With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, Britain morphed from a society dependant on the land for work and income, to a burgeoning working class who clocked in for daily shifts in factories. For a time, Britain led the way across the world, with the textile industry, iron and steel production, all using steam power (which, of course, led to the pollution mentioned in my previous post).
Roll forward to the 1940s and Britain is still leading the way in terms of manufacturing, being responsible for a quarter of the world’s trade in manufactured goods. Shipbuilding was a huge industry, as was car and textile production and, of course, coal. But dig beneath the surface (no pun intended!) and evidence suggested that coal and cotton production was in decline, with new industries, such as electronics, chemicals and aviation being on the rise. In modern times our ‘service sector’ is much talked about, but back in 1950 it was already employing roughly as many people as the manufacturing sector.
An exhibition promoting British manufacturing of consumer goods was held at the V&A shortly after the end of the war. The idea behind the exhibition was to highlight innovative design, but given the tight austerity measures being inflicted on British people the target market of products such as these were far from our shores.
And despite the promotion of the shiny and new the majority of British manufacturing industries were taking their toll in terms of working conditions and health. Here we learn about the experience from someone working in a bottle-making firm in Leeds – something that would have been typical of many workplaces at that time:
‘The heat was terrific. There wasn’t even a tap from which to collect cold water to mop one’s brow…the canteen was a horrible, stinking, empty place. But such primitive facilities were on a par with the rest of the industry.‘Austerity Britain’ by David Kynaston
Nevertheless, for a generation with vivid memories of the horrors of mass unemployment and dreadful hardship experienced during the depression of the 1930s, being in work – whatever the work entailed – was preferable to starvation.
And it was an experience that started early. For most of the 1940s it was still commonplace for young boys of fourteen to take on factory work, remaining in the same job until they finally retired. There were plans to raise the school leaving age to fifteen, outlined in the Education Act of 1944, but they were put on hold because of the war, not coming into effect until 1947. And so often whole families – indeed whole communities – worked for the same employer, with people working a short distance from where they lived. There was a camaraderie among the workers, a feeling that despite the long hours, low pay, and brutal conditions, they could take pride in the knowledge that they worked hard. And for those workers who could see an end result, in car production, for example, there was the added advantage that they had contributed something to the British economy.
And at a time when the British economy was struggling, being able to benefit from attractive export markets was a real bonus. Countries forming part of the British Empire remained keen to take British goods, providing a perhaps unreal ‘comfort zone’ in terms of pricing and productivity. For several years immediately after the end of the Second World War, Britain also benefitted from the markets forming part of the ‘Sterling Area’. This was an area that appeared informally during the early 1930s, after the pound had left the gold standard in 1931, with the result that a number of currencies of countries that historically had performed a large amount of their trade in sterling were pegged to sterling instead of to gold. Many of these countries were part of the British Empire, but a significant number were not. It was certainly something that helped Britain in the immediate aftermath of the war, but an arrangement that fell into decline during the 1950s as the British Empire itself declined and closer links with Europe were being forged.
More on that in a future post…!