The Golden Age of the Middle Classes

The Golden Age of the Middle Classes

The period between the ending of the 32-month war in South Africa, known as the Boer War, in 1902, and the First World War, which began on 4 August 1914, was one of relative economic stability, but not advance. The population continued to grow, but not so fast, owing partly to the practice of birth control, at any rate by the middle classes, and partly to a continuous reduction of the death rate, particularly among young children. The rate of income tax during the Boer War was is 3d in the pound and in 1914 it was is 2d in the pound. Incomes grew more slowly than they had done in the Victorian age. Though money wages rose a little, so did the cost of living: consequently the value of real wages hardly improved at all. In London skilled workmen’s real wages were actually lower in 1914 than they had been in 1901, which admittedly was a peak year.

To some extent the higher cost of living, which diminished the value of money wages, was compensated by better social services, a higher standard of sanitation and medical treatment, and enlarged educational opportunities: all these were paid for out of direct taxation, which fell chiefly on those with good incomes. Few people were unemployed: by 1913-14 their number had fallen to a mere 2 per cent of the insured population. Hours of work tended to become shorter. It was exceptional for them to be determined by act of parliament for male adults. Usually they were the subject of negotiations by trade unions, whose membership amounted to about four million in 1914, as compared with two million at the outset of the century. When the Coal Mines (Eight Hours) Bill, which reduced the number of hours worked daily in this hazardous industry, was passed, Winston Churchill, the President of the Board of Trade, declared grandiloquently that ‘the general march of industrial democracy is not towards inadequate hours of work, but towards sufficient hours of leisure’.1 The middle classes continued to grow in size and to flourish. About a fifth of the occupied population can be assigned to the upper and lower middle classes in 1911. Fifty years later the fraction was about one-third.

At the opposite end of the human scale poverty continued to afflict what has been called ‘the submerged tenth’. Investigations that were carried out by philanthropists indeed suggested that towards the end of the nineteenth century the fraction was nearer one-third in London and York. Though these towns were not typical, it has been observed by an impartial economic historian that ‘there can have been few times when the lot of the very poor was more miserable than in the early years of the twentieth century . . . they lived in squalor, misery and insecurity, worse fed than ever’.2 Would-be recruits for the army during the Boer War often had to be rejected because of their low physical condition. It is also significant that over 13,000 pawnbrokers were in business in different parts of the country, as compared with 5,000 fifty years later. Men and women would pawn their best clothes on Mondays and redeem them at the end of the week so as to have a little money in their purses.

At the beginning of the twentieth century nearly a million and a quarter men and women were still employed in agriculture. Rural labourers were paid a maximum of 18 shillings a week. The output of cereals continued to decline and the area devoted to arable cultivation to contract. Farmers naturally concentrated on providing the fresh food that was most wanted by the home market, such as milk, butter, cheese, fruit, beef, mutton and pork; but they met with competition from imported frozen and chilled meat from as far afield as New Zealand, which was cheaper. Total production did not fall, but its value did so until the war of 1914. So agriculture contributed only a modest amount to the national income. Rents fell, workers left to labour in the towns, and tens of thousands emigrated to the United States and Canada, the annual departures reaching nearly half a million a year in 1911-13.

By contrast, British manufacturers and mining continued to expand. Up to 1914 the staple industries, coal, iron and steel, textiles, shipbuilding and mechanical engineering, played the most important part. According to the census of production taken in 1907 the first three of these industries contributed 46 per cent of the total national output. Output did not increase as rapidly as it had done during the early years of the nineteenth century, but it outstripped the growth in population. These staple industries did not, of course, stand still. Mechanization by the use of steam power and to a lesser extent of electric power was increasing, larger factories were built and more capital was invested in them. Some attempts were made, particularly in the coal and cotton industries, the steel industry and shipbuilding, to meet the needs of changing times. For example, the demand was for steamships rather than sailing ships, and more steel was wanted for bicycles than for railways.

Nevertheless the fact remained that the pattern of industry did not change dramatically between 1870 and 1914. To a large extent capitalists were contented with established methods of production and trusted to the continuing demand for their goods from old customers: it has even been asserted that Edwardian industrialists were fonder of yachting and shooting grouse than of attending to business.3 Neither in mining nor textile manufacture were any revolutionary changes introduced. During this period the main advances in industrial techniques and business organization were taking place in Germany and the United States, not in England. A boom, which was enjoyed throughout much of the world between 1909 and 1913, confirmed the complacency of English business men. Since no scarcity of labour prevailed and money could be borrowed easily, they had little incentive to be unduly adventurous.

The staple industries contributed a large part of all British exports, which paid for imported raw materials and food. In 1911-13 textiles, coal and machinery provided over half such exports. The value of all exports (including re-exports) had risen by 90 per cent since 1901, or, recalculated at constant prices, by 46 per cent. This was a slower rate of increase than during the Victorian epoch; but as imports became cheaper, a smaller amount of exports (visible and invisible) was needed to pay for them. While exports of coal more than doubled in value and iron and steel fully held their own, the increase in the sale of textiles was smaller, but they still formed the main part of total exports. Three-fifths of British exports and re-exports were sold outside Europe, particularly in countries belonging to the British Empire such as India, West Africa and Australia, where markets were widening. A quarter of the total output of British goods was exported in 1913. Great Britain was still the largest exporter in the world. In addition, invisible exports were expanding. Merchant shipping was extremely prosperous, while investments abroad doubled between 1900 and 1914: the value of dividends from these investments is estimated to have amounted to £200,000,000 in 1913. Thus a large part of the profits earned by British industry was invested abroad rather than at home.

