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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), 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. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ and Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; IV.   Leave a comment

Chapter Four: Poverty, Resistance and Reconstruction.

In May 1936, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. Up to this time, the Council had played a major role in the government’s strategy, with a number of its members being involved in both the social administration of the transference scheme for juveniles and young men and the government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys for older men and women. Most of the prominent figures in the social administration of South Wales attended the Conference. On its second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with Rev. T. Alban Davies going so far as to call for civil disobedience to counter its operation. His argument was that the national conscience was being roused against the break-up of communities which represented the history and traditions of Wales. Aneurin Bevan, MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacent attitude of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

… if this problem was still viewed as complacently as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken as there was no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was made apparent by one speaker who replied to Bevan by suggesting that East Monmouth had no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had not been absorbed into local life… Elfan Rees, Secretary to the SWMCSS, agreed that much of the population of South Wales had come from English counties, but pointed out that it was not the ‘rootless undesirables’ who were leaving:

It is not only the young, it is not only the best, it is also the Welsh who are going … if transference were repatriation it might be a different story, but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going – the unwillingness to remain idle at home – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities that mark or own indigenous population. And if this process of social despoilation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they haven’t the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.

Rees’ ‘analysis’ of the problem helps to explain why, in 1928, the ‘liberal-Cymricists’ had chosen not to oppose the Baldwin Government’s Transference policy. They had hoped that it would remove, as they saw them, the aliens who had robbed them of the loyalty of the people of the valleys. By 1936, it had become clear that become clear that the transference scheme in particular and voluntary migration, in general, had failed to discriminate in the way they had hoped it would.

Migration also had a tendency to delay marriage and to restrict parenthood. Those couples who did manage to move before starting a family often delayed doing so due to the continuing sense of insecurity they felt in their new homes. This meant that migration not only altered significantly the age structure of South Wales and the North, but also did little or nothing to counter the declining birth rates in the recipient areas, and therefore nationally, at least until the late 1940s. The decline of the nonconformist chapels also had its impact on the ability of couples to get married in their hometowns and villages. In many ways, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1919 represented a high water mark for Welsh Nonconformity. A decade later its pre-eminence had been destroyed. In early 1930 a correspondent in The Times stated that in Cwmavon all nine nonconformist chapels were without ministers and that all marriages except one from the town had taken place in the registry office at Neath, ten miles away. This was not an isolated case. A survey into the position of the Free Churches in the Special Area was completed in 1938, showing their total debt to be in excess of forty thousand pounds. This debt swallowed al their income. While there were 1,100 chapels still active throughout the Special Area, less than half of them were able to support ordained ministers.

There was a detectable change in the Special Areas’ Commissioner’s third report of November 1936, which included an acknowledgement of the negative effects of transference upon the Special Areas and promised inducements to attract new industries. However, the Commissioner stressed the need for continuation of the Transference Policy. Malcolm Stewart warned that the establishment of industries in the Areas on an effective scale would take time. In the meantime, failure to help the youths and the younger generation of the unemployed to transfer to districts offering better opportunities would be to neglect their best interests. They must not wait about until absorbed locally. By the following November, in confirmation that the Government had accepted the priority of new industrial development and felt able at last to align itself with the new consensus, the fourth report which the new Special Areas Commissioner, George Gillett, presented to parliament, referred to the Transference Scheme in the past tense. It included a statement by Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, who had been appointed District Commissioner for the South Wales Special Area, which was a significant apology for the operation of the scheme over the previous decade:

In common with many others, one cannot but deplore a policy which has the effect of robbing Wales of her most enterprising sons and daughters as well as creating other vital problems of the future. There is consolation in the thought that those who have left are not necessarily permanently lost to Wales as I am convinced that, given an opportunity of work at home, thousands of exiles would return. This is an argument which I have used with effect in negotiating new industries.

However, the effective end of the official transference policy did not put a stop to the continued exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom was swallowing up more and more labour, especially in the English Midlands. However, the construction of a new economic base was well underway in South Wales by the end of 1938, and Crawshay’s prophecy about the return of the natives was beginning, in part, to be fulfilled. Nevertheless, much of the damage to the reputation of government had already been done. Although few protestors went as far as the Welsh Nationalists in comparing its actions to those of Hitler in the Sudetenland, as just another Fascist way of murdering a small defenceless nation without going to war about it, the Transference Scheme had been an act of unprecedented government intervention which, though relieving those it removed, caused further economic depression in the communities from which they were taken. By the end of the decade of the Scheme’s operation, the government had become involved in subsidising wages, turning the Ministry of Labour into a Social Service agency which directly interfered in the personal lives of citizens, using every measure short of force to remove young people from South Wales.

The Treforest Trading Estate Co. was formed in September 1938 seventy-two firms were assisted to settle in different parts of the Special Area, including fifty-one at Treforest. Shortly before the outbreak of war, this estate was providing employment for 2,500 workers at twenty factories. At first, doubts were expressed about the suitability of Welsh labour in the new industries, with some industrialists arguing that the workers were accustomed only to heavy work and would find it too difficult to adapt themselves to the intricacies of the more delicate work demanded in the call for high precision. This problem was countered in two ways: Firstly, one skilled immigrant worker, refugees from Austria or Czechoslovakia, was employed for every twenty-five local workers, and, secondly, the majority of the local workers employed were women. By June 1939, there were only 914 men out of a workforce of 2,196 at Treforest. As in the Bridgend valleys, the new industries were beginning fundamentally to alter the gender balance of the Welsh workforce.

