‘The Hungry 30s’? Were the 30s a decade of poverty or progress in Britain?

On the eve of the creation of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, famously declared that ‘no amount of cajolery…can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that…condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation’. He was capitalising on a popular memory of the ‘hungry thirties’. Though the depression brought macroeconomic distress to areas dependent on heavy industry, poverty did not define the 30s for the vast majority of people. Emergent affluence fuelled by technology and consumerism meant many experienced rising living standards. However, despite increasing affluence and piecemeal improvements in social and economic policy, the 1930s were defined by relative conservatism. Racial and gender stereotypes remained whilst regression in international relations, embodied by the failure of appeasement, dragged Britain into another catastrophic war.

Poverty is a contentious matter amongst contemporary economists, with some, like Townsend (17), arguing for the primacy of a relativist approach, and others, like Sen (167), asserting that absolute poverty is the more useful concept. Relative poverty is essentially a measure of inequality, whilst the kind of poverty Bevan alludes to is absolute. As Picketty and Saez demonstrate, American inequality actually fell after 1929 as capital incomes suffered, suggesting that using a measure of inequality as a proxy for deprivation in the 1930s would be misleading. Progress is a much broader concept. Whilst poverty indicates a lack of progress in living standards, progress also encompasses everything from social justice to international relations; the two are not dichotomous. As with any period, the 1930s exhibited both poverty and progress. This essay will examine whether either was the defining feature of the decade.

The Great Depression was the most severe recession in the history of the industrialised world, and Britain, as an integral part of the global economy, bore its full brunt. The economy teetered on the edge of a deflationary spiral and, as Benjamin and Kochin (441) point out, ‘from 1921 to 1938 unemployment in Britain…never fell below 9.5%’. Many unemployed undoubtedly risked dipping into poverty, as a Mass Observation (28) record on Joe Darbyshire, a Bolton local, suggests. ‘Yesterday it was awful, the kids couldn’t understand that there wasn’t any butties, it’s hard when the kids go hungry’. He says his unemployed wife was ‘working all the time on debt’, contending that even those who ‘tries to do their best’ struggled to save. However, Benjamin and Kochin (442) point out that ‘unemployment benefits were on a more generous scale relative to wages than ever before or since’. In fact, as Glynn and Booth (28) make clear, poverty ‘continued to diminish through the inter-war period’ as it did pre-1914. Rowntree (99) wrote on his 1936 visit to York that ‘housing is immeasurably better, health is better, education is better’, concluding that ‘the economic condition of workers is better by 30% than in 1899’. The elimination of poverty, though slowed by the depression, did not go into reverse, and unemployment did not always entail absolute poverty. Poverty’s affects are not, however, limited to those experiencing it directly; others are often affected by its negative externalities. Davies (251-252) explores how ‘during the 1930s, Glasgow acquired a reputation throughout Britain as a hotbed of gang violence’. It suffered heavy unemployment of ‘between 25% and 33%’ from 1930 and 1935, inflaming sectarian tensions and fuelling organised crime in working class areas. Despite this, the depression primarily affected regions dependent on heavy industry, creating a ‘contrast between the increasingly prosperous…communities of the south of England and the Midlands and the industrial graveyards of South Wales, Central Scotland and the north and west of England’ (Gladstone, 23). This isolated many from the negative social impacts of poverty in the few places it increased. Thus, due to a strong social safety net and the strongly regionalised impact of the depression, many were isolated from poverty such that it by no means defined the decade.

For most, the 1930s was a decade of emergent affluence, with living standards improving as innovative technologies seeped into daily life and consumerism fuelled new forms of leisure. Somewhat paradoxically, the British economy ‘did relatively worse than other developed countries in the 1920s…but relatively better during the 1930s’ (Smith 15). Glynn and Booth’s (25) growth accounting calculations corroborate this revisionist account. They suggest that, in the interwar period, ‘disposable income per head appears to have grown faster than in any other previous period’. Smith (15) argues that, ‘while the depression hit some regions particularly hard, other areas did relatively well, particularly in the latter half of the period’ when the economy recovered strongly. Taylor (305) describes how ‘new light industries were little affected by the depression’. On average, ‘employment rose by about 10%’ during the recovery, but in these industries it ‘rose by 40%’. Rostow (12), in his 5-stage model of economic development, argues that Britain reached  the final ‘high mass consumption’ stage in the 1930s. The rise of the motorcar, encouraged by hire-purchase, meant ‘Englishmen were emancipated from the iron frame of rail-ways and tram lines which had previously dictated their lives’ (Taylor, 304). Glynn and Booth (29) argue that a new range of durable products represented ‘one of the most important liberating influences since the industrial revolution’, and Offer and Bowden (247-249) note how ‘durables that catered to leisure interests enjoyed rapid growth rates’, with radio ownership reaching 50% in 1933. Glynn and Booth (29) also highlight the rise of ‘cinema and mass circulation daily newspapers’, fuelled by higher disposable incomes and ‘the emergence of Saturday afternoon as a leisure period’. Despite these developments, vested interests have attempted to depict the 1930s as a decade of poverty. Take, for instance, Taylor’s (349) examination of the notorious ‘hunger marches’. For many, they epitomised the failure of capitalism. Those who ‘felt the call of conscience…set up soup-kitchens for the marchers and accommodated them in local schools’. In reality, the marches were the brain-child of the British Communist Party. In drawing attention to poverty, Taylor argues they were ‘a propaganda stroke of great effect’. Later, politicians like Bevan would similarly capitalise on public guilt over perceived rampant poverty. For the majority the 1930s were in fact a period of rising living standards, emergent consumerism and technological innovation. As Smith (27) puts it, ‘virtually everyone got richer in the depression, though some got richer than others’.

