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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The ancient city with a modern outlook;

The industrial city with an historic tradition;

The centre of England;

The city of independent craftsmen of enterprise and initiative;

The city with a future.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Posted October 31, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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

Looking for a True England: 1921-1941 (section 1/4)                                        

Between The Wars: A Song by Billy Bragg

I was a miner

I was a docker

I was a railwayman 

Between the wars

I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
We’re arming for peace, me boys
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept on voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man

Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we know
Between the wars

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draftsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I’ll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars.


In Search of England was the first of a popular series of travelogues published by H.V. Morton in 1927. Besides publishing several other volumes in the series on his travels in Scotland (1929), Ireland (1930) and Wales (1932), he also published a companion volume on England, The Call of England (inside cover above), in June 1928. The popularity of his series can be judged by the fact that this volume alone went through ten editions in the next five years. His first book dealt mainly with the south and west of England, rushing, rather wildly, through the north, and by-passing the Midlands almost altogether. For the second book, he decided to linger longer in the north, commenting that while it was instinctive for London motorists to go south and west, no man who wishes to understand the country in which he lives can neglect the north of England. In his introduction to the second book, he went on:

Almost within our time we have seen a great re-grouping in the distribution of human energy, comparable only perhaps with the switch over of our ports in medieval times from the east to the west coast. The Industrial Revolution, while it has planted an enormous population in the north, has at the same time distorted our ideas of that part of the country. We are inclined to think of the north as an extended Sheffield. The symbol of the north is the chimneystack. It is only when we go there that we realise how very slightly the age of coal and steel has deformed the green beauty of England. Our manufacturing districts, vast as they are, form merely a scratch on the map in comparison with those miles of wild romantic country, whose history and beauty rival anything the south can boast.

In order to write his two books, mainly for the small number of fellow-motorists in the 1920s (27 per thousand even in Cambridgeshire), Morton would drive around England, warning about the infestation of the countryside by the vulgarity of the town (Simon Schama). His view of most places was impressionistic, even in the countryside, seen mainly through the windscreen of his motor. His search for England was really a search for the English Promised Land, which was to be found almost exclusively where there were no factories or polluted canals. He favoured the cathedral towns: Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, York, Ely, Wells and Exeter, or market towns. The only time he seemed to encounter any members of the working classes was when he saw charabanc parties, such as the one below, from the large manufacturing towns.


Neither did he make any reference to the pitiful plight of agricultural workers, their average wage, when they could find work, cut from forty-two shillings a week to thirty; or to the countless abandoned farms, derelict barns, untended hedgerows or fields full of weeds. As René Cutforth has pointed out, when the Hiking craze began in the early thirties, going for walks through the English countryside was much more attractive than it was before or has been since, mainly because agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so field were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Every field had a wide verge where wild flowers grew in sheets and clumps and the verges of the country roads that Morton drove along were the same. No wonder he waxed lyrical about the unspoilt beauty of the countryside as he raced past. His route took him between Liverpool and Manchester, the latter recognised from the road as an ominous grey haze on his right. And then he saw a signpost marked ‘Wigan’ and could not resist a glimpse. He introduced his reader to the tired old music-hall joke that is Wigan Pier (Schama). It was this joke that George Orwell turned to bitter satire in the title of his Road to Wigan Pier a decade later.

The only Midlands city that Morton dealt with, in his second volume, was Birmingham, doing so in the context of the Black Country and rural Warwickshire, including, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon. He entered the city by the Euston train to New Street Station, watching the lovely green fields of Warwickshire merge into black acres. He watched as grim streets and factories with yellow windows flashed past, and his eye took in a dreary anthill of endeavour in which men and women were just ending the day’s work. The commercial traveller in the dining car gave Morton his opinion that Birmingham was unlike any other town, a place where they made every blessed thing except ships… from pins to railway carriages. That was why Birmingham could never feel unemployment like a city with one big staple industry: there was always so much happening. He added that it was a tough spot to sell in: if you could sell things in Brum you could sell them anywhere on earth. Morton viewed Birmingham as an orderly, disciplined city where the business men who manage this obviously well-run city… clasp hands in a council house sacred to the memory of the first king of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, as they cry with one voice, ‘Forward!’ For him, the great thrill in Birmingham was the Town Hall, standing majestically at the other end of Hill Street from the station. Except for these majestic squares and streets,

Birmingham does not exist. It is a myth. No city with a million population has greater municipal enterprises and fewer evidences of civic grandeur… it is, a series of industrial encampments held together by the tramways department, the greatest workshop the world has ever known… Soon after dawn… the tramcars are running. Each day they irrigate with human life forty-three thousand, six hundred acres of dull streets. They drive on with their packed loads, their cloth-capped crowds, pausing at little street corners, where platoon after platoon from the great battalion of workers descends and makes off to the day’s task.

I look at their hands: capable, grimy hands born to control machinery, made to fashion objects, to beat new life into white-hot metal: to do a million tasks for which the world has need. This is Birmingham; this is the real Birmingham. These are girls: small, sturdy girls with nimble fingers practised in quick work in a packing room, in dabbing a speck of paint on a thousand objects which, one by one, go past them on a moving band all day long…

 So you travel to the outer crust of ugliness, where on the very outskirts of Birmingham stand those great camps of industry, little towns in themselves, where small houses cluster round a huge mass of stone and brick from which tall chimney stacks spire to the sky. Here men live side by side with the machine. Beyond lie the green fields and the hills… wondering how long it will be before the great, black footsteps of Birmingham stride up and go on down the valley…

 A hush falls over the streets of Birmingham. It is as if a monster has been fed. From workshop and factory there comes a whirr of bands, a scream of machinery. The great jig-saw puzzle of the midlands is at work: they are making jew’s-harps and corsets, rivets and buttons, steel pens and cartridges, saddles and wedding-rings, motor-cars and cutlasses, rifles and cradles. There seems to be nothing they are not making.

For Morton, Birmingham was essentially a utilitarian city, a workplace of moderate wealth and moderate men, a great machine knowing only production. There was nothing for the stranger to admire in Birmingham but the vigour and drive of its hard-working people and the proud achievements of their rulers, their omnibuses with pneumatic tyres and covered tops… Evidently, he did not cross Chamberlain Square to pay a visit to the Museum and Art Gallery, nor look into one of the City’s grammar schools, or its hospitals or its redbrick University. He would have seen inside these places much more for the stranger to admire by the way of beauty and learning. His ‘man from Brum’ is a detailed sketch of factory worker, but no more than a caricature of a working class ‘Brummie’ whose only release from the big machine was shouting at ‘the big match’ on the terraces at Villa Park on a Saturday afternoon once a fortnight.

However, on visiting the Black Country, he admitted that it was not so black as it is painted and was surprised to find that bits and corners of its capital, Wolverhampton, were still in rural England. Tettenhall still had the character of the old English village and above the thousand-year-old church he looked over the finest view he ever thought to see of the Black Country. Visiting other ancient churches around the town, he began to recognise that Birmingham and Co was as ancient as Winchester and Co., both built on ancient sites, both with shrines and memorials of the England of Alfred and the Danes… However, on visiting the nearby, derelict Sandwell Hall, near West Bromwich, Morton once again retreated into his romantic anti-industrialism. Rather illogically, he described the Hall, abandoned by its owners and scheduled for demolition, at one and the same time as a ghost of eighteenth century England and a victim of that new England, … yet so young, that came out of steam… He lamented the way that:

It has swept away many lovely things, it has planted its pit shafts in deer parks, it has driven its railway lines through the place where hounds once met on cold winter mornings; and before it the Old England has retreated rather mournfully, understanding it as little as old Sandwell Hall understands the coal mine.

Morton got back in his car in June 1927 and, bypassing Coventry, no doubt seen as another ancient victim of the new England, drove through the Forest of Arden to Stratford, waxing lyrical once more about the Warwickshire countryside. He could conceive no greater happiness than that of going out into England and finding it almost too English to be true: the little cottages… the churches with their naves in Norman England, the great houses, the castles,… the cathedrals… In what other country in the world, he asked, could a man, in one day’s journey, see anything to compare with Hereford, Worcester, and Gloucester? Many unemployed miners he might have passed on the road from south Wales, on their way to find work in the new English Midlands would have told him, had he stopped to give them a lift, that Hereford to Worcester or Gloucester was quite a stretch in one day, starting at dawn from under a hedgerow and walking to the Union Poor House by nightfall, even in June.

As in travel writing, impression plays an important part in historical narrative. This is certainly true of the inter-war period. Today, of all periods of recent history the events of the twenties and thirties are most familiar to us, even though the sixties are closer to us, and within our own living memories. The distant past we can only see very dimly, with the help of the remaining shadows that remain of people and events long gone. The events of recent years stand out in clearer detail; we recognise them instantly; we have immediate emotional connections with them through our own experiences and/or those of our families. They are important to us because they have touched our own lives and those of those we love rather than those of unknown ancestors. We have a clear, if oversimplified, collective memory of these recent decades; an impression reinforced by our parents and grandparents recollections. However, this should not mislead us into thinking that recent history is more important in the grand scheme of things. In this grand scheme, the Battle of Britain is not necessarily more important than the Battle of Agincourt in the History of Britain, nor the Blitz any more significant in English History than the Norman Conquest.

By itself, oral evidence can give a very unreliable perspective on the period, however, especially if the people interviewed actually lived through it as adults. As the lyrics of Billie Bragg’s song show, the period between the great events of the Miners’ lockout and the Blitz are still shrouded in a deeply-felt folk mythology which has given meaning to the people’s narrative of the post-1945 world – the spectre of mass unemployment and the means test, the belief in the betrayal of the Labour Party by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, the years of appeasement under Baldwin and Chamberlain was all, until very recently, part of the accepted cannon of Labour history. It is still difficult to dispute or demythogise the orthodox view of these chapters in the story of the British working class. However, this is the task of the historian, and this is the objective of this chapter, re-telling the narrative using a wide variety of sources.

In England, the relatively slow growth of the home consumer-based industries before the First World War caused a large part of both the rural and urban population who found themselves surplus to requirements to emigrate overseas. Between 1871 and 1911 England lost 1,355,000 by migration, much of this emigration from the old industrial towns of the North of England and, in the latter decade, from the capital. This was an exodus out of urban areas to new countries overseas, mostly within the British Empire and the United States, or from London to new suburban and residential settlements in the South East, and within the North, from the towns to the cities. In addition, there was significant English immigration into the South Wales coalfield, mostly from neighbouring Severn-side counties. However, in less than a decade, a mass immigration into industrial South Wales and the North East of England had turned into a mass exodus in the direction of the new consumer industry towns of the Midlands and South East of England. It was as if a powerful vacuum cleaner had suddenly been switched into reverse. Between 1920 and 1940, it has been estimated that Wales lost 442,000 people by migration to England, a figure equivalent to 17% of its 1920 population. Since the industrial south of Wales had been able to attract significant numbers of immigrants from rural Wales in the period up to 1918, the remaining rural Welsh no longer had any option but to migrate into England. This was when, some time in the early twenties, Wales lost its real independence from England, in economic terms at least.

The impact of internal migration within Britain came at a time when the overall growth in the population was slowing considerably. In the fifty years prior to the Great War, the population of England and Wales had almost doubled, despite high levels of emigration, but the rate of growth between the wars was only about a third of that experienced in the Victorian era, and only a half of that of the Edwardian period. This deceleration in Britain as a whole increased the demographic significance of the shift in the population to the Midlands and South East of England, and it was only the manner in which a high rate of natural increase was maintained in Wales which prevented the scale of migration from being any more catastrophic for the Principality. By contrast, between 1921 and 1938, the population of the Midlands and the South East of England increased by nearly 16%. The South East alone absorbed almost sixty per cent of the total population increase in the country as a whole during the period, and it is estimated that over a million people of working age migrated into the region. These were the only two regions to grow more rapidly than the national average between the wars. However, these regional statistics also tended to disguise the dramatic growth of the new industry towns within the prosperous regions. An examination of the statistics at a county level gives a clearer picture; Oxfordshire’s population increased by a quarter between 1920 and 1939, and Warwickshire’s by a fifth. However, the full importance and impact of internal migration can only be examined when particular new industry communities are put in the spotlight.

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the Middle Opinion group, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration into the South East was in excess of total emigration from the country as a whole. They commented that the relative importance of internal as compared with external movements had grown enormously, and that it seemed strange that, while the national importance of emigration had long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements had been overlooked. Later the same year they came to the conclusion that:

One of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain.

The pressure which groups like PEP brought to bear led to the appointment in 1937 of Sir Montague Barlow to head up a Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. Although the Commission’s report was not published until 1940, it began sitting in March 1938 and focussed attention not just on the gulf in prosperity which had opened up between the two Britains, but also on the vulnerability of the South East and Midlands to aerial warfare.

A further cause for concern was reflected in the statistics that were produced dealing with regional variations in the health and age structure of the population. Throughout the inter-war period, the South and Midlands of England were able to maintain or even increase the numbers of 15-24 year olds in their population and to expand dramatically their numbers of 25-44 year olds. By contrast, the remarkably young population created by the dramatic expansion of the South Wales coalfield had either been drained away in the exodus to the boomtowns of England, or had died a premature death at the hands of the poverty and demoralisation experienced by coalfield communities. On a lesser scale, the same was true of the North East and of many of the older industrial towns across the North of England and the North Midlands. René Cutforth, aged twenty-one in 1930, reflected later in life:

 I was pretty well placed to give my decade a long appraising look, because the little black coalmining town in the English Midlands where I was born and bred was reduced to desperation by the Depression, and every time I came home from some city where the period’s ’glamour’ was in evidence, the brutal facts which underlay it were plain to be seen in the lives of people I knew well.

The internal migration that took place within Britain as a whole during the inter-war period was not only inter-regional in character; it was also, for the most part, inter-industrial. Therefore, in order to understand the human drama of this migration, it is important to gain a picture of the dramatic changes that occurred in employment and unemployment patterns between and within regions. Between 1911 and 1939, the number of people either in or seeking work in Great Britain increased by a fifth, rising from 18,350,000 to 22 million. The most remarkable change in the industrial distribution took place in the shift of employment from the five declining basic industries of coal, cotton, wool, shipbuilding, and iron and steel to the rapidly expanding industries whose growth is best epitomised by the growth of the vehicle construction industry. In 1923 the former accounted for 23% of the total workforce and the latter 14%. By 1937 this position was well on the way to being reversed, with the former responsible for only 14% and the latter 19%. In 1931 vehicle building employed nearly twice the number it had in 1911 and by the end of the 1930s it had added half the numbers again that it had employed at the beginning of the decade.

By 1923, the Midland counties were well-placed to enjoy the expansion of the newer industries, already having more than a quarter of their workforce employed in them, with less than half this number employed in the declining industries. By 1937, three in every ten Midland workers were found in the newer industries, while less than one in ten depended on employment in the older ones. This concentration of newer industries in the Midlands was due at first to the partly accidental, pre-war decisions of the major manufacturers, such as Morris, Austin and Daimler to locate in or near towns like Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry, and their post-war adoption of mass production techniques, so that the number of workers in the vehicle industry grew from 227,000 in 1920 to 516,000 by 1938. Capital chose the location for their industry, no longer wholly dependent on local supplies of water or coal, and labour migrated to those locations.

 038 037

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, industry could provide work for only two thirds of the net increase in the insured population. There were two years of boom following the armistice, which helped to absorb some of the returning servicemen, but these were followed by a sharp and deep recession lasting almost eighteen months. Unemployment (nationally) stood at 14% in 1922 and the total of unemployed remained at 1.3 million for the next three years. There was a further deterioration in 1926, the year of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout, but the level returned to what it had been soon after this ended. By mid-1930, however, the international economic crisis was taking its toll and for the three succeeding years, average national unemployment was in excess of 2.75 million, or one insured worker in every five. The number unemployed remained above the pre-1930 level for the remainder of the decade, but fell to under 17% of the workforce in 1934, a year of general economic recovery, falling still further, and steadily to 11% by 1937. With signs of a further recession in 1939, it rose to 12%, but thereafter the effects of rearmament and mobilisation served to mitigate this. These levels were consistently lower than in Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United States throughout the thirties. However, what made unemployment in Britain so uniquely intractable was its distinctively regional character, with the concentration of large numbers of long-term unemployed concentrated in the older industry areas of the country.


Looked at on a regional basis, London and the South East entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with 5.6% unemployment, increasing to 13.7% in the trough of depression and recovering to 6.4% in 1937. In the Midlands, unemployment also remained well below the national average, beginning at 9.3% in 1929, rising to just over 20% in 1932, but falling back to 7.2% in 1937. The greatest divergence between the two Britains occurred, not during the general depression of 1929-33, but from the point at which the manufacturing industries began to recover from 1934 onwards. In addition, it is clear from the statistics that temporary unemployment was far more characteristic of the experience of the Midlands and the South East during the period, than in the older industry areas. In the former regions, people suffered more from insecurity of tenure of employment, rather than from seemingly permanent collapses of the local labour market.


 043 042

The unemployment statistics included workers in these prosperous parts of Britain who were stood off or on short time and whose unemployment books were therefore lodged at the labour exchange. In a number of factories, particularly at times of trade depression, the number of working days were reduced to the level at which workers would be entitled to claim unemployment benefit. Much of the Midland unemployment during the period was due to temporary stoppages of industry, forcing workers onto the dole for limited periods at particular times in the year. This was often referred to as seasonal unemployment and remained an important factor in the unemployment figures of towns that provided centres for car production, such as Coventry and Oxford. The 1938 Survey of Oxford came to the conclusion that the level of unemployment locally could only be reduced if the motor industry could ensure constant employment and that, even then, there would be continuing residual unemployment, caused by old age and infirmity, which was responsible for half the cases of long-term unemployment analysed in 1937. If this calculation is projected across the Midlands and the South East throughout the period, then the scale of long-term unemployment in these regions was even smaller than is reflected in the overall statistics.

It therefore seems evident that, whilst these prosperous areas contained comparatively few long-term unemployed, except for a period of about two years at the trough of the cyclical downturn, they did possess a significant working population that was unable to find regular or secure employment. By contrast, Northern England and South Wales possessed both large number of short-term unemployed and a large, seemingly permanent surplus of workers. In terms of both population patterns and patterns of employment and unemployment, the two Britains were already present in embryo before the First World War. Britain, and indeed England, had two very different economies based in separate halves of the country. In this context, the largely cyclical unemployment in the home market economy of 1929-33 should be viewed quite separately from the long-term structural decline and unemployment in the export economy. The degree of geographic specialisation, already well established by 1926, determined the radically different experiences and responses of these two nations in the decade that followed. The shift in capital from one economy to the other was not simply a stock exchange transaction. It involved a major geographical shift in both social capital and human resources, necessitating the reconstitution of major sections of what had essentially been regional working classes and, perhaps for the first time, through mass, long-distance, inter-industrial migration, bringing about a truly British working class across the three nations of England, Wales and Scotland.

George Orwell, in his Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, provided historians with an invaluable, if somewhat emotive, picture of conditions in the depressed areas of Northwest England. Born Eric Blair into a shabby-genteel family in Bengal in 1903, when his father worked in the Opium trade with China. In 1904 Eric was sent back to England with his mother, to Henley-on-Thames. Despite his parents’ obvious lack of wealth, he went to Eton College on a scholarship, where he found himself debating the socialism of G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells. Of a class of seventeen boys asked to nominate their hero, fifteen chose Lenin. This was all part of an affected air of rebellion, which was fashionable among young upper class English boys at the time. When Blair left, he presented the school library with a book of plays, which included a preface by Shaw containing a fierce attack on English public schools, describing them as prison camps of the young, torturing both body and mind. His Classics master told his now-retired father that Eric had little chance of winning a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. So in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police training school in Burma. As George Orwell, he looked back with ironic gratitude to his time in the police because in that service, at least, the coercion on which imperial power was based was nakedly exposed. After five years of service, in 1927, Blair went back to England on leave, where one sniff of English air convinced him he could not be part of that evil despotism a day longer.

In 1921, his parents had moved from Henley to Southwold on the Suffolk coast – originally a fishing village, but by the 1920s so congested with retirement cottages, many of them owned by old India hands, that it was becoming known as Simla by the sea. Eric announced to his family that he was leaving the police and his annual six hundred and sixty pounds salary to become a writer. He decided he would write about the homeless and unemployed. He started his new life by renting a one-room flat next to a craft workshop in down-at-heel Notting Hill. It was so cold that Blair warmed his fingers over candles when they were too cold to write. For the next two years he lived among the destitute of London, sleeping in doss-houses in the East End and working as a plongeur (washer-up) in Paris. Only occasionally would he spend a night or two at friends’ houses in London and sometimes showed up at his parents’ home in Southwold, looking grim and gaunt. He went hop-picking with itinerant labourers in Kent until his hands were cut to shreds; downed enough beer and whisky to get himself arrested, in the hope of spending Christmas in prison, and collected tramping slang, discovering that Oxford was a good place for mooching (begging).

When Down and Out in Paris and London appeared in 1933, the name on the book jacket was not Eric Blair but George Orwell. The Orwell is a river in Suffolk, not far from Southwold, so it is likely that Blair, who loved the countryside of Constable with a fierce passion, wanted to identify with the physical nature of his other England. He had a modest success with the book, perhaps selling about three thousand copies in the UK, but he realised, paradoxically, that in writing about the under-classes of English society, he had only documented a tiny fraction of the impoverished population, not more than ten thousand, rather than the millions of the industrial working classes in the Midlands and the North for whom the depression had a truly demoralising effect, being fully paid-up members of the respectable working class just a decade before. In January 1936, Orwell travelled to Wigan, stayed for two months and recorded canal paths…

 a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits… It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.

