence’. In the summer of 1931, when 10,000 men and 4,000 women in Wigan were unemployed, a little dole money was well spent watching Wee Georgie Wood in The Black Hand Gang or Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels. The town had a number of cinemas, and some changed their programme on Thursday to show at least two main features a week. Amateur sports clubs flourished, and attendance at rugby league and cricket matches rose too.
Other issues and causes concerned the public as much as unemployment in the summer and autumn of 1931. Archbishop Downey of Liverpool addressed a rally in Springfield Park to raise money for the new Roman Catholic cathedral, which at a cost of £3 million was intended to be larger in area than Trafalgar Square and taller than Big Ben. No more than the crypt was ever completed. A few weeks later, Archbishop Temple visited Wigan Parish Church and preached on the themes of self-denial and steadfastness in the faith. The churches were deeply concerned about disarmament, and two big rallies were held in Wigan to canvass support in advance of the Disarmament Conference which was to be held in Geneva the following year.
Politicians were in general dumbfounded by the economic problems of the day. The resignation of the Labour Government, on the issue of the reduction of the dole, brought in the National Government, led by Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin, and most Labour MPs went into opposition. The general election of 1931 confirmed this new government with a huge majority, but Wigan again voted Labour. There was a small following for the Communists, whose sporadic street activities contrasted markedly with the general apathy and quiet. The local press took it all very much in its stride. The weekly diet of motor-traffic accidents and violations of the 30mph speed limit for buses and lorries makes 1931 reporting seem surprisingly up-to-date. The fall in drunkenness, the increase in divorce and the rise of dance halls and cinemas, all showed how much life had changed since the Great War.
Meanwhile big rehousing schemes were started by most Lancashire
towns to try to solve the problem of slums. For those who could find jobs (and there was little unemployment in such areas as Leyland or the Fylde), the 1930s brought a big improvement in the standard of living.
The Second World War put an immediate end to unemployment and provided a sense of national purpose which was eagerly grasped by those who had felt life to be aimless in the depression. Churchill’s speeches were echoed by less eloquent but equally sincere voices. One newspaper editor wrote in December 1940: ‘The war has brought with it a stirring of the social conscience, and there is greater fellowship today than there ever has been in the history of our island race’. Such words were very soon to be put to the test, especially in Liverpool and Manchester, for, in the nights leading up to Christmas 1940, the German Luftwaffe brought Hitler’s blitzkrieg to the two principal cities of the north-west. Liverpool was pounded on the nights of 20-23 December and again, even more heavily, in the first week of May 1941. Manchester’s ‘blitz’ was concentrated in the two nights of 22 and 23 December 1940.
In Manchester, Salford and the surrounding area the bombs started 1,300 fires on those two December nights in 1940. Firemen had to fight for two days and three nights to bring them under control. The work was prolonged by a strong north-east wind which arose early on Christmas Eve, fanned the embers, and drove the fires again through the warehouses and offices. It was not until Christmas Day that the fires started by the incendiary bombs were at last under control. One contemporary journalist described the ordeal of the firefighters:
Fatigued almost beyond endurance by their efforts, sodden and frozen by the cascades of water streaming from doomed buildings, or from the jets trained on them by their colleagues, to enable them to keep at close grips with the flames which scorched them, they worked on. (‘Our Blitz’, Daily Despatch and Evening Chronicle, Manchester)
The other services worked at full stretch too: civil defence, ARP, hospitals and mobile canteens to name but a few.
The destruction was enormous. Within a mile radius of Albert Square, over 31 acres (12 ha) were reduced to ruins. Among famous buildings destroyed were the Free Trade Hall, the Royal Exchange and Cross Street Chapel, all subsequently rebuilt. Among the irreparable damage was the destruction of the scientific collection belonging to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in George Street, including Dalton’s apparatus for formulating his Atomic Theory. Large numbers of schools were destroyed, including the newly finished High School for Girls. Many churches, too, were extensively damaged. One bomb struck the north-east corner of Manchester Cathedral (formerly’the Collegiate Church). The Dean, Dr Garfield Williams, who was watching at the time, described its effect:
The blast had lifted the whole lead roof of the Cathedral up and then dropped it back, miraculously, in place. Every window and door had gone; chairs, ornaments, carpets, furnishings, had been just swept up into the air and dropped in heaps anywhere. The High Altar was just a heap of rubbish ten feet high.