Aggregate living standards clearly improved in the 1930s, but despite some piecemeal progress towards improved social and economic policy, and towards gender equality, the 30s were defined by conservatism relative to the rest of the century. Progress in economic policy was made with the end of the Gold Standard, which economists now agree both prevented an expansionary monetary response to the slump and served as a transmission mechanism for the 1929 shock. Recovery only began when Britain was ‘freed from the strict financial straitjacket imposed by the Gold Standard’ (Smith 23). However, the National Government initially imposed cuts in an attempt to maintain the peg, and only abandoned it when forced to by the Invergorden Mutiny. This reluctance, and the introduction of Imperial Preference in 1932, mean ‘it cannot be said that the changes in policy after…1931 were innovative in a major way’, with government hoping to ‘secure recovery by not being radical’ (Smith, 25). In terms of social policy, the generous unemployment benefits of the period have already been examined. Braithwaite (81) points to a transition from a philanthropic Victorian welfare philosophy to a more state-oriented system. Individual donations were declining, but the state already provided 37% of registered charity income by 1934 in what contemporaries dubbed ‘the new philanthropy’. Gladstone (25) highlights the 1934 Unemployment Act which ended ‘the tension between the centre and the localities which had been a long-standing feature of the poor law’, foreshadowing welfare state centralisation. However, when compared to the welfare revolutions of the 1940s and 1910s, the 1930s were unremarkable, especially given that most of these reforms were reactive rather than proactive. Gladstone (10) points out that ‘total expenditure on public welfare services’ increased ‘from £35.3 million in 1900 to £400.8 million in 1934’, suggesting that progress in social policy was by no means particular to the 1930s. Regarding gender roles, Bingham (231) posits that ‘the marital experience…was also being transformed by the rapid decline in the birth rate, which greatly reduced the number of years spent bearing and rearing children’. Offer and Bowden (244) argue that, as technology ‘promised to alleviate the drudgery and sheer hard work of many household tasks’, the average housewife’s workload shrank. Both technological development and demographic transition were, however, not unique to the 1930s, and relative to the achievements in women’s suffrage in the 1920s, this progress was, as with social and economic policy, piecemeal.

The Roaring Twenties are remembered for their social liberalism, economic prosperity and cultural cutting-edge. By 1936, Hitler had reoccupied the Rhineland and Londoners were battling Blackshirts on Cable Street. Not only did social and economic policy stagnate during the 1930s, gender norms were entrenched and there was regression in race relations and foreign policy. From Versailles was supposed to emerge a new order based around Wilsonian principles, institutionalised by the League of Nations. Britain, one of four permanent League Council members, enabled German aggression with a failed policy of appeasement that much of the public supported. Gottlieb uses Chamberlain’s umbrella, a symbol of British pragmatism and boy-scout wisdom, to illustrate appeasement’s failure. In light of the ‘hysterical endorsement both of the [1938 Munich] agreement and of Chamberlain personally’, there was a commercial ‘surge in popularity of all things umbrella-form’ (9, 15). By 1939 Britain stood on the brink of war, and as the polemical Guilty Men (47) asserted, the failure of ‘umbrella man’ and his policy of appeasement was clearly to blame. Race relations fared little better. Mark (122) demonstrates how Jewish and Irish unwed mothers suffered discrimination in healthcare, leading to the growth of community-led institutions like the ‘Catholic Guardians Association’. Worse, Mosley’s newly-formed BUF was met with popular support in 1932, with Viscount Rothermere publishing the now infamous ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ headline. Redvaldsen (370) makes it clear that ‘xenophobia was a mainstay of the rhetoric of the BUF’, and that the party employed both cultural and biological justifications for their anti-semitism. Gender norms were entrenched, rather than challenged, in the 1930s. Beddoe (8) argues that ‘in the inter-war years only one desirable image was held up to women by all mainstream media agencies – that of housewife and mother’. The media, argues Melman (17), was key in perpetuating an ‘ideology of domesticity’. Most striking is Pugh’s (77) contention that, after playing a key role in the war effort, many turned against the idea of women workers. ‘Our Surplus Girls’, as the Daily Mail began to call them, emerged from male wartime loss. Many feared these unmarried ‘flappers’ would stay in the workplace, defying the ’ideology of domesticity’ which remained rigid and entrenched in the popular imagination. Having already demonstrated a relative lack of progress in social and economic policy, it is now clear that the 1930s saw the entrenchment of traditional gender norms alongside regression in race and international relations.

To suggest the 1930s were defined either by poverty or progress is misleading. For the majority, isolated from the depression’s worst, and even for many unemployed, the decade was not defined by poverty. New industries, a strong recovery and innovative technologies meant increasing affluence. However, rising living standards, the century’s norm, do not necessarily mean the 1930s were defined by progress. Little progress was made in social and economic policy, gender norms remained entrenched and there was even regression in race relations and foreign policy. Labelling the 1930s a decade of poverty or progress ignores the fact that there can be progress in some departments and regression in others. It also risks homogenising the experiences of a diverse and unequal society into one oversimplified narrative.


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