The people of the coalfield were not simply subjected to varying forms of economic and political intervention during the late twenties and thirties, but they were also besieged by a host of social workers who formed part of a cultural intervention which operated in tandem with the transference policy. If these communities were to be denuded of the younger element of their population, then it was also realised that something would also have to be done for the increasingly elderly elements which were left behind. Even when new industries were brought into the coalfield there were still a large number of men over forty-five who were no longer employable. Moreover, it was felt that these communities needed help to develop the ‘right sort’ of social leadership which could rescue them from ‘the slough of despond’. These were the motivations behind the social service schemes which extended their tentacles along the valleys.

The return of the National Government in 1936  led to the social service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct state intervention.The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the central government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed, but that such work could be more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National Funds.The Government recognised the NCSS as the appropriate body for coordinating and stimulating schemes and McDonald broadcast an appeal laying stress upon what he considered the successes already achieved at Brynmawr, as a model of what could be achieved elsewhere. This brought a strong reaction from the Urban District Council, whose clerk wrote to the PM to correct the impression he had conveyed to the nation of the nature and scale of what was taking place in their town. Sensitive to the accusation that the social service schemes were simply providing ‘dope’ for the unemployed and that they were leading them further into ‘demoralization’ by depriving them of courage and self-reliance, Peter Scott acknowledged that his group at Brynmawr had failed to achieve their ideal of reconstruction from within:

To many of us, the thought that this work was being used merely as a palliative, bread and circuses on a large-scale, would indeed be a bitter one.

But although Percy Watkins, the Secretary of the Welsh Section of the NCSS and one of the key liberal-Cymricists of the period, remained fearful of the consequences for the future of coalfield society of the absence of a new generation of leaders, he was also hopeful about the resilience of mining families:

… The effect of these two factors, migration of young people and permanent unemployment for so large a section of the community, means that the quality of social leadership in the area, and the maintenance of its social institutions in future years are gravely jeopardised, unless special efforts are made to preserve them… The fact that many thousands of men and women bend their minds to these enterprises (the occupational clubs), as well as to various forms of craft and physical training, in spite of their ever-present anxieties, is an eloquent testament to the quality of the South Wales miner…  

Many of the miners themselves, however, continued to believe that the Government was using the unemployed clubs to break their spirit, and with it their own autonomous organisations such as the miners’ institutes. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of the coalfield communities, its families and individuals, to unemployment and impoverishment. It is therefore important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the ‘top-down’ organisation of the official Transference Scheme. The decision of the workless families themselves to organise their own ‘exodus’ rather than be broken up by officialdom, was not a response of acquiescence and defeat, but rather one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield. Equally, it has been too often assumed that organised resistance to intervention from within the coalfield can best be measured by the extent of demonstrations and political action. It is important to treat with extreme caution ;< the kind of stereotypical imagery and crude causal analysis of ‘propagandists’ such as Donovan Brown, writing about the 1935 demonstration against the new UAB scales:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys… The village forms a perfect unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class-consciousness has arisen quite naturally… we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory… poverty,  and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition… Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed… Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place… South Wales is ablaze with indignation.                                       

In fact, the demonstrations against unemployment often arose out of specific local grievances, such as the operation of Government policy over the local poor-law officials on the Board of Guardians. In May 1927 there was a ‘demonstration of unemployed’ from Brynmawr against the Urban District Council’s decision to limit the age of applicants for the post of Rate collector to forty, excluding the older unemployed men from applying. They interrupted the Council meeting and forced the Councillors to reconsider the terms of the appointment. There were two further demonstrations later that summer in relation to local issues affecting the unemployed. These preceded the first of the massed marches of the unemployed to London, organised by the miners’ ‘Fed’ (SWMF). The main motivation for it arose out of the stranglehold exercised by the Ministries of Health and Labour upon the Boards of Guardians. It began from Pontypridd, where an Unemployed Organisation had been formed in September 1927, and it was well supported by the Pontypridd Trades Council.

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As the depression progressed, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended on the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the Courts of Referees, and it was these issues which took up nearly all the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, led by the Communist, Wal Hannington. However, there was no widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington. At the General Election in October, the well-known Communist J R Campbell came fourth in the Ogmore and Garw Constituency with only eight percent of the poll, losing his deposit. Yet the October election came only a fortnight after the following report appeared in the Glamorgan Gazette:

Unemployed people, becoming more and more restive, continue to worry public bodies with their importunities. On Monday afternoon, a deputation organised by the Maesteg and Ogmore and Garw Council of Action, waited upon the Bridgend Guardians Committee… in reference to the reductions in unemployment benefit, and submitted that the difference between the old and the new rates of… benefit should be made up by the Guardians; that all unemployed workers and their families should be provided with boots, clothing and bed-clothes; that an allowance of coal be made to all unemployed workers; and that equal consideration be given to single men.

Clearly, the small but influential group of communists in the Bridgend valleys were unable to turn their role in the leadership of the unemployed into votes and immediate success in national or local elections. Yet even among supporters of the NUWM, the attitude towards transference schemes was confused. Government reports claimed that little opposition was encountered by officials, even in “Little Moscow”, Maerdy in the Rhondda, where they found that the Communists were quite happy to transfer!