By contrast, wage-earners were relatively less well off than their employers. Free trade affected them in two opposite ways. The sale of goods made by cheap labour in India and elsewhere undercut the price of work done at home, for example in the cotton industry. On the other hand, the British working classes had the benefit of inexpensive imported food. But the tendency of many wages to fall and unemployment to rise in 1908-9 created unrest. It was not until 1914 that real wages began to rise. The gap between the poor and the rich was still pronounced. Half the national income went to 12 per cent of the population.

While before 1914 the staple industries were the principal source of industrial growth, new industries were being developed, if slowly. These included rayon, dyes, telephones, photographic apparatus, wireless apparatus, aluminium, motor cars, aircraft and plastics, chiefly bakelite. But because the staple industries remained so profitable the economy was overcommitted to them, and therefore the adjustment to new lines of manufacture was extremely cautious.

What did enjoy an era of rapid growth was the distributive trades, that is to say, retailing, advertising and the like. Distribution constituted the biggest single economic group in the community, while other consumer services, such as catering and entertainment, also expanded. It has been calculated that these ‘non-productive’ groups employed about half the working population. But ‘non-productive’ is a pejorative word. For the provision of services is simply part of the process by which a consumer gets an end-product: it is no use a concern manufacturing food or clothes unless it can find a way of reaching customers with them. Hence the need for advertising, which has never become more comprehensive than in the twentieth century.

What is equally striking in the economic life of the early twentieth century is the large number of women in employment. According to the census of 1901, 1,690,000 women were employed in domestic work, including charwomen and laundresses; a further 712,000 worked in dressmaking and 663,000 in the textile industries. By 1911 women constituted about 30 per cent of the working population, two million being engaged in domestic service: many more women did part-time work which went unrecorded. After the war came in 1914 women were employed in the army and navy, on the land, in munition works and other factories and in public transport. It was no wonder that the suffragettes secured their first triumph in 1918, when women over thirty were given the vote.

Another feature of the early twentieth century was the beginning of what was to be popularly known in the forties as the Welfare State. As has been noticed, apart from the Factory Acts, which applied to women and children, the Victorians had been reasonably happy with laissez-faire, following Adam Smith’s advice that industry could be guided by an invisible hand to a prosperous state without interference from the government. Why did the mood change? It was partly because real wages ceased to rise, partly owing to the strengthening of the trade union movement, and partly to political pressure exerted by the Labour Party, which had been formed in 1900 and won fifty-three seats in the general election of 1906. It was also owing to the exertion of two outstanding Liberal Ministers, David Lloyd George, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Winston Churchill at the Board of Trade.

The case for helping the wage-earning classes by government action was underlined by a temporary depression during the first half of 1907, when 800,000 were unemployed. In 1908 strikes or lock-outs took place because employers were trying to reduce wages in the shipbuilding, engineering and cotton industries. The Conservative Party’s solution to economic difficulties of ‘tariff reform’, that is to say, the imposition of duties on imports that competed with goods made at home, was to be rejected by the electorate in 1910. Churchill thought that the ‘lines of cleavage in the community . . . were becoming social and economic’, and that ‘the social field lies open: there is no country’, he claimed, ‘where the organization of industrial conditions more urgently required attention’.’

So the Liberal Government pushed through, besides the Coal Mines Act, an Old Age Pensions Act (1908), a Trade Boards Act (1909), a Labour Exchanges Act (1909), a National Insurance Act (1911) and a Shops Act (1912). These acts were extremely modest in their scope. The Trade Boards Act, which provided for the fixing of a minimum wage rate, for example, applied only to four ‘sweated industries’ and 200,000 workers. The Old Age Pensions Act arranged for a pension of 5s shillings a week, paid for by the government, to persons over seventy whose income was not more than a miserly £21 a year. The National Insurance Act, which was financed by contributions from employees (4d), employers (3d), and the Exchequer (2d), in its first part insured workers with modest wages or salaries only against sickness and in its second part insured workers in only seven industries against unemployment, the maximum benefit being 7s 6d a week for the first five weeks. The labour exchanges, which opened in 1910, were entirely voluntary. The Shops Act stipulated that shop assistants should have intervals for meals and that there should be one early closing day a week, but otherwise left the question of working hours alone.

These limited and hesitant steps towards the Welfare State and the strengthening of the trade union movement meant that wage-earners were made more conscious of their needs and of their importance to the community at large. The Trade Disputes Act of 1906 exempted unions from actions for tort, while the decision taken in 1911 to pay Members of Parliament out of public funds enabled trade union leaders, should they be elected, to play their full part in the House of Commons if they did not receive salaries from outside sources. Four hundred and forty-seven Labour candidates stood in the general election 0f 1918 and fifty-nine were elected, all of whom had been put forward by trade unions. Articulate representatives of the working classes both inside and outside Parliament pointed out that nothing had been done by the Government to improve wages. Indeed, the National Insurance Act had provided for compulsory deductions from wages. Between 1907 and 1909 railwaymen, dockers and even music-hall artists went on strike for higher wages, and at the same time a temporary recession created unemployment. Again in 1911-13 a wave of strikes and lock-outs affecting coal, cotton and the transport industries swept the country. However, on the whole England was undoubtedly enjoying a high degree of prosperity when the First World War broke out.