Apart from the holocaust of public and commercial buildings, 30,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in Manchester and a further 8,000 in Salford. In Manchester, over 5,000 homeless people sought temporary accommodation in the 28 rest centres. Some had had narrow escapes. Two people in Salford were in bed when a bomb dropped in the street outside, and they ‘slithered down through collapsing bricks and slates, still on the mattress which came to rest in the crater, with its astonished “passengers” practically unhurt’. In the suburbs some families were saved by spending the nights of the raids in their Anderson shelters.
Christmas was spent clearing up the rubble. Even for those houses that had escaped without even shattered windows, there was the problem of the grey dust which filled the atmosphere for days after the attack. Festivities were muted. Only Christmas Day was taken as a holiday, and even Father Christmas seemed more concerned with war causes, like collecting salvage, than with his traditional duties. No bells were rung on Christmas morning, but large congregations were noted in the churches. There were football matches in the afternoon, but crowds were small. Only 1,500 watched Manchester United beat Stockport County 3-1 , at Edgeley Park. United’s ground had been rendered temporarily unusable by the bombing. In the evening dance-halls opened by special permission of the magistrates.
For Manchester and Salford, 1940 was the worst Christmas of the war. Enemy bombardment had done enormous damage, as the King and Queen witnessed when they visited the scene in February 1941. A total of 560 people had been killed and 632 seriously injured in the two cities. Yet morale was upheld in spite of the ordeal and strengthened by the rapid recovery. Although Exchange Station had been destroyed and one whole railway viaduct /had collapsed, transport was soon back to normal. Trafford Park’, the main industrial centre, had got off remarkably lightly. The destruction gave a new purpose to the peace which eventually followed, and the opportunity which seemed to many to be heaven-sent, of replacing some of the worst legacies of the nineteenth century.
Liverpool suffered even more than Manchester from aerial bombardment, and the end of the war left the city with an enormous housing problem. One solution was to continue the policy of large housing estates on the fringe of the city, such as the pre-war developments at Speke and Norris Green. A shortage of available land made the Liverpool Corporation look further afield. Sites were needed for both industrial and housing purposes, and the new-town movement of the inter-war years was a strong influence on the planners.
With all this in mind, the war-time ordnance factory at Kirkby, to the east of Liverpool and surrounded by open fields, seemed an attractive site for new corporation housing. Although outside the city boundaries, the heart of the projected town was only seven miles from Pier Head. Formerly prime agricultural land, the site was purchased by Liverpool Corporation from the Earl of Sefton in 1947. Liverpool originally intended a satellite ‘community unit’ on the lines of pre-war developments, but it proved impossible to extend the city boundaries so far and still fulfil green belt requirements between Kirkby and Liverpool. Intended as an overspill estate, Kirkby gradually emerged as a new town. It did not, however, enjoy the privileged treatment of most post-war new towns. Its main purpose had been to solve Liverpool’s housing shortage, and to do this it had to grow at incredible speed. Work started in 1952 and by 1959 over 10,000 dwellings had been built. The population came in as fast as the houses and flats went up: from 3,210 in 1951 Kirkby had grown to 52,139 by 1961. Not even the mushroom towns of the nineteenth century could equal this growth.
Most of the arrivals came from Liverpool, particularly from the bombed areas near the docks and from slum housing around the university. The move was traumatic for many of the families concerned. They came from overcrowded tenements in worn-out nineteenth-century areas of the city centre, to find themselves in the middle of the Lancashire countryside in entirely different circumstances. The houses and flats were all brand new, but all the shops, pubs, clubs and other facilities, which in Liverpool had been only just round the corner, were now a seven-mile tram or bus journey away. The survey of newcomers’ attitudes to Kirkby by K.G. Pickett and D.K. Boulton in 1961 showed that some of the families had never lived in flats before; many were separated from old friends and relatives; and all were affected by higher rents – in spite of corporation subsidies – and the lack of facilities. Priority had been given to housing because of necessity and, except for schools, most other buildings were left until later. After the wealth of social life available in the city, Kirkby seemed like a desert to the newcomers. Its lifeline was the bus service to Pier Head. Over half the new townsfolk were Roman Catholics. Fortunately for Kirkby, their church acted swiftly and sponsored a great variety of activities. As J.B. Mays, the sociologist, wrote in New Society in 1963: ‘Had the Catholic Church not been ready for the waves of new arrivals who descended upon Kirkby from its inception in 1952 to the virtual completion in the early 1960s, social life might well have broken down entirely’.