 In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell laid stress upon the real character of poverty based upon his own experiences and fieldwork. He highlighted both the concerns of the working class and the apprehensions of the middle classes to the possible effects of the depression. The spectre of Bolshevism was another facet to the mythology of the thirties. However, he later admitted that not only had he exaggerated the worst features of what he found, but that he had rewritten and fictionalised some of his evidence from unemployed workers and their families in order to do so. Nevertheless, his account is not simply impressionistic or anecdotal, but detailed and hard-hitting, especially in its conclusions, so that it could not, and cannot, simply be discarded as propaganda:

 … The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families. Old people, sometimes bedridden, are driven out of their homes by it. An old age pensioner, for instance, if a widower, would normally live with one or other of his children; his weekly ten shillings goes towards the household expenses, and probably he is not badly cared for. Under the Means Test, however, he counts as a ‘lodger’ and if he stays at home his children’s dole will be docked…

…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. He lives sometimes in a common lodging-house, more often in a furnished room for which he usually pays six shillings a week, finding for himself as best he can on the other nine (say six shillings a week for food and three for clothes, tobacco, and amusements)… keeping warm – is almost the sole preoccupation of a single unemployed man in winter. In Wigan a favourite refuge was the pictures, which are fantastically cheap there. You can always get a seat for fourpence, and at the matinee at some houses you can even get a seat for twopence to get out of the ghastly cold of a winter afternoon…


J. B. Priestley, in his English Journey, published three years earlier, showed that the two nations view of the thirties was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than generalised, even within the North of England. Equally, although the Midlands and South East of England might appear more prosperous, there were still major pockets of poverty and unemployment, as well as issues just behind the façade of high wages about the quality of life in the so-called new industry towns. Priestley also provided an antidote to H. V. Morton’s rustic sentimentalism, he himself coming from the wool-manufacturing town of Bradford. As Simon Schama has put it recently, Priestley was prepared to stare the disaster of industrial England in the face and call it ‘real’. In fact, for much of England industrial work was the only reality and, despite the apparent grimness of factory towns and canal banks, not such a bad thing either. To him, it was bending iron and riveting steel to steel that were the real thing about England, man’s work. Orwell didn’t think much of Priestley, whom he wrote off, not altogether fairly, as a sentimental accumulator of banal anecdotes and cosy homilies.

As early as 1921, these two nations did not just exist on a regional basis, but also at a very local level, and even within the nation’s capital itself. The British state, due largely to the pre-war social welfare reforms of the Liberal governments, especially the creation of the unemployment insurance scheme, was already, by 1921, becoming increasingly centralised and bureaucratic in its management of the details of working-class households, in a way which many of them came to resent. This was partly because what was designed as a national scheme to assist workers through a period of temporary unemployment, could not deal with the phenomenon of mass unemployment, especially when it was concentrated in local working-class communities that had grown up around particular industries, like coal or shipbuilding. The unemployment fund had had to borrow thirty million pounds from the Treasury, and that became the dole, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer the scheme. Once the worker’s insurance fund had been exhausted, he and his family were forced back on the parish in a Poor Law system that had remained fundamentally unchanged since 1834. As pockets of poverty and mass, long-term unemployment emerged by the early twenties, including in London’s East End, the system of local administration of Poor Relief by a local Board of Guardians could no longer cope with the demands placed on its limited coffers of ratepayers’ funds. Was it fair, reasonable or even possible that the poor should keep the poor? It was hardly equitable that a rich borough such as Westminster, where a penny rate raised more than thirty thousand pounds, maintained only eleven hundred on outdoor relief, while Poplar, where the same rate raised only three thousand pounds had to maintain forty-four thousand. The East End of London as a whole, with only a quarter of the paying capacity of the West End, had seventeen times the liability.

004 In March 1921, Poplar, blighted with mass unemployment, casual dock labour, rotten housing and slum landlords, reached breaking point. Faced with a massive increase in the rate, a burden the poor could not carry, the Council refused to cut the level of relief to the unemployed and decided not to pay the quarter of a million pounds plus due to the central authority, London County Council. The conflict led to the imprisonment of the mayor and the majority of the socialist members of the Council, together with the introduction of a new word into the English language, Poplarism. Fifteen thousand people of Poplar marched to Holloway Prison, many of them women carrying babies in their arms, as shown in the picture above, which was captioned, Give us this day our daily bread, as Minnie Lansbury and four other women council members were taken there. Millie’s father was George Lansbury, the uncrowned King of the East End and future leader of the Labour Party, and her brother Edgar was also a councillor. Later, ten thousand tenants threatened to withhold their rent if the councillors were not released. Faced with this enormous support from the electorate, the High Court released them in October so that they could attend a conference to discuss the whole matter. The result was a victory for Poplar. The Council had made their first charge the care of the sick, orphaned, aged, widowed, workless and homeless and had forced the Coalition Government to introduce a Bill equalising rate burdens between richer and poorer boroughs. The picture below shows Alderman Hopwood, surrounded by his bodyguard.


Posted October 29, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

These Tragic and Tremendous Weeks in History, 18 October – 8 November.   Leave a comment

These weeks in history – 19 October: The First Battle of Ypres begins

(and continues until 22 November)

The Race to the Sea continued into October after the stalemate of the Aisne and culminated with the first battle at Ypres. German attacks were met with strong resistance by the remnants of the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and new troops recently arrived from Britain and India, alongside French and Belgian units.

At one point on 31 October the British line was breached and Ypres lay undefended. Only a rushed attack by the 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment atablised the situation.

A platoon of the Worcester Regiment march to the Western FrontA platoon of the Worcester Regiment march to the Western Front

Casualties were high on both sides. The Germans had a high percentage of young and inexperienced soldiers known as the Kindercorps. One unit suffered 75 per cent casualties. The Germans called the battle The Massacre of the Innocents. On the British side the losses meant the effective end of the Old Contemptibles, the BEF. 

Negotiations in Lesko, 18-23 October:

In the early hours of 18 October the Hungarian Peace Delegation in Moscow took off for Lesko, the HQ of General Petrov, in Marshal Stalin’s own plane. Domokos Szent-Iványi’s negotiations with the Hungarian generals at the Transylvanian front were concerned with the swift, decisive action that the Russians wanted from the Hungarian military. They wanted to build up a force from the Hungarian POWs they held and attack the Szálasi forces with Hungarian troops under the command of General Miklós. In order to give a political foundation to such a military action the Russians wanted to quickly create some kind of temporary Hungarian Government-in-Exile. Back in Moscow, Faragho and Teleki had been asked to make suggestions as to the formation and membership of such a government. For Szent-Iványi, it seemed obvious that the Premier of the Cabinet should be one of the three generals at the front. General Miklós had a unique advantage over the other two as he had been the Head of the Regent’s military Cabinet and could therefore be considered by the Russians as being from the top tier of Hungarian politics, competent in military matters, and free from any taint of civil collaboration with the Nazis. Szent-Iványi rejected the suggestion that he himself should become Foreign Minister, instead putting forward his own candidate, Baron György Bakách-Bessenyey, who had the great advantage of being of Jewish origin. When the discussions ended at midnight on 21st, Szent-Iványi felt that he had been able to show both the Russian and Hungarian negotiators that he was a friend of Russia and the Russians… not an opportunist, a job-seeker, not to say a carpetbagger. He returned to Moscow on 23rd where Faragho and Teleki informed him of their discussions on the forming of a Democratic Hungarian Government. 

The Last Verses of Miklós Radnóti, 24 & 31 October 1944: 

As Radnóti’s work company marched on they arrived first at Mohács, on 24 October. From there they were sent on towards Germany (the Austrian border), via Szentkirályszabadja. Out of the 3,600 who had set out from the Serbian mountains, only a handful survived. The words Der springt noch auf refer to Miklós Lorsi, a violinist who was murdered at Cservenka by an SS man on a horse. Having been shot once, Lorsi collapsed; but soon after, he stood up again, staggering. He is still moving, called the SS man, taking aim a second time, this time successfully.

The surviving servicemen ended up in German concentration camps. Radnóti, however, was too weak to continue the march. Separated from the rest of the group with twenty-one of his comrades, he was shot at the dam near Abda on or about 8 November, 1944.

Razglendnicaák (Postcards): 

The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood.

Each one of us is urinating blood.

The squad stands about in knots, stinking, mad.

Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.

Mohács, October 24, 1944

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.

Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you’ll end too,”

I whispered to myself; “Lie still, no moving. 

Now patience flowers in death.” Then I could hear

“Der springt noch auf,” above, and very near.

Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

Szentkirályszabadja, October 31, 1944.

These weeks in history: 19 October – 8 November 1989 in the GDR

Following Erich Honecker’s resignation on 18 October Egon Krenz’s promise of Change and Renewal was too little too late to satisfy the demand for sweeping reform. The more conciliatory Krenz appeared to be, the greater was the call for radical change. At the end of October, 300,000 demonstrators in Leipzig and Dresden called for the removal of the Communist regime. The border with Czechoslovakia was reopened on 3 November. On 4 November, half a million people jammed East Berlin’s streets to hear a concert carried live on East German and West German television. The whole event was intended to rally support for reform while preserving the socialist system. But the protesters had by then grown brave.

People power: Demonstrations in East Berlin at the Wall and in the centre of the city. One more puff and we'll blow the Wall down!People power: Demonstrations in East Berlin at the Wall and in the centre of the city. One more puff and we’ll blow the Wall down!

One by one, poets, musicians, and writers recited or sang satires about East Germany and its failings and demanded full democracy. Stefan Heym, a dissident, said he felt as if the windows had been pushed open and suddenly fresh air was coming in. The huge rally made it clear that the people no longer had any interest in preserving the East German state.On 7 November, Krenz fired his entire cabinet and the following day, two-thirds of the Politburo. Still this was not enough, so Krenz called Gorbachev in the Kremlin to ask for advice. The Soviet leader suggested that the opening of the borders would let off steam and avoid an explanation. In the next few days, another fifty thousand people fled the country. The German Democratic Republic was on the verge of total disintegration. Hans Modrow was proposed as prime minister. Krenz hesitated but finally decided that he had no alternative but to open the borders to the West.

The HSWP HQ in Budapest.The HSWP HQ in Budapest.

In these three weeks, the whole international order was transformed, and so too was the political and constitutional order within Hungary.  In early October, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party officially abandoned Marxist-Leninism, and on the 23rd, the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, it changed the country’s name from the Hungarian People’s Republic,the typical styling of countries in the Soviet bloc, to the Republic of Hungary. In Budapest, for the first time, a ruling Communist Party behind the iron curtain, abandoned its own ideological basis and proclaimed its belief in democracy and democratic socialism.The shift towards a capitalist free-market economy was already well underway.

An article from '5 Perc Angol' (Five Minutes' English'), Oct 2014.An article from ‘5 Perc Angol’ (Five Minutes’ English’), Oct 2014.

Posted October 19, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951: Part Four   1 comment

Part Four: Tommies, Tars, Munitions Workers and Soldier-Poets, 1906-1921.

009Two scenes from April 1914, one from Suffolk and the other from Shropshire, begin the Acts of war and change which the next four and more years wrought in British society and its English regions. First, to Felixstowe, which flared, quite literally, into the national morning newspapers with the report of a previous night’s fire which had completely gutted the resort’s most exclusive hotel, the Bath Hotel. Arson was immediately suspected, particularly when leaflets were picked up which had been scattered around the building, stating There can be no peace until women get the vote and No vote means war. A few days later two visitors to the town, Hilda Burkett (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were arrested and charged with the crime. During their various judicial hearings the two women behaved in a manner calculated to cause the maximum disruption to the legal process. They shouted, laughed, and ridiculed the court. I am not going to keep quiet, cried Hilda Burkett, when ordered to be silent, I have come here to enjoy myself. They eventually left the assize court at Bury, screaming and shouting, to begin long spells of imprisonment and hard labour.

026The second scene is the one in the picture, showing the launch of the new Clarion van in Shrewsbury, in time for May Day, by the voices of the Potteries’ Clarion Choir. Robert Blatchford had founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford serialised his Merrie England and then issued it as a book selling twenty thosand copies at a shilling each. Reaching out further, he issued it as a penny edition and in less than a year had sold three quarters of a million. The sales of The Clarion reached sixty thousand and Clarion clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of socialism to country villages. The supporters of The Clarion became known as Clarionettes.

 Clarion vans, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature, became mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time. The group posed by the new national Clarion van were photographed at Shrewsbury on 12 April 1914 after a dedication ceremony in the market square. The construction of the van, designed by the great socialist artist Walter Crane, was a great collective enterprise, involving craftsmen from both Scotland and England. She was to have been the first of a new series of beautiful vans to replace the old ones that had become weather worn after their long journeys around the villages and towns of England, but war was only months away and the photograph may well show the last Clarion ever made.

002At a national level, the two Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith had initiated, between 1906 and 1914, a series of social and political reforms of a far-reaching character. Yet by 1921 the Liberal Party seemed to be in terminal decline. The period between 1910 and 1914 was identified in the 1970s by the historian George Dangerfield as bring about the strange death of Liberal England. The significance of his thesis is not in its memorable title, but its identification of the four basic strains upon Liberalism caused by the political and industrial crises of the time. These were the issue of Votes for Women and the increasingly violent campaign by the Suffragettes of which the Felixstowe arson case is an example; the continuing conflict over Irish Home Rule, both in Ireland and the UK Parliament; the wave of Syndicalist or Industrial Unionist strikes throughout Britain; the crisis over the powers of the House of Lords within the Constitution which began with their refusal to accept Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909. Other historians have argued that it was the 1914-18 War which fundamentally undermined Liberalism as an ideology of conscience, rather than the earlier threats. They argue that the Great War brought many basic Liberal ideals into question. It also led to Asquith being challenged first with the creation of a broad coalition government in May 1915, and then being displaced following a split with Lloyd George in December 1916, resulting in the latter becoming Prime Minister (right).

On 4 August 1914, the British nation was at war, an unimaginable war that would totally transform its way of life. Shocks and sensations were in store for it, and they began at once. It was no surprise that the first service to be active was the Royal Navy; instant readiness was part of the naval tradition, and in 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that the Grand Fleet was itself very much tied to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:

Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…

 (Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)

AlfredHenryTidmarshOne of my own relatives, Alfred Tidmarsh (left), born in Great Rollright in the 1860s, was killed at Scapa Flow in 1917. He was the eldest of five children, the third of whom was my great-grandmother, Bertha Tidmarsh, who married George Gulliver (born in Ufton, Warwicks, in 1862), in 1887. The family had a naval tradition; it seems, possibly stretching back to Nelson’s time. Alfred’s uncle, also Alfred, had joined the Navy before him, before the age of iron-clads, and had done twelve years before the mast, then changed his rating to the Marines and became Master at Arms, finishing up as Chief Superintendent of Portsmouth Dockyards.

Young Alfred Tidmarsh did five trips to India on HMS Malabar, the troop ship, as a stoker, later becoming the chief stoker and a diving instructor. He was serving on HMS Ramillies, the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet at the time of an earthquake, and he raced to give assistance to Admiral Sir Charles Beresford. He did twenty-one years’ service. He got married, but his marriage was dissolved and he got married again to a Russian lady, a governess to a rich family out there where his ship was anchored. He made quite a bit of money on the ship, using a sewing machine to make sailors’ suits. He only had to buy the collars and put them on; a very straightforward job. He also ran a bank for them, and had about a penny in the shilling.

007 (2)During the First World War, although pensioned, Alfred Tidmarsh joined up again and met misfortune when HMS Vanguard was blown up at Scapa Flow. On that day, 9th July 1917, 804 sailors lost their lives as a result of an internal explosion which sank the ship almost instantaneously. Later, Alfred’s Russian widow and children lived in London, and Bertha Gulliver, Jessie’s sister, used to go and see them when she lived in London. Presumably, Alfred’s widow would have become a refugee from Bolshevik Russia sometime shortly after October/ November 1917, if she had not already left after the February Revolution. Anyway, the connection was maintained until the Second World War, when the family moved, and the Gulliver family never heard of them again. The children had a college education given to them by the Admiralty, and Grandma Tidmarsh had a small pension, as Alfred used to send her a little money, and the Admiralty never stopped it when he got blown up on the ship. He was interred in Kirkwall cemetery, probably due to his identity disk revealing him as a prominent mason. Only two survivors were picked up from HMS Vanguard.

Alfred_Gulliver_2.Alfred Tidmarsh was succeeded into the Navy by his nephew Alfred Gulliver (right)006, born in Ufton in 1893, the fourth child of George and Bertha Gulliver (née Tidmarsh), their second son (left, front middle). Alfred worked on a farm with his elder brother Vinson and his father when the family moved to Wroxall, not far from Berkswell Station, in 1904. He worked there until he was fifteen and then went into the Navy, following his uncle Alfred Tidmarsh, whom my Great Aunt Jessie remembers visiting Wroxall in about 1905, home on leave following the Boer War. Alfred Gulliver served on HMS Thunderer throughout the Great War, becoming a Chief Petty Officer. Later, due to exceptionally good eyesight, he became a range-finder, serving in the Second World War, aged fifty-five, but staying in dock training gunners.

Britain entered the war as the only belligerent relying on a volunteer army. Such was the response to the call to join the colours that the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription, was not passed until January 1916. If there was any doubt as to whether the trades unions and the Labour Party would support the war, the doubt was soon swept away, within a week of the declaration of war, in a wave of patriotic fervour. The resolutions of class solidarity, the vows of internationalism, the pledges of strikes to stop wars were as whispers in the wilderness.

At the beginning of the war, the ordinary British Tommy was not always as popular as the British tar, as is revealed in this verse by Rudyard Kipling:

I went into a public ’ouse, to get a pint o’ beer,

The publican ’e up a’ sez, “We serve no redcoats here.”

The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play..

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

 (Definitive edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1940.)

006023 (2)In August 1914, Britain was the greatest naval power in the world, and whereas the Royal Navy was seen as the shield of British democracy, and very much admired, the British Army was largely unknown to the British people. It was particularly in the lower middle class, and the respectable working class, with special emphasis in chapel-going areas, that this hostility to the Army was most pronounced. Brigadier Stanley Clarke recalls a by no means untypical case that he encountered:

My RSM was a Drill-sergeant from the Grenadier Guards and I remember him telling me that his father was a small farmer in Gloucestershire. When he told his parents he wished to join the Army he was abused for wanting to join “that scum” and told that if he did they never wished to have anything more to do with him. I asked what he had answered. He said he was joining, and as far as their ultimatum went it was a game two could play. He added: “I never did have anything more to do with them”.

(Quoted in John Baynes, Morale, 1967.)

Following Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits to his New Army, men were promised if they joined up with colleagues or friends they would be able to serve in the same unit. The first battalions of pals to join up were in Liverpool and soon the rest of the country followed. The battalions included the Birmingham Pals and the Cambridge Pals.

003In 1914 and 1915 thousands of young Suffolk men023 volunteered for military service. Ipswich alone sent ten thousand to the fronts. The Suffolk Regiment was made up to a strength of twenty-seven battalions. It saw action in all the main theatres of the war – the Western Front, Gallipoli, Macedonia and Palestine. Appalling losses were suffered on the Somme and the Gallipoli beaches. The Regiment returned at last with two Victoria Crosses and minus seven thousand men. Of course, the experience of war was no worse for Suffolk men than for others, but, as for those others, it changed the attitudes of a generation and ensured that life back home in East Anglia would never be the same again. In Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, an old farm worker recalled why he joined the army and what happened to him:

I returned to my old farm at Akenfield for 11s. a week, but I was unsettled. When the farmer stopped my pay because it was raining and we couldn’t thrash, I said to my seventeen year-old mate, “Bugger him. We’ll go off and join the army…”

 In my four month’s training with the regiment I put on nearly a stone in weight and got a bit taller. They said it was the food but it was really because for the first time in my life there had been no strenuous work… village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech. I was worked mercilessly…

 020He was sent to the Dardanelles and arrived at a place close to the front line:

That evening we wandered about on the dead ground and asked about friends of ours who had arrived a month or so ago. “How is Ernie Taylor?” “Ernie? – he’s gone.” “Have you seen Albert Paternoster?” “Albert? – he’s gone.” We learned that if three hundred had gone but seven hundred were left, then this wasn’t too bad. We then knew how unimportant our names were…

 He survived Gallipoli, the Somme and a prisoner-of-war camp and was eventually demobbed:

The soldiers who got back to the village recovered very quickly. People who had lost their sons felt strange. Generally speaking, we were thankful that it was all over and we could get back to work. Yet things had changed and people were different. The farm-workers who had been soldiers were looked at in a new way. There were more privileges around than there used to be. They’d let you take a rabbit or two, for instance. Before 1914, if you’d caught a rabbit, my God, the world would have come to an end! The sack was the least you’d get. We felt that there must be no slipping back to bad old ways and about 1920 we formed a branch of the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

Those last sentences sum up admirably the situation after the war – the delayed shock, the determination to get back to normal, and the slow realisation that things would never be the same again.

027In the photograph, reduced to the helplessness of a baby in a pram, a wounded soldier is pushed by his compatriots along Granby Street, Leicester, in 1918. By the end of the war, almost three million British troops alone were listed as dead, wounded or missing. The statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors of the holocaust of the western front. The war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history. General Haig, whose name was to be stamped on billions of artificial poppies, felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help and instructed his infantry to walk at a steady pace, symmetrically aligned, packed in tens of thousands, through the enemy lines. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, sixty thousand young men strolled into destruction. Haig was not deterred, and by the time the offensive floundered in the November mud, the British and Irish losses alone had exceeded four hundred thousand in sixteen weeks. King George V promptly promoted Haig to the rank of Field Marshall and, as the annual slaughter was repeated, the names of Ypres, Passchendale and Marne became synonymous with stupid butchery.