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In the Hunger Marches of 1932 and 1934, women had marched to London in contingents beside the men. Pictures and text from the first two marches can be seen above and below; the pictures of the 1934 march were taken of the women’s column which marched from Derby. The pictures are taken from the collection of Maud Brown, Women’s organiser of the NUWM, who herself took part in the marches and was an indefatigable champion of the jobless and the poor. On one occasion, during a tenants’ protest at a council meeting in Aberdeen, she hurled a live rat, taken from a slum dwelling, at the assembled councillors.

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The photographs capture the sense of humour and comradeship which existed among the women, and in their interactions with the men. The shots of hay-box heated food being served beside the road and the first aid treatment to blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women not to starve in silence. All the marchers were unemployed themselves, or had unemployed husbands, and depended on the good-will of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. Hospitality from a Co-operative Society in providing a meal with unaccustomed waiter service is evident in a scene which pokes fun at the inversion of the roles of men and women.

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Mindful of the disturbances of 1932 in the capital, the Home Secretary, Lord Gilmour, made the first attack on the hunger marchers, stating that the government will have to ask Parliament to grant such powers as experience might show to be necessary to deal with such demonstrations. Two days later, the Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Inskip, speaking at a meeting, warned of bloodshed and said the government would be bound to take steps to stop it. Petty police harassment followed the contingents all the way. At Birmingham, where the contingents spent the night in the workhouse, the police stayed with them in the sleeping quarters claiming they were there in case of fire! After they had been persuaded to withdraw at midnight, a large number of them were found hiding in a room upstairs and the superintendent pretended not to know they were there!

As the marchers drew close to London, the clamour for their suppression and restriction increased. The Duchess of Athol asked the Home Secretary if he would take suitable steps to prevent the marchers from holding meetings in Trafalgar Square. The Tyneside contingent was visited by police and five marchers were arrested for ‘wife desertion’. This action was instigated by the public assistance authorities because their wives were claiming poor relief. The men were later able to prove that their wives supported them in marching and that the authorities were merely creating difficulties. It was the attempt of the government to brand and condemn the hunger marchers before they reached London that led to a number of prominent men and women forming a committee to maintain a vigilant observation on proceedings. These included the future Labour PM, Clement Attlee, H. G. Wells, the novelist, Kingsley Martin and Ellen Wilkinson. By 23 February, the contingents were drawn up around London in readiness for their entry and reception at a great rally in Hyde Park on Sunday 25th.  The Home Secretary called up ten thousand special constables and provincial police forces were drafted in to support the metropolitan force.

A delegation representing the Welsh and Scots marchers met a hundred MPs at a special meeting in the House of Commons. The March Council also requested a meeting with the premier, Ramsay MacDonald, in a letter which was also signed by the MPs Aneurin Bevan, James Maxton and Ellen Wilkinson. In the drizzle and intermittent heavy rain, the hunger marchers finally made a footsore entry to Hyde Park where an estimated hundred thousand people gathered around eight platforms to hear the speakers and pay tribute to the courage of the emissaries from the valleys, old industrial towns and docklands of Britain. The marchers didn’t succeed in putting their case to the House, despite the support of a large number of MPs and the support of Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee addressed the Commons on their behalf, however, saying:

The marchers are fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous… there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

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The marchers sent a deputation to Downing Street, led by Maxton, but MacDonald was not at home. Later on, in the Commons, the Prime Minister stated, in an angry outburst,

… has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind!

A great rally was held on Sunday, 3rd March in Trafalgar Square. Crowds gathered along the route from Hyde Park to the Square as the hunger marchers had a last meal from the soup kitchens and marched into the square singing “The Red Flag” (see the picture below, showing the crowd’s heads turning to greet the marchers). Dora Cox and Ceridwen Brown were among other women left Tonypandy on the 1934 March.

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In 1935-36, public opinion against the principle of means testing families was at its peak. The iniquitous and petty economies of the government that brought acrimony and family division to the tables of the poor were hated by all but the Tories. Women especially bore the brunt of the bureaucratic inquisition. A family with a newborn child, claiming the appropriate allowance, would be asked is the child being breastfed? If the answer was yes, the benefit was refused. A fourteen-year-old boy might get a job as cheap labour while his father remained unemployed, the boy’s earnings were counted and the family benefit cut, for the boy was expected to maintain his father. In Merthyr Tydfil, where unemployment reached nearly sixty percent of the insured population, nine thousand people, more than seventy percent of the unemployed, were on the means test, for mass unemployment had lasted for years. Mothers went without food to feed their children while the children went without boots. In the winter months, coal was brought four pennyworth at a time as families struggled to exist on means-tested allowances. Another teenager from a means-tested family told James Hanley;

We’re on the Means Test now.  Yesterday I was sitting in the kitchen when the when the man came in. It made me feel mad the way he questioned my mother. She got all fluttery and worried. , I thought she was going to run into the street. She’s not used to it… Mother is very good in spite of the conditions. It’s wives and mothers who are the real heroines. Don’t you think so?                                         

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The massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act, which took place between January and February of 1935, were an expression of the recovery of organised Labour, especially the Miners’ Federation, and of a new and unprecedented unity within the coalfield as a whole. They were at their strongest and, at times, most violent, at the heads of the valleys, in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and assistance payments as due by right, rather than by charity. It was in these communities that unwaged families stood to lose most through the new regulations. Nowhere was the latent resentment of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr.  The women around Merthyr organised a march on the offices of the  Unemployed Assistance Board (UAB) in response to a new UAB Act: they smashed the offices, despite the imprecations of the Quaker, John Dennithorne. The next day the government backed down on the introduction of the Act, signalling a major victory for the female protestors.

