The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951: Part Five   Leave a comment

Looking for a True England: 1921-1941 (section 1/4)                                        

Between The Wars: A Song by Billy Bragg

I was a miner

I was a docker

I was a railwayman 

Between the wars

I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
We’re arming for peace, me boys
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept on voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man

Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we know
Between the wars

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draftsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I’ll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars.


In Search of England was the first of a popular series of travelogues published by H.V. Morton in 1927. Besides publishing several other volumes in the series on his travels in Scotland (1929), Ireland (1930) and Wales (1932), he also published a companion volume on England, The Call of England (inside cover above), in June 1928. The popularity of his series can be judged by the fact that this volume alone went through ten editions in the next five years. His first book dealt mainly with the south and west of England, rushing, rather wildly, through the north, and by-passing the Midlands almost altogether. For the second book, he decided to linger longer in the north, commenting that while it was instinctive for London motorists to go south and west, no man who wishes to understand the country in which he lives can neglect the north of England. In his introduction to the second book, he went on:

Almost within our time we have seen a great re-grouping in the distribution of human energy, comparable only perhaps with the switch over of our ports in medieval times from the east to the west coast. The Industrial Revolution, while it has planted an enormous population in the north, has at the same time distorted our ideas of that part of the country. We are inclined to think of the north as an extended Sheffield. The symbol of the north is the chimneystack. It is only when we go there that we realise how very slightly the age of coal and steel has deformed the green beauty of England. Our manufacturing districts, vast as they are, form merely a scratch on the map in comparison with those miles of wild romantic country, whose history and beauty rival anything the south can boast.

In order to write his two books, mainly for the small number of fellow-motorists in the 1920s (27 per thousand even in Cambridgeshire), Morton would drive around England, warning about the infestation of the countryside by the vulgarity of the town (Simon Schama). His view of most places was impressionistic, even in the countryside, seen mainly through the windscreen of his motor. His search for England was really a search for the English Promised Land, which was to be found almost exclusively where there were no factories or polluted canals. He favoured the cathedral towns: Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, York, Ely, Wells and Exeter, or market towns. The only time he seemed to encounter any members of the working classes was when he saw charabanc parties, such as the one below, from the large manufacturing towns.


Neither did he make any reference to the pitiful plight of agricultural workers, their average wage, when they could find work, cut from forty-two shillings a week to thirty; or to the countless abandoned farms, derelict barns, untended hedgerows or fields full of weeds. As René Cutforth has pointed out, when the Hiking craze began in the early thirties, going for walks through the English countryside was much more attractive than it was before or has been since, mainly because agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so field were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Every field had a wide verge where wild flowers grew in sheets and clumps and the verges of the country roads that Morton drove along were the same. No wonder he waxed lyrical about the unspoilt beauty of the countryside as he raced past. His route took him between Liverpool and Manchester, the latter recognised from the road as an ominous grey haze on his right. And then he saw a signpost marked ‘Wigan’ and could not resist a glimpse. He introduced his reader to the tired old music-hall joke that is Wigan Pier (Schama). It was this joke that George Orwell turned to bitter satire in the title of his Road to Wigan Pier a decade later.

The only Midlands city that Morton dealt with, in his second volume, was Birmingham, doing so in the context of the Black Country and rural Warwickshire, including, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon. He entered the city by the Euston train to New Street Station, watching the lovely green fields of Warwickshire merge into black acres. He watched as grim streets and factories with yellow windows flashed past, and his eye took in a dreary anthill of endeavour in which men and women were just ending the day’s work. The commercial traveller in the dining car gave Morton his opinion that Birmingham was unlike any other town, a place where they made every blessed thing except ships… from pins to railway carriages. That was why Birmingham could never feel unemployment like a city with one big staple industry: there was always so much happening. He added that it was a tough spot to sell in: if you could sell things in Brum you could sell them anywhere on earth. Morton viewed Birmingham as an orderly, disciplined city where the business men who manage this obviously well-run city… clasp hands in a council house sacred to the memory of the first king of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, as they cry with one voice, ‘Forward!’ For him, the great thrill in Birmingham was the Town Hall, standing majestically at the other end of Hill Street from the station. Except for these majestic squares and streets,

