Back in the North

The level of deprivation in northern industrial parts of England during the 1930s is often downplaye

The New Statesman

25 May 1935

In spite of the pundits of Tabernacle Street, prolonged unemployment has not bred Bolsheviks in this country. That it has produced a small lumpen-proletariat class is undeniable. I met men of twenty-eight and thirty on Tyneside who have never worked in their lives and hope that they never will. Married “on the Guardians,” they have reared families in squalor and wretchedness. They have grown to manhood without undergoing the disciplining processes of military or industrial service. Nothing is to be hoped for from them. They tend to become characterless and shifty and will join any new movement which promises a couple of shillings a week more. At election times they will no doubt vote for the people who promise them the biggest doles — if indeed they take the trouble to vote at all. Fortunately, they are few in number. But they are multiplying at a slow but visible rate.

This social problem is not so important as that of the younger women. At one time women in the north of England had a great reputation for being “house-proud.” Steps were scrubbed before 8am, and windows and knockers — always good pointers — were shining bright testimonials to the happiness of the home. But the girls in the Northumberland and Durham towns are growing up in a very different atmosphere today. Unemployment always means domestic discord. Parental authority is undermined, and pleasant homes become little more than depressing dormitories. Girls in search of a little pleasure or excitement are driven to leave their own neighbourhoods. A frivolous, superficial, work-hating mentality develops in the course of time. Nor can the mothers escape part of the responsibility. Many of them have neglected to coach their daughters in household duties. The result has been a rapid decline. Many girl wives are quite incapable of cooking a meal, and make little effort properly to look after their two- or three-roomed flats. Compared with the standard maintained by the German or Dutch housewife, that of many younger women in the north of England is deplorable.

In mining villages like Marsden, Whitburn, and Ryhope, this is very noticeable, while such big towns as Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, and Sunderland, are particularly affected. Regular work is the normal discipline of character and body, and a necessary condition of self-respect and social utility in a man, and this is true to an even greater extent in the case of the young woman of today.

The welfare centres attract only a tiny percentage of unemployed people, and are faced with difficulties arising from political opposition. I should estimate that the attendance at the average billiard hall is ten times greater than that at the welfare centre, at most times of the day. Prices have been lowered, and around each table there is always a group of watchers, no matter how fine the weather outside. Politically, there are few signs of increased activity. A large amount of money has been spent on Fascist propaganda, with complete lack of success. The more radical parties are slowly expanding, but interest in meetings, demonstrations, and propagandist marches is slackening. Weariness and cynicism may be said to predominate in the minds of those who would normally be attracted into this field. I am quite certain, however, that this is only a temporary phase - a prelude to faith. The masses in the north are waiting for leadership, and they will rally behind the individual who proclaims a policy and a programme which voices their unspoken hopes and thoughts.

The bookmaking industry has survived as strong as ever before, in spite of awkward legislation and the rise of “totes” and “pools”. In some of the big towns several hundred men are permanently employed in taking bets on horses, dogs and football teams. There are still queues outside the big ready-money offices at midday each day — it would require scores of police to make any impression. A new development is the “penny bookie”, who calls on his clients. They have regular rounds, which are carefully built up, and accept slips enclosing as little as a penny. Threepence is the minimum with the majority of ready-money layers. It was sixpence in 1929. In towns which boast a League football team the unemployed save their coppers for the fortnightly home matches, and watching the big crowds streaming out of the grounds it is hard to realise that the economic depression is so acute.

There have been some remarkable shiftings in the relative positions of different classes of workers in the last five years. The higher ranks of merchant service officers, who at one time could be reckoned as belonging to the lower middle class, have been very thoroughly proletarianised as a result of the new conditions in their industry. Hundreds of the higher paid clerks and salesmen have been “reduced to the ranks” in like manner. I saw men who, I was assured, swore in 1931 that they would “never draw any dole,” queuing up at the relief office. On the other hand, there has been a definite raising of the status of certain classes of skilled worker, notably in the electrical trades, where they are fairly assured of steady work. In the older days Hartlepool and Tynemouth mothers looked on junior officers and engineers as “good catches” for their daughters. They know better now.