The nervousness which these shock waves created in government circles prompted Captain Ellis of the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, planned for November 1936, the same month that as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was due to take effect. On 12 October 1936, Ellis penned the following letter to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the date is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on 16th October. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given something of a political significance. .. When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date he asked me to tell you that he felt the very strongly that the King should not bed not be taken  to South Wales during that week.

There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions looking forward, as well as back to the previous year’s violent demonstrations. In August the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, that he made his misquoted remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Captain Ellis had predicted, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet. But this was exactly the effect it had on a government which was already questioning his position. Nevertheless, the publicity given to the King’s casual remarks did have an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment.                                    

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Meanwhile, The Jarrow Crusade which had set out from the town as its official delegation to Parliament on 5 October 1936, had more of the ethos of a religious pilgrimage about it. It was the march of the ‘breadwinners’ who had been deprived of their families’ daily bread. It was to eschew the violence of the earlier Hunger Marches, led by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. If it was seen as a march,  it had to be the march to end all marches according to René Cutforth. He wrote that of all the black, noxious, stinking industrial hell-holes left behind by the nineteenth-century enterprise, the town of Jarrow was just about the nethermost pit. Jarrow’s population had risen to thirty-five thousand in the 1920s, but in the early thirties, a firm called ‘National Shipbuilding Security Ltd, whose speciality was buying up enterprises hit by the slump moved into Jarrow and dismantled Palmers’ Shipyard, which had been there since 1852. Deprived of its main industry, the shipyard, Jarrow demonstrated vividly the conditions prevailing in many parts of Northumberland and Durham. Jarrow depended entirely on shipbuilding for its living, therefore. With its shipyard shut, the sky cleared and the river ran through clear again. But a blight had descended on the town as to make its previous squalor seem a memory of paradise. Jarrow was dead. When the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, told its delegations that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, the townspeople knew they were indeed on their own.

So they decided on a great crusade of two hundred hand-picked men, the story of which is well-known. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles. The image of the Jarrow Marchers reaching London with their petition is iconic of the period. Although the march was exclusively male in composition, it was accompanied by its well-known female MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who had written the book The Town that was Murdered two years earlier. The journalist René Cutforth described her as a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire. In 1935 she had led a march to Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. The cornered statesman told her, with some irony and perhaps more than a touch of sarcasm, to go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this.

The National Government, now led by Baldwin, had nothing to say to them, so they went home by train only to be told by their wives on arrival that their dole had been cut because they had not been ‘available for work’. Ellen Wilkinson was rebuked at a Labour Party Conference for her ‘irresponsibility’ and the whole episode was closed, despite the way that so many had rallied to support them on their route to London.

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The Crusade represented an attempt at self-help publicity of a group of unemployed men representing their whole community. In that sense, it was meant to be fundamentally different from the Communist-organised Hunger Marches which preceded it. Though it became the classic and legendary march, it achieved nothing, and even while it was going on, four hundred Scotsmen and women from Glasgow were marching south to join up with other contingents, from ten other cities, on the last of the national hunger marches.  The largest of the great protests, this time it was a united demonstration embracing all sections of the Labour movement and focused on the changes to the Means Test and transitional benefits proposed in the National Government’s Unemployment (UAB) Bill. The organisation of the march was strengthened by the participation of the Trades Councils and the Constituency Labour Parties. This was despite the claim for direct representation of the NUWM being rejected by the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test in July 1936. In the autumn, the Trades Council also rejected a demand for Communist Party affiliation.

 

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Nevertheless, the NUWM claimed it had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November. The public response to the marchers was magnificent. When the eight hundred marchers from South Wales reached Slough, they were greeted by a crowd of eleven thousand, for Slough had become a ‘little Wales’, peopled by those who had left the valleys over the previous decade, to find work. The Lancashire contingent was given a twelve-mile bus ride paid for by Oxford students. Hailed and fed by Trades Councils and Co-ops along the way, the hunger marchers were in good spirits for their triumphal march into the capital where a quarter of a million turned out. Thousands lined the streets with clenched fist salutes and packed around the six platforms set up in the park to hear the speeches of miners’ leaders and MPs, including Aneurin Bevan and Clement Attlee. Bevan claimed, with some justification, that,

The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the Labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILP’ers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.

With the autumn leaves drifting across the banners, Attlee moved the resolution:

… the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed…

In his visit to South Wales in June 1929, an official at the Ministry of Labour found that parents were increasingly in favour of their boys migrating rather than working underground, despite the fact that the employment situation had improved to the point where there was a fresh demand for juvenile labour in the collieries.  Another report that year revealed that boys had refused the offer of underground employment in the hope of securing employment in England. In January 1934, the Juvenile Employment Officer for Merthyr reported that of the boys due to leave school at Easter, less than seventeen percent, or one in six expressed a preference for colliery work. A quarter of the boys stated that they had no particular preference but invariably added that they did not want to work underground. By comparison, twenty-six percent wanted to enter the distributive trades and ten percent stated a preference for engineering.