Birmingham does not exist. It is a myth. No city with a million population has greater municipal enterprises and fewer evidences of civic grandeur… it is, a series of industrial encampments held together by the tramways department, the greatest workshop the world has ever known… Soon after dawn… the tramcars are running. Each day they irrigate with human life forty-three thousand, six hundred acres of dull streets. They drive on with their packed loads, their cloth-capped crowds, pausing at little street corners, where platoon after platoon from the great battalion of workers descends and makes off to the day’s task.

I look at their hands: capable, grimy hands born to control machinery, made to fashion objects, to beat new life into white-hot metal: to do a million tasks for which the world has need. This is Birmingham; this is the real Birmingham. These are girls: small, sturdy girls with nimble fingers practised in quick work in a packing room, in dabbing a speck of paint on a thousand objects which, one by one, go past them on a moving band all day long…

 So you travel to the outer crust of ugliness, where on the very outskirts of Birmingham stand those great camps of industry, little towns in themselves, where small houses cluster round a huge mass of stone and brick from which tall chimney stacks spire to the sky. Here men live side by side with the machine. Beyond lie the green fields and the hills… wondering how long it will be before the great, black footsteps of Birmingham stride up and go on down the valley…

 A hush falls over the streets of Birmingham. It is as if a monster has been fed. From workshop and factory there comes a whirr of bands, a scream of machinery. The great jig-saw puzzle of the midlands is at work: they are making jew’s-harps and corsets, rivets and buttons, steel pens and cartridges, saddles and wedding-rings, motor-cars and cutlasses, rifles and cradles. There seems to be nothing they are not making.

For Morton, Birmingham was essentially a utilitarian city, a workplace of moderate wealth and moderate men, a great machine knowing only production. There was nothing for the stranger to admire in Birmingham but the vigour and drive of its hard-working people and the proud achievements of their rulers, their omnibuses with pneumatic tyres and covered tops… Evidently, he did not cross Chamberlain Square to pay a visit to the Museum and Art Gallery, nor look into one of the City’s grammar schools, or its hospitals or its redbrick University. He would have seen inside these places much more for the stranger to admire by the way of beauty and learning. His ‘man from Brum’ is a detailed sketch of factory worker, but no more than a caricature of a working class ‘Brummie’ whose only release from the big machine was shouting at ‘the big match’ on the terraces at Villa Park on a Saturday afternoon once a fortnight.

However, on visiting the Black Country, he admitted that it was not so black as it is painted and was surprised to find that bits and corners of its capital, Wolverhampton, were still in rural England. Tettenhall still had the character of the old English village and above the thousand-year-old church he looked over the finest view he ever thought to see of the Black Country. Visiting other ancient churches around the town, he began to recognise that Birmingham and Co was as ancient as Winchester and Co., both built on ancient sites, both with shrines and memorials of the England of Alfred and the Danes… However, on visiting the nearby, derelict Sandwell Hall, near West Bromwich, Morton once again retreated into his romantic anti-industrialism. Rather illogically, he described the Hall, abandoned by its owners and scheduled for demolition, at one and the same time as a ghost of eighteenth century England and a victim of that new England, … yet so young, that came out of steam… He lamented the way that:

It has swept away many lovely things, it has planted its pit shafts in deer parks, it has driven its railway lines through the place where hounds once met on cold winter mornings; and before it the Old England has retreated rather mournfully, understanding it as little as old Sandwell Hall understands the coal mine.