002At first, my grandfather Seymour also went to work on the farm near Walsgrave with his father and brothers when he left school just before the Great War. He later told his daughter, my mother, how he rode on top of the hay-loaded waggons into the city centre, coming into the narrow medieval Spon Street on top of the hay, with it touching the overhanging eaves of the half-timbered houses on either side. He then went to work in Binley Pit, first of all in the office. He tried to join the Army in 1917, although he would not be eighteen until the following spring. He was at Catterick Barracks when the influenza epidemic struck, wiping out almost all of the Company he had joined. He wrote to his mother, Bertha, and she arrived at the gates in Yorkshire, produced Seymour’s birth certificate and demanded her son back. She took him back to Coventry on the train, and so he survived both the war and the epidemic, marrying a ribbon-weaver from Walsgrave, Vera Brown, soon after (left, in the early 1970s).

025On the Home Front, women could get well-paid jobs working on munitions. My Great Aunt, Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver, born in Ufton, 1901) was working for Brown’s Butchers at Ball Hill, Coventry, for a year before the First World War broke out, and then anyone who had bedrooms in the city had to take Australian soldiers in. She didn’t know what port they came in (probably Portsmouth), but they all came through Walsgrave, past Caludon Lodge where here family were living by then. They were all dressed in khaki, with their hats turned up at the side, waiting for the British government to say where they were to go (right: an Australian soldier in the trenches.)

So three of them were staying at Brown’s. They’d had two fellows living and working there, taking the meat around in those days, but they’d had to go to war themselves. So Mr Brown asked Jessie to take meat down to Stoke Park Hall, and they asked her to take their orders back to him.

Jessie soon got a job working at the Royal Ordinance Works, Red Lane. She got much more money there and soon had enough saved for a bicycle. Instead of having to walk all the way across by Wyken Church, right up the Black Pad to the Ordinance Works, night and morning, she could cycle:

That’s how my life went on through the war years. We were working from six in the morning till six at night on two pieces of bread and ‘dripping’ (lard) and canteen tea which you could have wrung a dishcloth out in.

018Many Coventry firms were important suppliers of arms and equipment to the services during the First World War. Activity at the Ordnance Works at Red Lane was immediately boosted by a rapid increase in demand for naval and land armaments, but in addition the company expanded its aviation work, which at the beginning of 1914 was still in its infancy. Reginald Bacon, managing director of the works, later recalled that he almost lived on the telephone taking orders for the firm’s products. New workshops had to be built with the old ones overflowing with work and, as orders mounted, the debts that had accumulated during the company’s early days soon disappeared. The Ordnance Works’ output during the First World War included 710 aeroplanes, 111 tanks, 92 anti-aircraft guns, nearly four hundred thousand cartridge cases and millions of fuses and detonators.

The works was the obvious candidate for expansion under the stimulus of wartime conditions, but its experience was far from unique since Coventry’s industrial structure by 1914 ensured that the city would be heavily committed on a broad front to the production of war materials. Courtaulds, for example, were able to sell all the artificial silk they could manufacture, while the company’s Coventry laboratory was used by the Ministry of Munitions for research into explosives. Yet it was the city’s engineering base that made it a prime recipient of Government contracts. Alfred Herbert noted that:

The effect of the war on the engineering industry has been to render demand, enormously and continuously, in excess of supply. It has not been a question of obtaining orders, but, on the contrary, every engineering concern has been swamped with orders in excess of its possible output and competition for the time being has practically ceased to exist.

011 The Red Lane factory of Thomas Smith’s Stamping Works became so involved in the manufacture of engineering equipment for military purposes that in March 1916 the firm was placed under official control, with its entire output being determined by Government departments.

The motor manufacturers experienced the most significant impact of war, since not only were they required to produce large numbers of military vehicles, but also the practice of motoring and motor vehicle engineering received a stimulus that was to prove important to the industry in the post-war period. Although the production of cars fell away, the main War Office contractors turned to ambulances, trucks and armoured vehicles. Daimler, for example, produced more than four thousand commercial vehicles, including a number of three-ton lorries, which were set up as travelling workshops. These were used for servicing the Daimler sleeve-valve engine, which was employed initially in heavy tractors for pulling fifteen-inch howitzers, and later in tanks. The Rover Company ceased production of its cars, but became heavily involved as a contract supplier in the manufacture of parts for staff cars and ambulances. It also built motor cycles for military and official use, though it was rather overshadowed by Triumph, which enjoyed enormous success with its Model ‘H’ machines, selling some thirty thousand for war Office use.

The Daimler Company also made vast quantities of shells, while Standard supplied mortars, and both companies entered the market for aircraft. The Standard factory at Canley was established in 1916 specifically for aero work and by November 1918 some 1,600 aircraft had been built there. Similarly, the Daimler factory was extended to meet the demand for aviation equipment and eventually the company even constructed its own airfield at Radford to test airframes. Near the end of the war Daimler was manufacturing approximately eighty aircraft per month, more than four times the number produced by Standard. Siddeley-Deasey was another Coventry motor manufacturer to become involved in aircraft production.

Under the pressure of wartime demand many Coventry firms extended their physical capacity and technical capabilities, both of which helped to facilitate the city’s subsequent economic growth. High levels of output were also sustained by the development of mass production techniques, the use of female labour and longer working hours. Labour supply was a serious concern, since the outbreak of war brought a rush of conscripts from among Coventry’s engineering workforce. Standard recruited women shop floor workers for the first time, mostly for the manufacture of shells, while at Daimler as the war progressed female labour increased by leaps and bounds. Very few women had been involved in the manufacture of machine tools before 1914 but the needs of the war effort brought about a dramatic change in the industry’s labour force. Alfred Herbert was a somewhat reluctant convert to the employment of women in the engineering industry, claiming that due to fundamental differences in mentality it is perfectly certain that, save in the most exceptional instances, women cannot become skilled mechanics. However, even he admitted that when a woman has become familiar with the details of a definite operation she will continue to repeat that operation satisfactorily.

Men and women were expected to work long hours in order to maintain output levels. Adults began work at the Ordnance factory at 6.00 a.m. and, punctuated by meal and rest breaks, continued until 8.00 p.m., when the night shift took over. An employee at Smith’s Stamping Works recalled the relentless pace of Coventry’s war effort:

Never was a hammer allowed to stand idle! If a stamper was sick, or for any reason could not come to work, his hammer had to be kept going. Many a time, I can remember, after I’d done a hard day’s work and had just gone home, there came a knock at the door. This was the foreman of the night-shift come over from the stamp shop to ask me to take another man’s place on the hammer. I swallowed my tea and back I went. It meant working the full round of the clock, but many of us did it often.

001A Government Commission in the West Midlands in 1917 noted that the workmen are tired and overstrained. Invigorated by the wartime conditions, Coventry’s industrial development, despite experiencing the slump and unemployment that characterised the whole of the West Midlands in the early twenties, continued to expand, especially the motor industry.

During the First World War, with the rapid build up of the local munitions industry and the influx of armaments workers, particularly women, the number of Coventry’s inhabitants climbed to 130,000. In 1918, at the end of the war, Coventry did not immediately return to the pre-war pattern of demographic expansion.

The majority of female munitions workers from outside the city returned home and the post-war economic crisis forced many males to move elsewhere. Although in 1919 the population reached 136,000, it dropped to just over 128,000 in 1921 during the slump that followed the boom years of 1919-20, as the city began to experience a much slower rate of growth.

010022Although fully occupied in day-to-day all out manufacture, Coventrians were sometimes they were quite nervous about the war, especially if families had a loved one on the Western Front. Otherwise, they did not feel directly affected. On one occasion, however, they did see a huge airship, a Zeppelin, sailing over Walsgrave, which frightened them all to death, and made them realise some of the reality of modern warfare for the first time: It was terrifying, just like a great big boat. The Suffolk Coast, however, was one of the first areas of Britain to experience an air raid. On the night of 15 April 1915 three German airships set off on what was to have been a raid on the industrial and dockland area of the Humber. In the darkness they lost their way and L5 dropped its load of six high explosive and forty incendiary bombs on Lowestoft and Southwold. The most serious damage was that done to a Lowestoft timber yard, which was largely destroyed by fire.

As in Coventry, women stepped into many of the jobs vacated by men – in engineering workshops, in the offices and on the land. Many of them employed their feminine talents for care and concern in the medical services, strained to capacity throughout the war. At one hospital alone, the East Suffolk and Ipswich, 7,777 casualties were treated. New wards had to be set up, and Broadwater, a large house in Belstead Road, was converted into an annexe. As well as this a hospital requisites depot was opened in Northgate Street, which sent over two million bandages, dressings and medical supplies of every kind to hospitals at home and at the front. Most people who could or would not fight contributed in some way, giving time, money and energy to the war effort.

Other than in terms of work, Jessie recalled that, in Coventry:

It was only really the rationing which touched us, because my mother had about ten of us at home, and had to go into Coventry for what she could get… it was a good job we had the garden and all the stuff from it and my Dad could always keep it beautiful and grow plenty of potatoes, cabbages, etc. We survived!

001After the Armistice the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages while the other ranks returned to stand in the dole queues, if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions. Tommy and Jack, beloved of the fraudulent Bottomley and other war profiteers left the Marne, the Somme, Mons and the high seas to return to a hero’s welcome as crosses of stone flowered on village greens. Every parish raised its monument to the fallen and vowed never to forget. In honour of the pledge new hospital wings, playing fields, sports pavilions and other memorials were opened. Victory was celebrated with fetes, dances and socials.

But the gratitude with which the returning heroes were greeted at the end of 1918 did not extend to ensuring employment or improving working conditions. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered by reality as the ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to resume their old jobs. Men wandered from farm to farm, village to village, looking for work. They joined unions if they could afford the dues. The number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented eight million, and thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since the syndicalist days of 1912 and the second highest figure since records had begun in 1893. But many had no bargaining strength, especially in rural trades and areas. The jobs were simply not there. As ex-servicemen stood on the kerbs selling matches or singing for pennies, the number of unemployed rose and by 1921 had reached two million.

005The problem of rural depression was an old one but the post-war generation was not prepared to tackle it in an old way, as the old farm labourer in Akenfield had suggested. The war had loosened class relations in society, broadened horizons, changed social and political aspiratrions. In 1920, a Labour MP was returned for South Norfolk. Perhaps it was the women who had blazed the trail, not just in the persistence, sacrifice, unity and violence of the largely middle-class suffragettes in challenging the establishment before the war, but in the way the working-class women had found new confidence in their work during it. Their achievement of the vote in 1918 was a watershed moment for women of both classes.

When the war finished, Jessie went to Oxford, to her aunt, Molly Tidmarsh (née Sanders). Things were much better for her there, because it was impossible to get a job in Coventry; nobody could, immediately after the war, neither woman nor man. But, when the women went to sign on at the Labour Exchange, the officials often insulted them. They asked, ‘have you been round all the factories?’ when they knew very well that there were no jobs in the factories, especially for women. Jessie’s Aunt Molly kept an old coaching inn, The Black Horse at Kidlington near Oxford. She had one daughter, so she told her sister to ‘send Jess over to the pub; I’ll give her 10s a week, that’ll keep her in clothes. She’ll be a friend for Doll’ (her daughter).

Living in the country and having a can of milk twice a day meant Jessie became much healthier too. With her cousin, she went dancing in Oxford with the undergrads, who would bring them home in a taxi to Kidlington. She began to speak much better and dress better. She had a boyfriend in Coventry whom she used to write letters to, but when she went home to Walsgrave he said there was a vast difference in her, and that he couldn’t believe she’d changed so much. Jessie had also decided to go up to London, because she’d been offered a job there, but she wasn’t able to stay with her aunt and uncle because the cottage wasn’t big enough. So she went into service at Primsbury Park. She came home to Coventry only on short holidays, when she was able to go to dances. Many soldiers were there in uniform, not yet ‘demobbed’. Aware that soldiers were still viewed as lesser catches than sailors, she danced with a young man, Tommy Gardner, who looked very smart in blue dress uniform with gold braiding all across his chest:

Girls were not supposed to fancy soldiers or sailors in those days, because we always thought they were common. But I liked him, so I danced with him all that evening and he asked to see me home. I had come with a girl from next door, so I found her, and the three of us went home together. As we stood talking by our house, he asked if he could see me again the next day. I agreed, but told him I was returning to London on the Monday. He suggested that I write and ask for another week, so I did. We kept on writing after that, and he asked me to come home again, because he was feeling very lonely.

GeorgeGulliverNow the men also voted with their feet. They severed their age-old roots in the land, moved into the manufacturing towns and cities and created a more solid and self-conscious urban working-class than had existed in these places before 1914. At this time, the early twenties, the Gulliver family had left their farm and their pleasant homestead of Caludon Lodge, on Green’s farm. They had lived there for about twelve years, since Jessie was eight. However, with four children still at home, and the factories expanding again in the early twenties, George Gulliver (left) had decided to take the better wages offered there, even though it meant leaving their farm tenancy and moving into a smaller rented house in Foleshill. So he went to work for Armstrong-Siddeley as a stoker in the early twenties, aged nearly sixty. In more rural counties such as Suffolk, an urban working class had scarcely existed before 1914. Now it came into being.

001No portrait of the First World War, especially one focusing on the English Midlands and East Anglia, would be complete without reference to its English soldier-poets. Among them, the Shropshire poet, Wilfred Owen, is now widely recognised as one of the greatest literary figures writing in the English language, in the twentieth, or any other century. The basic facts of his life and premature death are widely known. He was born in Oswestry, on the border with Wales, in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. After two years as a private tutor in France, from 1913 to 1915, he returned to England to enlist, and was commissioned as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. Very early in 1917 he was in the front line on the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Although he is obviously most renowned for his poems, historians and literary scholars alike have drawn on his letters to his mother, at home in Oswestry, as evidence of the shock and horror felt by ordinary soldiers caught up in the mud and muddle of war at the front. In the wintertime, in no-man’s land, all water froze, so that his men were in simultaneous danger of death from thist, frostbite and sniper’s bullets; they felt marooned in a frozen desert. Although, like his close friend and mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen came close to becoming a pacifist during the time they spent together convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland in 1917, Owen insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He felt that he had to return to France to remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men fighting and dying there.

Just before his return, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a Preface for it, which began:

010 This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.

They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.

Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually got rid of all mention of himself; and so his poems present universal pictures of typical scenes on the Western Front. Owen’s best poetry is concerned with the plight of individuals only when they are typical of doomed soldiers as a whole, and so the men whose deaths he regrets in poems such as Futility are not identified in the way that Sassoon defines specific casualties:

008He was a young man with a meagre wife

And two small children in a Midland town.

(A working Party).

In Futility, as in his other later poems, Owen seems to reject Christianity more openly. He arraigns God in the most direct way for ever even allowing Creation to take place:

Move him into the sun –

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything can wake him now

The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds –

Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,

Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil,

To break earth’s sleep at all?


In one of his letters to his mother, Owen vividly portrays the features of trench warfare by contrasting them with thoughts of her and his home in Oswestry:

 004..Every ten minutes on Sunday afternoon seemed an hour.

I nearly nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising above my knees.

Towards 6 o’ clock, when, I suppose, you would be going to church, the shelling grew less intense and less accurate: so that I was mercifully helped to do my duty to crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man’s Land to visit my other post. It took me half an hour to move about 150 yards.

 I was chiefly annoyed by our own machine guns from behind. The seeng-seeng-seeng of the bullets reminded me of Mary’s canary. On the whole I can support the canary better…

024On 4 October 1918, after most of his Company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and took scores of prisoners, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a   week before the armistice, on 4 November, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge in order to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. A week later, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, as the church bells in Oswestry were ringing out to celebrate the armistice, Mrs Owen received the telegram informing her that Wilfred had been killed in action, and no doubt, soon after…

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est, Pro Patria mori (Sweet and Honourable it is, to die for one’s Country)

In a less well known poem, The End, Owen expressed the most serious doubts he ever put into poetry. He ask what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

Owen’s finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs of an afterlife and rejects eternity, but that in which his faith and his doubts hang in the balance. A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at in his best poems, but rarely gets expressed directly. Exposure briefly states the case against pacifism:

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:

Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

It was in his letters home, however, that Owen sometimes put the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was… Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill…

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are stated explicitly in his letters, but are only ever implicit in his poems, beneath the surface, often in a note of tragic nobility. Other poets achieved this less frequently than Owen, and are better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at rousing pity for dead soldiers. Purer in their protests against war itself and in their pacifism, even in their Christianity. Tragedies like that of the young Midland member of A Working Party impel Sassoon to shout out his desperate, prayerful protest, O Jesus, make it stop. Similarly tragedies, some deeply personal, impelled other poets, both civilians and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, who lost his son in action on the Western Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to that of Christ in Gethsemane. In As The Team’s Head-Brass, Edward Thomas reports a conversation between a ploughman and a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move the elm tree, felled by a blizzard, that they are sitting on, because one of his mates on the farm was killed in France on the same night as the blizzard:


’… Now if

He had stayed here we should have moved this tree.’

’And I should not have sat here. Everything

Would have been different. For it would have been

Another world.’ ’Ay, and a better, though

If we could see all, all might seem good.’ Then

The lovers came out of the wood again:

The horses started and for the last time

I watched the clouds crumble and topple over

After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.


Ivor Gurney was a Gloucestershire poet and composer of great promise; a pupil of Herbert Parry and Vaughan Williams. He fought on the Western Front in the ranks and was so shattered bx his experiences that finally he died in a mental hospital in 1937. During his last years he was unable to distinguish the past from the present and continued writing war poetry as though the war was still on. His poem, To His Love, is not simply about the tragedy of lost love, but about the sense of loss of the south Cotswold landscape against which it was set:

He’s gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We’ll walk no more on Cotswold

Where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed.


His body that was so quick

Is not as you knew it

Knew it, on Severn river

Under the blue

Driving our small boat through.


You would not know him now…

But still he died

Noby, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

017The focus on the poetry inspired by the apalling carnage of the years 1914 to 1918 has tended to be on the mud and blood and terror of the Front, understandably so. But we also need to look at the lives of those left behind, the countless mothers, wives, sweethearts, sisters and daughters whose lives were full of the war and its privations, and yet empty of the grim experiences of the men folk, unless they were serving themselves as nurses behind the lines. Life was grim at home too but not in the same desperately random way as at the Front. Then there was always the fear of the unknown. With no easy means of communication, months would go by before a precious letter would arrive and, agonisingly, letters would still be arriving after the fateful telegram advising of death in action. Women took up many of the roles formerly performed by men and this changed most of their lives irrevocably as they found, of necessity, new freedoms and responsibilities. However, despite repeated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these government-initiated attempts had not been conspicuously successful. In July 1915 there were about twenty thousand less permanent female workers on the land than there had been in July 1914. For many female agricultural labourers, as for many domestic servants, the war had provided a blessed release. Some, like Jessie, returned to domestic service, but many others did not.

To say that the war brought votes for women is also an over-simplification, though one which contains a kernel of truth. The question of women’s rights should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of a wider context of social relationships and political change. The political advance of women in 1914 had still been blocked by two great fortresses of prejudice: the vigorous hostility of men, and the often fearful reluctance of many women themselves. The war brought a new confidence to women, dissipated apathy, and silenced the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly the replacement of militant activity by frantic patriotic endeavour also played its part as well.

015More than this, the war generated a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovations. Whatever might or might not have happened had there been no war, only the war could have provided the concentrated experience which both gave to women a new confidence in themselves, and showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions, E. S. Montague, observed, on 15 August 1916, that:

Women of every station… have proved themselves able to undertake work that before the war was regarded solely the province of men… Where… is the man now who would deny to women the civil rights which she has earned by her hard work?

But these were also women who also mourned the passing of their menfolk not only for the first few frozen months, but for the rest of their lives. This sense of both loss and enforced change was clearly expressed in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), in which she recalled her mixture of emotions on hearing of the armistice:

002I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world, I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate had gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries.

016For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

The 1918 Coupon election returned the Coalition to power by a landslide. Yet, as the political diarist Beatrice Webb saw, Lloyd George’s personal triumph as a successful war leader should not divert attention away from the vulnerability of the Liberals in working class areas to the advance of the Labour Party, which now received twenty-two per cent of the total vote. A fusion between the Coalition Liberals and Conservatives seemed a possibility in 1919-20, the creation of a progressive centre party to counter the reactionary Right and the revolutionary Left, but Lloyd George failed to grasp this opportunity and by 1921 it was too late.

Liberal England had died its strange death on the battlefields of Flanders, in the large-scale abandonment of the impoverished rural areas, and in the coming of age of an independent urban working class.

Printed Sources:

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. University of Warwick: Cryfield Press.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson Educational.

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry: An Anthology. London: University of London Press.

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

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

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan Education.

Posted October 16, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

These Tremendous Weeks in History: 6-19 October 1989, 1944: Midnight in Moscow and Berlin.   Leave a comment

These Tremendous Weeks in History: 6-19 October 1989


For most of the period of the Trabant Trek, which continued until the East Germans closed their border with Czechoslovakia on 3 October, the German Democratic Republic’s leader, Erich Honecker, was seriously ill, following his collapse at the Warsaw Pact summit in Bucharest. He was seventy-four, and had led East Germany’s government for eighteen years. He played little part in decision-making as his government swung from ferocity to weakness and back again. Everyone knew that the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state, on 7 October, would be a critical moment.