The First World War took politically-minded English people by surprise. In 1914 they were more agitated over the Irish demand for Home Rule, the antics of the suffragettes and the threat of industrial action by the Triple Alliance of railwaymen, transport workers and coal miners to fight ‘capitalism’ than over events in the Balkans. The Government was unprepared for a large-scale war on the European mainland and in any case assumed that Hohenzollern Germany would soon be defeated in alliance with the French. It was only when a military stalemate produced by trench warfare and the terrible expenditure of lives made in trying to overcome it were realized that measures essential to victory were undertaken at home. An industrial truce was proclaimed, but it was not until March 1915 that the trade unions agreed to the ‘dilution of labour’ by allowing men from other trades and women to work in key industries. They also consented (except for the coal miners) to submit disputes to arbitration for the duration of the war. The Defence of the Realm Act (nicknamed ‘Dora’) and the Munitions Act, both passed in 1915, gave the Government far-reaching powers. Yet another year passed before conscription was introduced, and it was not until December 1916 that Ministries of Labour, Food and Shipping were established. By 1917 the railways, coal mines and the cotton industry had all come under the control of the Government.

The danger of German submarines (‘U-boats’) sinking so much merchant shipping as to menace the country with starvation caused a convoy system (opposed by the Admiralty) to be set up. At the same time the Ministry of Agriculture redoubled its efforts to promote the production of more food at home. As a result nearly 6o per cent more wheat and potatoes were grown than before the war. Ironically, food rationing was not imposed until February 1918, but was continued until 1921.

The economic and social consequences of the war were profound. Since 750,000 men were killed in the fighting, there was ‘a missing generation’ which otherwise might have furnished the future leaders of industry. The consolation – which was to prove delusive – was the belief that the League of Nations, founded in 1919 and inspired by American ardour, though the United States Government refused to join it, would settle future international disputes by conciliation or joint action.

Secondly, the war had led, as has been noted, to the partial emancipation of women. But the vote was not given until the age of thirty, because it was feared that otherwise women would swamp the men and rule the country. Women could become Members of Parliament. They were freely admitted to most professions and to the universities, though Cambridge continued to refuse them degrees. They – or some of them at least – assumed a gossamer badge of equality by ‘bobbing’ their hair. They smoked cigarettes in public and clothed themselves in a way that flattened their breasts. But they had to wait ten years before they were given the vote on the same terms as men, and another fifty years before they all wore trousers, were paid at the same rates as men and were allowed to enter mixed colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, owing not so much to the war as to a freakish distribution of births, there were, according to the census of 1921, about a million more women than men between the ages of twenty and forty, the marriageable time. The existence of ‘surplus women’ enabled men to retain their sense of superiority. Women, on the other hand, continued to resent the double standard of sexual morality enshrined in the divorce laws, which implied that adultery was a less serious offence for men than for women .5

After the war the staple industries began to decline. In general this was owing to the loss of foreign markets, particularly in devastated Europe: Germany had been one of England’s best customers. Outside Europe countries had been induced to raise their production of food and raw materials; consequently when the war ended they found themselves with an excess, prices fell, and they could not afford to buy as many imported manufactured goods as before. Lastly, other countries, less hit by the war, such as the United States and Japan, were competing directly with British exporters and erected tariff barriers to protect their own industries. The coal industry was injured by the greater use of oil. Moreover before the end of 1920 Germany began paying reparations to France, one of our best customers, in coal dug in the Ruhr. Because of the enormous production of coal during the war the best English seams were exhausted, so that output per man declined. Cotton was not only damaged by foreign competition, based on cheap labour, but its machinery was for a large part obsolete, and it had a new rival in rayon. Owing to the destruction brought about by the U-boat campaign shipbuilding had been vastly expanded; but once it had met the immediate needs of peace-time trade at home and abroad, it was left with surplus capacity.

From the financial point of view the cost of the war can be exaggerated. It is true that the national debt multiplied fourteenfold, but this merely created a huge transfer payment within the country. Debts owed abroad, particularly to the United States, were another matter. For whereas the Government had reason to hope that these would be offset by the repayment of debts owed to it by its late allies and by reparations from Germany, in fact such hopes proved delusive: for example, Russia’s debts were never repaid because of the Bolshevik revolution. As to private investments in the United States, most of which had been sold on the instructions of the Government to protect the value of the pound in terms of dollars and to prevent the purchase of war materials from becoming too expensive, these had been replaced by 1929 and the interest they earned helped to pay for imports.

Another consequence of the war was the buttressing of the trade unions. The Government had gradually realized that in order to accelerate the output of munitions and warships and to stop strikes from interrupting war work it was essential to negotiate with them. The unions were promised that in return for their accepting the relaxation of their rules, the Government would use its influence ‘to secure the restoration of previous conditions in every case after the war’. The Government also promised higher wages and bonuses, which it was able to guarantee absolutely once industries came under its direct control. Incidentally the war also enhanced the authority of shop stewards, that is to say, workmen elected by their mates to represent them in dealings with their employers. By 1920 the membership of the unions had more than doubled, rising from 4 million in 1914 to 8.3 million.

So powerful had the unions become that they were able to make a purely political impact. Their sympathies lay with the Soviet Government when the Poles were fighting the Russians in 1920. That May London dockers refused to load or coal ships carrying munitions to the Poles, and the British Government acquiesced in the ban. In the following August representatives of the Trades Union Congress joined those of the Labour Party in forming a Council of Action, which urged unions to instruct their members to go on strike if the Government intervened in the war by backing the Poles against the Soviet Union. ‘Hands off Russia!’ was the cry. Again the Government gave way.

