Since the end of the Second World War many people have seen the inter-war period as an age of unmitigated economic failure, marked by mass unemployment, hunger marches, including the famous Jarrow March of 1936, and lengthening dole queues. For many, this was known as the ‘devil’s decade’. However, this popular view has been challenged by Judith Gardiner in her recent book, ‘The Thirties: An Intimate History’. She points out that, although there was great hardship, especially in the North East in the 1930s, it was very unevenly spread out.
The hardships were very real, particularly for those who lived in the depressed areas of Tyneside and County Durham. For instance, between 1854 and 1913 the output of British coal had grown from 65 to 287 million tons. By 1938 it had continued to fall. In human terms the ruin of the traditional industries, such as shipbuilding, was the ruin of millions of people through mass unemployment. Certainly to live in Jarrow was a grimmer experience than to live in Birmingham. In 1936, Jarrow resembled a ghost town with over 60 per cent of the town’s men jobless.
Likewise, Spennymoor, in Durham experienced 25 per cent unemployment. The effects were devastating – shops and other businesses were forced to close. Families fell into debt. Diets suffered and health deteriorated. The ‘dole’ was meagre and the ‘means-test’ was often applied in a harsh and heartless manner. Today the value of Job Seekers Allowance has been frozen and is only available for 26 weeks.
Yet as Newcastle University historian, Norman McCord points out, towns like Hebburn – three miles from Jarrow, although hit hard, escaped the worst ravages of the inter-war recession, whilst the leafy neighbourhood of Gosforth remained untouched, with virtual full employment, not unlike the situation today. Even in North Heaton and Cowgate new council housing was being built for the so-called ‘respectable working-class’. New mock owner-occupied Tudor semis were being built in Fenham and Gosforth from 1934 for Professionals in the private sector.
Nor did the era produce a potential revolutionary situation or extremism as predicted by many contemporaries at the time. Although membership of the Communist Party grew from 2,500 in 1930 to 17,500 by 1939, it made very few advances. Likewise, Mosley’s fascist black shirts during the period had little impact in the region, and attracted minimal electoral support.
The ‘Thirties’ were in several areas a period of growth and socio-economic expansion. The well-established light industries of the ‘Midlands’, although they had always met the demands of the domestic consumer, found themselves faced with a rapidly expanding mass market. Inexpensive consumer durables such as vacuum cleaners and electric irons flooded the market and were bought in vast quantities by 1939. Department stores, especially Woolworths grew and expanded rapidly selling a wide range of goods.
As the Thirties witnessed marked shifts in the economy in both ‘middle England’ and the South of the country, leisure too became transformed. In 1920 there had been about half a million motor vehicles of all kinds. By 1932 there were three times as many. And by 1939 that figures had doubled. Of the 3 million vehicles on the roads, 2 million were private cars! Traffic jams had become a familiar bank holiday event. In 1931 only 1.5 million people were entitled to paid holidays. By 1939 this figure had risen to 11 million. Caravans, Butlins holiday camps, and particularly cinemas were becoming a familiar sight. Although wages did not increase for the majority – just like today – the cost of living fell by one third between 1919 to- 1939, not like today!
The author, J.B. Priestly in his classic book, ‘English Journey’ (no fan of Gateshead), in 1934, was not slow in noticing the paradox that prevailed: mass unemployment and poverty for one section of the working class living in the North East and a rising standard of living for another section. He wrote:
‘’This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filing stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, motor coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing, swimming pools and everything given away for cigarette coupons.’’
Eighty years on some left-wing scholars note that we’re going back to the Thirties with rising austerity and far-right populism. A gross simplification argue others. Yet it can’t be denied that we’re seeing a widening gulf both between the North and South of England. Just as worrying we appear to be witnessing big divides opening up in our core cities such as Newcastle and Manchester.
Compare and contrast Jesmond and Gosforth, in Newcastle with their lavish suburbs, high levels of conspicuous consumption and packed restaurants every night of the week, to that of the inner-city and outer council estates, with high levels of deprivation, ill-health and insecure low waged employment.
Ed Miliband, then leader of the Opposition, at the 2014 Labour Party conference, was quite right to emphasise making our country a ‘one-nation society’. But we also need to strive for a ‘one region society’, if we’re serious about creating a more equitable and fairer community.