Kirkby’s great asset was the clean and healthy environment it could provide for the young, who made up the majority of the population. The housing was well laid out in community areas with all ‘mod cons’. The council, which owned over 90% of the dwellings, took a justifiable pride in the fact that in 1971 Kirkby had the highest proportion of households with exclusive use of hot water supply, fixed bath and inside flush toilet of any area in Lancashire. In this respect the dream of generations of health officers, planners and philanthropists had come true.
Yet if Kirkby represented the fulfilment of a dream, it also presented problems of a disturbing kind. The town was dominated from the outset by youth. Even in 1971, half the population was below 22 years of age. They had benefited from a far healthier upbringing than many of their parents had known, and from the great efforts of the schools and youth organizations. They had suffered, however, from the dislocation of family backgrounds, from the initial lack of facilities, from the town’s class and age imbalance, and from the unsettling vision of better planned and in some ways more attractive new towns at Skelmersdale and Runcorn.
The Z Cars image of the late 1950s was no doubt unfair and locally much resented, but even when the town had settled down a number of serious headaches remained. The fine new housing, as in other urban areas, brought unexpected difficulties. Tower blocks caused social and psychological problems and were found to be very unsuitable for young families. In Kirkby the medium-rise, three-storey flats were more common and bore the main brunt of criticism. Many families were disappointed to receive such accommodation when they had expected, by moving to Kirkby, to obtain a house. There were complaints that the flats were too small, too noisy and too expensive. Problem families were said to have a demoralizing effect on a whole block of flats. The result was a vicious circle of non-payment of rents, vandalism and a high turnover of tenants. Rent arrears and a huge backlog of repairs weighed increasingly on a local authority which, by the mid-1970s was facing Whitehall’s demands for cutbacks in local government expenditure.
Employment problems added to Kirkby’s troubles in the 1970s. In 1972-5 the town’s unemployment rate was three times the national average. The effect on a town so full of young people and with a relatively immobile labour force caused more than local concern. The town received the first Job Centre in the country, a variety of training programmes and work schemes and a good deal of government aid.
Many of Kirkby’s difficulties were national ones writ large. Great efforts were made by the town’s leaders, teachers and social workers, often with insufficient recognition. The town’s facilities continued to expand. By 19 75 the headmaster of Eton could describe one Kirkby school as in certain ways better equipped than his own. The town’s sporting facilities became the envy of the north-west: the Athletic Stadium could boast that John Gonteh, one-time world light heavy-weight champion who came from the area, had first trained there.
As for the county in general, its main changes in social life since 1945 can only be summarized here. In terms of employment, the region saw the rapid run-down of the cotton industry after 1951. The decline might have been even faster if it had not been for some restrictions on imports from the Commonwealth. Bolton, for example, which still had 103 cotton mills in 1957, had only 34 by 1966 and merely, 8 by 1979. Other towns showed a similar pattern. The Cotton Industry Act of 1959 led to the rapid dismantling of machinery and conversion of premises, in some cases to the production of man-made fibres.
One of the major sources of new employment was the car industry. This played a particularly important role in the revival of Merseyside, with a Ford plant at Halewood, Standard-Triumph at Speke, and Vauxhall Motors across the river at Ellesmere Port. A big expansion also took place in Leyland Motors at Leyland, whose buses and trucks established a world-wide reputation. Meanwhile the growth of electrical engineering and the aircraft industries provided many new jobs in the Preston area. In the north, the Barrow shipyards had turned from building liners to oil and gas tankers, and from conventional to nuclear submarines. Resorts like Blackpool and Morecambe faced the problem of the popularity of holidays abroad. Farming also changed considerably, with barley replacing oats and wheat as the major crop in parts of south Lancashire. Market gardening and pig-farms became more extensive, while further north many dairy farms survived, supplemented by egg and poultry production.