A 1934 Investigation into the Problems of Juvenile Unemployment in Specific Areas by the Ministry of Labour found that there were 148 boys unemployed in areas where there were unfilled local vacancies for boys in coal mining. Although only twenty-nine of these boys had stated that they were unwilling to accept mining employment, the Report concluded that this antipathy was widespread. The shortage of boys wishing to enter coal mining was most marked in the Ferndale employment exchange area of the Rhondda, although managers of all the South Wales exchanges covered by the enquiry reported this changed attitude towards pit work. This change of attitude was shared by the boys’ parents, especially their mothers. In Abertillery, it was reported that most of the boys leaving school in 1932 were anxious to obtain employment other than mining and that their mothers were ’emphatic’ that they should not face the same hardships and unemployment as their fathers. Clearly, it was the nature of the work involved as well as its insecurity which promoted this preference which amounted to determined resistance among women. This evidence from government sources is well supported by the purely anecdotal evidence of the social ‘surveyors’. In his survey of Nantyglo and Blaina, Philip Massey reported that migration was itself playing in the broadening of the minds of the population. He detected the erosion of what he called the “coal complex”.

The American writer Eli Ginzberg found that many of those who left Wales looked forward in a spirit of adventure in settling in communities where coal mining was not the sole occupation. He traced the break-up of ‘the coal complex’ to the summer of 1926, and the freedom from the mines which the long stoppage provided. This had prompted many, he argued, to question the advantages of coal mining, a questioning which was intensified by the worsening conditions and reduced pay which followed the return to work. Women became even more prejudiced against coal mining, he noted, as a result of their suffering as household managers, and when employment became uncertain and wages fell, they sought other occupations for their sons, even if it meant them leaving not just their homes but also the valleys altogether. Many of these young men, encouraged by their mothers, were among the first significant streams of migration to the new industry towns of England, especially Cowley near Oxford, where the Pressed Steel Works was opening up at the same time. The author’s own recordings of such migrant men and women confirm this.

Migration was not simply a response to unemployment in that industry; it was, in many senses, a deliberate rejection of the industry itself. Thus, although several thousand South Wales miners succeeded in obtaining employment in the Kent coalfield and several hundred transferred to the East Midlands coalfields, in total they accounted for only two percent of the total migrants from the region. Some individuals who moved did so because they had ‘had enough’ of the mines, whether or not they were unemployed at the time. Some families, despite having members working, decided to move in order to keep younger members from working underground. Young women and even girls were allowed to leave home because their mothers didn’t want them to marry miners and many miners, despite strong pressures to return to the collieries, would not do so even when jobs were available for them there. Many of these jobs, of course, were of a temporary and insecure nature, three days and three shifts a week. Clearly, it is evident that this break-up of the ‘coal complex’ was a major push factor in the migration equation.

This was a changing attitude which found support in the school system, which had long been charged with at one time fostering a sense of local patriotism at the same time encouraging a spirit of individual enterprise, the ideal secondary pupil being one who aimed at leaving the valleys on leaving school. At the Garw Secondary School’s Annual Speech Day in 1927, Dr Olive Wheeler told her audience that she hoped the boys and girls were not going to be content to remain in the Garw Valley all their lives. ‘The Royal Commission on Merthyr Tydfil’ reported in 1935 that ‘good secondary education’ was assisting young people to find work outside the area, so helping to solve the general problem which confronted the Corporation.

Any society which, by the mid-1920s had produced the wealth of institutional life which existed in communities like Merthyr, could hardly be described as rootless, but it was a society whose institutions were already well-adapted to continual ebbs and flows in inter-regional and international migration. In addition to these patterns of immigration, there were also strong traditions of young people, especially girls, going into service in both Welsh and English cities and seaside towns. The post-war shortage in ‘domestics’ led to the advertisement pages of the Welsh press being filled with ‘propaganda’ about the prospects awaiting young girls in England. Many of the realities failed to match up to these claims, but there is little evidence to suggest that reports of poor conditions or even deaths from tuberculosis while in service restricted the flow of girls from the coalfield. Indeed, in the late twenties and early thirties, female migration was exceeding male migration.

A sample enquiry made for the New Survey of London Life and Labour reveals that about eight percent of domestic servants resident in the County of London in 1929 were born in Wales and Monmouthshire. Therefore, of the 185,000 female domestic servants in the County in 1931, there were probably more than ten thousand from South Wales. Of the 491 girls from the Rhondda who were placed in employment in other districts between 1927 and 1933, 98% went into domestic service. By comparison, only ninety-one girls were placed locally. In 1934, sixty-seven percent of girls about to leave Merthyr’s schools expressed a preference for domestic service.

Many girls would treat their employment away from home as a short-term experience, after which they would return home to play a new role in the family or to get married. This tendency was strengthened by the re-employment of the male members of the family or by the erosion of the mother’s health. The Ministry of Labour’s General Review of the Industrial Transference Scheme conducted in 1938-39 found that a significant proportion of migrants had moved simply because they wanted a change and not with any intention of settling. Young men were made aware by their sisters and girlfriends of the openings in personal service, club and hotel work which they could fill in London and elsewhere. Some were encouraged to take up industrial employment in Oxford because of fiancées, sweethearts and sisters were already working there in the colleges and hotels. Like their ‘women folk’, many of these male migrants saw their migration as a temporary, short-term experience, and left the valleys out of a sense of boredom or frustration, often with vague plans.

The desire to wriggle away from stifling official paternalism was more likely to express itself in second-stage voluntary migration than to prompt young men and women to fall back on the Transference Scheme, a factor that James Hanley commented on:

… it is even worse for the young, for they are continually at the beck and call, the whims and caprices, of every Tom, Dick and Harry who likes to call himself a social worker or a Government official. There is no independence for them at all… the ideas of the Government on the question of Labour Camps and the like should, once and for all, prove to them that to go one step further in obeisance is to yield all they value as individuals to a power which regretfully appears to waver rather favourably towards the social type now being created in the dictator countries.