Morton got back in his car in June 1927 and, bypassing Coventry, no doubt seen as another ancient victim of the new England, drove through the Forest of Arden to Stratford, waxing lyrical once more about the Warwickshire countryside. He could conceive no greater happiness than that of going out into England and finding it almost too English to be true: the little cottages… the churches with their naves in Norman England, the great houses, the castles,… the cathedrals… In what other country in the world, he asked, could a man, in one day’s journey, see anything to compare with Hereford, Worcester, and Gloucester? Many unemployed miners he might have passed on the road from south Wales, on their way to find work in the new English Midlands would have told him, had he stopped to give them a lift, that Hereford to Worcester or Gloucester was quite a stretch in one day, starting at dawn from under a hedgerow and walking to the Union Poor House by nightfall, even in June.

As in travel writing, impression plays an important part in historical narrative. This is certainly true of the inter-war period. Today, of all periods of recent history the events of the twenties and thirties are most familiar to us, even though the sixties are closer to us, and within our own living memories. The distant past we can only see very dimly, with the help of the remaining shadows that remain of people and events long gone. The events of recent years stand out in clearer detail; we recognise them instantly; we have immediate emotional connections with them through our own experiences and/or those of our families. They are important to us because they have touched our own lives and those of those we love rather than those of unknown ancestors. We have a clear, if oversimplified, collective memory of these recent decades; an impression reinforced by our parents and grandparents recollections. However, this should not mislead us into thinking that recent history is more important in the grand scheme of things. In this grand scheme, the Battle of Britain is not necessarily more important than the Battle of Agincourt in the History of Britain, nor the Blitz any more significant in English History than the Norman Conquest.

By itself, oral evidence can give a very unreliable perspective on the period, however, especially if the people interviewed actually lived through it as adults. As the lyrics of Billie Bragg’s song show, the period between the great events of the Miners’ lockout and the Blitz are still shrouded in a deeply-felt folk mythology which has given meaning to the people’s narrative of the post-1945 world – the spectre of mass unemployment and the means test, the belief in the betrayal of the Labour Party by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, the years of appeasement under Baldwin and Chamberlain was all, until very recently, part of the accepted cannon of Labour history. It is still difficult to dispute or demythogise the orthodox view of these chapters in the story of the British working class. However, this is the task of the historian, and this is the objective of this chapter, re-telling the narrative using a wide variety of sources.

In England, the relatively slow growth of the home consumer-based industries before the First World War caused a large part of both the rural and urban population who found themselves surplus to requirements to emigrate overseas. Between 1871 and 1911 England lost 1,355,000 by migration, much of this emigration from the old industrial towns of the North of England and, in the latter decade, from the capital. This was an exodus out of urban areas to new countries overseas, mostly within the British Empire and the United States, or from London to new suburban and residential settlements in the South East, and within the North, from the towns to the cities. In addition, there was significant English immigration into the South Wales coalfield, mostly from neighbouring Severn-side counties. However, in less than a decade, a mass immigration into industrial South Wales and the North East of England had turned into a mass exodus in the direction of the new consumer industry towns of the Midlands and South East of England. It was as if a powerful vacuum cleaner had suddenly been switched into reverse. Between 1920 and 1940, it has been estimated that Wales lost 442,000 people by migration to England, a figure equivalent to 17% of its 1920 population. Since the industrial south of Wales had been able to attract significant numbers of immigrants from rural Wales in the period up to 1918, the remaining rural Welsh no longer had any option but to migrate into England. This was when, some time in the early twenties, Wales lost its real independence from England, in economic terms at least.

