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

Looking for a True England, 1921-41 (section 2/4)

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After Poplar, the working classes expected much from Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour Government, which took office at the beginning of 1924, and included the first woman minister in Margaret Bondfield (above right). However, it was a minority Government and was soon brought down, with Baldwin’s Tories returned to power, including Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was ‘his’ decision in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, abandoned in 1914, together with his hard-line anti-unionism displayed during the General Strike, for which his second period in office is best remembered. The decision was a monetary disaster that hit the lowest paid hardest, since it devalued wages dramatically. Despite being flatly warned by the Cambridge economist Hubert Henderson that a return to gold… cannot be achieved without terrible risk of renewed trade depression and serious aggravation and of unemployment, it was actually Baldwin who told Churchill that it was the Government’s decision to do so. Churchill decided to go along with Baldwin and the Bank of England, which restored its authority over the treasury by the change. The effect of the return to the Gold Standard in 1926, as predicted by Keynes and other economists, was to make the goods and services of the most labour-intensive industries even less competitive in export markets. Prices, and the numbers out of work shot up, and wages fell. In the worst-affected industries, like shipbuilding, unemployment was already approaching thirty per cent. In some places in the North, it reached nearly half the insured workforce.


The mine owners’ response to the crisis, made worse by the fact that the German minefields were back in production, was to demand wage cuts and extensions to working hours. Worried about the real possibility of a general strike, based on the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railwaymen, Baldwin (above left) bribed the owners with government subsidies to postpone action until a royal commission could report on the overall problems of the industry. When the Samuel Commission reported in March 1926, its first recommendation was a cut in wages. The response of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, voiced by their militant leader, A.J. Cook, was not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day. Lord Birkenhead said that he thought the miners’ leaders the stupidest men he had ever met until he met the mine owners. They proved him right by locking the miners out of the pits at midnight on 30 April. The following day, Saturday 1 May, the TUC special Conference of Executive Committees met in London and voted to call a General Strike in support of the miners by 3,653,527 votes to just under fifty thousand. Telegrams were sent out on 3 May and on the 4th more than three million workers came out on strike. In the following eight days, it was left to local trades unionists to form Councils of Action to control the movement of goods, disseminate information to counter government propaganda, arrange strike payments and organise demonstrations and activities in support of the strike. The strike lasted just nine days before it was was called off unconditionally by the TUC General Council on 12 May. They agreed with the compromise put forward by the Samuel Commission, but the embittered MFGB leadership did not and the lock-out continued for seven months.


Whilst the popular image of the Strike is  one of Oxbridge undergraduates driving buses, the reality was that most of the strike-breakers were as working-class as the strikers. The photograph of trades unionists marching through well-heeled Leamington Spa (below left) is typical of thousands of similar popular demonstrations of solidarity that took place throughout Britain. Though the establishment in general and Winston Churchill in particular feared revolution, the march of building workers and railwaymen has the air of a nineteenth century trade union procession, the carpenters and joiners parading examples of their work, window sashes and door frames, through the streets on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The figure in the foreground, marked with an x, is E Horley, a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. Churchill, however, mobilised resources as if he were fighting a war. Troops delivered food supplies; he set up the British Gazette and ran it as a government propaganda sheet (below tight), with more soldiers guarding the printing presses. Both food deliveries and Gazette deliveries were sometimes accompanied by tanks. Attempts to press Lord Reith’s BBC, which had begun broadcasting in 1922, to put out government bulletins, were defiantly resisted, a turning point in the fight for the corporation’s political independence.


After the Strike was called off, the bitter polarisation of the classes remained. Whilst the participants in round-table talks between the unions and management, convened by the chemical industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, were meant to reintroduce a spirit of good will into industrial relations, the 1927 Trade Disputes Act made any strike intended to coerce the government illegal.   Nevertheless, following its defeat at the hands of the people of Poplar, and in the spirit of class conciliation which followed the General Strike of 1926, both Conservative and Labour governments were naturally cautious in their interventions in the administration of unemployment benefit and poor relief. Although such interventions were subtle, and at times even reluctant, following on from the miners’ dispute, an alliance of the Baldwin Government, leading Civil Servants, together with advocates and adherents of the Social Service movement, had set into motion a cultural counter-revolution which was designed to re-establish their hegemony over industrial areas with large working-class populations. The wartime experience of directing labour resources, and production had given the Coalition ministers a sense of responsibility towards ex-servicemen and it had established a number of training centres for disabled veterans. The national Government also exercised a limited responsibility, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, together with local authorities, for public works through which the unemployed could be temporarily absorbed. In addition, the wartime creation of the Ministry of Labour and a network of employment exchanges provided the means whereby a more adventurous policy could be pursued.