But the chief demands of the unions were of course for higher wages and shorter hours. An economic boom was enjoyed between the date of the armistice and the spring of 1920. This was brought about by the need to replace deficiencies in consumer goods and raw materials caused by the war, by the recovery of much of the export trade, by a wave of speculation and by a natural feeling of optimism about the future. Consequently the demands of labour were mostly met: wage rates increased, and so did prices. But in some industries – steel, for example – real wages undoubtedly improved. During the short post-war boom many workers caught a glimpse of prosperity they had never known before. In several industries hours were reduced, usually to an eight-hour day, but the forty-hour week, acclaimed as an ideal by all parties in industry, was never translated into legislation.

One post-war law was a limited success: a new Trade Boards Act (1918) led to the creation of joint industrial councils, consisting of employers and trade union representatives, to discuss problems in specific industries as well as wages and hours of work. Over fifty such councils had been set up by 1920. An Industrial Courts Act (1919) established a permanent Court of Arbitration and permitted the Ministry of Labour to appoint courts of inquiry in cases where arbitration was not acceptable. Finally a National Industrial Conference, attended by 5oo representatives of trade unions and 300 of employers, presided over by the Minister of Labour, met in February 1919 and produced an agreed report. This has been regarded by some historians as a noble scheme and by others as a magnificent confidence trick practised by the Government to choke off labour unrest: in any case it proved a damp squib and has long been forgotten except in history books.

The sunny prospects held out to all classes in the community during 1919 and 1920 were soon dimmed. Strikes by the police, the railwaymen and cotton operatives were soon settled, but in 1921 a tragic chapter in the history of the coal industry opened, which did not close until after another world war.

During the First World War the industry had come under the control of the Government and wage demands by miners had been granted. After the war the Miners’ Federation asked for a 30 per cent increase in wages, a six-hour day and the complete nationalization of the industry. Most of the coal owners were reactionary and most of the miners’ leaders aggressive. To avert a crisis a commission under a judge, Sir John Sankey, was appointed and agreed to by the miners on the understanding that their wages would not be reduced. The first report of the commission recommended increases in wages and a seven-hour day, and condemned the chaotic system of management. Its final report contained no agreed recommendations, though Sankey himself favoured nationalization. The miners, supported by fellow trade unionists, insisted upon ‘Mines for the Nation’. This was the last thing the Government wanted; it was anxious to wash its hands of the problem as quickly as possible. After all, because of large requirements for coal both at home and overseas the industry seemed to be facing a promising future. A rise in wages was granted, but by February 1921 the Government, realizing the industry was surprisingly becoming depressed as the post-war boom burst, suddenly announced that the mines would be decontrolled on 1 April.

To meet the new situation the coal owners promptly asked for a reduction of wages and refused to accept the idea of a National Wages Board, which the miners wanted. When the miners rejected the new terms they were locked out. Railway workers and transport workers promised their full support to the miners by stopping any movement of coal. The scene was set for a confrontation. The miners’ allies called for a strike on 15 April and received the moral support of the TUC and the Labour Party. The Government reacted vehemently to the menace of what amounted to a national strike, and declared a state of emergency. The railwaymen and transport workers backed down. To all who sympathized with the miners 15 April 1921 became known as Black Friday. The miners returned to work after an agreement had been reached with the owners by which wages would vary in accordance with ascertained profits; a minimum rate was also fixed, the reduction in pay being eased somewhat by a government subsidy.

From the Government’s point of view it had got out of direct responsibility for the management of the industry in good time. Exports of coal fell once the French army withdrew from the Ruhr, which it temporarily occupied in 1923 to enforce the repayment of reparations, for it was then that the Germans began paying reparations by exporting coal to France. British exports reached their post-war peak in 1924 and then declined (exports to France in 1923 were 18,800,000 tons and in 1925 10,200,000 tons). By then 100,000 mineworkers had lost their jobs. The sale of cotton goods abroad also declined because of the growth of the industry elsewhere, especially in India and Japan. Exports of cotton yarn fell by nearly half between 1912 and 1938, and cotton piece goods in 1938 were only one-fifth of the exports achieved in 1912. The markets for iron and steel also contracted, partly because of the French acquisition of Lorraine, with its vast iron ore fields and coal mines. The production of pig iron was also hit by the use of scrap. Finally, British shipyard capacity, which had been substantially enlarged by 1920, was never fully utilized.

All of these staple industries, together with the docks, the railways and agriculture, provided less employment in the nineteen-twenties than they had done before. Gradually new industries were developing; in textiles rayon and artificial silk, and in transport motor cars and motor bicycles. House-building needed a variety of workmen, from bricklayers to carpenters; it was subsidized first by the Addison Act of 1919, secondly by the Chamberlain Act of 1922 and thirdly by the Wheatley Act of 1924, each Housing Act becoming known by the name of the Minister responsible. The first encouraged local authorities to build subsidized houses; the second subsidized private enterprise; the third subsidized houses built by municipalities at controlled rents. Other developing industries offering a large amount of employment were electrical engineering, chemicals, printing and publishing. Compulsory school attendance up to the age of fourteen and the expansion of secondary schools and universities after 1918 created a big reading public, which induced a number of well-educated gentlemen to try their hands at publishing. The most enterprising survived.

Several of the important new industries were based on discoveries made before 1914. Signor Guglielmo Marconi, one of the founding fathers of wireless, for example, arrived in England in 1896, but his company did not become really prosperous until 1920. During the war the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was set up to stimulate inventions. The Board of Trade licensed twenty-four research associations during the five years after the war, of which the most celebrated was the Medical Research Council.