Indeed, despite all the financial inducements for young people to transfer under bureaucratic supervision, the numbers doing so were very small compared with those who moved under their own devices and, most importantly, on their own terms, in keeping with traditions of migration common within their communities. To have accepted dependence on the state would, for many, have been an acceptance of their own ‘demoralization’. The purpose of migration was, after all, to escape from what Hanley described as this mass of degradation, and the stink of charity in one’s nostrils everywhere.

In any case, in the case of juvenile transference, many of the placements were in ‘blind alley’ jobs, from which employers would discharge workers as soon as they reached sixteen years of age, which was when insurability commenced. This threw juveniles back into the labour market at the time when formative employment was most desirable from a psychological point of view so that the employer could avoid paying their insurance costs. In 1937, Merthyr’s Juvenile Employment Committee reported that it had had difficulty in recruiting errand boys, and that although some of the vacancies were ‘progressive’ and not of the “blind alley” type, boys were reluctant to apply, knowing that many of their friends had been discharged on their sixteenth or eighteenth birthdays. Under the UAB regulations, these boys were under the same weekly sum they had worked for. Of course, these conditions applied to all placements, whether local or far away. Thus, “blind alley” employment also acted as a catalyst to migration in anticipation of being made redundant, as the following personal story shows. Haydn Roberts’ decision, which he kept secret from his mother, to bid ‘farewell’ to the Rhondda in 1932, just before his sixteenth birthday,  was one which was repeated many times over:

My money would have been the only money coming into the house, apart from my father’s dole. I carried on working at the butchers until I was sixteen, a couple of years… a chap I knew, Emrys Davies, had gone to London the year before and he was coming back with plenty of money, or he said he had, and he said he could get me a job. It was the custom down home then to employ children until they were sixteen and when they had to start paying stamps for them they would get somebody else you see, so that was looming for me when I was sixteen. Seeing all the other people out of work, and there was nothing in the Rhondda for us, there was no chance of a trade, I decided to go. I didn’t tell my mother, I just saved up the fare. The red and white was starting a daily night service to London. The fare was fourteen shillings single to Uxbridge then. I saved that money and before Morgan Jones had the chance to sack me I told my mother that I was off that night to London.

At the same time, there were many obstacles to migration which stemmed from the nature of family life in the coalfield. Married men with dependents and those who owned their own houses, were far less likely to transfer. In addition, men and women lacking either youth or the necessary self-confidence to settle among strangers and Welsh-speakers who would find themselves in an even more ‘alien’ environment in England would be reluctant to leave their valley neighbourhoods.

However, despite the deliberate intervention of the Baldwin Government in 1927 to ensure that the Guardians did not provide relief which would provide a disincentive to migration, it does not appear that either unemployment benefit or public assistance operated in this way. In the first place, many families and individuals experienced a significant drop in income as a result of either short-term working or more permanent stoppages in the coal industry. This decline was even more marked when compared with the standard of living in the ‘prosperity’ of the immediate post-war period. Even in 1937, by which time the administration of Unemployment Benefit and the UAB had changed substantially, a Ministry of Labour enquiry focusing on four employment exchanges in the Rhondda found that only one of the managers considered that rates of benefit or assistance had any impact on the willingness of juveniles and their parents to consider transfer. The other three managers reported that they did not consider this factor of importance in stemming the tide of transference.

Where state provision for the unemployed did act as a disincentive to migration, this was often related to the specific operation of policy rather than to the general level of the provision. For instance, while the means test often broke up families in the depressed areas, it also prevented their reunion in the more prosperous areas. Parents were reluctant to follow their sons and daughters because they feared, not without justification, that if they joined their earning children, their public assistance would be reduced and they would become at least partially dependent upon their children. By the 1930s, the Unemployment Assistance Board was under considerable pressure to amend its policy in this respect and found itself having to make discretionary adjustments to allowances in order to remove this obstacle.

It was the innate conservatism in many mining families, particularly among older men, that led to contradictory attitudes to transference and migration among the parents of prospective young migrants and transferees. On the whole, they were far more willing for their daughters to be placed in other districts than their sons, provided employment took the form of domestic or institutional service. The idea of girls being placed in factory work was described as anathema to the average Rhondda mother by the chief official to the Minister of Labour, J A Jones, in the mid-1930s. The idea was barely more acceptable to the girls themselves, whose reluctance to take up this form of employment was attributed to their entire inability to visualise the conditions of work and what they would do in the evenings. Out of 256 Merthyr girls who were placed in other districts between 1935 and 1937, only nineteen went into some form of factory employment. On the other hand, as the transference policy continued, and more information was provided for parents concerning the nature of factory work, they were more willing for both their daughters and sons to be transferred to this type of work. Mothers in particular, as has been noted, would rather their sons went into factory work elsewhere, than to go into the collieries.

Much of this parental opposition to transference was determined not only by a prejudice against factory work for their daughters but also by the strength of the extended family and by a consequent reluctance to relinquish parental control. Whilst it had been accepted practice for girls within the family to go into service, though often no further than to the coastal towns and cities, it was considered usual for the male members to remain in the home until marriage, which often meant well into adulthood. This tradition was so strong that many young men only told their parents of their decision to leave at the moment of departure, or after all their plans had been carefully laid, and some left without parental consent or knowledge. Others preferred to remain at home, even if this meant prolonged unemployment and the postponement or abandonment of marriage; some men remained in this state for sixteen years after leaving school.