By the end of 1926 the training centres were turning their attention to the wider problem of unemployment, enabling the victims of industrial depression to acquire skills that would facilitate their re-entry into the labour market. Though this often meant resettlement in another area that was not the foremost purpose of the programme. In any case, the regional pattern of unemployment was only just beginning to emerge by the mid-twenties. The Director of the Birmingham Training Centre who went to Wales in 1926 to recruit members for his course was able to offer his audience very little, except lodgings at 18s a week and one free meal a day. The weekly allowance of a trainee was just 23s, and training lasted six months. The real shift in Government policy came in 1927, with Neville Chamberlain invoking his powers as Minister for Health and Local Government in order to curb Poplarism, under the Bill he had introduced following the General Strike. Commissioners appointed by the Government replaced those local Boards of Guardians that were considered profligate in the administration of the Poor Law.

012Its second interventionist act was effected through the setting up of the Mansion House Fund in 1928, stemming from the joint appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff for help in the relief of the distressed areas. This voluntary approach had, in fact, been initiated by Chamberlain himself, who had written to the Lord Mayor of London in very direct terms:

Surely we cannot be satisfied to leave these unhappy people to go through the winter with only the barest necessities of life.

However, the Government itself acted in support of the voluntary effort rather than taking direct responsibility for it, and it is clear that the main objective of the action was to encourage transference away from the older industry areas, especially through the provision of boots, clothing and train fare expenses. It was against this background that the Government then established the Industrial Transference Board the following January under the wing of the Ministry of Labour. Much of the initial funding for its work came from the Mansion House Fund. The operation of the Unemployment Grants Committee was carefully directed to conform to this strategy, under advice from the Industrial Transference Board:

As an essential condition for the growth of the will to move, nothing should be done which might tend to anchor men to their home district by holding out an illusory prospect of employment. We therefore reject as unsound policy, relief works in the depressed areas. Such schemes are temporary; at the end the situation is much as before, and the financial resources either at the Exchequer or of the Local Authorities have been drained to no permanent purpose. Grants of assistance such as those made by the Unemployment Grants Committee, which help to finance works carried out by the Local Authority in depressed areas, for the temporary employment of men in those areas, are a negation of the policy which ought in our opinion to be pursued.

As a result, the Government deliberately cut its grants for public works to the depressed areas and instead offered funds at a low rate of interest to prosperous areas on the condition that at least half the men employed on work projects would be drawn from the depressed areas. In August 1928, Baldwin himself made an appeal in the form of a circular, which was distributed throughout the prosperous areas. Every employer who could find work for DA men was asked to contact the nearest Labour Exchange, which would then send a representative to discuss the matter. However, Chamberlain expressed his disappointment over the results of this appeal later that year, and his officials became concerned that the cut-backs made in grants to local authorities for relief works in the depressed areas might lead to serious disorder which would prove minatory to recent poor law policy.

The following year, Winston Churchill took responsibility for drafting major sections of the Local Government Act, which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. In a speech on the Bill in the Commons, he argued that it was much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, at enormous expense and waste, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region. However, not for the last time, Churchill’s rhetorical turn of phrase was not appreciated by Chamberlain, who clearly saw in the Bill the means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than as a means of equalising the effects of the low rateable values of these areas. Of course, Churchill was soon out of office, having held it for four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during which time he lowered pensionable age to sixty-five, introduced pensions for widows, and decreased the income-tax rate by ten per cent for the lowest earners among tax-payers. However, the chancellorship had proved a poisoned chalice for Churchill, who remained in the wilderness on both home and foreign and imperial policy for the next decade. In his speeches from the backbenches, he spoke more against Indian independence and in defence of Empire than in defence of the depressed areas, and his conciliatory gestures to the workers were forgotten.