 In the run-up to the event, Leipzig saw big demonstrations. These were not spontaneous or anti-communist, but had been taking place for a number of years. Every Monday there were peace services in the Protestant churches there every Monday, the city being one of the foremost centres of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany. After these services the congregation would go in procession to the pedestrian precinct in the old town carrying candles. What was different now was that human rights organisations and radical groups joined in. Again, however, many of these groups and radicals still saw themselves as democratic socialists within the German Marxist Social Democratic tradition, but increasingly in opposition to the hard-line government in Berlin.

The GDR had been one of the few countries to congratulate the leadership of Deng Xiaoping after it had mowed down and crushed the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in May. There seemed to be a real possibility that the growing demonstrations in Leipzig might be dealt with in a similar way. The nerve of the government was under great strain. There were signs of growing discontent everywhere. People were no longer as scared of the authorities as they had been. As the tension mounted, the Interior Ministry’s record of threats received in different parts of the country showed a remarkable increase over normal times:

Anonymous telephone call to the regional office of the SED in Marienberg, 09.35, 4.10.89: “Your place is going to be blown sky high, you miserable rabble.”

Anonymous telephone  call to Lichtenberg railway station, 23.50, 4.10.89: “Here’s a birthday present for Erich Honeker: bombs have been planted at Lichtenberg and Schönefeld stations. It’s going to be a lot of fun. They’re set to go off at two o’ clock.”

Anonymous telephone call  to the Volkpolizei satation at Coswig, 10.00, 5.10.89: “You arse-lickers, you ought to know that your place is going to be blown up today.”

Anonymous telephone call to the central warehouse in Dresden, 10.30, 5.10.89: Three ejector-seats available, deadline 11.15.”

Anonymous letter received by the Ostseezeitung newspaper in Rostock, 6.10.89: “40th anniversary of the GDR… On 6 October, 16.00, attacks on the Ostseezeitung and the Dierkow market. We want freedom. Death to Honecker. We mean it!”

Anonymous telephone call to the regional office  of the Staatssicherheit in Freiburg, 11.57, 6.10.89: “Write this down: We’re going to blast the presidential platform in Berlin tomorrow. Message ends.”

Nothing happened, of course. But the guest of honour at the celebrations on 7 October exploded a device of his own. The day before, Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived for his two-day visit to celebrate the anniversary and let it be known that he had warned Honecker that Soviet troops would not be available for use against demonstrators in the GDR. Speculation was already growing that he was encouraging the younger and more liberal members of the Politbutro to overthrow Honecker, and it grew still further when he said,Life punishes those who hold back. In East Berlin, Gorbachev suggested to Honecker that the way to stop public protest engulfing his government was to introduce a German form of perestroika. Honecker wouldn’t listen: during his last visit to Moscow he had been disgusted by the bare shelves in the shops. How dare Gorbachev tell him how to organise the most prosperous economy in the socialist world! Gorbachev was undaunted, and told a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that East German policy must be decided not in Moscow, but in Berlin. Honecker, standing next to him, glared.

Gorbachev’s visit galvanised protests against the deeply unpopular regime. For a torchlight procession down the Unter den Linden in East Berlin (pictured left), a crowd of thousands of hand-picked party activists was assembled to cheer Gorbachev. To everyone’s surprise, they broke into chants of Gorby, Gorby, save us. In an extraordinary turnabout, the leader of the Soviet Union was now being hailed by Eastern Europeans as their saviour from their own government’s tyranny. There were also more spontaneous demonstrations that evening in Dresden, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Plauen, Karl Marx-Stadt, Potsdam and Amstadt. TheStasi (Secret Police) broke these up with great brutality. Gorbachev told his aides he was disgusted by Honecker’s inept handling of the crisis and that the leadership can’t stay in control. Back in Moscow, the Soviet leader ordered his general staff to ensure that their soldiers in East Germany stayed in their barracks and did not get embroiled in the chaos that was soon certain to overwhelm the country.

It was on the day after Gorbachev left, 8 October, in Leipzig, that the great test came. Early that morning, the Stasi went from factory to factory and office to office, warning people that they shouldn’t take part in the big demonstration which was planned for that afternoon. Schools closed early, as did many of the shops. The centre of the city was abnormally quiet all day. No trains came into the main railway station, which had been put to another use: it became the headquarters of a large military force. The opposition leaders later discovered that Honecker had ordered the Stasi to open fire on the demonstrators if there was no alternative way of stopping them. The Tiananmen option, which he had praised in June, was to be available in Leipzig. Several thousand troops were deployed, with units taking up positions on every street corner, and tanks and armoured personnel carriers were drawn up at all the main intersections. Marksmen were positioned on all the rooftops near the station, some equipped with machine guns. The army had arranged trailers and trucks to carry the wounded to selected barns and sheds on farms outside the city. Everything was ready for a bloodbath. However, wary of repeating that of Tiananmen Square, the local party leaders would not support Honecker’s orders. If they had agreed, and the troops had opened fire on the seventy thousand protesters marching through the streets, the show of overwhelming strength could have stopped the demonstrations and saved the political life of Erich Honecker just as in China it saved that of Deng Xiaoping. More probably, it would have resulted in Honecker’s downfall even more rapidly, just as it did later that year in Romania.

The gamble was too great to take. Honecker and Egon Krenz, as the Politburo member responsible for security, had created this formidable military build-up.
Egon Krenz later claimed the credit for having deterred Honecker from giving the order to open fire, but he was himself fighting for political acceptance in the aftermath of Honecker’s fall, and his evidence is not to be taken at face value. After his expulsion from the PDS, the Party for Democratic Socialism which replaced the communist SED, Krenz became a wealthy man by selling his story to the right-wing tabloid Bild in West Germany for more than a million Deutschmark. The reliable evidence shows that it was the army leadership and perhaps even the Stasi in Leipzig who lacked the will to carry out Honecker’s orders. It was therefore easier to convince the political hierarchy who were part of the chain of command that it would be disastrous to shoot down the demonstrators. Almost certainly, the real credit should be given to the SED Party elite in Leipzig itself. There is also some evidence that the Soviet leadership got wind of the possibility that a massacre was being planned and warned against it.

More than seventy thousand people, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, gathered outside the churches the centre of Leipzig, and as they marched from St Nicholas Church to the main square, the soldiers watched them go. The marksmen peered down from the rooftops, the trucks and makeshift ambulances remained where they had been parked and the barns outside the city remained empty. The opposition had faced down the threat. It became clear that whatever the Stasi might do with clubs and tear gas, demonstrators no longer ran the risk of being shot dead. The decision split the SED leadership, sparking off a battle within the Politburo. Nine days later, on 18 October, Erich Honecker resigned as Party leader and was replaced by Egon Krenz, who, as the youngest member of the Politburo, began purging five out of its eighteen members. Krenz tried to rally the Party and the people around a new slogan, Change and Renewal, Krenz presented himself as the East German Gorbachev. Hundreds of demonstrators were released from prison.

Krenz’s new slogan seemed empty to those who were now demanding sweeping reforms. The more conciliatory Krenz appeared to be, the greater was the call for radical change. In a matter of a few months in the late summer and early autumn of 1989, before the closing of the borders, nearly two hundred thousand people had crossed into the West via Hungary, half of them illegally. It was these Trabant Trekkers, combined with the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the historic towns and cities of East Germany, who brought to an end the forty years of the Communist state there. With it, the Brezhnev Doctrine also came to an end. Gennadi Gerasimov, the foreign ministry spokesman, shrugged his soldiers, commenting on the events in the GDR by saying simply, it’s their business.  He added, famously:

You know the Frank Sinatra song, “My Way”? Hungary and Poland are doing it their way. We now have the Sinatra Doctrine.  

The phrase stuck, and became popular in the West.

To be continued…


Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers)

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.


A Postcard from Miklós Radnóti’s Death March – At nine kilometers: the pall of burning…

12 October 2014 at 13:52


At nine kilometers: the pall of burning
hayrick, homestead, farm.
At the field’s edge: the peasants, silent, smoking
pipes against the fear of harm.
Here: a lake ruffled only by the step
of a tiny shepherdess,
where a white cloud is what the ruffled sheep
drink in their lowliness.

Cservenka, October 6, 1944

From “Razglednicas”



means “picture postcard” in Serbian; in the original Hungarian, it is in plural, Razglenicák. I posted the first verse of the poem, written in the mountains, on 30 August, the date on which it was written, before the march began. There are two more verses, written in the last week of October, shortly before Radnóti was shot and buried by the roadside, and is the last of the ten poems which were found in his address book in the pocket of his raincoat twenty months later, when his body was exhumed.

Cservenka was the place where the Nazis slaughtered about a thousand Jewish servicemen.   

To be continued…


Zsuzsanna Ozsváth & Frederick Turner (2014), Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnoti: A Bilingual Edition. Budapest: Corvina Books. (


This Week in Hungarian History: Signing the Armistice in Moscow and the Nazi Coup in Budapest: 11-17 October 1944.

12 October 2014 at 11:37

Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October 1944, the Hungarian Peace Delegation in Moscow signed an armistice with the Soviet Foreign Minister in the Kremlin. Earlier that day, in fact much earlier, at 3 a.m., they had had their sixth conference with the Soviets. On that day, Russian forces were still just over a hundred km from Budapest. Molotov told Szent-Iványi that he was well aware of the of the fact that the Germans were willing to carry out a massacre and that they had to prevent this. He understood that the preliminary conditions of an armistice with Hungary had been accepted and asked if it would be possible to discuss the final armistice, and to sign it. Szent-Iványi agreed that his delegation had full powers to do so, which had been put into a radiogram that they had received from Budapest. Major Nemes was on his way to Moscow, via Körösmező, with the letter confirming this. Although he felt that they already had the Regent’s authorisation to sign, Molotov disagreed, saying that the letter they had brought with them only empowered them to negotiate. He wanted a radiogram from the Regent clearly giving them authority to sign.

Up to that point, the negotiations had been held in French, but Molotov suddenly asked Szent-Iványi if he wished to continue in English. The latter agreed, and Molotov declared the conference suspended for about ten minutes, going into an adjoining room. While he was passing through the door, the delegates caught a glimpse of the people in the other room. One of them, Faragho, later insisted that he had seen Churchill and Eden there.  Géza Teleki reported overhearing a conversation between Dekanozov and Eden from the same room. Molotov returned to them when the ten minutes were up, declaring that they would continue the negotiations later that morning, and that Hungary would then be out of the war. They returned to their dacha at 4.50 a.m., but had no sleep on that memorable day. They worked all morning and afternoon, composing and sending notes to the Allied Powers, as well as more radiograms to Budapest. After a short meal at about 5 p.m., they left the dacha in General Kuznietov’s car, just before 7 p.m.

At about 7.15 p.m. Molotov opened the seventh conference, telling the three Hungarian delegates that the Soviets and their Allies were willing to accept their conditions, and that the necessary formalities could be carried out immediately. They also agreed to accept a short delay in the advance of the Red Army to allow for the Hungarian Army to make its withdrawal towards Budapest. Szent-Iványi said that they had already sent a radiogram to Budapest asking for information about the Hungarian and German forces, especially how much time would be needed for the Hungarian forces to reach Budapest. He hoped the reply would reach them in the morning. General Faragho said that there was no need to delay the Red Army’s advance for more than one or two days. On the other hand, he felt it likely that the Germans would attack the retreating troops as soon as they knew of the official armistice. After all, he pointed out, they had already deported over four hundred thousand Jews to Germany and would have deported the Budapest Jewry had it not been for the Army’s intervention, he said. That was why the Gendarmerie was still in the capital. He thought that, with the exception of two ministers, Reményi-Schneller and Jurcsek, the Hungarian Government would support the armistice. Effective power, he claimed, was in the hands of the Regent and the Prime Minister in any case. The delegates believed that the troops would remain loyal to the Regent.

As the conference ended, a table was prepared for signing the documents. At this point, Molotov approached Szent-Iványi and said, My congratulations, Mr Minister. This is the first time since 1526 that Hungary has won a great war. Szent-Iványi felt pleased that their delaying tactics had made possible the indirect intervention of Churchill and Eden in the negotiations, which had ultimately accelerated the whole process by stopping the Allied aerial bombing of Hungary while the Hungarian forces made their retreat to the capital. Just before 8 p.m. on 11 October, the three delegates signed the Armistice Treaty in the Kremlin.

That should have meant the end of the war for Hungary. However, the three had no rest that night as radiograms arrived from Budapest reporting that Regent Horthy was refusing to leave the capital to join his retreating forces, as had been previously agreed. This not only put their mission in great jeopardy, but also the success of The Third Attempt  to leave the Axis Alliance. A further blow came when they were informed by Major Nemes the next day that General Bakay, the Commander of Royal Forces in and around the capital, had been kidnapped by the Germans on 8 October. Szilárd Bakay, commander of the First Budapest Army Corps, was a key figure in the armistice preparations, and Horthy’s absolute confidant. He had arrived at the General Headquarters in the Duna Palace at dawn on 8 October, where he was kidnapped together with documents containing the defence plans for the capital following the armistice. So it appears that the German High Command had known about the Armistice negotiations in Moscow long before they were concluded. On 12 October, while still in General Kuznietov’s office, the Peace Delegation also received the following radiogram from the Regent:

Regent’s son captured this morning by Arrow-Cross and Germans. Building  in which he had stayed destroyed by gunfire: we have no further news. City surrounded by strong forces of Reichswehr. We have received German utitmatum.

This was the third and final, death-blow to the Third Attempt, according to Szent-Iványi, who doubted that they now had any chance of success:

Budapest was virtually in the hands of the Germans and we could expect that the Regent would fall into the hands of the Germans shortly. I was very upset. “If only the Regent had left Budapest and gone to the Second Army – the situation would now be different”  I was thinking.

Horthy and his family left Hungary on 17 October in a special train, escorted by German troops, bound for Germany. Discussing the new situation with the Russians, Szent-Iványi declared that even the Regent’s disappearance should not stop their cooperation since, on 5 October, the Regent had appointed General Lajos Veress Dálkoni, the Commander of the Second Army, as Homo Regius, to rule in his place, as deputy, should he himself be killed or imprisoned. Unfortunately, Veress had also been arrested in Transylvania, since the courier he sent the Regent’s letter back with, after signing his acceptance of the appointment, was a German agent. Before leaving Budapest, the Germans forced Horthy to sign over his authority to Szalási as President Minister of Hungary, to lead pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Government. This conferred legitimacy on the newly appointed fascist regime. The Soviets, especially Kuznietov, were obviously quite happy about the new situation. With the Regent and Veress both out of the picture, the Red Army could now advance on Budapest without pausing for the Hungarian Army to retreat. At this point Stalin intervened, insisting that the Delegation should fly to the front to meet General Miklós, who had already left his army to ask their instructions at the HQ of General Petrov.

To be continued…


Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013), The Hungarian Independence Movement. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books


The Magyar Martyrs of 6th October 1849: Mythology and Realism.   Leave a comment

Andrew James


The first government of Hungary The first government of Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 15th March, the ‘Ides of March’ is, in Hungary, the day on which we all wear tricolour cockades on the streets, in commemoration of the 1848 Uprising against the Hapsburg Empire, which began in Pest on that day.  The 6th October, though not a national holiday, is equally as significant an event, as it was on this day in 1849, az aradi vértanúk napja, that thirteen generals were executed in the town of Arad in Transylvania (pictured above) on the orders of the Austrian Field-Marshal Haynau. I was once pulled up by a Hungarian history teacher for clinking a beer-glass, because that was what the Austrian officers were said to have done as they hung or shot the thirteen. Although the ‘thirteen’ are remembered as the symbolic martyrs of the War of Independence, there were a great many other…

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Posted October 12, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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

Part Three: 1861-1914: Poverty, Progress and Prosperity


022Tommy Atkins being shod by sweated labour was the slogan of the boot and shoe operatives who marched from Raunds in Northamptonshire to the War Office in 1905. Pressurised by a niggardly Treasury, the War Office bought boots for HM forces at the lowest tendered prices, ignoring a statement of prices drawn up by many of the contractors and the National Union of Boot and Shoe operatives. The secretary of the Rushden Branch of the Union reported that;

work for ankle boots is being given out at a penny a pair for closing the backs and the counters. It takes a good closer ten hours to earn one shilling and she has to find awls and bristles. The statement price for the operation should be two shillings and sixpence a dozen.

 The cut-price contractors of Raunds resorted to basketwork, sending the boots out to outlying country districts for finishing. The Union responded by sending two full-time organisers to Raunds, one of whom was the militant socialist, James Gribble. A member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Gribble had started work as a finisher at the age of twelve. He had served seven years in the army and saw the best way of winning public sympathy and pressuring the government by leading a march to London.

General Gribble,
as he soon became nicknamed, organised his men on army lines, selecting only one hundred and fifty of the fittest men from three hundred volunteers.

025They set off on 8 May 1905, to the sound of bugles and a band playing Rebecca, cyclists leading as an advanced guard. Not a man fell out and they received sympathy and practical help along the route. At Luton, after a triumphant entry, the Mayor provided a meat tea and an enthusiastic barber offered to shave all the men free of charge. Boot blacking manufacturers, Blyth and Pratt, provided breakfast at Watford and so many people gave coppers that they had to be pushed to the bank in a wheelbarrow! At the War Office, Financial Secretary Bromley-Davenport refused to see them and declared he could not see his way fit to interfere between employers and workmen. Undaunted, Gribble made his way to the House of Commons, wearing a red tie, interrupted a debate from the Strangers’ Gallery and was only ejected after a struggle with twelve policemen during which he broke his ankle.

030The SDF helped to organise a mass rally in Trafalgar Square where ten thousand gave the strikers a tremendous send-off. Gribble had made history; creating an historic precedent in the matter of laying grievances before the highest authorities, by leading the first ever trade union march to the capital. The War Office was obliged to set up an inquiry and agreed that for 1906 and all subsequent contracts the original joint statement would apply, with slight revisions. The strike lasted three months and cost the Union some two thousand pounds. If Gribble was the General, the hero of the march was John Pearson, originally refused permission to join because he was a cripple; nevertheless he marched ahead of the procession all the way to London and back again (photo right).

As the Raunds strikers returned from their successful march, a great march of Leicester unemployed prepared to set off to London carrying a petition to the King:

Many of us are old soldiers… took an active part in the late South African war… we are reduced to the extreme of misery and want… unable to fulfill one of the first duties of husbands and fathers, namely to provide food for our wives and children.

024023The march of the four hundred men representing two thousand Leicester unemployed and their families left to a tumultuous farewell from fifty thousand people, but the vote by Leicester Trades Council was against supporting the march. Not for the first time, the trade unions were divided over the question of how to tackle unemployment. The Unemployed Bill, supported by the marchers, was opposed by many trade unions because it provided that the unemployed could be employed by local authorities at less than the union rate for the job. The march was to be welcomed in London by both the SDF and the Independent Labour Party at a mass meeting in Hyde Park. An unemployed watchmaker, George White, led the men of Leicester as they began their march on 5 June 1905, and for much of the journey they endured persistent soaking rain. The King refused to meet them, but Ramsay McDonald did. The great rally planned for Hyde Park was washed out, but on Whit Monday they were able to meet at Parliament Hill Fields, where McDonald addressed them on behalf of the ILP. Keir Hardie also sent a telegram, describing their march as heroic.

028Although industrial wages may have been a little better in the Midland towns than in the villages, living and working conditions were generally worse, so that it was not until the beginning of the last century that people were drawn in any significant numbers into cities like Coventry, Oxford and Birmingham from the surrounding countryside. Although Birmingham and the Black Country had become heavily industrialised by the mid-nineteenth century, it was only at the end of that century that Coventry became a city of many trades, with the decline of the traditional craft industries of ribbon weaving and watchmaking, and the birth of the cycle trade in the 1890s, to be followed gradually by motor-cycle and car manufacture, and the establishment of Courtauld’s works in 1905.

In the early 1860s, the dominant old staple industry had been silk weaving, which had first developed during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, established by the gradual arrival of Flemish economic migrants and then developed by the floods of Huguenot (Protestant) refugees from 1572 massacres in France and their subsequent expulsion by Louis XIV. In 1857, as the result of a strike, Coventry home workers in the silk industry had been successful in preventing the new factory owners paying their workers by wages instead of by the piece, an achievement described as without parallel in nineteenth century England. However, the sudden collapse of this largely domestic cottage industry in the 1860s, had caused many Coventrians to seek employment elsewhere, in Lancashire or Leicester. Many of the textile workers were women, since silk-ribbon weaving had employed twice as many females as males in 1861. The population had decreased from nearly fifty thousand to well under forty thousand between 1861 and 1871, and recovered only slowly to reach fifty-three thousand in 1891.

The census enumerator’s schedules for 1861 show that nearly eighty per cent of household heads had been born in and around Coventry, eighty-five per cent of those living in the cramped, medieval centre of the city. There was a slight increase in demand for watchmakers by 1871, but this employed less than ten per cent of the local working population. There was, as yet, no great demand for unskilled labourers from outlying rural areas like Ufton and Noke, where my ancestors were living. When they eventually moved away from the depressed agricultural areas of Banburyshire around the turn of the century, it was to work on farms nearer the city, which supplied the local urban population more directly. The growth of the new cycle industry attracted new types of workers rather than displacing male weavers (who had a workshop rather than factory discipline), but the newcomers were mainly semi-skilled metal-workers from Birmingham and the Black Country.