Giants began to dominate industry during the inter-war years. The Central Electricity Board, created by act of parliament in 1926, was given responsibility for the wholesale distribution of electricity. It initiated the building of ‘the grid’, that is to say, high-voltage transmission lines carried on pylons, which some thought disfigured the countryside. By the time the Second World War began it covered the whole country, the amount of electricity generated had multiplied sixfold, and it proved invaluable to industry. It also increased the amount of electricity available in the houses of people who could afford radios, electric cookers, refrigerators, washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Thus it was a blessing to’ the middle-class housewife. Another giant was Imperial Chemical Industries, which was also founded in 1926 by amalgamating four big firms whose works were scattered up and down England. Its guiding genius was Sir Alfred Mond, who had been Minister of Health and who was an outstanding financier and a keen Zionist. Another Jew, Lord Leverhulme, built a huge combine concerned chiefly with making soap and margarine. Courtauld’s and British Celanese, ultimately to amalgamate, pioneered rayon and artificial silk. Samuel Courtauld, whose company had international interests, usefully devoted his millions to patronizing modern art.

A distinction can be drawn between the combines established by private enterprise and such organizations as the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Electricity Board, the Port of London Authority and the London Passenger Transport Board, the last being set up in 1933. They have been called semi-public concerns, and met with the approval both of Socialists and Conservatives. Their conception reflected the spirit of compromise for which the English have often been said to be famous. It would be difficult to decide whether they worked better or worse in the service of society than the semi-monopolistic giants built by private enterprise. But the largest single economic group was to be found in the distributive trades. These included wholesalers, departmental stores like Selfridges and Harrods, food shops and restaurants like J.S. Lyons and the Express Dairy, chain stores like Woolworths and Boots, fish-and-chip shops, advertisers and door-to-door canvassers. It has been estimated that the number of persons employed in these trades rose from 1,773,000 in 1920 to 2,039,000 in 1929, and it continued to rise even during the depression that followed.

Adjacent to these trades stood the entertainment industries. The coming of ‘talking pictures’ in 1928 enlarged the number and size of cinemas, while the establishment of the British Broadcasting Corporation (born out of the British Broadcasting Company, started in 1922), incorporated by charter, had some three million people listening to the programmes and presumably owning wireless sets. Although newspaper owners grumbled about the news broadcasts put out by the BBC, serious competition did not really arise until the coming of television after the Second World War. In fact broadcasting stimulated the circulation of newspapers, which reached its peak in the nineteen-twenties.

The development of new industries had its impact on the geographical distribution of the population. London grew fast. Greater London had a population of 8,202,818 in 1931 out of a total population of under forty million in England and Wales, while the populations of north-east England, Lancashire and Wales all fell and that of the Midlands increased. No one who visited Cumberland, east Lancashire or the Rhondda Valley in the nineteen-twenties had any doubt about the poverty and misery caused by the economic depression. Birmingham and Coventry presented an entirely different picture. Middle-class suburbs, such as Victoria Park in Manchester and Edgbaston in Birmingham, were carefully planned. Garden cities dated back to the beginning of the century. Some favoured industrial workers, like the employees of Cadbury’s, the chocolate firm, and of Leverhulme’s, had suburbs designed by benevolent owners. As to the astonishing growth of London and its far-flung suburbs, it has been suggested that directors’ wives in rising industries pressured their husbands into finding central offices in the capital, which was the heart of social intercourse and public entertainment.6

During the nineteen-twenties the coal mines became the industrial Cinderella. In 1925 the gold standard, suspended during the war, was restored, which had the result of overvaluing the pound sterling and therefore handicapping exports. Apart from this disadvantage, the output of coal for domestic purposes remained fairly high and the industry still employed nearly a million workers; but the price of coal obtained at the pit-head started falling. So in 1925, when the agreement about wages and hours concluded in 1921 (but modified in 1924) expired, the coal owners demanded a reduction in shift pay, to be negotiated by districts, and the abolition of the minimum subsistence wage. Admittedly, miners’ wages in England were then higher than in two of its competitors, Germany and Poland, but they were pretty wretched, amounting to 8 or 9 shillings a shift. To avert a crisis (since the miners had the backing of other trade unions in their demand for a decent wage) the Government intervened, granted a subsidy of £23,000,000, and appointed another commission of inquiry, this time chaired by Sir Herbert Samuel, a former Home Secretary. The Samuel Commission recommended as an immediate measure a reduction in wages by national agreement. But the miners were adamant: ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’, they declared, whereupon the owners locked them out on 30 April 1926.

The trade union movement, led by the General Council of the TUC, agreed to support the miners fully in what was to become known as the ‘General Strike’. It began, provoked by the Government’s breaking off negotiations with the TUC, on 3 May. At first the TUC called out only members of unions, such as the railwaymen, who handled carriage of coal. Thus the strike was effectively sympathetic, though the Government insisted it was political and unconstitutional. While the rank and file of the trade unions were loyal, some of the leaders were half-hearted. For example, J.H. Thomas, the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, feared that the strike might degenerate into rioting and chaos.