002062There is no evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 wanted to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. It was not until the Spring of 1937 that the Special Areas (Amendment) Act was passed giving the Commissioner power, through the Special Areas Reconstruction Association, to make loans to private enterprises of up to ten thousand pounds in any single case, to build factories for letting and to assist with rents, rates and taxes. The car manufacturer, William Morris, Lord Nuffield, established his Nuffield Trust to fund these developments under far more favourable terms than the Government had previously made available, and on a far greater scale. Although both SARA and the Treasury also allocated funds, most of the money came from Nuffield and other sources of private capital. Although the Act represented an important shift in unemployment policy on the part of the Government, it was still being rather reluctantly dragged along in the wake of the changing climate of public opinion and the less fettered imaginations of progressive industrialists. Many of these were soon highly critical of the lack of progress made by SARA, as the following memorandum from Seebohm Rowntree for consideration by the Nuffield Trust reveals:

… I have realised that no steps taken to date show any prospect of dealing with the fundamental difficulties of the situation. They have been for the most part… opportunistic and the main evil from which the Special Areas suffer has hardly been touched… Members of the Cabinet are chronically overworked. They have no time for thinking out difficult and complicated long distance problems… Unless a long distance policy is worked out for dealing with the Special Areas, they will continue to be an open sore in the body politic, bringing discredit upon the country and upon whatever Government may be in power.


064It might be considered that the Government was attempting to develop a long distance policy through the appointment of the Barlow Commission later in 1937. However, the Commission did not begin to receive evidence until March of 1938 and only completed this process in August 1939, on the very eve of war, not publishing its report until the end of the year. This was too late to bring about any major shift towards regional planning in the economy or to confront, with practical effect, the threat of bombing from the continent. However, the Report did play an important role in laying the foundations for the post-war achievement of a more even distribution of population throughout the country on the basis of regional planning and diversification:

A reasonable balance of industry and population throughout the country should be a main feature of national policy during the coming years. It is not in the national interest, economically, socially or strategically, that a quarter, or even a large proportion of the population of Great Britain should be concentrated within twenty to thirty miles or so of Central London…

Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to assume that this change of emphasis, evident in the establishment of SARA and the appointment and report of the Barlow Commission, brought about an immediate end to the Transference policy in the period 1937-40. Despite the less enthusiastic attitude of the new Commissioner, George Gillett, towards the scheme, 1937 was the peak year of its operation. After that, the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour, mostly in the Shadow Factories built alongside the car and aircraft factories in the Midlands. The significance of SARA was not the modest scope of the schemes, but what underlay them, namely the acceptance of the principle of planned state intervention, that the State had a proactive role to play in the direction, funding and planning of industrial development.

Many of the social and economic problems that beset the regions of Great Britain for much of the inter-war period were the results of the piecemeal, haphazard and largely destructive basis on which successive governments intervened in the lives of working-class people. The means test meant that an unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was, by the 1930s, at the mercy of a Public Assistance Committee (PAC), a body empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his house. As René Cutforth explained,

Officials would camp out in his front room, poking and prying into all the family’s domestic affairs until there was murder in the air. It was not just a matter of them finding concealed sources of income, but if one of the children helped with a milk round for a few bob, or ran errands occasionally, or even was spotted wearing a new coat, the dole was adjusted accordingly.

Besides the personal indignity, the Test, George Orwell said, in The Road to Wigan Pier was an encouragement to the tattle-tale and the informer, the writer of anonymous letters and the local blackmailer; to all sorts of unneighbourliness. In practice, it raised the status of the clerks and managers who administered the dole from that of resented bureaucrats to petty tyrants wielding real power over the lives of the unemployed (see picture below of unemployed man in Wigan, 1939). Much too much now depended on their goodwill. Class relations probably never really recovered from the means test for another half century at least in industrial communities. René Cutforth was a close-quarters witness to its destructive power:

It was the final snuffer-out of hope in hundreds of thousands of families, many of which were broken up forever by its impact. I personally knew three families in the little black coal and clay villages of South Derbyshire where, after a year or two of dire poverty with only the mother and the eldest son earning anything at all, Dad was finally told to get out and fend for himself. These had been quite normal, tolerant, decent families: they were done for by the means test.