003Many former agricultural workers who stayed put in the countryside, like Henry Tidmarsh (who had lost his arm in the threshing machine at Great Rollright), found work, at least temporarily, on the railways. He did a turn at night as a watchman at, or near the tunnel leading to Chipping Norton, and some other members of his extended family undoubtedly worked on the Banbury and Cheltenham line. One of the family was a victim of the Hook Norton Viaduct accident. Vinson and Jessie Gulliver’s grandfather, also Vinson, the local NALU official, worked on the making of the GWR between Banbury and Leamington, the Harbury Cutting in particular. My Great Uncle Vinson left school at the age of twelve and, with little prospect of local agricultural work, became an engine-driver in Manchester during the first decade of the last century. He lived to be the oldest man in Britain at 108, also commented in his letter written to his brother in 1979, when he was ninety-one, about the importance of railway employment in his family:

 While I can find no record of wealth in our family, there are also no records of any being in what… has been referred to as ’the sumerged tenth’. In fact, they seem to have held some important positions in the country’s progress and well-being. Grandfather’s brothers are, shall we say, prominent in that which they undertook… one was an Inspector on the railway (at) Bristol Temple Meads. He later had his nephew… his brother Joe’s son, Horace… working under him, and he explained… that he should make good with the Morse Code and use the Single Needle Telegraph if he wanted to get on… that was essential… which he did, to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. He used to receive the signal during the War for the train where the Royal princesses were taken for safety to take refuge in the Box Tunnel.

The improvements in public transport during this period brought the people of Suffolk many new opportunities for business and pleasure. By 1880 the county was crisscrossed by an interlinking network of railway lines, and branches connected with outlying places such as Southwold, Felixstowe and Aldeburgh. Most lines were served by the Great Eastern locomotives in their royal blue livery with red lettering and polished brass fittings, which operated out of the domed Liverpool Street Station in London. Despite all the hissing, clanking haste of the steam age, there was a friendly leisureliness about train travel, as one holidaymaker recalled:

We would sometimes be lucky with connections and manage to get a fast train as far as Saxmundham, but usually it would be the slow passenger and goods, stopping at every station. We would then choose a carriage as near as possible to the guard’s van so that we could while away the long wait at each halt, watching the comings and goings… Then there were the sacks of mail, and the livestock, cackling, clucking, or cooing and poking their indignant heads through the openwork sides of their temporary wicker homes… Eventually disembarking at Saxmundham, it was not unusual to find that the branch train to Leiston and Aldeburgh had cantankerously departed less than five minutes before… but a wait for the ’Winkle Express’ was always well worthwhile.

009With the expansion of the railways, therefore, so the east coast ports and resorts also developed. Colonel George Tomlin of Nacton was the man behind the growth of Felixstowe. He owned about twenty-five thousand acres in and around the little seaside village which enjoyed a modest popularity as a genteel holiday resort. He brought the railway there in 1877 and four years later began building a dock at the mouth of the River Orwell. It was opened in 1886 and the resort was well set on the path to prosperity. The Great Eastern began regular boat services to the continent from Felixstowe and Harwich. Hotels were built, the largest being the Felix, which was eventually taken over by the railway. High-class summer villas and less exalted boarding houses emerged, and every summer the buses, trains and Rolls Royces trundled into the town bearing visitors. The fisheries also flourished and it was not unusual for six truckloads of sprats to be carried off to London on the afternoon goods train.

The period also saw an incredible boom in herring production. Every day the fish special left Lowestoft bound for London. These were the great days of the steam drifters, sturdy, long-range boats that made possible a far more systematic exploitation of herring shoals. At the peak of the industry, in 1913, 1,760 drifters were operating out of Lowestoft and Yarmouth, when ninety million fish were landed at the two ports. In the Spring and Summer they fished off Ireland and western Scotland, landing their catches at ports between Milford Haven and Stornaway. Working their way down the east coast, they engaged in home fishing from September to the end of the year. Scottish girls followed the fishing fleets round the coast, their deft fingers gutting the fish in very quick time. From Lowestoft, and to a lesser extent from Southwold, the herrings were exported direct to the continent or conveyed inland by train.

006In the latter part of the century and up to the First World War, inventions continued to flow in what became known as a second wave. No town or city benefited more from this than Coventry, which had, by the last decade of the century, established a reputation for itself as a city which continually reinvented itself. Singer sewing machines had begun to be manufactured in Coventry in the 1850s, followed by bicycles and then, of course, motorcycles and cars. For a short time during the last quarter of the nineteenth century watchmaking became Coventry’s principal source of employment, though eventually it was eclipsed by the new engineering products of cycles, motor vehicles and machine tools. Watchmaking was never a large source of employment with slightly less than two thousand engaged in it in 1861, less than ten per cent of the local working population. In 1891 the industry employed three thousand men and women but ten years later this had fallen by approximately one-third. During the peak of the cycle boom of 1895-97 the industry employed six thousand workers and when this too fell away it was compensated for by the rise of the motor vehicle industry, which by 1911 was the city’s most important employer with almost seven thousand workers. The growth of the cycle and motor vehicle industries was very rapid. Coventry soon emerged as the centre of cycle manufacture in Britain, with many of the leading inventors and entrepreneurs already located in the city or migrating from elsewhere. In 1881 sixteen cycle manufacturers were resident in the city, rising to more than seventy during the boom years of the mid-1890s.

Despite the general demise of ribbon weaving, there is little evidence to suggest that the cycle industry absorbed local textile workers in large numbers, and, in any case, there were still over three thousand silk-weavers in employment in the city in 1891.

017The new industries demanded a new type of employee, the semi-skilled metal worker, and Coventrians employed in the city’s traditional trades were reluctant to seek such employment. Watchmakers were equally scathing about factory work and it was not until the late 1890s when the watch trade was in serious decline that younger watchmakers sought such work as skilled mechanics. The expansion of the cycle industry in the 1890s attracted many workers to Coventry. Many of these were forced to move on later in the decade, however, as the general recession seriously affected the trade. By 1905, however, prosperity had returned and the Ministry of Health, concerned that the Registrar General’s estimate of Coventry’s population was inaccurate, persuaded the council to carry out an unofficial local census. This claimed that the population of the city was eighty-three thousand, seven thousand more than the official census. This was confirmed by the census of 1911, which showed the population to be fifty per cent greater than in 1901. It also showed a natural increase of 13,328, which left the increase due to migration at 23,043.

Where did these migrants come from, and what did they do when they arrived? Most came from a diversity of urban areas; very few from rural areas. The majority were from other manufacturing towns in the West Midlands, especially from Birmingham and the Black Country, which partly explains the ease with which Coventry made the transition from small-scale production to large-scale factory production. The answer to the second part of the question is found in relation to the city’s remarkable economic growth during the decade.

016The cycle and motor industries showed an insatiable appetite for labour. There were six thousand cycle and motor workers in 1901, compared with almost thirteen thousand in 1911. This growth is even more remarkable when the age structure of the workforce is examined. In 1911, over ten thousand of these workers were aged thirty-five or under, and half of these were under twenty-five. The rate of natural increase in Coventry could not meet such a demand for labour, so it must have been that the increase in young workers came from among the immigrants during the decade. The growth in population continued unchecked up until 1914.

The restructuring of Coventry’s economy during this period was not wholly confined to the cycle and motor industries. The establishment in 1905 of the Courtauld Works, together with the arrival seven years later of the engine firm, British Thompson Houston, helped to channel the city’s industrial activity into new directions. Courtaulds quickly emerged as one of the city’s most important employers, with its workforce rising from two hundred in 1907 to over two thousand in 1913. During the same period the firm’s output of artificial silk increased more than fifteen times, making it one of the outstanding industrial successes of the period.

In the years up to 1914 there was a considerable change in the gender composition of the labour force employed by the old and new industries in Coventry. In 1901 the cycle and motor industries were dominated by men, with only ten per cent of the workforce being female. The predominant pattern of migration during the following decade was for the young adult male to arrive first, find employment and accommodation and then send for his wife and family, if he had one. The needs of the dynamic local economy was for young male labour, and in 1907 the number of males in the County Borough of Coventry outnumbered those of females, whereas in both Warwickshire and Birmingham females were in the majority. The percentage increase in female labour in the cycle and motor trades between 1901 and 1911 was the same as the rise in male employment. However, numerically there were only eleven hundred women workers in these trades in 1911. Moreover, Coventry did not have a tradition of extensive female employment, other than in the declining ribbon weaving industry. Nevertheless, on the eve of the war, nearly three-quarters of the workers in textiles were women. The arrival of Courtaulds made a significant difference to female employment in the city, for by 1913 over sixty per cent of the company’s labour force were women. Courtaulds attracted so many female workers that other employers found it difficult to satisfy their own requirements.

The broadening of Coventry’s industrial base injected fresh life into the construction industry as new factories were erected and old ones extended. The need to house a growing population added significantly to the demands placed on the building trades. By 1907 house building was running at a rate of eight hundred to a thousand new homes each year, but the industry was still unable to keep pace with the demand for cheap property with the result that many workmen had to take lodgings during the week, returning home on Sundays. J.G. Gray established a building firm in the city when the cycle boom was in full swing. His firm soon acquired a reputation for good quality work and he became the city’s most successful building contractor, his achievements including Courtaulds Main Works. After the First World War, he was sufficiently wealthy to purchase the house and immediate grounds of the Coombe Abbey estate.

005The expansion of Coventry’s industrial structure between 1880 and 1914 also modified the geographical focus of the city’s economy. While the ribbon weaving industry concentrated itself to the north of the city, watchmaking was to be found in the south and west. To begin with, cycle production was mainly restricted within the city boundaries, but by the late 1890s it was spreading beyond the central areas as the accommodation problem became more acute, while much of the industrial development in the decade before the Great War centred upon Radford and Foleshill with the construction of the Courtauld and Daimler works.Many of the Coventry cycle firms operated on a very small-scale, with perhaps just three or four employees. Movement in and out of the industry, as with ribbon weaving and watch-making before, was facilitated by the limited amount of capital required by producers with modest output targets.

However, several of the largest firms in the industry were also based in the city. By 1906 Rudge Whitworth was one of the largest industrial concerns in the city with a labour force of 2,700 and an annual output of seventy-five thousand cycles. It was therefore this industry which brought the phenomenon of large-scale mass production to Coventry’s industrial landscape. Yet factory employment soon reached beyond cycle manufacture. The launch of the Coventry-based Daimler Motor Company in 1896 is often regarded as the genesis of the motor industry in Britain, though considerable experimentation had occurred beforehand. The Company’s Chairman, Harry Lawson, informed shareholders in May 1896 that;

We did not wish to build works because it would take too long, so we visited various works in the country which were for sale. We went to Cheltenham and Birmingham, in both of which places there were motor works for sale – all old-fashioned… At last we went to Coventry, and saw what we believed to be an almost perfect place for manufacturing those machines.

In addition, Coventry was favoured because of the transferable skills of cycle workers, and because of its rapidly developing medium machine tool industry, which could be of value in supplying equipment to the works. Once Coventry’s industrial restructuring began, it developed a momentum of its own, propelled by important linkages across and within various parts of the engineering sector. Many firms, like Riley, modified their focus of interest according to changes in the structure of demand. These changes not only provided the opportunity for diversification, but frequently made it a condition of survival. Thus, in the late 1890s when many of the components used by cycle manufacturers came to be made by a pressed steel process, orders to drop-forgers fell sharply so that they were obliged to seek business from engineering firms, coach builders and makers of agricultural equipment. The presence in the city of firms that were prepared to react positively to the demands of the new industries helps to explain why so many cycle and motor vehicle firms found it such an attractive venue. For example, while some car manufacturers, such as Armstrong-Siddeley and Daimler, did most of their own body work, others relied heavily on the skills of the numerous specialist coach builders in the city.

Coventry was unique in the number of motor-car manufacturers whose origins were located in the cycle industry. Riley and Humber began making cars in 1898, Swift and the Allied Cycle Company in 1899, Lea Francis in 1903, Rover in 1904 and Singer in 1906. The pre-war record for the number of motor manufacturers in Coventry was twenty-nine, reached in 1905. A depression in the industry removed some of the more fragile competitors, but by 1913 Coventry still boasted several of the largest and most prestigious manufacturers, such as the Rover, Singer and Daimler companies. The Standard and Daimler companies were two companies which did not have strong connections to the cycle trade. Before 1914, the latter had an annual output of a thousand cars and a labour force of five thousand, qualifying it as one of the largest engineering works in the country. Moreover, Coventry monopolised thirty per cent of the West Midlands labour force engaged in vehicle production and fourteen per cent of the national total.

The transition from cycles to cars was assisted by the intermediate stage of motor cycles which provided the opportunity for technical experimentation. In addition, the Triumph and Rudge-Whitworth were both active in the production of motor-cycles at this time. Capital generated by the cycle industry often provided the necessary resources to support research and initial production. Many cycle manufacturers were forced to diversify because of the rapid influx of cheap, mass-produced parts from the USA, a problem compounded by the fact that many of the leading Coventry firms, including Singer and the Premier Cycle Company, persisted with high quality/ high price machines, which represented the stagnant end of the market. By 1913 Britain dominated the world exports in cycles. Although at that time Coventry remained a powerful force in the cycle industry, many of the city’s pioneering firms were already fully committed to the production of motor vehicles before the war.

The growth of the cycle and motor vehicle industries inevitably promoted the development of component production in the city, though from the beginning many products were imported from elsewhere. Similarly, the early motor manufacturers found it necessary to reach beyond the city for such essential products as tyres and magnetos. By 1914 they had largely ceased to produce their own components. However, although Birmingham had become the focus of this section of the industry, perhaps because of its long tradition in the small-scale metal working trades, Coventry retained a special importance for particular products. For example, the Motor Manufacturing Company, one of the largest firms in Coventry in 1914, supplied four to five thousand radiators to the trade every year, representing a fifth of the total market share.

Cycles and cars also gave an important boost to Britain’s machine tool sector. By 1914 the seventeen machine tool producers in the West Midlands represented only a small proportion of the national total, but among them was Alfred Herbert of Coventry, whose reputation for quality products and high levels of output made the firm the outstanding manufacturer in the industry. Following its establishment in 1888, the firm’s immediate growth was based upon the production of weld-less steel tubes for cycles, but production soon spread to a wide range of medium machine tools suitable for wide industrial usage. Herbert lathes, for example, came to enjoy a distinct international market within the industry. By the late 1890s Herbert had a workforce of five hundred men. Yet the machine tool market was highly competitive and at the turn of the century the bulk of the equipment used by Coventry cycle firms was said to have been of American manufacture.

Overall, then, between 1880 and 1914 Coventry rapidly emerged from an industrial craft based economy to dependence upon the light engineering industries which came to dominate the twentieth century. The speed and magnitude of this change brought great social upheaval. The city’s population increased from 46,563 in 1881 to 106,349 in 1911, reflecting in part boundary changes, but also the attraction to migrants of employment in the cycle and motor industries. Such population growth placed considerable pressure upon housing, education and other social amenities. The Board of Education memoranda show Coventry’s elementary and secondary school provision to be buckling under the strain of a rapidly expanding child population.

The environment and rewards of work were also affected by the growth of the engineering industries. The spread of the factory system meant that many more workers than in the past were employed in relatively large units of production with less direct contact with their employer and using equipment which they themselves did not rent or own. Mechanisation increased the speed of production, particularly in the manufacture of cycles. By 1914 there was some movement towards the production of cars in volume, but the industry still retained its craft specialisms until well into the interwar period. In some respects the most unpleasant working environment was to be found at Courtaulds, where employees could find themselves operating in conditions of very high temperatures and carrying the risks of blindness through contact with dangerous chemicals. Yet Coventry, with the exception of the 1912 strikes in the bicycle trade, was not subject to the serious industrial unrest which affected many parts of Britain from 1908 to 1913. This was partly due to relatively weak trade union organisation, but in addition the wage rates were a substantial improvement on the traditional levels in the textile industry. By 1914, the restructuring of Coventry’s economy had radically altered the social experience of both working class and middle class Coventrians. When George Singer became Mayor in 1891 he symbolised Coventry’s transition from a craft based civic society into one which was becoming fully integrated with modern industrial capitalism.

However, little had improved in the quality of life for agricultural labourers. In 1913, Seebohm Rowntree, in his report How the Labourer Lives, wrote about the case of the Finch family from Berkshire; man, an agricultural labourer, wife, five daughters aged twelve, ten, nine, six and two. The father, Harry Finch, earned fourteen shillings per week. They kept a cottage free of rent, and a garden, worth about another two shillings, and rented an allotment for five shillings per year. They earned an additional two pounds five shillings in the course of the year. They were hard-working and honest, living in a village in which charities were almost unknown, even at Christmas. Their income had to cover clothing for the family, except that old Mrs Finch, who had two sons working, passed on her well-worn black dresses to her daughter-in-law. Rowntree first saw Mrs Harry Finch at her house, when the mid-day meal was set for the family, on a Wednesday, when the week’s supplies were not supposed to be exhausted. The meal consisted of potatoes, turnips and bread, and a fearsome-looking dish known as ’pig’s teeth’, which seemed to be the bony palate of a pig, with no flesh on it… Old Mrs Finch explained that it looked better than nothing… Harry Finch was responsible for the engine, which meant that he earned more than the ordinary labourers in the village. However, they were a long while trying to find out exactly how much he did earn. Every week he kept a shilling for pocket-money, out of which he paid for his insurance, and treated himself to a certain amount of beer. Never, even in the summer, did he bring home more than thirteen shillings… The house was beautifully neat and clean, and so was the little girl who had stayed at home from school for a cold. But she looked delicate and anaemic. The meat was eaten almost entirely by the man. Rowntree estimated that there was a deficiency of twenty-five per cent of protein in the family’s diet, and fourteen per cent in energy value. One sixth of all the food consumed was home-grown, all vegetables. The weekly balance of income over expenditure was fourpence, which was put aside for shoes and clothing.

It’s difficult to believe that this picture of rural poverty belongs to the same gallery as that painted for the US Consul in Birmingham in 1911 by one of the leading house painters and decorators in Birmingham, who complained that…

People are spending their money on automobiles and their upkeep instead of on the redecoration and painting of their houses… living more in hotels and on the roads… spending less time at home, caring less for the attractiveness of the home and devoting their surplus money, and even more than their surplus, to the purchase of automobiles and their upkeep; many, it being stated, purchasing motor cars without any idea as to their cost of maintenance and the loss through depreciation.

007In the transfer of social energy from religion to politics, the Labour Church movement provided a significant transitional stage. It grew up alongside the movement for an independent labour party and was supported by the same people. In its early days it satisfied a need which could not be met by a purely political organisation. John Trevor’s spiritual travail was typical of many of his age. Born in 1855 and orphaned while still a child, he grew up under the care of Puritan grandparents at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, who taught him to believe in the reality of eternal damnation and how to escape it. At the age of twenty-two his faith collapsed and he rejected the truth of the New Testament. However, he was unable to live without religion, and in due course he found a new faith in Unitarianism, becoming a minister in the church in London. In June 1890 he was appointed to a church in Manchester, and already inclining towards Socialist ideas when he heard Ben Tillett, the dockers’ leader, addressing an Unitarian Conference in London. Tillett asserted that the working classes were not irreligious, and made a plea for churches where people could get what they needed. Trevor determined to found a new church where no one would feel out-of-place because of the lowliness of his social standing. Following the founding of Labour Churches in London, Bolton and Bradford, many others were founded in the early 1890s. This growth led to the establishment of a Labour Church Union in 1893, and at its greatest extent some twenty-five churches belonged to it, mostly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The movement had no central organisation, other than Trevor’s enthusiastic activity, a set of five broad principles which were approved by the Union’s annual conference, the monthly Labour Prophet and publishing and, echoing the Chartist movement, a hymn-book.

By 1898, seventeen Socialist Sunday Schools were running in conjunction with the Labour Churches. However, Ramsay McDonald did not share Trevor’s enthusiasm for them, regarding them as a cover for ordinary political propaganda. This was fair criticism in the case of the Birmingham Labour Church which affiliated itself to the local Labour Representation Committee along with the Socialist branches and trade union lodges, helping to fight elections in the early years of the new century.

029The Birmingham Church absorbed a local Fabian Society, agreeing to provide a regular course of lectures on social problems, held in the city centre. However, in the North, the Labour Churches were more closely allied to the ILP, which grew up alongside them and gradually subsumed the religious movement into its political organisation. Very few of the churches survived the Great War, though a number of Socialist Sunday Schools continued to be run in conjunction with ILP and SDF branches. William Temple was quoted by his biographer as saying of a Labour Church service at Leicester in 1907, that he never felt so near the real presence of true religion. Hardie himself regarded religion as the essential basis of a Socialist faith, claiming that Socialism… is the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system. We can find a parallel for this association of political and religious aspirations in the Chartist Churches which accompanied the earlier movement, although they were too transient to have left behind much surviving evidence of their character, other than the Todmorden hymn-book.

Trevor did not become aware of their existence until after he had founded his first Labour Church. In making contact with similar causes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, he commented:

 The Anglo-Saxon in England and America has shown himself able, more than any other race, to throw off the husks of religion without losing the kernel.

011010 (2)However, the failure of the Union of Labour Churches to adopt more than a set of broadly shared principles in terms of a Confession of Faith placed it outside the Nonconformist tradition. It was difficult to see what was left of Christianity after every doctrine had been thrown overboard. What could be said, for example, of the William Morris Labour Church set up in Leek in Staffordshire to perpetuate the memory of one who was certainly a distinguished socialist, and wrote songs which were included in the hymn-book, but who did not believe in God at all? Nevertheless, the Labour Churches gained support as a temporary means to break the strong bonds which the Nonconformist churches had established with the middle and artisan classes, in particular in alliance with the Liberal Party. They helped to establish Labour as an independent political movement of and for the working classes.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought aggravated the problems of the poor, also made it easier to deal collectively with some of the worst injustices in the early years of the twentieth century. Towns provided an increasing range of free services, and local government expenditure almost doubled between 1900 and 1913.