In fact the General Strike had no serious social consequences, except that it divided the nation more acutely in two and stressed class differences which had always existed. The middle classes regarded A.J. Cook, the general secretary of the Miners’ Federation and a brilliantly outspoken orator, as a red revolutionary. They enlisted in their thousands as ‘special constables’ – their youth thought it rather a lark – rallied behind the Government and attempted with limited success to run the buses and trains in London. No scarcity of food occurred as it was distributed by lorries, sometimes with permits from the TUC. The Government had the overwhelming advantage in propaganda because hardly any newspapers were published, while a British Gazette, officially sponsored and attaining a circulation of two million, reiterated the point of view that the strike was illegal. Although the British Broadcasting Company was not commandeered, as it could have been, it accepted the view that the strike was unconstitutional, allowed the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury to broadcast, but denied the right to leaders of trade unions or Labour MP’s who wished to address the public over the air.

On 12 May, the very day when the TUC called out its ‘second line’, which included shipyard workers and engineers, it seized on a transparent excuse, an unofficial compromise plan drawn up by Sir Herbert Samuel which the miners themselves refused to accept, to call off the strike unconditionally. Before the end of the year the miners were forced to consent to lower earnings, negotiated by districts, and the introduction of an eight-hour day, made legal by a hurriedly-passed act of parliament, though in 1930 a Labour Government reduced it to seven and a half. A Trade Disputes Act also outlawed general and sympathetic strikes, thus trying to shut the door after the horse had bolted.

It was not until seven years after the General Strike that the coalmining industry gradually regained vigour. By 1939 a considerable number of amalgamations or mergers had taken place voluntarily, and much coal was being cut by machinery and moved mechanically in the mines. But the bitterness understandably felt by miners over their treatment by society as a whole in 1926 has endured until the present day.

Between 1926 and 1929 England experienced a mild boom; output rose and so did exports, yet the number of unemployed remained at nearly a million, a fact which deeply disturbed the consciences of those at work. Unemployment was worst, as has been noticed, in the so-called staple industries, particularly in coal, iron and steel, and cotton.

It was in an atmosphere of mixed unhappiness and hope, felt strongly by the young, that a second Labour Government took office in 1929. While it was trying to make up its mind about how to solve the unemployment problem, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in October 1929. This damaged international finance and business and undermined confidence everywhere. The result was that the value of British exports fell from £729,300,000 in 1929 to £39o,600,000 in 1931, and unemployment rose to 1,900,000 in 1930 and to 2,700,000 in June 1931. The minority Labour Government panicked and fell. The nation was wrapped in gloom. Even those with high qualifications were hard pressed to find work. When, for instance, the ill-paid post of assistant lecturer in modern history at Reading University fell vacant, well over a hundred applied for it.7 In spite of the Bank of England raising its interest rate and borrowing abroad, trust in the pound sterling was shaken.

To restore confidence a National Government was formed and a variety of desperate measures tried. The pound was devalued by abandoning the gold standard, the bank rate was raised to a modest 6 per cent, the Budget was balanced by increasing the income tax from 4s 6d to 5s in the pound, and government employees of every kind, from Cabinet Ministers to school teachers and from judges to policemen, had their pay cut. Finally, free trade was given up. With certain exceptions a Customs duty of 1o per cent was imposed on all imported goods and an Import Duties Advisory Committee was appointed to recommend higher duties to protect specific industries: these could amount to 33.3 per cent. At an imperial economic conference held in the summer of 1932 at Ottawa imperial preferences were granted; in return the Dominions gave preference to certain British manufactured exports.

At about the same time the Government made a tremendous effort to sustain agriculture. Two Agricultural Marketing Acts of 1931 and 1933 enabled marketing boards to be set up in order to improve the sales of specific commodities, of which the most successful was the Milk Marketing Board. Farmers were protected from foreign competition by quotas and import duties on most foods and subsidies were paid to growers of wheat and sugar beet. The Manchester Guardian and The Economist criticized these schemes severely as pampering farmers at the public expense. But their lone voices commending free-trade principles were backing a dying cause.

John Maynard Keynes, who was both an original and distinguished economist and a successful financier, thought the Government’s deflationary policy ill-advised. He attributed the cause of the depression to a disequilibrium between savings and investment, and he strongly advocated that the Government should borrow sufficient money to pay for large-scale public works and should reduce taxation; he also approved a revenue tariff. Another economist, a colleague of Keynes, stressed the manner in which an increase of investment added to output by means of a ‘multiplier’ – for example, because men in employment bought more goods than men unemployed. Keynes’s solution was put forward politically during the general election of 1929, when the former Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, published a pamphlet entitled We Can Conquer Unemployment. Although the argument made little impression at the time and ‘the Treasury view’ of the need for economy prevailed, later the conviction spread that full employment might be achieved by such unorthodox methods.

In fact the economic depression of 1929-32 in England was moderate compared with that in other countries, especially the United States of America.’ Its chief characteristic was the falling off in exports, largely owing to a reduction in demand from countries dependent on primary products, such as Argentina. Unemployment was highest in iron and steel, engineering, cotton and coal. By 1932 2,829,000 men and women were out of work, which was over 22 per cent of the number registered. On the other hand, the level of consumption was maintained; the real wages of those in employment fell only slightly or even rose; the deficit in the balance of payments in 1931 was not unduly serious and exports soon picked up. An attempt by the Government to single out the worst-hit areas – named ‘special areas’ – for assistance was not a success, but some new housing estates, such as Welwyn Garden City near London and Wythenshawe near Manchester, were destined to flourish. In 1932 the bank rate was down to 2 per cent, though it was confidence that was needed to promote new investment.