The chief horror of unemployment lay in the consciousness of an hour-by-hour expiry of meaningless time… In Church Gresley, near my home, the reading room at the public library was always full: all the chairs were occupied a minute after the doors opened, though there was never a queue. Men thought it only decent to lurk round corners or in ‘entries’ and alleyways until a few seconds after opening time. The brasher spirits, first in, occupied the chairs, and the more hesitant claimed floor space to stand around the high reading stands, where the free newspapers, in the free heating, represented the day’s gain. Nobody could afford to smoke – Woodbines were twopence a packet of five – so the ‘No Smoking’ signs were redundant. The crowd was completely silent, and the men all had that slow-wandering eye of those in whom a very low diet had enlarged the faculty of daydreaming…

If you had sixpence, you could have a softer seat in the warmer darkness of a cinema and pay Hollywood to do your dreaming for you right up till ten o’clock at night. If you were newly outcast and still vigorous you could… take off on the tramp ‘down South’, a frightening foreign country but relatively free of the great blight.

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J.B. Priestley shared the same humanitarian outrage and socialist indignation at the condition of the unemployed to make him want to stick the grim plight of industrial England in the face of the solid south. However, Orwell’s book was hated just as much by his fellow travellers on the Left as by the Right, probably Priestley included. Conservatives dismissed it as Bolshevik propaganda; trades-unionists and Hampstead socialists among whom Orwell had more lately been living, working and running a bookshop, thought it too bleak, pessimistic and uncharitable a picture of people they wanted to see represented as working-class heroes. For Orwell himself, Wigan Pier was the first demonstration of the literature he was meant to write; intensely and frankly polemical, but not an arid Fabian Society tract or Labour Party pamphlet, of which there were already too many. Neither was he meant to write romantic fiction, set in a working class context, like a D. H. Lawrence novel or Arthur Greenwood’s play, Love on the Dole. The writing was meant to transport the armchair reader from Southwold into an alien world of images, like that of the scramblers rooting around for pebble-sized lumps of coal on the slag-heaps; smells, like those of the yellow fumes hanging over the canal, and the sounds, like the pre-dawn clatter of clogs on the cobbles from outside the window of his lodging above the tripe shop. In these senses, he was following in the Dickensian tradition of Bleak House, Hard Times and Oliver Twist. His mission in Wigan Pier was to force the different Englands to face up to each other squarely. From the old England and the new England, he wanted some recognition that they belonged to a common nation. Otherwise, all the rhetoric about the imperishable empire of freedom was no more than cant. The only freedom left to many of the unemployed was the choice of whether to accept a cut in dole or boot out granny because the Means Test man now classified her as a lodger. As Orwell himself put it,

To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas. In the South unemployment exists, but it is scattered and queerly unobtrusive. There are plenty of rural districts where a man out of work is almost unheard-of, and you don’t anywhere see the spectacle of whole blocks of cities living on the dole and the PACWhen I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were still ashamed of being unemployed… The middle classes were still talking about ‘lazy idle loafers on the dole’ and saying that ‘these men could find work if they wanted to’, and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class themselves… Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio.


While millions of Britons continued to live in respect-destroying poverty throughout the thirties, harassed by mean officials and living a humiliating life on the dole, especially in Wales, Scotland and the North of England, many sections of the new English working classes were paradoxically experiencing a boom. Down South, standards of living were actually rising, but this does not feature in song and story, being far less dramatic. In the Thirties, if you were in work, and most of the South was for most of the time, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could seem very Victorian. It was only the old-fashioned heavy staple industries, the ones that had made the British Empire, which were now derelict: in the new industries, no longer powered by steam, but by electricity or petroleum, producing consumer goods rather than iron and steel, there was a genuine, rising prosperity. Throughout the inter-war period the building trade had boomed. In 1939 a third of all the houses in Britain had been built in the previous twenty years. Plastics, man-made fibres and fabrics, including artificial silk, were booming by the end of the decade. Mass production was not confined to car manufacture, and the fashion business in particular had adopted American methods in producing for the expanding home High Street market, in which competition was fierce. There was a great increase in the employment of women in the new electric and electronic factories, where new nimble-fingered techniques were deployed.