The impact of internal migration within Britain came at a time when the overall growth in the population was slowing considerably. In the fifty years prior to the Great War, the population of England and Wales had almost doubled, despite high levels of emigration, but the rate of growth between the wars was only about a third of that experienced in the Victorian era, and only a half of that of the Edwardian period. This deceleration in Britain as a whole increased the demographic significance of the shift in the population to the Midlands and South East of England, and it was only the manner in which a high rate of natural increase was maintained in Wales which prevented the scale of migration from being any more catastrophic for the Principality. By contrast, between 1921 and 1938, the population of the Midlands and the South East of England increased by nearly 16%. The South East alone absorbed almost sixty per cent of the total population increase in the country as a whole during the period, and it is estimated that over a million people of working age migrated into the region. These were the only two regions to grow more rapidly than the national average between the wars. However, these regional statistics also tended to disguise the dramatic growth of the new industry towns within the prosperous regions. An examination of the statistics at a county level gives a clearer picture; Oxfordshire’s population increased by a quarter between 1920 and 1939, and Warwickshire’s by a fifth. However, the full importance and impact of internal migration can only be examined when particular new industry communities are put in the spotlight.

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the Middle Opinion group, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration into the South East was in excess of total emigration from the country as a whole. They commented that the relative importance of internal as compared with external movements had grown enormously, and that it seemed strange that, while the national importance of emigration had long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements had been overlooked. Later the same year they came to the conclusion that:

One of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain.

The pressure which groups like PEP brought to bear led to the appointment in 1937 of Sir Montague Barlow to head up a Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. Although the Commission’s report was not published until 1940, it began sitting in March 1938 and focussed attention not just on the gulf in prosperity which had opened up between the two Britains, but also on the vulnerability of the South East and Midlands to aerial warfare.

A further cause for concern was reflected in the statistics that were produced dealing with regional variations in the health and age structure of the population. Throughout the inter-war period, the South and Midlands of England were able to maintain or even increase the numbers of 15-24 year olds in their population and to expand dramatically their numbers of 25-44 year olds. By contrast, the remarkably young population created by the dramatic expansion of the South Wales coalfield had either been drained away in the exodus to the boomtowns of England, or had died a premature death at the hands of the poverty and demoralisation experienced by coalfield communities. On a lesser scale, the same was true of the North East and of many of the older industrial towns across the North of England and the North Midlands. René Cutforth, aged twenty-one in 1930, reflected later in life:

 I was pretty well placed to give my decade a long appraising look, because the little black coalmining town in the English Midlands where I was born and bred was reduced to desperation by the Depression, and every time I came home from some city where the period’s ’glamour’ was in evidence, the brutal facts which underlay it were plain to be seen in the lives of people I knew well.

The internal migration that took place within Britain as a whole during the inter-war period was not only inter-regional in character; it was also, for the most part, inter-industrial. Therefore, in order to understand the human drama of this migration, it is important to gain a picture of the dramatic changes that occurred in employment and unemployment patterns between and within regions. Between 1911 and 1939, the number of people either in or seeking work in Great Britain increased by a fifth, rising from 18,350,000 to 22 million. The most remarkable change in the industrial distribution took place in the shift of employment from the five declining basic industries of coal, cotton, wool, shipbuilding, and iron and steel to the rapidly expanding industries whose growth is best epitomised by the growth of the vehicle construction industry. In 1923 the former accounted for 23% of the total workforce and the latter 14%. By 1937 this position was well on the way to being reversed, with the former responsible for only 14% and the latter 19%. In 1931 vehicle building employed nearly twice the number it had in 1911 and by the end of the 1930s it had added half the numbers again that it had employed at the beginning of the decade.

By 1923, the Midland counties were well-placed to enjoy the expansion of the newer industries, already having more than a quarter of their workforce employed in them, with less than half this number employed in the declining industries. By 1937, three in every ten Midland workers were found in the newer industries, while less than one in ten depended on employment in the older ones. This concentration of newer industries in the Midlands was due at first to the partly accidental, pre-war decisions of the major manufacturers, such as Morris, Austin and Daimler to locate in or near towns like Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry, and their post-war adoption of mass production techniques, so that the number of workers in the vehicle industry grew from 227,000 in 1920 to 516,000 by 1938. Capital chose the location for their industry, no longer wholly dependent on local supplies of water or coal, and labour migrated to those locations.