For those who were young in the early nineteen-thirties unemployment was a personal dread, and anxiety to find congenial work outweighed everything else. But the unemployment of tens of thousands and the low wages paid to essential workers smote the public conscience. By the mid thirties, however, one’s thoughts were distracted by the rise of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany. Modern research has proved that the ‘great depression’ of 1929-32, though no myth, was less severe than imagined at the time and that the panic that led to such measures as cutting the relief of the unemployed was unnecessary.9 Soon rearmament, brought about by fear of Hitler’s Germany, contributed to industrial recovery. Admittedly, while exports increased somewhat, they no longer contributed so much to the total national income as they had done in the past; but home consumption rose, money wages in unionized industries remained steady, and an improvement in the terms of trade (because imports were cheaper) meant that most people had more to spend. A resilient economy- so it has been argued – proved to be compatible with some unemployment.

However moderate the depression may be made to look by economic historians who did not themselves live through it, the fact remains that at the time the dismal impression received of life in the areas that suffered the worst distress, where men out of work hung about the streets merely to pass the time, coupled with the consciousness that the Government had not only failed to find any long-term solution to the problem of unemployment but had bungled the question of relief, could hardly be avoided.

It was at first assumed that unemployment insurance payments would suffice to meet the needs of men and women out of work. Acts passed in 1920 and 1927 had extended the scope of insurance to cover most of the wage-earning population (except agricultural labourers). But as the Prime Minister confessed, the benefits received were nothing like a living wage. Moreover in the crisis of 1931 they were cut by 10 per cent. During the depression ‘transitional payments’ were given by the Treasury to those who had exhausted their claims to draw insurance benefit, or else assistance was provided by local authorities out of the rates (the elected Boards of Guardians were abolished in 1929). From 1931 the recipients of outdoor relief, nicknamed ‘the dole’, were subjected to a household means test (administered by local public assistance committees), which was deeply resented. Those who suffered long periods of unemployment claimed it was not their fault that they could find no work, and saw no reason why the amount they received as ‘dole’ should be determined by whether members of their family were earning a living or had savings.

It was not until 1935 that the Government created an Unemployment Assistance Board and the transitional payments provided by the Treasury were renamed public assistance. Thus the new board became responsible for the relief of poverty and the local authorities were only required to care for the sick and aged. The board, however, blundered by promulgating standards of relief which in many cases were lower than those that had been given by the local authorities. A public outcry and ‘hunger marches’ forced the board to revise its rates, but the means test remained. Society had nonetheless at last recognized its obligations. By 1938 expenditure on social services, including unemployment assistance, amounted to some 11 to 12 per cent of the gross national product. Despite the numbers receiving the dole – there were still 1,800,000 registered unemployed by then – the rest of the population was better off and could afford to foot the bill. ‘No one can seriously doubt’, writes one expert on the cost of living, ‘that the working classes on the eve of the second world war were better fed, better clothed and better housed than their parents had been a generation earlier.’10

The war that began in 1939 wiped out unemployment. By then it had become widely believed, at least by the intelligentsia, that an enlightened government willing to invest in public works (such as road-building) could create full employment for all time. Meanwhile, when by the spring Of 1940 the United Kingdom was left alone to fight the German and Italian war machines, everyone had plenty of work to do. Not that there was the same enthusiasm to enlist in the forces as had been shown in 1914. Once the German air attacks started people were excited and drawn together by the common danger. And when, as in 1918, the war ended in victory, the future of the English people looked rosy.

Before and after the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century many social restraints were lifted. Moreover, at the beginning of the century the defeat of the Boers and the generous peace settlement confirmed beliefs in the virtues and values of an enlightened imperialism and also gave hope of profiting from the gold in South Africa.

Edward VII, who became King in 1901, was not very interested in the Empire: his reign symbolized the exit from Victorian pride and respectability. His love of women and horses, champagne and gambling, set an open example to English ‘society’. He was even said to have invented the ‘English week-end’.

For the rest of the population amusements were fewer and less expensive. They consisted largely of drinking beer and reading newspapers. Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), a journalist of genius who left school at fifteen, launched periodicals and newspapers calculated to appeal if not to the masses at least to the lower middle classes, starting with Answers and following with the London Evening News, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Professional football was particularly popular in the north and attracted gambling, though not yet in the form of ‘pools’. The cinema was a fairly primitive form of entertainment (though superior to the magic lantern) until Charlie Chaplin, an Englishman by birth and originally a music-hall comedian, justly became internationally famous. Posterity has recognized his genius by erecting his statue in the heart of London. The ‘picture palace’ did not successfully rival the music hall until the nineteen-twenties. It was then that younger people were seeking and finding liberation from customary restraints, though their elders condemned them for frivolity and cynicism. Dance halls sprang up all over the country and the drinking of ‘cocktails’ (an American invention) became popular, though less alcohol was consumed than in Edwardian days. During the war of 1914-18 the hours at which public houses could stay open were reduced and the notorious afternoon gap introduced. It was then that King George V (1910-36) had been persuaded to take the pledge of abstinence to set a good example to munition workers. Sex was no longer an unmentionable topic in mixed company.

After the First World War women gave up wearing whalebone corsets and tight-laced stays. Young women wore short skirts, flesh-coloured stockings and aimed to look slim and boyish with their hair cut short and their hats close-fitting. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 gave women the right to sue for divorce on grounds of adultery, but it was not until 1937 that desertion, cruelty and insanity were added as grounds for both parties. But in the case of desertion the aggrieved party had to undergo five years of separation before a divorce was granted.

