The book, published 2010
But it turns out that the topic is riveting. This is a history of workers and families. It is also, as Francis Beckett noted, the story of kings and prime ministers, industrial moguls and trade union leaders, but talking of the Great and the Good is relevant only insofar as they changed the way the people lived.
Juliet Gardiner explained her own method of historical analysis. She used interviews, diaries, letters and privately published memoirs, deposited in local archives. She wanted to explore how people did their shopping, decorated their homes, understood modernism, constructed their sexuality, suffered at the hands of authorities, roamed abroad for employment opportunities, embraced anti-Semitism, took their first paid holidays, were very attracted to fresh air, lidos, rambling and improved rights for women.
The first thing to say is that misery did not arrive, suddenly, with the Depression. The 20s were not a uninterrupted time of cocktail parties, charleston dances, glorious cruise ships and diamond-encrusted cigarette holders for everyone.
David Lloyd George's government did introduce a programme of social reform in the 1920s. The Education Act raised the school leaving age to 14. The Housing and Town Planning Act provided subsides for house building by local authorities and some 170,000 homes were built under this Act. The Unemployment Insurance Act extended national insurance to 11 million additional workers. But the soldiers who had expected to find a land fit for heroes, after 1919, came home to unemployment, strikes and substantial cuts to public expenditure.
Now the Depression. In 1931 the collapse of Austria’s Credit-Anstalt had plunged the banking system and therefore the economy into chaos; in Britain, the May Committee had foreseen a tragic budget deficit of £120 million and recommended painful spending cuts. I don’t suppose people were having a good time anywhere. In the depths of the Great Depression, unemployment was high and men could not look after their families. Lining up in front of soup kitchens or applying for Sustenance must have been utterly humiliating. Banks, businessmen and politicians didn’t seem to be able to suggest a way out of personal, national or global depression, as Dominic Sandbrook pointed out.
wretched unemployment, early 1930s
In Britain, if ordinary families thought that the Labour Party would look after their interests, they were to be sadly disappointed. The most intellectual and idealistic of the Labour members moved over to the Communist Party but nothing came of it. I wonder if it is true that the Labour leadership opposed hunger marches because they had been organised by Communists. Certainly well-meaning men and women couldn’t agree on goals or strategies, and could hardly agree on international role models.
My own family in Australia became more and more politically active, including getting involved in the Spanish Civil War. But in the end, they too were disillusioned.
Mosley, Fascist parade, London 1936
The book refers to a Britain in which the King played a central part in affairs of state and members of Parliament had a powerful sense of national duty. I presume the same could be said for Australia and New Zealand. So it does not surprise the reader that the Thirties was also the decade of the car, Californian bungalows, suburban picture theatres, public swimming pools, dance halls where young men and women could meet their future spouses, Art Deco and family holidays near the beach. The greatest advance of all, most likely, was having toilets brought into homes, rather than remaining as out-houses. This bizarre decade was an age of self-conscious modernity, too early for affluence but heading in that direction.
The difference was that Britain was a nation very deeply divided by class and region, and yet united by a moral consensus that has long since evaporated. Australia and New Zealand might not have been quite as united by a moral consensus, but then we weren’t as divided by class and region either. Another thing that occurs to me. We may have had anti-Semitism and anti-foreigner sentiment here in the Antipodes, but I don't think Australia and New Zealand had large, organised Fascist parties as Britain did.
1930s Deco cinema, Plymouth
Family holiday, Weston Super Mare, 1930s
So the 1930s was a more tricky decade than I imagined. Even after the worst of the Great Depression was over, the poor and unemployed often remained poor and unemployed. The rest of us, meanwhile, got on with annual holidays at the beach, Saturday night at the pictures and a second-hand family car. And the very wealthy planned trips on the truly magnificent Queen Mary liner that was launched in 1936. Only academics and intellectuals were writing about a new and better world for the future.