008Free school meals and school medical inspections helped to improve health among children and better attention in hospitals which catered mainly for working-class patients in conditions that were generally much better than richer classes who still preferred to be treated in their own homes or in private nursing homes. Workmen’s trains, electric tramcars and cheap, second-hand bicycles enabled many wage earners to escape from the congested areas of towns to the suburbs, leaving more room for those remaining.

Better grocer shops, such as Sainsburys and Liptons, football matches and other sporting events on Saturday afternoons,  excursions by trains, music halls and then silent films, public houses with bright lighting, were all additional signs of an improvement in the quality of urban working-class life, and a departure from the past.  Working-class women benefited the most from these changes. There was a preference for smaller families, making their domestic lives easier, and the arrival of the typewriter and telephone were among the developments which provided more employment opportunities for girls.  There were also more scholarships, often to new secondary schools and technical colleges which gave bright young people of both sexes opportunities for further education and better jobs, encouraging greater social mobility than their parents had experienced. However, these changes were not as rapid as sometimes supposed. There may have been more women teachers, nurses, shop assistants, telephonists, typists and machine operators, but there was still a vast army of female domestic servants. There was little understanding of the home conditions of many of the domestic servants among those whom they served.  One child from a prosperous family, who had employed two maids before the Great War, later  admitted to the BBC that she had very little idea what poverty was. Her maids never complained of poverty. Neither did they complain of the hard physical work and sense of alienation that many of them endured in  service. Alice Cairns, from Staffordshire, was placed as a maid in a big old rectory in the same county. It was still lit with oil lamps, not even by gas, and she had to clean the big range and get the fire going every morning before she could boil a kettle. After that she had to scrub the big kitchen, which had a floor like gravestones, scrub the tables and then take the cook a cup of tea before seven:

Then I had to clean the servants’ hall, and there were always a lot of people staying in the house, because they were very rich people… They used to have huge dinners at nine o’ clock at night, which used to go on till ten or ten thirty, before dinner was over, and me being the in-between maid, had all the washing-up to do, and all the vegetables to clean… all the rough work. We had one day a month off, and (as) I lived in Staffordshire… I went home. 

It is doubtful whether British Society has ever been so beset with contradictions as it was on the eve of the First World War.  Old age pensions began to be paid by the state only at the beginning of 1909, and health and unemployment insurance at the beginning of 1913. However poverty was still alarmingly extensive in 1914, especially in the countryside.

Printed Sources:

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Bungay: The Chaucer Press (Penguin)                 .

Neil Tonge & Michael Quincy (1980), Documents & Debates: British Social & Economic HIstory, 1800-1900. Basingstoke: MacMillan Education.

Derek Wilson (1977) A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Christopher Harvie, et. al. (eds.) (1970), Industrialisation and Culture, 1830-1914. Basinstoke: MacMillan Press (for the Open University).

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.), (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.

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




Posted October 11, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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

Part Two: Satanic Mills and Social Gospels, 1855-1910.


Despite the period of quiescence among both agricultural and industrial labourers during the 1850s and 1860s, midst Blakes’s dark, satanic mills, the spirit and memory of Chartism did not simply evaporate after 1848. The following words are taken from The Chartist Hymn Book, recently rediscovered in Todmorden Public Library:


Men of England, ye are slaves,

Bought by tyrants, sold by knaves.

Yours the toil, the sweat, the pain,

Theirs the profit, ease and gain.


Men of England, ye are slaves,

Beaten by policeman’s staves,

If their force ye dare repel,

Your will be the felon’s cell.


Men of England, ye are slaves –

Hark! The stormy tempest raves –

‘tis the nation’s voice I hear,

Shouting, ‘Liberty is near!’


Michael Sanders of Manchester University has been investigating the origins of the copy found in Todmorden is the only surviving copy. The Chartist movement never recovered from its defeat in 1848, but became a potent memory, if no longer an active force, in British working-class politics. Precisely because it was a movement of hope Chartism has cost a long historical shadow, symbolising a desire for a more just society. Historians have sometimes described it as a hunger movement, a desperate response to desperate times. However, this is only partly true, as the Chartist Land League in Worcestershire and the hymns like the one above, compiled by the South Lancashire Chartists, show. As a national movement, seeking to achieve the reform of Parliament through the six points of The Charter it failed in its objective. Neither did it turn from Reform to Revolution when it had the chance, as the continental movements did, all of them, ultimately, also ending in glorious defeat. Following the disappointment of the rejection of the third petition, and as prosperity returned in the 1850s, the national movement evaporated. The last time the Chartists turned out in any great number was for O’Connor’s funeral in 1855, attended by a crowd of over fifty thousand. Although this event was also symbolic of the demise of Chartism, and there was to be no resurrection, the words of another hymn from the pamphlet are both resonant and prophetic of a distinctly working-class nonconformist culture, which developed in both town and countryside both before and after Chartism:

Nor fear, nor sword, nor dungeons vile,

Shall quench the ever-burning spark,

Although its path may be awhile,

Sunless and cheerless, dreary, dark.


It burns, and shall for ever burn,

The fire of perfect liberty;

All men its principles shall learn,

And then we shall, we must be free.


But Christ has risen from the dead

And gained a glorious victory;

Then follow him – the Truth – your head,

Demand your Charter and be free.


By the early 1850s, none of the Charter’s aims had been realised, but the movement had drawn attention to the needs and demands of labouring men and women and through continuing local action it helped to bring about the coral growth of a distinct from of Labour politics in the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, a closer inspection of the evidence shows that the remnants of Chartism survived long after the debacle of 1848, and that there were always some advocates of an independent labour party, including the members of the short-lived Land and Labour League, founded by the British members of the First International. The Old Dissenters, the Unitarians, Quakers and Congregationalists, had strong democratic and humanitarian traditions; and orthodox Methodism, though politically conservative at first, especially during the time of the French Revolution, had always been, in a very real sense, the religion of the poor. Methodist class meetings and lectures had been the training ground for political radicals and early trade union organisers, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But the Nonconformist Ministers were often hampered by dependence on the direct support of their congregations, and especially on generous laymen. By the mid-Victorian period, Many Nonconformist churches therefore bore an appearance of the Gladstonian Liberal Party at prayer. Nominally democratic, they tended to become oligarchies of local wealthy worthies. It was not unusual for some churches to establish pew rents like their Anglican churches. Keir Hardie was among those who drew attention to this abuse:

… They would often find even the churches marked off in sections, one part for those who did not care to associate with the common herd, the seats luxuriously cushioned and the kneeling-stools well upholstered, in striking contrast to the accommodation of the poorer classes… They were sometimes asked why the working man did not attend church, but was it to be wondered at?

A special difficulty for the Methodists was their association with the rising industrialists. Individualism was usually the distinguishing feature of their creed, much more so than Wesley himself would have liked, and those who practised it most successfully were often the churches’ most influential members. However, within the Nonconformist tradition, the individualistic emphasis upon conversion had always to be held in tension with a corporate understanding of the church as the corpus Christianum (in Calvin’s terms). As the normative social philosophy of England changed from individualism to collectivism, so correspondingly this second emphasis, which for much of the century was neglected, came into new prominence. The Political Dissent of the 1830s and 1840s thus survived mid-Victorian individualistic respectability among Old and New Dissenters to become the Nonconformist Conscience and Social Gospel of the 1880s and 1890s.

However, it was the Primitive Methodist missions among the agricultural labourers that made the connection between the two radical eras. In particular, the support that they gave to Joseph Arch, himself a Methodist lay-preacher, in the formation and growth of the National Agricultural Labourers Union in 1872, gives the lie to the idea of Nonconformity as a mechanism of social control. The mid-Victorian trades unionists had learned instinctively the importance of combination and corporate awareness, and to them Nonconformity made a generous response: the contribution made by Methodists to both the Miners’ and Agricultural Workers’ Unions cannot be denied, much less despised, even if the comparative effect of this is still disputed among historians of the Labour Movement. Even the most respectable organ of Dissent, The British Quarterly Review, could not fail to applaud the logic of Joseph Arch’s endeavours, though its enthusiasm seems partly to arise out of a wish to manipulate the situation against the old foe of the landed Anglican establishment:

… the movement which commenced a few months since in Warwickshire, and which spread gradually over the whole agricultural region of south and mid-England, is not unlike the first of those upheavals which occurred five centuries ago. Like that, it is an attempt to escape from what was felt to be an intolerable and hopeless bondage, with the difference that, on the former occasion, the insurrectionists aimed at a relief from arbitrary service, while the present is an attempt, through the machinery of a similar combination, to exact better terms for manual labour. Just as the poor priests of Wickliffe’s training were the agents, perhaps unintentionally, by whom communications were made between the various disaffected regions, so on the present occasion the ministers or preachers of those humbler sects, whose religious impulses are energetic, and perhaps sensational, have been found the national leaders of a struggle after social emancipation. A religious revival has constantly been accompanied by an attempt to better the material condition of those who are the objects of the impulse. It may be doubted, indeed, whether any movement in a religious direction has ever been successful unless it has been coupled with a determination to improve the social and moral condition of those who join it, or at least has invited its disciples or converts to discover a compensation for the hardships and wrongs of life in the consolations of religion, or in the hopes of some juridical restitution… A generation ago the agricultural labourer strove to arrest the operation of changes which seemed adverse to him, and of laws which oppressed him, by machine breaking and rick burning. These efforts were, to be sure, insulated and spasmodic, and of course failed of making any impact on the facts which they were intended to controvert. Now the agricultural labourer has adopted the machinery of a trade union and a strike, and has conducted his agitation in a strictly peaceful and law-abiding manner.

Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal MP and himself a leading Unitarian in Birmingham, observed how Nonconformist organisation absorbed the passion in men’s nature and he himself made good use of this in his Protectionist campaigning, which won much support among the industrial working classes as well as in the countryside. Beatrice Webb noticed how the Methodist class meetings, itinerant lecturers, and conferences were all forms of organisation that the workers transferred easily into the secular political sphere, together with the same apocalyptic spirit of faith and hope.

015Thomas Cooper (1805-95) had been a Midland Chartist leader, editor and writer, as well as a Wesleyan lay-preacher in his youth. After becoming an apostle of free thought, he then became a Baptist defender of orthodoxy, but never lost his political radicalism. In his Life Written By Himself (1877), he recalled the radical sermon he had preached to crowds of Chartists at Fenton, Longton and Hanley (at the latter standing on a chair outside the Crown Inn). Before his sermon, the crowds sang Bromwich’s hymn, Britannia’s sons, though slaves ye be. His sermon contained references to the Game Laws and the Poor Law, the agricultural workers, the stockingers of Leicester, the handloom weavers of Lancashire and the nailmakers of the Black Country. He remembered the shouts of the multitude… their looks of vengeance, and how he had felt he could die on the spot in fulfilling a great duty – the exposure of human wrong and consequent human suffering. Apparently, he didn’t refer to the six points of the Charter, but recalled, not without a latter-day sense of guilt on reflection, the difficulty he had had in calming the crowd and raising the spirit of gentleness and forgiveness.

 There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for workingmen on local authorities, and sometimes, as at Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. However, there were few labour leaders who regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility.

Most of them accepted the leadership of Gladstone, whose championing of working-class suffrage had led to the second Reform Act of 1867, and on many policy issues the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. In 1869, a Labour Representation League had been set up with the object of promoting the registration of the working-class vote, without reference to opinion or party bias, but without a significant trade union base and funding, and given the broad nature of the Liberal Party, there seemed no reason why the League could not continue to work alongside the other elements in that Party. Nonetheless, even the Birmingham Quaker and Free Trade campaigner, John Bright, was unenthusiastic about the election of working men as representatives of the middle-classes. He accused the League of being disruptive in their pursuit of this. Working-class candidates contested very few seats, but where they did, middle class voters switched to supporting the Tories rather than vote for a worker to represent them. At the 1874 General Election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing considering that the British electorate by then consisted mainly of workers. This lack of political class-consciousness was a reflection of the prosperity of the country under laissez-faire conditions. However, in a country with a long-established aristocracy and gentry, and a traditional class structure below them, there was little prospect of social fluidity even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. Large-scale industry forged class solidarity among the workers, which in the end facilitated effective trade union and political action.

It was not until the Royal Commission of 1867 that the respectability of Trade Unions was firmly accepted. In 1868 the Trades Union Congress was founded, formally constituted in 1871. By 1875 they were free from the last trace of criminal law. Nevertheless, fear of Trade Unionism persisted among those who ruled. This fear among industrial employers threatened to undermine the radical alliance of urban middle-class religious dissent with the newly enfranchised respectable working classes and their nascent trade unions. A Birmingham Congregationalist, R W Dale (1829-95) became a close ally of Joseph Chamberlain. He became co-pastor at the city’s Carr’s Lane Congregational Temple and sole pastor from 1859. He refused many invitations to other appointments, giving himself entirely to involvement in Birmingham. Becoming Chairman of the Congregational Union in 1869, he withdrew from it in 1888 over Home Rule for Ireland, preferring to stand by Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists. However, in 1891 he became the First Moderator of the International Congregational Council. He was a supporter of working-class representation in Parliament, but could not help seeing that there were serious difficulties in the way before this could be realised. In his talk on The Politics of the Future: A Lecture for the New Electors of 1867, he argued that working-class leaders should not wait until they were allowed to sit on the sacred benches at Westminster, but that they should go out and convert the constituencies first, so that they might then convert the House.


Dale suggested that they should send leaders up and down the country, from Berwick to Plymouth, to the lecture rooms and public halls of every town in the country, forming political institutes in every borough for promoting lectures and public meetings to diffuse knowledge of liberal principles in relation to all national affairs, and to maintain the union and intensify the earnestness of all sections of the liberal party… He proposed that these institutes should be based on the branches of the Reform League, including the one in Birmingham, with a local emphasis on making the great towns more tolerable places to live in. He failed to see why the filth in which some wretched people are satisfied to exist and which originates many forms of disease from which their neighbours suffer as well as themselves, should not be more resolutely punished, and indeed rendered almost impossible; why the provisions which secure free air and cleanliness in some factories and workshops should not be extended to trades which are as yet altogether uncontrolled; why there should not be several open spaces reserved in every great town for children to play in; why new districts lying outside the boundaries… should not be compelled to keep their streets cleaner and get better drainage… it will be the fault of the new electors if they do not insist on such improvements as these, he claimed.

Using the example of Birmingham itself, he pointed out that there was no frowning castle overlooking and threatening the town, the stronghold of a feudal baron and filled with armed men, permitted by their lord to rob and ill-treat men at their pleasure. But it was not those who occupied the highest positions in society, but those occupying the lowest, from whose tyranny emancipation was needed. What Birmingham had was worse than this, a vast gaol… far more costly to support than were any of the strongholds of the robber chiefs that once dwelt in the castles on the Rhine. Dale asserted that newly enfranchised urban working classes had a great practical concern in making the criminal classes disappear, and also in alleviating the one million persons receiving relief, including both permanent paupers and a vast mass of people who are on the parish on and off again every few months, but who when they go off are sure to leave successors. There were, he observed, both hereditary criminals and hereditary paupers, and it was the new voters who would feel very keenly the pressure on the community to support the armies of the homeless and unfed, leading them to think of corporatist means of diminishing the problem of pauperism.

However, in 1874 Joseph Chamberlain was complaining, in a letter to Henry Allon, a Congregational minister in London and the Editor of The Quarterly Review (see above), that many of the urban Dissenters appeared no longer willing or able to combine cordially with the working classes, without whose active assistance further advances in the direction of Religious Equality were impossible. Both in the case of the agricultural labourers and with regard to the demands of the Trades Unions for the repeal of what he called class legislation of the worst kind, the Dissenters had largely held themselves aloof and their national Press, The Daily News, for instance, had been unsympathetic and even hostile. Unless this attitude changed, the Artisan voter would take little interest in Nonconformist causes such as Disestablishment, seeing the whole issue as a mere squabble between Church and Chapel. Nevertheless, Chamberlain noted that Liberalism had come out well in the recent election in the Midlands, where the Party gained a seat, and in the Northern Counties. In both cases this was due to the direct appeal of local leaders to the working class voters, the Dissenters aiding very largely with their purses and influence, and cordially recognising the justice of the labourers’ claims. Birmingham had a really Liberal Press at this time, in the Daily Post and Morning News. Thus, the moral force of local Nonconformity provided the basis for the Chamberlains’ municipal socialism, alongside the more top-down Anglican and Anglo-Catholic cause of The Christian Social Movement, which was also becoming strong in the city, supported by John Henry Newman and others.


013In the 1880s and 1890s the consolidation of the unions coincided with a national financial and industrial crisis. The new unionism of these decades made it the target of ruling class fury. The economic problems of the unskilled and semi-skilled trade unionists were very different from those of skilled workers, and their industrial methods and tactics were therefore different. While the old New Model Unions of the 1850s were able to rely on the skill of their members as a crucial bargaining weapon, the new unions were at all times, even in years of good trade, subject to the pressures of an overstocked labour market. In such circumstances, where much of the work could be performed by agricultural labourers drafted in, it was much more difficult to make a strike solid or to achieve stable unions. Outside the highly skilled trades, to win even the semblance of a closed shop, militant tactics were demanded which the older trade unionists had pioneered decades before but which, by the end of the 1880s, they believed they no longer needed. The employers were more uncompromising than their fellows in industries where unionism had been long-established; and their first, and for men of property not unnatural, reaction, was to smash these new upstart organisations rather than attempt to meet them on common ground.

It has been argued that, despite the obvious suffering of many farmers and agricultural workers, the so-called Great Depression at the end of the century was a myth. After all, it is argued, investment levels in industry were maintained, while the volume of British trade and output rose, as did the tonnage of British shipping, right up to 1914. Yet by the end of the century a Royal Commission had been convened to investigate The Depression in Trade and Industry. In fact, the profits being made were not consistent with the levels to which investors had been accustomed from the period when Britain was the workshop of the world. Foreign competition was catching up and proving more adaptable to new techniques while Britain still relied on its staple industries and tried technology. It is also important to recognise that some contemporaries, not just those in agriculture, were convinced that they were caught in a massive depression.

Certainly, the most strident complaints came from those landed interests in a position to influence and command attention, but the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture of 1897 did not entirely support these.   Regional differences were emphasised in this report, with the eastern and southern counties, where there was a greater proportion of land given over to arable farming, experiencing a more severe depression than the pastoral counties. Even in the latter, however, there was notable depreciation of livestock values and the fall in the price of wool diminished profits and rents between 1886 and 1893. In districts suitable for dairying, market gardening and poultry rearing, and in the neighbourhoods of mines, quarries and large manufacturing centres, where there was a considerable demand for farm produce, there had been relatively less depression. Nevertheless, there had been a significant contraction of land under the plough in all parts of the country. There is little doubt, however, that foreign grain and meat did alter traditional agricultural patterns in Britain, heralding the shrinkage of arable estates and the agricultural workforce, one more dimension of the transformation of rural society in the nineteenth century. The Victorian opponents of radical constitutional reform who felt that, our stability is but balance, and wisdom lies in masterful administration of the unforeseen, sensed the metamorphosis experienced in the nineteenth century as one which had happened without violent revolution, but not without pain. The reaction to the apparent lack of progress in prices, profits and wages helped to revive the protectionist lobby, with ramifications for twentieth-century economic and social policy.

Free Trade had served Britain well as long as prosperity and, therefore, the scope of the individual entrepreneur grew. However, as foreign competition began to match, and even overhaul, British industry in the final decades of the century the philosophy came under attack from a growing lobby for protectionism, led by Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal MP for Birmingham. In the atmosphere of the New Imperialism he advocated an imperial association in which free trade could carry on, but protected by tariffs against European imperialist rivals. His views were popular not just with some Liberals and Conservatives (he later crossed the floor of the House of Commons and joined the Conservatives) but also with trades unionists and socialists like W H Andrews, who later emigrated to South Africa:

Chamberlain had turned his coat and was riding on the rising tide of Imperialist enthusiasm. The people of Birmingham were as clay in his hands. On one occasion Andrews stood in the tense, close-packed mass which invariably filled the City Hall for the Empire-builder’s meetings. Chamberlain walked stiffly on to the platform and was given a tremendous ovation lasting five minutes. He stood motionless, staring straight before him, with no sign of emotion on his sharp, tight-drawn face. It would have been a brave man to utter a whisper of opposition in such a crowd under his influence. (R K Pope, The Life and Times of W H Andrews, Workers’ Leader, n.d.)

010In September 1882, Engels wrote a reply to Kautsky’s question as to what the English workers think about colonial policy. In it he pointed out that since there was no workers’ party in England, but only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, the workers therefore happily shared in the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies. However, Pete Curran, of the Independent Labour Party, gave a very different view to the 1900 Conference of the Second International:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests… But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words… And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

Thus, by the end of the century, the free trade versus imperial protection controversy stood unresolved, both in the Liberal Party and more widely among labour leaders, whether Lib-Lab, ILP or SDF. Ties to the Empire were very real, not simply because of Britain’s export of coal and iron goods, but also because of the huge surplus in the rural population of South Midlands and Southern England, as compared with the North and West Midlands of England, and Wales, where such surpluses could be absorbed by the growth of urban and semi-urban communities. This almost umbilical relationship was to shift dramatically after the First World War, but for now the supply of people to the Dominions was as important as the supply of goods.