In demographic terms, the north-west ceased to lose as many people by migration as in the 1920s, although some urban areas acquired a ‘ghost-town’ appearance as a result of population movement and redevelopment. West Indian and Asian immigration added new ingredients to the already cosmopolitan character of many towns. Traditional clogs and shawls disappeared and in some parts were replaced by sandals and saris.
Taking stock at the end of the 1970s it was clear that much of the adaptation of the north-west to new patterns of life had been successful. The face of the county had been transformed in the generation since the Second World War by new towns and suburbs and by the rebuilding of town centres with office blocks and market areas. Most noticeable perhaps was the network of motorways 280 miles (450 km) by 1 January 1980 – strung across the landscape, linking towns and giving rapid access to the seaside and the hills. Meanwhile the electrification of the main rail links had brought Lancashire within two and a half hours of London. At Manchester (Ringway) and Liverpool (Speke) the region could boast two international airports. Liverpool was still the second largest port in the UK in terms of tonnage handled and Manchester the sixth. The nuclear power station at Heysham, started in 1970, is expected to provide one third of the region’s needs by 1981.
In terms of population, wages and employment, however, Lancashire’s position by comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom was less favourable in the 1970s than it had been a hundred years before. In 1971 the population of the ancient county stood at 5,118,423 or 9% of the UK total, compared to 11% in 1901. After enjoying wage levels well above the national average in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the average Lancastrian had to accept a less favourable position in the twentieth. Although certain costs such as housing were lower in the north-west than in the country as a whole, money wages stood below the national average. It is notable that the number of women in employment in the north-west remained at its traditionally high level. Unemployment was also high; it stood at 8% in the north-west (12% in Liverpool) in November 1977, compared with the national figure of 6%. Whereas the north-west had accounted for 13% of the national unemployment in 1968, it accounted for 15% by 1978. The rate of capital formation had meanwhile declined.
There were other problems too. As the country’s most highly urbanized region, the north-west still had a particularly large legacy of obsolescent buildings – and also, as became clear, of outworn sewers – along with other unwanted bequests of the Industrial Revolution, such as air and river pollution and derelict land. The physical environment had been improved by the Clean Air Acts and by the change from king coal to gas, electricity and oil. Government money had been made available for reclamation of land and for the cleaning of public buildings and churches. Conservation came to be considered as relevant to Lancashire, and in important cases, like Arkwright House, Preston, the bulldozer, delayed by the slowness of redevelopment, was stayed altogether. Local history and archaeological societies became popular, while museums, record offices and universities (including the Universities of Lancaster and Salford, chartered in 1964 and 1967 respectively) helped provide the leadership and scholarship necessary for the intelligent preservation of the region’s heritage.
In social terms the quality of life remained as rich as ever. Music and the theatre participated in the national revival, while sport, both amateur and professional, enjoyed an enthusiastic and often boisterous following. In spite of the increased mobility of the population and urban redevelopment, the traditional gregarious spirit, as measured in the number of pubs, clubs and churches, and sentimentalized for the whole nation by the Granada TV series Coronation Street (launched in 1960), continued as a reality all over Lancashire. The high circulation of local newspapers (not to mention the success of the Guardian as a national newspaper from 1960) showed the close identification of many people with both the local and regional community. Civic pride and confidence in the future, so characteristic of Victorian Lancashire, lived on, in spite of modern scepticism. In Liverpool those two great Victorian dreams, a Roman Catholic and an Anglican cathedral, were at last fulfilled – the former in 1967 and the latter in 1978. The Industrial Revolution had left many problems, but it had fostered a local pride, a distinctive character and sense of humour which the twentieth century could not destroy.
Down our street
There are married men and women there
Dancing mad in the midnight air
Lots of jawbones missing, where?
Down our street.
Mike Harding © 1976
Reproduced by permission of EMI
Publishing Ltd from Napoleon Retreat from Wzgan
by Mike Harding