Were the 1930’s the “Devil’s Decade” or a “Dawn of Affluence” To what extent where Britons living in poverty?

The 1930’s is marred with the image of dilapidated housing, ill health and mass unemployment, however historians such as D.H Aldcroft and John Stevenson have argued this is not necessarily the case. Their representation of the 1930’s showed innovation in our economy due to the unearthing of mass production, better health and greater entertainment and leisure opportunities. This image of poverty is one merely exaggerated and historians are overlooking the economic truths about Britain in favour of unemployed textile workers in Manchester. So were Britons living in poverty? Or is this simply and mythical image.Britain was the father of the industrialisation of Europe, the empire and staple industries in Britain helped support the booming economy. But by the 1930’s the staple industries were falling apart, foreign competition meant that Britain were being pushed out of the market and this left 2.64 million unemployed in 1931. Industries such as shipbuilding saw 30.6% unemployment and this trend on high unemployment was prevalent throughout the core staple industries such as textiles, coal and steel. This bleak image of mass unemployment supports the claim that the 1930’s was the “Devil’s Decade” however John Stevenson noted that actually for the majority of the 1930’s the staple industries were recovering. Steel production which was badly hit by the wave of depression drowning world commerce showed strong recovery. In 1932, at the height of the depression, only 5.2 million tons of steel was produced.However because of new larger factories (that were spreading across Britain) by 1937 13 million tons of steel was produced, a dramatic improvement. Shipbuilding, which was arguably the most devastated industry by the depression, also showed recovery. Although not as phenomenal as the turnaround in steel Britain saw a rise from 133,000 tons of output in 1933 risen to 970,800 tons by 1938, despite never reaching its heyday of production in 1923 the level of stabilisation in the shipbuilding cannot be overlooked. It was no longer the chaotic industry in the early 1930s that shed workers daily but now a growing industry from the ashes of the Wall Street Crash. The recovery in Shipbuilding was partly helped by the incisiveness of the National Government who introduced a Shipbuilders Act of 1935 which made use of scrap metal. Moreover coalmining was showing some improvement as well due to better organisation and government intervention; the Coal Mines Act of 1930, allowed greater efficiency and simply stabilised a spiralling industry.The recovery of the old industries allowed greater employment opportunities but still unemployment was rife in Britain, therefore the new industries erupted. D.H. Aldcroft argued that the 1930’s was a period of “sustained economic growth” and statistics support this. The motoring industry catalysed the economic revolution, with the introduction of mass production methods and new factories emerging in the Midlands and the South East car production rose dramatically. In 1923 only 95,000 cars were produced but by 1937 this number has quintupled to 500,000. As well as for private consumption motoring proved useful in the economy because it allowed better transportation of goods, it could be argued that cars kept Britain’s economy from true devastation. Furthermore the emergence of giant chemical corporations such as I.C.I and Courtauld meant the chemical industry was employing 100,000 men. Unlike the motoring industry chemical factories weren’t only situated in the non depressed areas but in places such as North Wales. Finally the housing boom of the 1930’s created more jobs and was employing 3/4 million men.The housing boom also created a multiplier effect, demand for glass, wood, cement, paint all rose due to the increase in house building. On the other hand consumer goods proved to be more profitable than all other new industries. Large corporate such as Woolworths, Sainsbury, Unilever and Dunlop dominated domestic markets and rationalisation of smaller companies became a tedious occurrence. Because of greater transportation of goods and growing demand for consumer goods (because of a sustained rise in real wages) the consumer goods industry boomed, similar to 1920’s America. Newspapers and cinema was used by companies like Woolworths for advertisement, and the 1930’s proved to be the pioneering age of advertisement.Health and malnutrition taint the image of the 1930’s although is this fully justified? On average by 1939 Britain was a healthier nation then it had been in 1929. Life expectancy had increased to 60 years of age (from 45 in 1900) and death rates, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates were all decreasing. Also the conquest of infectious diseases due to greater hygiene and antibiotics allowed further health improvements. Arguably the greatest reason for Britain’s improving health however was our better diet. The consumption of fruit, vegetables and eggs with the reduction of consumption in bread and potatoes meant the average Briton had a more balanced diet. However there is a reason that the 1930’s is connected with malnutrition and poor health, and some of the statistics are shocking, John Boyd Orr, a social investigator and author of Food, Health and Income, conducted a study that looked at the relationship between diet and income. He split 1,000 people into 6 income groups through this sample he revealed that half the population was suffering from some sort of dietary deficiency and more shockingly that one tenth of the population were “chronically ill-nourished”.The Cole brothers, again social investigators, also conducted a study between a working class family and a middle class family, it revealed that the middle class family ate more meat, eggs and fruit were the working class family were more dependent on bread and potatoes. Furthermore it was discovered that regions who were experiencing more hardship from the depression such as Wigan had far higher death rates then somewhere like Harrow which only had a death rate of 73 persons per 1000 (Wigan was 138 persons). Criticism was also raised over infant mortality rates, despite them dropping on a global level there were former colonies that had better health care then Britain. New Zealand only had 32 deaths for every 1000 live births whereas in Britain the statistic was 57. C.E McNally summed up the health situation with “prevention of disease was impossible unless improved housing and dietary conditions could be assured” something that would be impossible