 038 037

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, industry could provide work for only two thirds of the net increase in the insured population. There were two years of boom following the armistice, which helped to absorb some of the returning servicemen, but these were followed by a sharp and deep recession lasting almost eighteen months. Unemployment (nationally) stood at 14% in 1922 and the total of unemployed remained at 1.3 million for the next three years. There was a further deterioration in 1926, the year of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout, but the level returned to what it had been soon after this ended. By mid-1930, however, the international economic crisis was taking its toll and for the three succeeding years, average national unemployment was in excess of 2.75 million, or one insured worker in every five. The number unemployed remained above the pre-1930 level for the remainder of the decade, but fell to under 17% of the workforce in 1934, a year of general economic recovery, falling still further, and steadily to 11% by 1937. With signs of a further recession in 1939, it rose to 12%, but thereafter the effects of rearmament and mobilisation served to mitigate this. These levels were consistently lower than in Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United States throughout the thirties. However, what made unemployment in Britain so uniquely intractable was its distinctively regional character, with the concentration of large numbers of long-term unemployed concentrated in the older industry areas of the country.


Looked at on a regional basis, London and the South East entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with 5.6% unemployment, increasing to 13.7% in the trough of depression and recovering to 6.4% in 1937. In the Midlands, unemployment also remained well below the national average, beginning at 9.3% in 1929, rising to just over 20% in 1932, but falling back to 7.2% in 1937. The greatest divergence between the two Britains occurred, not during the general depression of 1929-33, but from the point at which the manufacturing industries began to recover from 1934 onwards. In addition, it is clear from the statistics that temporary unemployment was far more characteristic of the experience of the Midlands and the South East during the period, than in the older industry areas. In the former regions, people suffered more from insecurity of tenure of employment, rather than from seemingly permanent collapses of the local labour market.


 043 042

The unemployment statistics included workers in these prosperous parts of Britain who were stood off or on short time and whose unemployment books were therefore lodged at the labour exchange. In a number of factories, particularly at times of trade depression, the number of working days were reduced to the level at which workers would be entitled to claim unemployment benefit. Much of the Midland unemployment during the period was due to temporary stoppages of industry, forcing workers onto the dole for limited periods at particular times in the year. This was often referred to as seasonal unemployment and remained an important factor in the unemployment figures of towns that provided centres for car production, such as Coventry and Oxford. The 1938 Survey of Oxford came to the conclusion that the level of unemployment locally could only be reduced if the motor industry could ensure constant employment and that, even then, there would be continuing residual unemployment, caused by old age and infirmity, which was responsible for half the cases of long-term unemployment analysed in 1937. If this calculation is projected across the Midlands and the South East throughout the period, then the scale of long-term unemployment in these regions was even smaller than is reflected in the overall statistics.

It therefore seems evident that, whilst these prosperous areas contained comparatively few long-term unemployed, except for a period of about two years at the trough of the cyclical downturn, they did possess a significant working population that was unable to find regular or secure employment. By contrast, Northern England and South Wales possessed both large number of short-term unemployed and a large, seemingly permanent surplus of workers. In terms of both population patterns and patterns of employment and unemployment, the two Britains were already present in embryo before the First World War. Britain, and indeed England, had two very different economies based in separate halves of the country. In this context, the largely cyclical unemployment in the home market economy of 1929-33 should be viewed quite separately from the long-term structural decline and unemployment in the export economy. The degree of geographic specialisation, already well established by 1926, determined the radically different experiences and responses of these two nations in the decade that followed. The shift in capital from one economy to the other was not simply a stock exchange transaction. It involved a major geographical shift in both social capital and human resources, necessitating the reconstitution of major sections of what had essentially been regional working classes and, perhaps for the first time, through mass, long-distance, inter-industrial migration, bringing about a truly British working class across the three nations of England, Wales and Scotland.