It was a wretched situation in the south Midlands and East Anglia for all those involved in agriculture, especially those in arable farming, and continued right into the Edwardian years. Ryder Haggard recorded how, in 1901-2,

… the rural labourer has never been more discontented than he is at present. That, in his own degree, he is doing the best of the three great classes connected with the land does not appease him in the least. The diffusion of newspapers, the system of Board School education, and the restless spirit of our age have changed him, so that now-a-days it is his main ambition to escape from the soil where he was bred and try his fortune in the cities… for there are high wages, company and amusement, with shorter hours of work. Moreover, on the land he has no prospects… a labourer he is, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a labourer he must remain. Lastly, in many instances, his cottage accommodation is very bad; indeed I have found wretched and insufficient dwellings to be a great factor in the hastening of the rural exodus; and he forgets that in the town it will probably be worse. So he goes… The fact is, of course, that the youth of this county (Norfolk), as of other districts, does not wish to learn to plough, even when bribed to do so with prizes, and that here, before long, ploughmen or any skilled labourers, will, to all appearances, be scarce indeed.


He felt bitter when he saw good workmen ending their days in the workhouse, worshipping in the same church, but finding little meaning in the words of the parson:

God? They know more of the devil and all his works; ill-paid labour, poverty, pain and the infinite, unrecorded tragedies of humble lives. God? They have never found Him. He must live beyond the workhouse wall, out there, in the graveyard… where very shortly…


Despite Ryder Haggard’s understandable bitterness, there were clergy in some of the better-off towns who cared about the lives and fates of less fortunate fellows, and tried to do something practical for them. One of the more remarkable of these was Rev Wickham Tozier, Minister of St Nicholas Congregational Church in Ipswich. He decided, in 1884, that there must be a better way of helping the deserving poor than doling out daily portions of bread and soup. He founded the Ipswich Labour Bureau, installed a telephone to communicate with local firms and provided clean clothes so that prospective employees could make themselves presentable for interviews. He advertised in the local press, and hundreds of men registered at the bureau. Many of them were found jobs, some as far away as Scotland. For his labours, Tozier was misunderstood, even abused, but he persevered with his work and urged other towns and cities to start similar schemes. Yet it was not until 1909 that the government brought in the Labour Exchange Act, leading to the setting up of the local employment offices, which became so vital a part of the industrial scene after the First World War.

018Similarly, not every nineteenth century employer of labour was a natural-born despot. Companies such as Colman’s of Norwich, of mustard fortune, operated a more benevolent form of capitalism, introducing education and insurance schemes ahead of state compulsion. In 1857, thirteen years before the first real Education Act, when countless children were still toiling ten or twelve hours a day in mills and collieries, Jeremiah James Colman opened Carrow School for the children of his employees at Stoke and Carrow. The weekly payments for one child were one penny, three halfpence for two and twopence for three from the same family. The first school at Carrow was over a carpenter’s shop, cramming in fifty-three pupils. In an opening statement, Colman told parents: the school helps you to educate your children and to train up a set of men who will go into the world qualified for any duties they may be called upon to discharge. With a workforce of three and a half thousand, Colman’s was in effect the local community and the likelihood was that their duties would be discharged in the manufacture of mustard. It was said that the only way to get a job at Colman’s was to be spoken for by a relative already working there. With Victorian paternalism, Jeremiah James Colman, great-nephew of the founder, philanthropist and MP ruled his family with firm discipline but due regard for their welfare.

019School began each morning with a hymn, a prayer and a Bible reading and although a Colman education included diligent and careful teaching of the scriptures, it also included art and craft subjects beyond the three r’s. Far-sighted in his attitude towards education, Colman was a staunch believer in women being given every opportunity for learning, and from the outset drawing and needlework were included in the basic subjects taught. Precluded by his business and parliamentary interests from taking an active part in running the school, his wife Caroline became the force in the direction and development of the school. The Colmans were also committed to technical education and by 1899 claimed to be the first in Norwich to introduce cookery, gardening, laundry work, beekeeping and ironwork into the curriculum. As the years went by, the school moved, expanded and improved, adding a wide range of technical subjects but never neglecting art and culture.

At the time these photographs were taken, in the early 1900s, Caroline Colman was intensely concerned with the physical well-being of her pupils, urging mothers to ensure that their daughters wore warm dresses with high tops and long sleeves as a caution against measles and other childish ailments. Although the children were obviously carefully groomed for the class photograph, their general condition of well-being contrasts sharply with the ragged appearance and thin faces of many other scenes of this period.

021 (2)However, conditions of work in the heavy industry of the Black Country, the series of towns to the west of Birmingham, together with slave wages, were what determined the workers’ need for independent action. One of the main industries of this region was chain making. By the beginning of the last century, a thousand tons of chains a week, in the form of the largest anchor chain to the smallest dog collars, were being produced in Stourbridge, Dudley, Cradley Heath, Halesowen and Bromsgrove. The heavy chain, as in the picture of one being unloaded from a railway wagon at the quayside, was made by men organised in the Amalgamated Society of Anchorsmiths and Shackle Workers, founded by the pioneering labour leader Tom Stitch. Working in intense heat, sustained from dehydration by draughts of beer, the health of the chain makers suffered severely from the fierce alternation of temperatures as well as from the heavy nature of the industry. One Cradley Heath chain maker, who had burns all over his body, reported as to how,

… the work affects you all over… you gets so cold that you shivers so that you can’t hold your food. The furnaces burn your insides right out of you… it’s easier to catch a flea than a piece of red-hot iron, and the bits of red-hot iron are always flying about. Sometimes a bit gets into your boot and puts you “on the box” for a week…


021020Wages at the turn of the century reached to a maximum of fifteen shillings per week for a working day of six hours, six days a week. The lighter chain was made by women and children working in small workshops with five or six women at the anvils or in family groups in sheds in their own backyards (see photo). The women worked with seared and calloused hands while their children crawled around the floor amid the flying sparks. For twelve hours a day a woman would be paid from five to eight shillings a week, working for a parasitic fogger (middleman/ middle woman). The only choice was to accept the low wages or starve.


Then Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers led five hundred of them out on strike in 1910. The same year, a group of the women aroused the support of the Trades Union Congress, and the sympathy of the nation, when they appeared on the platform, silently holding up one of their chains, while one of them made a brief appeal for help. Less well-known was the work of the women in the Staffordshire brick-field (see photo taken at Stourbridge, above right). They were known as clay dabber chicks, performing the same work as men with the dead-weight, glutinous clay. Working barefooted in small groups, they wheeled clay to the pug mills, molded up to a thousand bricks a day, sweated in the stifling heat of the kiln shops and loaded barges for a wage of between six and ten shillings a week.

To be continued…

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


Introduction and Part One: 1851-1901: Change, Decay and Resistance in the Countryside

During the period 1851 to 1941, the pace and style of life in the Midlands and East Anglia changed more rapidly and radically than in any preceding period, including the previous hundred years. Mechanisation came to the farms, piped water to the villages and street lighting and trams to the towns. Radio eventually pierced the isolation of rural areas. Trades Unionists and socialists attacked the centuries-old social structure, weakened as it was by economic decline. Patronage and paternalism were replaced by concepts of equality and the assertion of new rights to education and housing, alongside the continuing demands for a fair week’s pay for a fair week’s work. A generation of men were buried on the western front while many of their children were left to fight for their way of life against unemployment, poverty and despair at home and against fascism and dictatorship on the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

The changes in village life that took place during these years constitute one of the most fundamental developments in the history of the last five centuries, since the end of the Wars of the Roses. The parish of Brandeston near Framlingham was typical of these changes. In 1842, it was a self-contained community with a population of 555 souls. It had a fourteenth century church with Perpendicular additions and a Tudor hall recently bought by Charles Austin, Q.C., and High Steward of Ipswich. There was an ancient inn and a new Congregational chapel. Henry Collins’ mill stood on the edge of the village and is reputed to have had eight sails. It was self-sufficient in services, with its own blacksmith, wheelwright, joiner, butcher, grocer, tailor and builder. Derek Wilson continues:

There were thirteen farmers, and the rest of the community were employed directly or indirectly in agriculture. On the rare occasions when a man needed to leave the village he would walk or go with the carter to Wickham Market where he could pick up the Royal Mail or the Lord Nelson coach to London. A Hundred years later, the population of Brandeston was 312. The third and last generation of Austins had left the Hall, which was on the point of becoming a boys’ school. The Congregational Chapel was closed. There was no trace of the windmill and the mill house was now the post office. There were still eight farms, employing between them only twenty to thirty men. The old stables of the Hall had been converted into flats. Hill House, a substantial Georgian residence, was a saddler’s workshop. The forge was still operating but the nearby wheelwright had long since closed his shop. Some of the houses were empty and many, especially the thatched cottages, were in need of repair. The railway at nearby Hacheston Halt and Parham linked Brandeston with Ipswich and the world, and the Eastern Counties bus came through regularly. Villagers frequently went on shopping expeditions to Framlingham, Wickham Market and the county capital. And who were the villagers? Retired farm workers and servants from the Hall; newcomers in search of rural seclusion; men and women who travelled to the nearby towns for work. Compare the names of Brandestonians in 1842 and 1947 and you will find only a few that are identical.


In many ways, the transition began with what became known as The Railway Age, although in the 1850s there were still many parts in the extremities of East Anglia, including Framlingham, into which the steam trains had not yet reached. By 1850 speeds of fifty to sixty kilometres per hour were commonplace on the main railway routes. Moreover, travel by rail was cheaper than by road. Railways cut out the hidden costs of coach travel such as the tips to the coachman and guard and the expensive meals at the coaching inns along the road. By 1850 the long-distance coaches had disappeared and people were travelling far more than they had ever done before. The Times commented:


Thirty years ago not one countryman in one hundred had seen the metropolis. There is now scarcely one in the same number who has not spent the day there.


The railways brought change in numerous ways. They speeded up the distribution of mail and in the 1850s newspaper expresses were leaving Euston and Paddington. The need to keep to railway timetables caused Greenwich Time to be adopted throughout the country. The engineering works often provided pleasing new features on the landscape, such as bridges and viaducts. Cities were also transformed, not always for the better, by the approach lines, stations and marshalling yards. In addition, the railways encouraged the expansion of industry. Goods traffic moved more quickly and could grow at a rate which would not have been possible had it still been confined to canals and navigable waterways. The railways gave particular impetus to the development of the iron, steel and coal industries. In the 1850s, over a million tonnes of coal a year were being consumed by the steam engines and more miners were needed in the coalfield areas and towns. Here again, the railways helped in making it easier for agricultural workers to move to these areas in search of higher wages.

Quite apart from all these effects, the railways themselves were a major industry. In the 1850s, apart from the navvies, sixty thousand people were employed in running the railways. As well as engine drivers, they included clerks, porters and carriage builders. Some of them lived in new railway towns, like Crewe, housing the carriage and locomotive works required by the railway companies. Others lived in older towns, like York, which were rejuvenated by becoming important junctions. Unlike any other industry, the railways employed people throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. Wherever a railway station was opened, station staff were needed and a station master was required to supervise them. Moreover, as other countries began to industrialise, they needed the machinery, rails and locomotives which only Britain was able to supply in the middle of the century. By 1851 Britain’s output of iron had already risen to two and a half million tonnes, ten times the amount produced in 1801.

004014In the second half of the century, steel production took over and increased forty times to nearly five million tonnes in 1900. Not all of the iron was used to construct machinery or to build railways. Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was made of iron and glass. Iron was used increasingly in all kinds of buildings, including houses. It was used for gas pipes, fireplaces, doorstops and kitchen ranges, as well as for iron railings outside. However, in 1856 a swifter and cheaper method of producing steel was devised by Henry Bessemer, and by 1890 steel had replaced iron in railways, bridges and shipping. By 1900, however, Germany had overtaken Great Britain in steel production, and was catching up in pig-iron and coal production.

Nonetheless, Britain’s output continued to increase in every industry, including the expansion of the railways, despite having industrialised far earlier than all the other European countries (see statistical tables, right).

By 1870 there were over thirteen thousand miles of railway track in England and Wales, four and a half thousand of which had been laid by 1848. Yet the accurate assessment of the difference made by the railways to society in terms of facilitating provision of goods, means of personal travel and the development of holidays is difficult to conclude and necessitates more detailed, specific, local studies. In Suffolk, the Eastern Counties Railway Company took over its rival, the Eastern Union, and other branch lines were laid by small local companies bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age, and these were eventually also gobbled up by the ECRC, which was reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

Returning to the condition of agriculture, it soon became evident that the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 did not produce the market chaos predicted by many wealthy landowners. Instead, agriculture continued into a period of prosperity, known as High Farming, successfully feeding industrial society. The industrial advances of the mid-Victorian period also eliminated the risks of repeats of the serious social discontent of the 1830s and 1840s. Although labour may have been hard, and wages low, the seasonal rhythm of the land was maintained. Where modern technology could increase yield or cut overheads without involving prohibitive capital expenditure, farmers hurried to use it.

This was when the agricultural contractor came into his own. He hired to the farmers the large machines and the operators and engineers they could not afford to buy for themselves. Most important of these was the steam threshing outfit. It could do in a few days the work which had previously been one of the jobs which kept farm staff busy throughout the winter. Steam threshing was a busy, noisy, back-breaking time, becoming as much a highlight of the farming year as harvest itself. The thresher’s hoppers filled sacks with chaff and with graded grain. A full sack of oats weighed twelve stone, one of barley sixteen stone and a sack of wheat was eighteen stone, and each one had to be stacked or carted as soon as it was full.

001The novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was brought up in Dorset, and his novels were largely based on his knowledge of a rural society, in many ways simpler than the main stream of Victorian life recorded by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, far more like that of Flora Thompson. Like all of them, however, Hardy powerfully communicates the experience of social change, especially in the following passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), in which he describes the impact of the advent, at some point in the 1860s, of the steam-powered threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, and on his heroine, the victim-of-circumstances farm-labourer, Tess Durbeyfield. She arrives at the farm, with her fellow labourer, at dawn on a March morning, for the threshing of the last wheat-rick:

When Izz Huett and Tess arrived at the scene of operations only a rustling denoted that others had preceded them: to which, as the light increased, there were presently added the silhouettes of two men on the summit. They were busily ’unhaling’ the rick, that is, stripping off the thatch before beginning to throw down the sheaves; and while this was in progress Izz and Tess, together with the other women-workers, in their whitey-brown pinners, stood waiting and shivering, Farmer Groby having insisted on their being on the spot thus early to get the job over if possible by the end of the day. Close under the eaves of the stack, and yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.


A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up beside an ash-tree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as ’primum mobile’ of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine-man… He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke… He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent; his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself, his eye on his iron charge, hardly perceiving the scenes around him, and caring for them not at all: holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives… The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.


While they uncovered the sheaves he stood apathetic beside his portable repository of force, round whose hot blackness the morning air quivered. He had nothing to do with preparatory labour. His fire was waiting incandescent, his steam was at high pressure, in a few seconds he could make the long strap move at an invisible velocity. Beyond its extent the environment might be corn, straw, or chaos; it was all the same to him.


The rick was unhaled by full daylight; the men then took their places, the women mounted, and the work began. Farmer Groby… had arrived ere this, and by his orders Tess was placed upon the platform of the machine, close to the man who fed it, her business being to untie every sheaf of corn handed on to her by Izz Huett, who stood next, but on the rick; so that the feeder could seize it over the revolving drum, which whisked out every grain in one moment.


They were soon in full progress, after a preparatory hitch or two, which rejoiced the hearts of those who hated machinery. The work sped on till breakfast time, when the thresher was stopped for half an hour; and on starting again the whole supplementary strength of the farm was thrown into the labour of constructing the straw-rick, which began to grow beside the stack of corn. A hasty lunch was eaten… without leaving their positions… the perspiring ones at the machine, including Tess, could not lighten their duties by the exchange of many words. It was the ceaselessness of the work which tried her so severely… there was no respite; for as the drum never stopped, the man who fed it could not stop, and she, who had to supply the man with untied sheaves, could not stop either… it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particularly duty, and Groby gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true. The hum of the thresher, which prevented speech, increased to a raving whenever the supply of corn fell short of the regular quantity…


Dinner-time came, and the whirling ceased; whereupon Tess left her post, her knees trembling so wretchedly with the shaking of the machine that she could scarcely walk… In the afternoon the farmer made it known that the rick was to be finished at night, since there was a moon by which they could see to work, and the man with the engine was engaged for another farm on the morrow. Hence the twanging and humming and rustling proceeded with even less intermission than usual…


027Thus the afternoon dragged on. The wheat-rick sank lower, and the straw-rick grew higher, and the corn-sacks were carted away. At six o’clock the wheat-rick was about shoulder-high from the ground… From the west sky a wrathful shine – all that wild March could afford in the way of sunset – had burst forth after the cloudy day, flooding the tired and sticky faces of the threshers, and dyeing them with a coppery light, as also the flapping garments of the women, which clung to them like dull flames… The man who fed was weary, and Tess could see that the red nape of his neck was encrusted with dirt and husks. She still stood at her post, her flushed and perspiring face coated with the corn-dust, and her white bonnet embrowned by it. She was the only woman whose place was upon the machine so as to be shaken bodily by its spinning… The incessant quivering, in which every fibre of her frame participated, had thrown her into a stupefied reverie, in which her arms worked ion independently of her consciousness… Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob’s ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.


However, steam machinery was much too heavy for most of the everyday jobs around the farm and the horse continued to provide most of the motive power. Harvest time also remained a very labour-intensive period and, although mechanical reapers began to appear, few farmers or their labourers thought that they would replace the traditional methods anytime soon. In her book, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes in considerable detail Oxfordshire village life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here she writes of harvest time:

002I026n the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked on by the men as an auxiliary, a farmer’s toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and the women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.


With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called King of the Mowers… With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes as they mowed and decreed when and for how long they should halt for a ’breather’, and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or for long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in the day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ’Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest field astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.


There were also various horse-drawn machines such as drills, hoes, reapers and binders, which cut running costs. In Suffolk, Ransomes and Garretts of Leiston were still leaders among the firms producing agricultural equipment. They kept up with the times by supplying traction engines and steam lorries during this period. However, when Ryder Haggard went to buy a reaper in Bungay, he found he could only get one of American make. Nonetheless, Ransomes did lead the way in adapting the internal-combustion engine to mowing, and in 1902 they patented the first ever ride-on mower.

HenryTidmarsh&FamilyWorking on a threshing machine was not just extremely hard work, but also dangerous, especially because many of the early machines were unguarded. My Great Aunt Jessie Gulliver was born in 1901, just ten years after Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published, but her family stories went back to her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side of the family, the Tidmarshes. Her grandfather Tidmarsh and grandmother (neé Webb) were born in about 1840. They lived in the village of Great Rollright, in modern-day Oxfordshire, then part of Banburyshire. Henry Tidmarsh was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright. When still a young man, some time in the late 1850s or early 1860s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the belts, he slipped and fell into it, presumably trapping his arm on the drum. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When the village doctor got news of the emergency, he went after Henry with a horse and cart, saving his life. However, neither he nor the hospital could save Henry’s arm. As Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, his employer, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton, where he would go round the village with pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice!

006GeorgeGulliverBertha Tidmarsh met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains also owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver (right), born in Ufton in 1862, was a groom and coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses. His father, Vinson, born in Hethe in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire, in 1855. They had five children, the third of whom was George, followed by Henry, who was also born in Ufton in 1865. It was therefore this Vinson Gulliver who, according to family folklore, marched Joseph Arch, through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford in the late 1860s, possibly with his relative Charles Gulliver, who was another Wesleyan preacher. It was his son, Henry, George’s brother, who took over as secretary. This story has been confirmed by the discovery of a letter from Vinson Gulliver (b. 1888), to his brother Alfred in 1979:

He was a Primitive Methodist preacher. He knew Joe (Joseph) Arch and was a secretary of the Agricultural Union, and later his son Henry took it over until he was the only paying member, although by what grandfather said, he acted in that service until he left the district.


Joseph Arch was the son of a Warwickshire shepherd. They formed the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union, leading to the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872, the first trade union for unskilled workers, which eventually became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Despite internal division, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong in 1875, organised in thirty-eight districts.

At that time, agricultural workers’ wages were just a little better than subsistence level, amounting to no more than twelve pounds a year for ordinary labourers, rising to twenty pounds for a good head waggoner. For this, he would often work alone in the fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of life beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and the village pub and church. He and his family could be evicted with little justification or notice. Joseph Arch and the Union tried to put a stop to this by organising mass marches and meetings. These meetings, attended by thousands of farm workers in borrowed fields, often in pouring rain, ran the risk of incurring the wrath of both squire and parson. God bless the squire and all his relations and keep us in our proper stations was how prayers ended in many rural parish churches at that time, where life was ordained by the unholy trinity of tyranny composed of Squire, Parson and Farmer. Joseph Arch described his first glimpse of a communion service; First up walked the squire to the communion rails, then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, the blacksmith and then, very last of all, the agricultural labourers. Opposition to the Union from farmers and landed gentry was fierce and the labourers, scattered in isolated villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of this hostile squirarchy. The children of Wesleyan supporters could also lose their places in the village schools, which, at that time, were all controlled by the Church of England and watched over by the parish priest or rector. Despite the threat of losing their homes as well as their livelihoods, open-air meetings often ended with rousing renditions of When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, the chorus of which was:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

The view of the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review of July 1872 on The Agricultural Labourers’ Strike was that whilst a trade union was by no means the best way of remedying the social inequalities and injustices of the time, it was the only means available:

… It has been doubted, and perhaps with some justice, whether in England, at least, these associations have had the effect of raising wages. It is contended, and with great appearance of truth, that workmen have been in the various mechanical trades so much in demand, that the principle of competition for the employment of labour has had full play, and that the rise of wages among artisans and factory operatives is to be ascribed to natural, and not to artificial causes. But it cannot be doubted that workmen’s associations have shortened hours of labour, have educated artisans – as they will the agricultural labourer – into the sense of common interest and a common duty, and have made the interests of the working classes so notable a matter of public interest, that political parties are fain to attempt association with them, and to legislate for them.