for working class families.On the other hand Britain was apparently experiencing greater housing conditions. The interwar period saw the completion of 4 million houses and by 1938 there was a housing surplus of 500,000 houses. Considering that in 1918 there were 610,000 houses fewer then families this is an admirable improvement. The National Government also finally implemented its policies of slum clearance which saw slum housing that littered inner industrial cities removed and new hospitable houses built. New high rise council estates were created as a solution to the slum housing problem which meant less land was used and there were affordable alternatives to the slum houses. Despite these improvements however social investigators still criticised Britain’s housing crisis. The basic problem was there were too much demand for houses and not enough affordable supply.Naturally this resulted in over crowdedness, 12% of Britain’s population were living with 3 or more persons in one room and approximately half a million people in London lived in overcrowded conditions, Islington, Finsbury and Shoreditch particularly suffered from this housing catastrophe. To clarify what slum housing was Sir Ernest Simon spelled it out so people could understand the destitution people had to endure. He defined slum houses as “a fully populated neighbourhood where the houses and conditions of life are of a squalid and wretched character.” Although how can historians argue with slum clearance, it was clearly the right solution to the housing problem. Social investigators of the time along with contemporary historians simply claimed slum housing was removing the symptoms of poverty and not the causes.Slum houses, poor health were only possible because of the poverty crisis, a clear illustration of what poverty Britain was facing is shown through arguably the most important social investigator of the 1930s, Seebohlm Rowntree. His extensive research into social Britain is a brilliant example of the “Devil’s Decade”. Rowntree explained that a family of five could survive on 43 shillings and 6 pence excluding rent, this is the absolute bare minimum needed to maintain “physical efficiency”. For this to work the main wage earner could not take a single day off work, no tobacco and beer, very plain clothing, no sick clubs or trade unions. Any family that lived below this sum of money would be in poverty, he predicted that approximately 18% of the entire population were living in these conditions, with 31.1% of working class in poverty.Children, the elderly, widowers, unemployed, low earners and large families were more likely to be subjected to poverty. Tout, a social investigator situated in Bristol, revealed that 9 out of 10 working class families with more than 4 children would result in the children living below the poverty line, Rowntree also unearthed the alarming fact that 49.7% of children between the ages of one-five (in a working class family) were living below the poverty line. Some mothers couldn’t afford nappies or milk so they substituted this with water and newspapers. Another embarrassing problem was that old age pensions were not sufficient for the elderly to live above the poverty line. If an elderly couple had no other income apart from their old age pension then they would be living in poverty, this shows the utter incompetence of the government’s handling of social services.Furthermore widowers faced a similar benefits trap. As a widower it was inevitable that you would face poverty as men were the predominant wage earners, therefore the government would offer widowers pension. Similar to old age pensions this was not enough to support a women and especially not an entire family. Therefore women could get jobs, but by doing this they would have to get a low paid job and sacrifice their widowers pension, thus widowers faced a double edged sword, either way they would be subjected to abject poverty. The elderly, widowers and children were not the only victms of Britains incapability to protect the poor or sustain an economy, but also the unemployed and low paid. Rowntree stated that a number of trades such as coal miners and cotton workers would be typically paid less then need for basic survival, Unemployment was also growing in the 1930’s which meant that the working class were faced with low paid jobs or benefits. Either way it would result in poverty and once caught in the poverty trap it would be hard to get out, the only real helping hand came through Britain’s late rearmament.Despite being faced with squalid housing, rickets, endless carbohydrates, unemployment, low paid jobs and inevitable poverty at least the 1930’s had an alternative. Paid holidays. Billy Butlins and Blackpool proved the place to be when trying to escape the horrendous conditions of city Britain. Holidays were a new phenomenon in 1930’s Britain with 11 million Britons having paid holidays in 1939 escapes to the seaside grew increasingly popular. Blackpool had 7 million overnight visitors just in 1937! And holiday camps like Butlins in Skegness allowed affordable holidaying. Leisure opportunities also appeared. The cinema, bingo and dance halls were all continuing to grow with 3 cinemas being open every week. The cinema was an affordable enterprise open to all classes in Britain and proved very important to social cohesion throughout the decade. Also after the 1920’s dance halls were becoming very fashionable and boomed in popularity.The 1930’s was a truly remarkable decade; Britain unusually saw affluence and poverty side by side. Although arguably the idea of affluence and poverty in Britain isn’t unusual, it was only because of Seebohlm Rowntree, the Cole brothers, Tout, John Boyd Orr and other social investigators that people actually take notice of the poverty in the 1930’s. One finds confusing that people label the 1930’s as devilish because the working classes abject poverty. I have to raise the question though, when were the working class not in poverty? For century’s industrial workers of Manchester, York, Newcastle had been underpaid and endured inhumane conditions. Personally I feel that the 1930’s simply highlighted the social problems of Britain which had gone unnoticed for decades. It was neither a dawn of affluence nor a devils decade. Despite economic statistics begging to differ, the thorough social investigations dismiss this concept; statistics cannot speak louder than accounted human suffering. Britain in the 1930’s was laced with unemployment, malnutrition and reckless appeasement, but then we also saw cars and pencillin.

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