The numbers employed in tailoring doubled between 1921 and 1938 to a record fifty thousand. The Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union (NUTGW) recruited heavily during the late thirties and despite opposition from some companies, it made substantial progress in the organisation of the major manufacturers. The picture was taken at The Ideal Clothiers in Wellingborough, Northants, in 1937, one of the big producers that accepted the complete unionisation of their staff by the NUTGW. They employed more than two thousand workers at eight factories engaged in the manufacture of men’s, ladies’ and children’s tailored outerwear. Conditions of employment contrasted sharply with the familiar sweat shops of the tailoring trade in general, and a progressive management offered the rare security of a non-contributory pension fund.


This more optimistic image of improving working conditions and living standards in the inter-war period reflects the contemporary one of J. B. Priestley in his journal English Journey (1934). Priestley had begun working as a journalist at seventeen, writing a weekly column for a Bradford paper. After the Great War, he had gone to Cambridge where, in his third year, he got married. With very little money, he decided to try to make it as a freelance writer in London, working long hours to make ends meet in addition to writing his first novel, The Good Companions. It tells of the adventures of a concert-party on the roads of England. In August 1929, The Daily Express reviewed it as long, leisurely and very lively… after an old pattern, the picaresque, which will always… be popular. It is the pattern of Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, Tom Jones, The Pickwick Papers…. In the first six months, it sold ninety-five thousand copies in Britain and a further ninety thousand in America. More recently, it has been unjustly trounced by the sort of critic whose sole criterion of a book’s worth is that it should fill the middle class with guilt (Cutforth). Angel Pavement (1930) was a darker book about claustrophobic life in a small city office. In 1931, Priestley rewrote The Good Companions for the stage, and followed it with two other plays, Laburnham Grove (1933) and Time and the Conways (1937)


Priestley was in his early forties when he wrote English Journey, which he appropriately, if somewhat long-windedly subtitled, a rambling but truthful account of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England during the autumn of the year 1933. For anyone who wants to know what England really seemed to be like at the time rather than what it ought to have seemed to be like, or what the darkest corners of it seemed to be like, Priestley’s account makes useful and interesting reading, rambling as it may be. The Daimler-driving socialist felt there were three Englands, two homegrown and a third an American import. First, he wrote, there was Old England, the country of the cathedrals and ministers and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire…quaint highways and byways. This, he wrote, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek sideways swipe at fellow traveller Morton, could not be improved on in this world. As Simon Schama has put it, this was Morton-Albion, full of limestone hamlets nestling… amidst velvety dales as larks soared into sweet empyrean. Secondly, there was nineteenth-century England, the clapped-out wreckage of the industrial heartlands of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions… back-to-back houses, detached villas… railway stations, slag-heaps and tips, dock roads, … doss-houses, Unionist or Liberal Clubs, cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, fried-fish shops, public-houses… This England made up the larger part of the Midlands and the North, but also existed everywhere. For the better-off people living there it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable.

 035 The third England, he concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this island. This was the England of arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibiting buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools and everything given away for cigarette coupons… It was essentially democratic, because although money was needed in this England, it was not necessary to have much of it. It was a large-scale mass-production job, with cut prices. In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill were as good as their master and mistress. Both work and leisure were becoming standardised in this new England. Again, Simon Schama summarises it well when he calls it a new England of lipstick and car assembly lines, Benny Goodman, sheer stockings and Friday-night cinema. It was a cleaner, tidier, healthier and saner world than that of nineteenth century industrialism. As he looked back on his journey, he saw how these three Englands were fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country he had visited.

It is therefore essential to hold in mind the diversity of urban areas covered by the contemporary catchphrase new industry areas, since their nature was to a large extent determined by their various traditions, or lack of them. An approach that focuses on, compares and contrasts the experiences of particular communities to which the catchphrase was applied is more likely to reveal a depth of cultural diversity, as opposed to one that simply stops at a regional overview. Many of these new areas were referred to in the national and local press as boomtowns. Coventry, for example, although a medieval cathedral city and already a county borough before this period, was considered to be a prime example of a boomtown. When Priestley visited it in 1933, he had been prepared for gloomy vistas but was found it unexpectedly bright and clear. The centre appeared genuinely old and picturesque, with half-timbered and gabled houses in among the cathedral of St Michael, St.Mary’s Hall, the old almshouses or hospitals, and the old Palace Yard. He contrasts this old Coventry with,

… an army of nuts, bolts, hammers, spanners, gauges, drills, and machine lathes, for in a thick ring round this ancient centre are the motor-car and cycle factories, the machine-tool-makers, the magnet-manufacturers and the electrical companies. Beyond them again are the whole new quarters, where the mechanics and fitters and turners and furnace men live in neat brick rows, and drink their beer in gigantic new public-houses and take their wives to gigantic new picture-theatres… There are still plenty of unemployed here, about twelve thousand, I believe. But… the place has passed its worst period of depression and, unless this country reels back into a bottomless pit of trade depression, Coventry should be all right. Factories that were working on short time a year or two ago, are now in some instances back on double shifts. I saw their lights and heard the deep roar of their machinery, late that night.