George Orwell, in his Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, provided historians with an invaluable, if somewhat emotive, picture of conditions in the depressed areas of Northwest England. Born Eric Blair into a shabby-genteel family in Bengal in 1903, when his father worked in the Opium trade with China. In 1904 Eric was sent back to England with his mother, to Henley-on-Thames. Despite his parents’ obvious lack of wealth, he went to Eton College on a scholarship, where he found himself debating the socialism of G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells. Of a class of seventeen boys asked to nominate their hero, fifteen chose Lenin. This was all part of an affected air of rebellion, which was fashionable among young upper class English boys at the time. When Blair left, he presented the school library with a book of plays, which included a preface by Shaw containing a fierce attack on English public schools, describing them as prison camps of the young, torturing both body and mind. His Classics master told his now-retired father that Eric had little chance of winning a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. So in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police training school in Burma. As George Orwell, he looked back with ironic gratitude to his time in the police because in that service, at least, the coercion on which imperial power was based was nakedly exposed. After five years of service, in 1927, Blair went back to England on leave, where one sniff of English air convinced him he could not be part of that evil despotism a day longer.

In 1921, his parents had moved from Henley to Southwold on the Suffolk coast – originally a fishing village, but by the 1920s so congested with retirement cottages, many of them owned by old India hands, that it was becoming known as Simla by the sea. Eric announced to his family that he was leaving the police and his annual six hundred and sixty pounds salary to become a writer. He decided he would write about the homeless and unemployed. He started his new life by renting a one-room flat next to a craft workshop in down-at-heel Notting Hill. It was so cold that Blair warmed his fingers over candles when they were too cold to write. For the next two years he lived among the destitute of London, sleeping in doss-houses in the East End and working as a plongeur (washer-up) in Paris. Only occasionally would he spend a night or two at friends’ houses in London and sometimes showed up at his parents’ home in Southwold, looking grim and gaunt. He went hop-picking with itinerant labourers in Kent until his hands were cut to shreds; downed enough beer and whisky to get himself arrested, in the hope of spending Christmas in prison, and collected tramping slang, discovering that Oxford was a good place for mooching (begging).

When Down and Out in Paris and London appeared in 1933, the name on the book jacket was not Eric Blair but George Orwell. The Orwell is a river in Suffolk, not far from Southwold, so it is likely that Blair, who loved the countryside of Constable with a fierce passion, wanted to identify with the physical nature of his other England. He had a modest success with the book, perhaps selling about three thousand copies in the UK, but he realised, paradoxically, that in writing about the under-classes of English society, he had only documented a tiny fraction of the impoverished population, not more than ten thousand, rather than the millions of the industrial working classes in the Midlands and the North for whom the depression had a truly demoralising effect, being fully paid-up members of the respectable working class just a decade before. In January 1936, Orwell travelled to Wigan, stayed for two months and recorded canal paths…

 a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits… It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.

 In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell laid stress upon the real character of poverty based upon his own experiences and fieldwork. He highlighted both the concerns of the working class and the apprehensions of the middle classes to the possible effects of the depression. The spectre of Bolshevism was another facet to the mythology of the thirties. However, he later admitted that not only had he exaggerated the worst features of what he found, but that he had rewritten and fictionalised some of his evidence from unemployed workers and their families in order to do so. Nevertheless, his account is not simply impressionistic or anecdotal, but detailed and hard-hitting, especially in its conclusions, so that it could not, and cannot, simply be discarded as propaganda:

 … The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families. Old people, sometimes bedridden, are driven out of their homes by it. An old age pensioner, for instance, if a widower, would normally live with one or other of his children; his weekly ten shillings goes towards the household expenses, and probably he is not badly cared for. Under the Means Test, however, he counts as a ‘lodger’ and if he stays at home his children’s dole will be docked…

…A man and wife on twenty-three shillings a week are not far from the starvation line, but they can make a home of sorts; they are vastly better off than a single man on fifteen shillings. He lives sometimes in a common lodging-house, more often in a furnished room for which he usually pays six shillings a week, finding for himself as best he can on the other nine (say six shillings a week for food and three for clothes, tobacco, and amusements)… keeping warm – is almost the sole preoccupation of a single unemployed man in winter. In Wigan a favourite refuge was the pictures, which are fantastically cheap there. You can always get a seat for fourpence, and at the matinee at some houses you can even get a seat for twopence to get out of the ghastly cold of a winter afternoon…