The Ministry of Labour official who visited the coalfield in June 1929 reported that unemployed boys in Neath were being kept away from the instruction centres by their parents who feared they would be forced into transferring. Parents in Blaina were said to give their consent to transference ‘unreadily’ due to the strength of ‘family feeling’ and the loss of potential financial help. Of the sixty-eight Blaina boys placed in the South Eastern Division, seventeen had returned home, a ‘returnees’ rate’ of twenty-five percent. This ‘family feeling’ was a far more significant obstacle in the communities of the South Wales coalfield than it was in those of the Durham coalfield, according to the Pilgrim Trust’s Survey, which contrasted the attitudes of sixteen families in Crook with those in the Rhondda:

None of them complained, and several said how proud they were that the children should have found good employment and be earning good wages… “It’s been a great success with the boy and girl, but I’ll not go myself (colliery horse-keeper, aged fifty-seven). … All these were families of a decidedly good type, and it is plain that the better social types are also, on the whole, more ready to move… It was a striking contrast to the atmosphere in Wales, where many complained that they had brought up their children with much trouble and expense and now, when they might reasonably expect some ‘benefit’ from them, they were going away and benefiting their landlady rather than their parents. 

This resentment was also apparent in the responses of Massey’s interviewees in Blaina, many of whom complained of the break-up of family life and of other areas benefiting from the upbringing they had given their children and from the local public expenditure on them in terms of education. Massey also encountered the attitude that transference gave ‘the kids a chance’ and was ‘the only hope for the young’. Many respondents admitted that those transferred seemed ‘fairly happy’, since they were able to pay their own way, and it seemed that a number of the families were grateful to receive the money which was sent home. The truth is that the ‘Crook’ attitudes and those from the Rhondda were not universally polar opposites. There existed a spectrum of family attitudes to transference in both communities. Many parents were caught on the horns of a dilemma of whether to accept transference with its demoralising effects in terms of their values of family unity and solidarity, or whether to resist this form of intervention which in turn might mean their children falling prey to means test bureaucrats and social workers instead. The following response from one of Hanley’s witnesses provides a direct illustration of this dilemma:

I’ve a lad seventeen who did eighteen months in the pit. He stopped the same day as I did. He wants to go to one of these camps, and I say nothing in the matter. If he goes everybody’ll say “oh, look at him! His son’s gone to a labour camp”. If he doesn’t, somebody else will say, “No, he won’t let his son go. Rather see him rot”… You really don’t belong to yourself any more.”

It appears that the more fundamental the challenge to family life posed by the Transference Scheme the greater was the resistance from families closing ranks in a determination to stay put at whatever the cost, or through a parallel evolution of kinship networks which conducted the entire process of migration on a wholly autonomous basis. Family migration was conducted, in the main, without the help of the state, though financial assistance was available for this. In those cases where the parents were considering following juvenile or adult sons or daughters to a new area, they often felt constrained by the need to maintain two homes while looking for work and suitable housing in the new areas. The prospect of paying rent in two places, combined with a lack of tenure in his new employment for the older man, militated against successful migration.

Moreover, as Goronwy Daniel, then a young Welsh research student in Oxford pointed out, men who had lived in South Wales married and had children there, were more in the grip of Welsh ways of thinking and acting than single men since they had experienced more extensively and more intimately those ways of living characteristic of Wales. They had absorbed Welsh ways of bringing up children and maintaining a home and would, therefore, find the movement to an alien district more disturbing. Daniel concluded that economic, social and psychological factors made men with large families far less ready to move than those with few or no dependents. Given this, it is interesting to note that although young, single men were dominant in the migration streams, family migration was far more significant in the case of South Wales than it was for other depressed areas. The nature of Welsh family life would appear to have both stemmed and channelled the flow of migrants.

Within this ‘family factor’, attachment to the Welsh language in coalfield families was an important prohibitive factor to migration. Certainly, among Daniel’s interviewees, there was a detectable correlation between their allegiance to the language and their potential adaptability to a new environment. One Welsh-speaking family, whose ‘head’ had been employed in a mine near Neath until migration to Oxford in 1934, and which comprised four sons aged between thirteen and twenty-one and a daughter aged twenty-two, expressed with unanimity the sense of loss they felt at being unable to use the language and their strong desire to return to Wales. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University, the chief author and editor of the two Industrial Surveys of the 1930s was correct to identify the strength of ‘family feeling’, the strength of institutional life and the sense of ‘belonging’, the extensiveness of home ownership and the problem of declining health as major obstacles to migration, whether voluntary or state-induced and controlled. Attachment to the Welsh language was less inhibiting in the decade following his original statement in 1931, particularly among young people, male and female, who were already embracing a broader, transatlantic popular culture.

Naturally, the issues of wages and conditions were also of primary practical importance to many coalfield families. Gwyn Meara’s 1936 survey of juvenile unemployment showed that the ‘the juveniles’ will to move and the parents’ consent, would be very much easier to obtain if wages were offered sufficient for the full support of the boys or girls concerned. All too often the transferred juvenile became an additional drain upon the financial resources of a family already hard pressed at home. Resistance was reinforced by the appearance that Transference was the only policy adopted by successive, mainly conservative governments, to deal with large-scale, long-term unemployment. Many in the coalfield, led by the recovering SWMF, felt that there was a deliberate conspiracy to lower wages, undermine the strength of trade unions and weaken its true political leadership. As early as 1929, officials within the Ministry of Labour were noting that these opinions were more freely expressed throughout South Wales than in other depressed areas:

My impression is that the north country miner is much slower to express his own ideas than the more argumentative Welsh miner who is disposed to criticise the inadequacy, from his point of view, of the Government Schemes.