The article went on to argue the low wages of agricultural labourers were largely the result of the Poor Law, because the habit of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied but destitute poor had grown into a practice which was reproducing some of the features of the old Speenhamland System. In those cases where a rural district was added to a thriving town, the temptation on the part of the farmer-guardians to give this form of outdoor relief in aid of wages was almost irresistable, since by doing so, they were able to reduce labour costs and maximise profits at the expense of the ratepayers. While wages remained so low, there was also little prospect of labourers joining provident societies and saving for their own maintenance in sickness and old age. The authors argued that,


 With greater comfort and contentment come more independence, more enterprise, and a higher standard of decency, morality and religion. It is an error to imagine that independence makes men unmanageable or unreasonable. Few men take more intelligent estimate of their position than English artisans do. When they do unite for co-operative purposes they show no symptom of insubordination or disobedience to the necessary orders of their managers or directors… there is no reason to think that the English agricultural labourer can sink to any lower level than that which he occupies now… it is no wonder that the religious sense of the peasantry is obtuse; the marvel is that it should exist at all, and be capable of being stirred by the homely but earnest eloquence of the Methodist preacher, , the apostle of the agricultural labourer. In the last session of Parliament, Sir Roundell Palmer, taking up the defence of the Anglican Establishment,… invited the attention of the House to the benificient functions which are performed by the country clergy. If, indeed, they are to be responsible for the condition in which their flocks are found, no severer censure of their efforts can be uttered… it is not too much to say that nine-tenths of the religion which the agricultural labourer believes is gained in spite of the clergy, and by agencies which they name only to scorn or ridicule.


To some labouring men, the young trade union movement seemed to hold out some hope, as workers from all over East Anglia combined into groups, instinctively believing, as their fathers had done half a century before, that solidarity meant strength. Just as instinctively, however, farmers felt that solidarity meant trouble. They dismissed, or threatened to dismiss, any men who carried a union card. The farmers usually won but, in 1874, a sufficient number of labourers stood firm enough to enable an effective strike to be mounted. The demand was for fourteen shillings a week. There were violent scenes in many places, and in Brandon troops were called in to confront a crowd armed with sticks and bearing a banner proclaiming Bread or Blood in Brandon this day. The demonstrators won on this occasion, with the magistrates agreeing to provide cheaper bread and flour, and the triumphant cry of revolt was taken up elsewhere. From Halesworth to Ely the countryside was up, with rioters breaking into shops and barns and threatening farmers and magistrates. It took several days for law and order to be restored. As at the time of Captain Swing, such violence expressed everything but solved nothing. There was no solution: the workers, the farmers and the government were all powerless. As one farmer complained in a letter to The Times,

We have to pay more for labour, manures and feeding stuffs. Yet we are selling the best wheat England ever produced at 25s. Per quarter, wool has reached the lowest price ever recorded and, notwithstanding the poor root crop, beef hardly averages 6d. Per lb. But there is another feature of the farming outlook which is very sad to contemplate, and that is the decreasing influence agriculture has upon Parliament.


We also know that there was considerable overseas emigration from the Warwickshire countryside and other areas where NALU had grown strong, in the 1870s and 1880s, sponsored by the union. Questioned by the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1881 about how the union set about achieving higher wages for its members, Arch replied that they had reduced the number of labourers in the market very considerably by helping seven hundred thousand men, women and children during the nine years of the union’s existence. Asked where the funds had come from for the emigration of such numbers, Arch replied that he himself had travelled to Canada and made arrangements with the Canadian Government for them to give the migrants a certain amount, which the union then matched with trade union funds. In fact, the growth of the union had come about at a time when farm labourers’ wages were rising, and the rural revolt led by Arch stemmed more from the raising of expectations which accompanied these rises, however marginal. Even so, the harvester who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could still, in the 1890s, find himself standing in front of the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. Against this continuing absolute social control, it took a special kind of courage to stand with a few labouring brothers and sing:


Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.


However, by the last quarter of the century, fundamental changes in the shape and character of agriculture in England had also become fully evident: fewer worked on the land and the golden age of profits had vanished in the face of imported meat and wheat, especially from the American prairies. This hit the South Midland and East Anglian cereal farmers and their labourers far worse than those producing mainly meat and dairy products for the West Midland and Northern industrial towns. Most of these men and women who remaining on the land were trapped there by a combination of the rigid class structure and rural poverty, as this 1898 extract from Henry Ryder Haggard shows:

Notwithstanding the care, knowledge, and intelligence which are put into the working of the land, under present conditions it can scarcely be made to pay. The machinery works, the mill goes round; the labourers, those who are left of them, earn their wage such as it is, and the beast his provender; the good man rises early and rests late, taking thought for the day and the morrow, but when at Michaelmas he balances his books there is no return, and lo! The bailiff is glaring through the gates… in our parts the ancient industry of agriculture is nearly moribund, and if the land, or the poorer and therefore the more considerable portion of it, is farmed fairly, it is in many instances being worked at a loss, or at any rate without profit… The small men only too often keep up the game till beggary overtakes them, when they adjourn to the workhouse… The larger farmers… at last take refuge in a cottage or, if they are fortunate, find a position as a steward on some estate. The landlords… unless they have private means to draw on… sink and sink until they vanish beneath the surface of the great sea of English society.


This passage may seem, in parts, rather exaggerated in both the claims it makes and the style it is written in, but Ryder Haggard could claim to know what he was writing about, since he farmed a considerable amount of land on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The decline he described had begun in about 1875. By a combination of industry and improved techniques, farmers had survived the ending of protection and the had prospered during the middle years of the century. Then the full impact of free trade was felt. Grain from the American prairies was carried to New England ports in new steam trains, exported in new steam ships and sold on the English market at prices lower than home produced corn. In 1877 wheat was 56s. 9d. A quarter. By 1894 the price had slumped to 22s. 10d., a figure at which it could not be grown in England at a profit. By the end of the century the amount of land under cereals in Suffolk had been cut by half, with those farmers who could diversify rearing stock as well. However, this market area was not free from competition either, since refrigerated container-ships were bringing cheap lamb and beef from New Zealand and Argentina. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the landed interest had dominated Parliament and had forced the Corn Laws through but the balance of political power had now shifted; the middle classes and property-owning town dwellers benefited from cheap, imported foodstuffs, so that free trade had come to stay.

The depression which fell upon the agrarian communities of East Anglia was the worst that it had ever experienced. Land values and rents tumbled. Thousands of labourers were thrown out of work and left their ancestral homes. Ditches and hedges were unkempt, fields unploughed; houses, cottages and barns unrepaired. Men who had once owned their own farms were now living on the parish dole, a pound of flour and threepunce a day. Alongside them, the army of impoverished farm-workers who had once worked for them, grew daily, a powerless host who had little idea as to how to relieve their misery.

… to be continued…

Later Than They Thought…Britain in 1939: Part Two; July – December.   2 comments



1   Conscription began in Britain.

11  British Ministry of Supply set up.


19  U-boat captains were sent a coded signal to take up positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action.

22  Hitler spoke to his generals; within 48 hours his speech had been passed to the British Embassy.

23   Trial black-out over half of Britain.

23   German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed; Hitler fixed attack on Poland for 26 August.

24   Emergency Powers Bill rushed through UK Parliament.

25   Formal Anglo-Polish Mutual Assistance Pact signed; Hitler postponed attack on Poland.

29   German ultimatum to Poland.

31   Hitler ordered attack to proceed on 1 September.


1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were first welcomed but then interned, under pressure from Hitler. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encirled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw, but was repulsed by Polish resistance.

Publication of a letter in The Manchester Guardian by Saunders Lewis and J. E. Daniel, leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, drawing attention to the possible dangers to minority groups in war-time conditions.

15  First of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia.

17   Soviet invasion of Poland. RN aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous sunk in the Western Approaches (to the Hebrides) by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already dispatched three tankers. Sank in less than 15 mins, with loss of half her thousand-strong crew.

27   Warsaw capitulated.


5   Polish resistance ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. 70,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians had been killed, 130,000 soldiers wounded. 100,000 Poles in the Russian sector were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops.

10   Grand Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany, and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. (Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for invasion in January 1940).

26  Poland was handed over to civilian administration, by which time 531 towns and villages had been burnt by the German Army, killing thousands of POWs.


28   The USSR abrogated its 1932 non-aggression treaty with Finland.

30  Soviet invasion of Finland (no declaration of war). Soviets bombed Helsinki and invaded with 1.2 million men, opening a bitter 105-day struggle. Russians had 1,500 tanks and 3,000 aircraft. Finns had ten divisions, 36 pre-WW1 artillery pieces and a few aircraft.


13   Battle of the River Plate, Uruguay.  The German pocket battleship,  Admiral Graf Spee had sunk  ten battleships, totalling more than 50,000 tons. She badly damaged HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax. 

14   USSR expelled from the League of Nations, which supported Finland’s struggle, although Finns captured more military hardware than they received from outside.

15   Scuttling of the Graf Spee, badly damaged at River Plate, in Montevideo Harbour, by Captain Hans Langsdorff, mistakenly thinking that HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown were approaching the port.

24  Russian 163rd Division fled eastwards across the frozen Lake Kiantarjárvi. The Finns bombed the ice sending tanks, horses, men and vehicles into the freezing water. ‘They are still there’. General Paavo Talvela destroyed 139th and 75th Red Army Divisions at Tolvajárvi, sending a humiliating message around the globe for the USSR, affecting Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR the next year.


Economy, Society and Culture

Hollywood learnt quickly from the success of The Citadel that social problems could provide a magnificent subject for melodrama, and once the studios sensed that the censors were not against experimentation they rushed to make another social film using the photogenic coalfield. Later in 1939, Carol Reed filmed The Stars Look Down, another Cronin story set in a mining district. The original novel had made an outspoken plea for the nationalization of the mines and although Reed was later to claim that he had not been interested in the politics of the story, he could hardly duck the main issue. There are some remarkable sequences in the film that stress the need for a fairer and more efficient running of the coal industry, but its main concern is the salvation of the hero and, once again, the union is depicted as a vested interest. Like the novel, the film represents the Durham coalfield, but American critics described it as a film about Wales. The main Welsh element was provided by Emlyn Williams, who brilliantly creates the character Joe, a foil to the hero, Davy, played by Michael Redgrave. While Davy realises his destiny by leading the miners, Joe escapes from the coalfield and becomes a salesman. Williams, an Oxford-educated north Walian, was very hot property at the time, an accomplished playwright who forged a career as a master of sharp dialogue and a charming character actor. The Stars Look Down was a little too radical for the censors and its release was delayed until the outbreak of war.

The miners had become politically and artistically fashionable by 1939, and so it was perhaps inevitable that there would be first a blockbuster novel and then a film. Richard Llewellyn (1906-83) had already worked as a screenwriter before he began what was to become his very filmic novel. How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel narrated by Huw, the main character, about his Welsh family and the community in which they live. The author had claimed that he based the book on his own personal experiences but this was found untrue after his death; Llewellyn was English-born and spent little time in Wales, though he was of Welsh descent.

The title of the novel appears in two sentences. It is first used in Chapter Thirty, after the narrator has had his first sexual experience. He sits up to … look down in the valley. He then reflects: How green was my Valley that day, too, green and bright in the sun. The phrase is used again in the novel’s last sentence: How green was my Valley then, and the Valley of them that have gone.  Since its publication in 1939, the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into thirteen languages, transferred twice to the small screen and made into an Oscar-winning Irish-American-Welsh extravaganza in 1940 by John Ford. It presents the best-known image of Wales in the twentieth century. However, it is a Wales its hero leaves in the first sentence because his Wales has gone out of control. In his 1984 book, Wales! Wales?, the historian Dai Smith ruthlessly dissected the nostagia of the novel.

The intransigence of Saunders Lewis, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, had led many ‘cultural’ nationalists to reject his party and its solutions down to 1939. What they shared in common with him was a class perspective on the ‘Welsh’ crisis after 1921 which was also based on a theory of national decline. As Dai Smith has observed, this was scarcely liberal, but an attempt to regain patriarchal control of Wales as economic and social deprivation deepened. What has been ignored by nationalist historians is the ‘hand-wringing delight some took in the economic and social wretchedness of the inter-war years.’  The alternative politics and culture which they had feared between 1910 and 1926 had been effectively marginalised or sent packing. In the twenty years since 1920 amost 450,000 people had migrated out of south Wales. According to the American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg, who published his reflections on his time investigating the condition of south Wales in the late thirties in New York in 1942, ‘the leaders left in south Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated’.

The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955), the arch-druid of educationalists and philanthropists ‘whose distress at the material downfall of his country was only matched by his conviction that the necessary redress was the prerogative of a leadership equipped with the traditional weapons of national faith’. Their opportunity had returned with the destruction of proletarian power in the Depression. Tom Jones, as secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, acted as ‘dispenser-in-chief’ of aid to the stricken valleys, aided and abetted by Percy Watkins, who became, at Jones’ instigation, the head of the Welsh section of the National Council of Social Service, established nine major educational settlements in the valleys between 1927 and 1937.  In his 1942 memoir, A Welshman Remembers, Watkins expressed his irritation at the lukewarm response that these attempts received from many in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within reach of the unemployed in these days of helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from… the Labour movement and… trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

The objection to this ‘dope’ was partly a mistrust of the revived Welsh national-liberal consensus which had emerged around Tom Jones, which seemed to elevate ‘community’ above ‘class’. Behind this reassertion of liberal values lay the assumption that the mutuality of these one-class communities would be better served by new institutions which would be better served by a political élite than by ‘visionary class warriors’.  The meaning of the rise and fall of coalfield society as a collective endeavour was therefore undermined by a policy of piecemeal accommodation, overlaid by a mythology provided by fictional films and novels such as How Green Was My Valley. The translation of the valleys for Hollywood screenplays in the late thirties and early forties was part of this process of re-mytholigisation. Dai Smith has concluded that those, like Tom Jones, Percy Watkins and Richard Llewellyn who ‘would colour Wales green… have first to dismiss the meaning of the lives of all those who had imagined – in their politics and their struggles as much as in their daily sweat to survive – an alternative Wales’. ‘Imagining’ Wales ‘required not myth or nostalgia but interpretation’.

Meanwhile, as war approached, those who opposed it within the Welsh Nationalist Party fell into two factions. Those who opposed it on traditional nonconformist pacifist grounds and those, like Saunders Lewis, who based their opposition on straightforward nationalism. Both could agree on a campaign of national resistance to conscription, however, refusing submission to the English Government. The climax of this campaign was a mass meeting held at Caernarfon in May 1939, in the month before the Bill was enacted, at which Lewis claimed that Wales’ only means of salvation lay in disobeying the law. If party members who came under the Act registered themselves as conscientious objectors, basing their objections on nationalist rather than pacifist grounds, then the Government would be forced to listen to the Nationalist Party. However, following the first days of military registration in June, Y Ddraig Goch had to admit that the campaign had been unsuccessful. Moreover, for many young nationalists, political convictions could only be stated within a religious or moral context. The new leader of the party, J. E. Daniel was disappointed that of the six who had pleaded their Welsh Nationalism at the Caernarfon Tribunal in November 1939, none made it their sole or primary ground, but mentioned it in order to reinforce a pacifist objection whose grounds were quite distinct from and independent of the Nationalist position while several others never mentioned their membership of the Party at all. Saunders Lewis also expressed his disappointment to J. E. Jones that there is so much pacifism in the opposition of the boys and that nationalism is a secondary thing for them. However, the young nationalists had been deliberately misled by their leadership into believing that objections based purely on nationalism would be accepted as being matters of conscience. It turned out that the military service tribunal did not agree, so the young men were able to fall back on their pacifist principles. In November 1939 it was asserted that if as few as ten nationalists would be prepared to declare that they would not join the ‘English’ army simply because they were Welsh, the ‘battle of Wales’ would be won. By the beginning of 1940, Gwyn Jones of Coedpoeth near Wrexham and Dafydd Williams of Caernarfon became the first Welsh nationalists to be imprisoned for continuing to resist military service. However, there was no great flood of nationalist objectors; all hopes of a surging tide of Welsh resistance had been quickly forgotten.

Of the pre-war leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, only Ambrose Bebb had come to believe that Nazi Germany had to be defeated and, as a result, had withdrawn from party activities. Whe he visited Brittany shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, Bebb was horrified to find that the Breton nationalist leaders were extremely well disposed towards Hitler. The remaining leaders supported the calls for a cessation to hostilities by the British Peace Aims Group formed by twenty Westminster MPs in November 1939. But there were dissident voices within the party from as early as May 1939, with some branches in the industrial South arguing that there was too much praise for Hitler in the party newspapers, leading to accusations of support for fascism among nationalists.

Following the publication by The Manchester Guardian of a letter from the party leaders at the beginning of September, a Welsh national conference was convened in December 1939 to consider the effects of war-time conditions on the Welsh language and culture. Attended by representatives of educational, cultural and religious bodies as well as local government, the conference decided to establish a working party consisting of a wide range of influential Welsh figures. The first task of this Committee for the Defence of Wales was to consider how evacuation plans might be organised in such a way that they would not pose a threat to Welsh tradition and identity.   It went on to campaign to prevent, unsuccessfully, the clearance by the War Ministry of many Welsh-speaking families from Mynydd Epynt in south Breconshire in order to make way for a training ground. This aroused strong feelings beyond the bounds of the Nationalist Party. The Defence Committee also campaigned for improved radio programmes in Welsh, to protect the position of the language in schools and to keep those Welsh men and women who were serving in the armed forces or working in English industrial areas in touch with Wales.

However, there were those who argued that the party should go into political hibernation for the duration of the war.  Despite expressing his admiration of Saunders Lewis, one member argued that there was something more important than the Nationalist Party:

This is not the time to do much more than keep the Blaid alive. I do not believe in putting anything in the way of giving a licking to Hitler. 

At the same time, the party was being re-energised in the south by a number of non-Welsh speaking recruits including Ted Merriman and Victor Hampson Jones, from the mining valleys of  Ogmore and Llynfi. Merriman was a returning exile from Nantymoel, who had joined the party as a teenager in London, where he had gone to seek work. Rather than scaling down nationalist activities, this group argued for an intensification of campaigning in the industrial south, a shift away from a sole focus on the Welsh-speaking areas and for the increased use of English in party conferences, meetings and literature, something which Drs D. J. and Noelle Davies had been pressing for in the pre-war years. This growth of activity in south-east Wales, although limited in nature, did at least show that the party could at least be more than a Welsh-speaking club during the war period, and that there were those within it who sprang from, and could build links with, an alternative English-speaking Wales, proudly independent from the patronage of the Cymric liberal Establishment.

The Nationalist Party survived Saunders Lewis’ resignation as party president in 1939. Under his leadership, it had been little more than an educational/ cultural movement. His dominance between 1926 and 1939 was such that his name and the nationalist had become almost synonymous. However, the gulf between his aspirations and the performance of his party was as immense at the end of this period as it had been at the beginning. As D. Hywel Davies suggested in 1983, most Welsh people found the times rather inappropriate to consider opting out of British politics. The increased lethargy of party members by the end of the 1930s reflected an underlying unease regarding Lewis’ social and international attitudes. The appearances before military tribunals of a number of the younger members may have served to confirm the independence of the movement, but they did not separate it from the residual pacifism present in British society as a whole at the outbreak of the second world war, nor did they lead, as Lewis had hoped and predicted, to a tidal wave of public opinion in favour of an independent Wales.

International Events in Summary:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demands that Poland agree to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the western allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Cracow, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

Political Reaction at Home:

Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A B (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, who, even at this late hour, were hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours. When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own back benches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself, and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

The six-month hiatus on land between the defeat of Poland on 5 October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land or in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that the war was not a matter of life and death for them as it was for the Poles. Their daily existence was carried on as normal, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy. Even the RAF was treated to the asinine remark by the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood that it should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest, because so much of it was private property.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside commented ironically on the ‘military machine of command’ which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had ‘no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘a general knowledge of how to fight a campaign’. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ atiitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that were already happening at sea…

The War at Sea:

There was nothing phoney about the war at sea. Learning the lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British, right from the beginning of the war, even for the ships moving along the coastline between the Clyde and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes all used echo-sounding devices to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. They also adopted zig-zagging routes. Overall, these methods were successful, though when a U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ did break through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be substantial, with the sinking of up to half the vessels.

To begin with the Royal Navy had only five aircraft carriers, one of which was sunk early in the war (see above). There are brave tales of survival, with sailors singing songs like Roll Out the Barrel and Show Me the Way to Go Home while waiting to be rescued from the North Atlantic. They often had to swim through thick oil. In October 1939 the Kriegsmarine scored a spectacular success when Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s U-47 got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences at Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship HMS Royal Oak. Three of them hit, capsizing the ship and killing 810 of her 1,224 crew, including my Great Uncle, CPO Alfred Titchmarsh. Many of them drowned, since the ship sank in thirteen minutes.

One of the tasks of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles. By the end of November these had sunk twenty-nine British shps, and put the brand-new cruiser, HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Two brave bomb-disposal experts, Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J G D Ouvry removed ticking detonators from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, so that the secrets of the mines was dicovered and counteracted. By the end of 1939, Britain had lost 422,000 tons of shipping (260,000 by mines) as against Germany’s 224,000, 2% and 5% of their respective total tonnages. Had Hitler given first priority to his U-boat fleet, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender.

Interpretation 2: Why was it left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems, so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions in opinion, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years. Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics,  after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt at the end of August. Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into Europe through the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honoring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of a protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that  Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi regime, or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivity in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with most of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.


A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 


Posted October 1, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

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