J. B. Priestley, in his English Journey, published three years earlier, showed that the two nations view of the thirties was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than generalised, even within the North of England. Equally, although the Midlands and South East of England might appear more prosperous, there were still major pockets of poverty and unemployment, as well as issues just behind the façade of high wages about the quality of life in the so-called new industry towns. Priestley also provided an antidote to H. V. Morton’s rustic sentimentalism, he himself coming from the wool-manufacturing town of Bradford. As Simon Schama has put it recently, Priestley was prepared to stare the disaster of industrial England in the face and call it ‘real’. In fact, for much of England industrial work was the only reality and, despite the apparent grimness of factory towns and canal banks, not such a bad thing either. To him, it was bending iron and riveting steel to steel that were the real thing about England, man’s work. Orwell didn’t think much of Priestley, whom he wrote off, not altogether fairly, as a sentimental accumulator of banal anecdotes and cosy homilies.

As early as 1921, these two nations did not just exist on a regional basis, but also at a very local level, and even within the nation’s capital itself. The British state, due largely to the pre-war social welfare reforms of the Liberal governments, especially the creation of the unemployment insurance scheme, was already, by 1921, becoming increasingly centralised and bureaucratic in its management of the details of working-class households, in a way which many of them came to resent. This was partly because what was designed as a national scheme to assist workers through a period of temporary unemployment, could not deal with the phenomenon of mass unemployment, especially when it was concentrated in local working-class communities that had grown up around particular industries, like coal or shipbuilding. The unemployment fund had had to borrow thirty million pounds from the Treasury, and that became the dole, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer the scheme. Once the worker’s insurance fund had been exhausted, he and his family were forced back on the parish in a Poor Law system that had remained fundamentally unchanged since 1834. As pockets of poverty and mass, long-term unemployment emerged by the early twenties, including in London’s East End, the system of local administration of Poor Relief by a local Board of Guardians could no longer cope with the demands placed on its limited coffers of ratepayers’ funds. Was it fair, reasonable or even possible that the poor should keep the poor? It was hardly equitable that a rich borough such as Westminster, where a penny rate raised more than thirty thousand pounds, maintained only eleven hundred on outdoor relief, while Poplar, where the same rate raised only three thousand pounds had to maintain forty-four thousand. The East End of London as a whole, with only a quarter of the paying capacity of the West End, had seventeen times the liability.

004 In March 1921, Poplar, blighted with mass unemployment, casual dock labour, rotten housing and slum landlords, reached breaking point. Faced with a massive increase in the rate, a burden the poor could not carry, the Council refused to cut the level of relief to the unemployed and decided not to pay the quarter of a million pounds plus due to the central authority, London County Council. The conflict led to the imprisonment of the mayor and the majority of the socialist members of the Council, together with the introduction of a new word into the English language, Poplarism. Fifteen thousand people of Poplar marched to Holloway Prison, many of them women carrying babies in their arms, as shown in the picture above, which was captioned, Give us this day our daily bread, as Minnie Lansbury and four other women council members were taken there. Millie’s father was George Lansbury, the uncrowned King of the East End and future leader of the Labour Party, and her brother Edgar was also a councillor. Later, ten thousand tenants threatened to withhold their rent if the councillors were not released. Faced with this enormous support from the electorate, the High Court released them in October so that they could attend a conference to discuss the whole matter. The result was a victory for Poplar. The Council had made their first charge the care of the sick, orphaned, aged, widowed, workless and homeless and had forced the Coalition Government to introduce a Bill equalising rate burdens between richer and poorer boroughs. The picture below shows Alderman Hopwood, surrounded by his bodyguard.


Posted October 29, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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