Although the basis for widespread public opposition existed in 1929, it was not until the late 1930s that the disparate strands of opposition were galvanised by an awareness of the social effects of a decade of migration and by the possibilities for the introduction of new industries. The chapels began to frighten mothers about the evils of city life, tradesmen suggested that although one might find a job in England there would be little gained, because the cost of living was so much higher: Trades Councils, always uneasy about the dilution of wages, began to oppose the transference of juveniles; the Lord Mayor of Merthyr, D J Evans, stated categorically that the flow of young people from this borough to other parts of the country, the steady movement of depopulation must be checked, and soon. 

The authors of the ‘General Review’ of the Transference Scheme were in little doubt that this publicity, which appeared in the Western Mail and elsewhere, had some adverse effect on the willingness of a number of applicants to consider transference to more prosperous areas.  This was not simply a government view, looking for scapegoats, but was supported by A J Lush:

The constant reiteration in press and pulpit of the dangers to the social life of South Wales by migration made it possible for many of these young persons to quote eminent authority against the whole policy. This made it extremely difficult to stress the value of ‘training’ itself. 

One of the most significant obstacles to both transference and voluntary migration was the widespread ill-health bred by poverty and malnutrition. The statistical evidence on the effects on women’s health was fully investigated by and published by Richard Titmuss in 1938, and have been dealt with above. The poverty of diet endured by many potential young transferees, many of them already forced to live away from their parental home due to the operation of the means test, is revealed by James Hanley’s more anecdotal evidence:

It has already been seen that young people who have left Wales and gone elsewhere and have got work and gone into lodgings, have vomited up whatever first wholesome meal they have had served up to them by their landladies. I verified five instances of this.       

Other important obstacles were the strength of trade union traditions, a deep-seated resentment of official and quasi-official intervention and a broadening communal opposition to the Transference policy. More negatively, there was, at least until the introduction of new industries in the second half of the thirties, a widespread antipathy to factory work, especially among women, though a preference for such work over colliery work by young men, both attitudes receiving parental support, especially from mothers. Specific aspects of the levels and administration of unemployment benefit and allowances, together with the emergence of a subsistence sub-economy within the coalfield also played a significant though secondary role, in preventing migration.

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Between 1911 and 1939, the working population of Britain increased by twenty percent. In peacetime women formed thirty percent of this working population; most of them were young, single women, but towards the end of the period, married women tended to continue at work, at least until the birth of their first child. For some working women, like those in the photograph above, very little changed in their working lives. The photograph could have been taken at the end of the nineteenth century, in any of the coalfields, since there were pit-brow lasses in all of them at that time. Perhaps surprisingly, there were still well over three thousand women employed in coal mines in Britain in 1930, 239 under the age of sixteen, and more than half of the total employed in the Lancashire and Cheshire districts where the tradition of women colliery workers was strongest. They worked on the sidings, tramways and, as in the photo, in washing and sorting the coal. There were sixteen mines in operation in Wigan when the photo above was taken and it is believed that the scene is from the largest of these, owned by the Wigan Coal Corporation Limited.

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Above: Unemployed man and daughter (?) in Wigan, 11 November 1939

(Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

Of course, Wigan was made ‘infamous’ by George Orwell’s visit there in 1937, which led to his somewhat fictionalised account of the lives of the local unemployed in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell provides the historian with an invaluable, if somewhat emotive picture of conditions in the depressed area. However, as he himself admitted later, he emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British Society and his picture, therefore, gives the most pessimistic view of northern English communities like Wigan. In particular, he graphically describes the operation of the means test and the real character of poverty, based on his own experiences and fieldwork. Yet there is also a sense of working-class resistance and resilience alongside the ironic comments in his account and, as with those visitors to the South Wales coalfield, he emphasises the role of women and the family in this:

The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families… Nevertheless, in spite of the frightful extent of unemployment, it is a fact that poverty – extreme poverty – is less in evidence in the industrial North than it is  in London. Everything is poorer and shabbier, there are fewer motor-cars and fewer well-dressed people: but there are also fewer people who are obviously destitute… But in the industrial towns the old communal way of life has not yet broken up, tradition is still strong and almost everyone has a family – potentially… Moreover, there is just this to be said for the unemployment regulations, that they do not discourage people from marrying. 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… 

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Above: Part of the cover design for Theo Baker’s book,

The Long March of Everyman, by Ken Carroll.

Bibliography:

Andy Chandler (1982), The Black Death on Wheels: Unemployment and Migration – The Experience of Interwar South Wales in Papers in Modern Welsh History 1 (the Journal of the Modern Wales Unit), Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands. Unpublished PhD. Thesis.

Theo Baker (ed.)(1975), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bill Jones (1993), Teyrnas y Glo/ Coal’s Domain. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

 

Gwyn Thomas (1979), The Subsidence Factor; The Annual Gwyn Jones Lecture. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press.

Picture Post (?) (1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London. Unknown publisher.

D. Hywel Davies (1983), The Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1945: A Call to Nationhood. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

René Cutforth (1976), A Portrait of the Thirties: Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles (Publishers) Limited.

Margaret R. Pitt (neé Wates) (1981), Our Unemployed: Can the Past Teach the Present? Work done with the unemployed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Harrow: Margaret R. Pitt. (obtainable from Friends Book Centre, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ).

 

Posted March 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Coalfields, Communism, democracy, Edward VIII, Family, History, Integration, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Poverty, south Wales, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History

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Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

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