15 July 2010

The 1930s: a tragic, hopeful decade

In the past I have not been particularly fascinated by history of the mid C20th and thought I would not enjoy the book The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner (Harper Press, 2010).

The book, published 2010

But the topic was riveting. This was a history of workers and families. It was also, as Francis Beckett noted, the story of kings and prime ministers, industrial moguls and trade union leaders. Talking of the Great and the Good was 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.

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

There are some British elements that I, as an Australian, cannot know from personal experience or from my parents’ stories. Lara Feigel discusses how, after Edward VIII's abdication, George VI was very reluctant to take the throne. The 1936 Crystal Palace fire apparently represented a loss of connection with the glorious days of Victoria and Albert, and a move towards world conflagration. Woolworths, reportedly a hopeful emblem of democracy, opened dozens of new shops in 1937 alone. [Why Woolworths represented democracy in the 1930s is not clear to me in 2010].

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.


Andrew said...

Great post. The depression was perhaps worse in Australia than any other country. Certainly worse than in England.

ChrisJ said...

I believe the television series All Creatures Great and Small about veterinarians in Yorkshire (?) was set in the 1930s.

Excellent post again!

rob (moderne melbourne) said...

Enjoyed the post and will buy the book. The reference to Woolworths was interesting - it certainly enabled low-income shoppers to buy discounted general merchandise at fixed prices - the five and dime stores. The merchandise was put out for shoppers to handle and select without the assistance of a sales clerk. Similar methods were used by Myer and Coles in Australia.

But I dont understand how a previous poster can assert that The depression was worse in Australia than any other country. The effects varied across many countries and labour segments within those countries.

CarolineLD said...

Woolworth's also allowed people to buy nice china one piece at a time: that made teasets etc much more affordable in the days before credit cards to spread the cost.

A very interesting piece, and another book for my reading list!

Hels said...

Andrew and Rob, Juliet Gardiner was only discussing Britain, so I suppose it was not really appropriate to compare and contrast the decade in Britain with that in Australia and New Zealand.

However it struck me that the struggle was difficult in many countries, yet the responses may have been different eg the rise of fascist parties, the involvement of central governments in huge make-work programmes.

In the recent global financial crash, it seems as if central governments did indeed learn from the 1930s.

sent said...

great post