How are the unemployed filling their enforced leisure hours? There is still a proportion which looks for work, but the majority have long since given up the hopeless quest. There are books — the public libraries and the “2d. a week” places are crowded. Walks — men go off alone or in pairs every afternoon in increasing numbers. Beer — there are more people in the public houses than one would expect. Even in Jarrow, where in 1932 a customer was something of an event in many houses, there are groups of men in most bar-rooms before closing time. But there has been a rapid decline in beer consumption in the last few years, and the younger generation has never acquired the habit. Cinemas have far outstripped other outside influences. If it is true that hero worship is an instinct deeply rooted in humanity, the young people of the north-east area seem to express it in an absorbed interest in their favourite stars. Local and national politicians arouse no enthusiasm —which is perhaps not very surprising — and other public figures are never discussed. But the private lives of Mr Clark Gable and Miss Merle Oberon and their like are apparently as well known as the multiplication table. I have been wondering what effect this continual homage to celluloid celebrity will have on plastic minds. After all, old, baggy-trousered platform men have little chance against exquisitely groomed, handsome and vital young men and women when it comes to drawing power, and the tempo and technique of a Hollywood film sets a standard which cannot be approached by ordinary mortals trying to improve a devastated area.

In the course of a tour of the two counties I met no one who believed that any kind of sudden prosperity lay ahead for Northumberland or Durham. A Jarrow business man spoke hopefully of the reopening of the local steel works and blast furnaces, but concluded: “We’ve had so many false alarms up here, and nothing’s been done yet.” In Gateshead, housewives and unemployed men I met ridiculed the “New Deal for the North-east” talk. I found similar reactions in Middlesbrough and Newcastle among the workers, who have lost faith in patent panaceas. It was the same further north. A woman in a little cottage at Alnwick, not far from the famous castle, described the hardness of her lot without any bitterness or striving for effect. She worked perhaps sixteen hours a day looking after the many needs of her big family. Hope for the future? “At one time I thought things would get better pretty quick,” she said, “ but now we’re used to it. When I see these pictures of people enjoying themselves in the papers it makes me mad sometimes, but you’ve got to grin and bear it.” “Grin and bear it” — I must have heard that expression at least half a dozen times in Northumberland. It is trite, but expresses the rough philosophy of the Northerner as well as anything can.

In villages such as Corbridge and Blaydon the people I met seemed to have as little understanding of what was happening around them as if they lived in the heart of Surrey. A group of farmers made me angry when they agreed that the unemployed would “never work so long as they’ve got the dole.” They quoted instances of men they knew who preferred 30s. benefit to 46s. wages. Of course, there are people like that — no one of understanding would deny it. In every body of men there is a fraction of wastrels. But to libel the half- million people drawing relief in the north-east area as work-shies, because of the exceptions, showed blindness and crass obstinacy.

In southern and central Durham the unemployed miners had lost hope of the pits reopening, and many of them were concentrating on sport. At Whitburn a young miner said: “Ah’ll nivor gan doon the pit again, that’s sartin, so Ah might as well try to pick up something else.” He was in his garden, where he spent most of his days. His attitude was echoed further south in the county. At Annfield Plain old miners told me that they could “make nothing” of the young fellows, whose outlook on life was so different from their own. And there was something in their rather pathetic plaint. The coming of the bus, the making of new roads, and the remarkable educational facilities offered by the County Council have made a remarkable change. How can the older generation understand the young men of the north-east? Growing up in a warring and crumbling world, to find that there is no place for them in society. Defeat is succeeded by determination or despair, which in turn gives way to cynicism or demoralisation.

I went back to my old queue at the Wawn Street Labour Exchange in South Shields. Many of the men who had stood alongside me in 1932 were still there. I looked for those who had just started to draw benefit before I was thrown off. Their clothes were shabby or ragged, some were unshaven, but all seemed fairly resigned. What were they thinking about? The horse that would win the big race that day. Threepence on an outsider might bring back a whiff of old times. They did not hate the Government or the social system. They did not seem to hate anything. Three years had slightly numbed them. Their only thought for the future seemed to be “What next?”

Although the life in the north-east today is a long-drawn-out tragedy, few of the players are conscious of the fact. Tyneside, Wearside, and Teesside are as doggedly goodhumoured as in the “big money days” of 1919. An unemployed North Shields carpenter symbolised this spirit when he said : “I’m going to ask the corner bookie to stamp my card — I’ve been working for him long enough!”

Mr. John Brown, who was once a miner, had his first article “A Poor Student Looks at Oxford”, printed in this paper on January 6th 1934.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008