He paid a visit to the Daimler works, employing about four hundred men, and saw how every man was limited to one job, but divided into a variety of tasks, so that they were not strictly involved in mass production. There was no moving chain or belt and no men restricted to just one task of fixing a nut and bolt; it was highly organised, large-scale jobbing production. The size of the factory was an advantage for this type of production, because parts were put through tests that would be impossible in a small workshop. A smaller manufacturer would not be able to afford the precision machinery with which the parts were tested. He also saw double-decker buses being finished, each one costing between fifteen hundred and two thousand pounds.

There was no obvious supervision of the workers. An elaborate plan of work was first agreed upon with the specialist planning department and then the thousand and one jobs were distributed and the huge system of production was put into motion. After that, the works almost ran themselves. Everybody knew what to do, passing the assembly from one worker to another after each stage of production. Once the plan was put into action and the machinery set in motion, there was no need for more than the very minimum of supervision. His guide was an Oxford graduate in engineering, who was only earning four pounds a week, because most of his fellow-workers were mechanics. He was not from Coventry, and didn’t like the place, saying that he didn’t go into the pubs because all they talked about were gears and magnetos and such-like. Instead, he went home and had a read.


Despite this mixed reality of life and work in Coventry, during the thirties a popular and powerful collective identity developed within the city itself, which found expression in the utterances and writings of the new Labour leadership emerging at that time. At the beginning of his autobiography, published in 1970, George Hodgkinson reflected on this mythology:

Like many others I am one of the immigrants mixing with those from the Welsh mining valleys, the north-east coast, Scotland and Ireland, who moved from the depressed industrial areas into the Klondike atmosphere of a boom town of high earnings, housing shortage, overcrowding, militant trade unionism, a social climate in which explosive thinking and acting thrived in the factories, the offices and the councils of the Local Authority. Coventry is a City which has doubled its population four times in fifty years, attracting new ethnological groups, meeting, mixing, and marrying and producing a vigorous community. From this catalyst of cross-fertilisation springs the inventor, innovator, the sophisticated engineer, administrator, architect and planner, a community on the experimental fringe ever going in search of new forms, new skills which promote and advance the growth industries in the city.

Writing in the 1950s, the sociologist Leo Kuper pointed out that the distinctive, yet somewhat mythological feature of the growth of the city through the replacement of declining industries with new ones, gave a somewhat mystical basis for a belief in the destiny of Coventry. The main propaganda themes, which found expression on civic occasions and in official publications, were:

The ancient city with a modern outlook;

The industrial city with an historic tradition;

The centre of England;

The city of independent craftsmen of enterprise and initiative;

The city with a future.


This belief in the future of Coventry combined with its rapid expansion, its high wage structure, the influx of migrants, improvised shops and inadequate amenities, gave the city, in Kuper’s eyes, a boomtown quality. Its self-awareness and sense of civic pride can be traced to the beginning of the inter-war period, following the influx of large numbers of armament workers during the First World War. As early as 1920, the President of the Chamber of Commerce had written:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades… The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than one of the oldest cities of Great Britain.


However, as the period progressed, leading figures in the city became less happy with the image that it appeared to have acquired, and with the seemingly uncontrolled immigration that the projection of this image seemed to have promoted. In January 1929 the Daily Express published an article headed Britain’s most Prosperous Industrial City, which claimed that the young women of Coventry were getting wages so high that they refused to marry; it presented the city as an El Dorado. The District Committee of the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union) received immediate demands for a protest to be made and the Secretary was instructed to write to the press contradicting the statements made. The matter was not allowed to rest there, however, and feelings were running so high that the engineering unions prepared a joint statement with the Engineering Employers’ Association: 

The Manufacturers and work people of Coventry are exceedingly disturbed at the recent ‘stunt’ efforts of sections of the sensational press in regard to the alleged boom in Coventry trade; the fact is… that trade in Coventry is merely normal for the time of year.