Tastes in middle-class reading reflected the growing emancipation of women, though what were regarded as daring novels – James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) – were sold only under the counter. Poets became more audacious, not only in their subject matter but also in their rhythm. An act passed in April 1928 at last gave women the vote on the same terms as men, an act which can be interpreted as recognizing sexual equality, although the decision that women should be employed and paid on the same terms as men awaited the nineteen-seventies.

The year 1928 may be taken as the dividing line in the social history of the time. The country then seemed prosperous enough as new businesses developed, even though unemployment and distress in the coal and cotton industries endured. The cinema was a cheap and congenial form of entertainment as the ‘talkies’ came in. Even hard-working, ambitious young men went to the cinema three or four times a week; one of the author’s landladies and her husband visited the same cinema every Saturday regardless of what was showing there. ‘Super cinemas’ were erected in all big towns. At the same time radio programmes could be heard on loudspeakers and one could listen to invisible music-hall entertainment and jazz bands for practically nothing.

One significant social change that has been assigned to the twentieth century is a decline in the prestige of the land. Whereas in Victorian times the majority of Cabinet Ministers were hereditary landowners, by the first half of the next century the House of Commons, if not the Lords, consisted mainly of professional and business men, of whom Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were typical examples. But love of the countryside was still strong. Nearly every town had its public parks. The cheap motor car (in the days when petrol too was cheap) enabled fathers to take their wives and children to the countryside or seaside at week-ends, or to live in dormitory villages and commute to work. Ministers and others discovered that buying themselves farms, whether they made profits or losses, was a wise means of investing their savings. Those who could not afford to do that kept small yachts or at least subscribed to the National Trust, formed in 1895, which bought up many beautiful stretches of English countryside to preserve them from developers.

Leisure was valued more than ever before. The middle classes began taking holidays abroad in large numbers. French and Belgian seaside resorts were almost as popular as English ones. By 1939 a quarter of the population obtained holidays with pay, though usually for only one week. Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp at Skegness in 1937, but it was only a minority of the working classes who could afford a holiday away from home. Hours of work were still long; a forty-eight-hour week was commonplace, but it was made a maximum for women and youths in a Factory Act of 1937. The commuter trains were as full on Saturday mornings as on any other weekday. Even Civil Servants worked on Saturday, though they had long holidays. The Bank holiday, determined by religious occasions, was valued; it had not yet become an anachronism.

A feature of this period of English social history was the arrival of the motor car. Before the First World War only the rich possessed motor cars. The author’s maternal grandfather, a city merchant, had a Daimler driven by a chauffeur, although when we visited him as children we went on omnibuses driven by horses. By 1928 Morris motor cars were rivalling American Fords. Motor coaches began competing with the railways for passenger traffic. The motor car and the motor bus brought rural life much closer to towns.

Because unemployment, unaccompanied by inflation, kept down wages and imported food was untaxed, prices were low and salaries could be made to stretch a long way. The nineteen-thirties can be described as the prosperous age of the middle classes even more emphatically than the mid Victorian period. My father was an Assistant Secretary at the Board of Trade. My mother did no housework except shopping. She had two servants, a cook and a housemaid, who lived in and were never out together except on Sunday evenings, when a cold meal was left for us. A woman came to do the sewing and another to clean the silver; a gardener also came once a week. The postman called four times on weekdays and once on Sundays. It is true that we never drank wine or spirits except on special occasions, and once my father gave up The Times and took the Daily Telegraph instead because it was cheaper. That was when I was at a public school. My father then told me that he could not afford to send me to a university – he meant Oxford or Cambridge – unless I won a scholarship, but he could certainly have afforded to send me to the London School of Economics, where he had once been a lecturer.

Undoubtedly English society has become more egalitarian in the second half of the twentieth century, though less so than in the United States. On the whole, equality of opportunity is a reality, although modem research indicates that heredity is a more important factor in promoting ability than it was believed to be 15o years ago, when socialists like Robert Owen laid most stress on environment. But as to middle-class life, modern gadgets such as deep-freezers and dishwashers, though they are conveniences, are perhaps less helpful than a domestic staff at one’s beck and call. And of course nearly everyone today owns a car, which makes shopping somewhat easier. But it needs to be remembered that in the twenties and thirties tradesmen delivered goods (and even library books) at the door and frequently called for orders, while privately owned shops gave personal attention to the needs of their customers. So it can be argued that the era of supreme comfort for the middle classes faded away in 1939.


  1. Randolph Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, 11 (1967), p. 284
  2. William Ashworth, An Economic History of England 1870-1939 (1972), pp. 252-3
  3. Cit. from Industrial Efficiency, A Comparative Study of Industrial Life in England, Germany and America (1905) by Donald Read in Edwardian England (1972), p. 9
  4. Churchill, op. cit., p. 278
  5. Suzanne Buckley, ‘The Family and the Role of Women’, in The Edwardian Age: Conflict and Stability 1900-1914 (1979), p. 140
  6. This was suggested by my friend, Cohn Clark
  7. I was one of them. Professor A. Aspinall, as he became, was wisely selected.
  8. Denis H. Aldcraft, The Inter-War Economy: Britain 1919-1939 (1970), P. 4,; H. W. Richardson, Economic Recovery of Britain (1967), p. 15
  9. Aldcraft, op. cit., chapter 9; Ashworth, op. cit., pp. 398-9; R.F. Harrod, The Life of ]ohn Maynard Keynes (195′), p. 438
  10. J. Burnett, Plenty and Want (1968), p. 319