It is to be deplored that any section of the Press should cause untold suffering and disappointment by broadcasting news which is wholly unwarranted and which must result in… inconvenience to many who take these statements at their face value.

Unemployed workers in other districts are warned against making the journey to Coventry in the hope of finding jobs awaiting them; this is not the case, and, in the absence of a definite engagement, the correct method of probing the position of employment in Coventry is either through the proper Trades Unions or the local Labour Exchange.

The Chairman of the Board of Guardians was equally irate, complaining that they had had these booming articles before, and the reflex had always come in a big addition to the Board’s work in providing for unemployed and destitute men who had been brought into the city on such big advertisements. A fellow Guardian echoed these remarks, suggesting that if they were not careful they would get an influx of all sorts of people, and there was no telling where it would end. He did, however, go on to express concern for the migrants themselves, by saying that it was unfair that these men should be led to believe that they were going to pick up ten-shilling notes from the gutter. However, civic dignitaries were not unanimously unhappy about the boomtown label. At the meeting of Guardians a fortnight later, the Mayor expressed his belief that the reports could not be an entire disadvantage to a commercial city like Coventry. This provoked an angry exchange in which one member came to the Mayor’s defence by stating that he saw advertisements for workers in the papers every day, and pointed out that there were very few unemployed in Coventry capable of taking on the work in the factories for which they were wanted.

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Whatever the debate about its accuracy, there can be little doubt that this image of prosperity exerted a powerful magnetic force throughout the decade that followed. Many migrants chose Coventry as a destination because of this kind of image, and many of them moved there after a period of employment elsewhere in England because they needed higher wages in order to get married. By the time Haydn Roberts moved to Coventry from his butcher’s boy position in London, to work at the GEC in 1936, industrial and civic leaders were beginning to be less cautious about the city’s image, as the following Midland Daily Telegraph editorial reveals:

Coventry local administrators and its citizens must accept the fact that the city is forcing itself up among the twenty great towns of the land, and it must be made a city of which its residents will be proud to claim a share. The day has already passed when the newcomer to Coventry was dubbed a ‘foreigner’ – but it was not so long ago.


The other aspect of this boomtown image was the projection of the city as a working class city, with its recent expansion based upon firm industrial roots. This distinguished it from towns such as Oxford, whose traditions were somewhere else altogether. To a potential immigrant from a homogeneous working class community, the prospect of becoming part of a prosperous, if more amorphous, working class society was more attractive than the prospect of being swallowed up by the mixed society of the growing London conurbation. By 1938 there were sixty-eight cars per thousand of the population in Coventry, nearly double the average. The number of private motorcars owned had increased from 5,678 in 1930 to 15,588 in 1938. These facts led Richard Crossman, one of the city’s two post-war MP’s, to reflect that ownership of a car ceased to be a middle class characteristic in Coventry at least a decade before anywhere else. This statement may appear to be yet another piece of propaganda, but it does serve to emphasize the impact of the progressive industrial forces that were transforming the image of the city in the thirties and forties.


From the perspective of the early twenties, this transformation seems even more remarkable, since by 1921 the population level had dropped back from its wartime high and the city was experiencing a much lower rate of growth. The twenties started against a backcloth of economic uncertainty, with the major factories operating on short time, many new ventures failing and local labour relations being soured by the 1922 engineering lock-out. These factors, together with the recent trauma of war, were expressed in a marked decline in the birth rate. For the first time since the 1880s, Coventry’s rate of live births fell below the national figure, and did not recover until 1925. The decline in the national birth rate was due to a combination of factors, including the increasing use of contraceptive methods among the prosperous middle classes, enabling them to limit family size and enjoy a more materialistic lifestyle. It may have been the case that Coventry’s more affluent working class were also following this trend, but another explanation may be found in the high level of migrants in the community during and at the end of the Great War. For many of the war workers, their stay in Coventry was a temporary sojourn, to make as much money as quickly as they could before returning to their families and home communities. Many of them would have been single men and women or, even if married, apprehensive about starting a family. Such migrants would seek out cheaper, smaller types of accommodation, unsuitable for child rearing, in order to maximise savings.


Posted October 31, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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