Working Class Life in England in the 1930s
The 1930s in England
The 1930s in England was a time when the British government rode roughshod over the working class.
In Birkenhead, where my mum and grandparents lived in the 1930s, there was a lot of unemployment. Many working class people lived in abject poverty.
Workers and the unemployed alike marched in protest. They marched because of the harsh reductions imposed by the government. They were experiencing a huge fall in their already poor living standards.
During this period wages were reduced. The already miserably low benefits for the unemployed were also cut back.
These drastic cuts resulted in millions of the working class living in abject poverty. They were thrown into the most appalling conditions of poverty and deprivation imaginable.
The government carried out these attacks all in the name of national economic measures. These economic measures were a vicious attack on their lives and livelihoods.
While massive reductions were taking place, the government spent millions of pounds on armaments, preparing for a war that would involve the slaughter of millions of the working class.
Including the working class of other countries too, and all in the interest of capitalism.
It was felt that the government and employers had no idea what the imposition of these reductions did. Hard-working families had to live with the harsh effects of less money coming into the home, and it seemed that no-one even cared!
This was the background of the thirties that my mum, who was born in 1919, was experiencing as an eleven year old.
I began this Hub in response to this question
‘How did people in your family save money in the 1930s?’
This question is easily answered in two words: ‘They didn’t.’
My mum was the eldest of 10 children and they lived in a small two up and two down terraced house.
The girls slept in one bedroom and boys in the other. My grandparents slept on a settee that converted into a bed downstairs in the front room.
My grandfather worked in the shipyards most of his working life and even though he had a job times were very hard.
In the shipyards some of the jobs were beginning to be automated. This resulted in fewer workers being needed for some of the jobs and people were losing their jobs.
Two of my mum’s siblings died in infancy. In the 1930s Britain did not have a National Health Service.
It cost 2/6d, which I suppose is about 15 to 18 U.S. cents depending on the exchange rate you use, to see a doctor.
This sound like a ridiculously small amount today. But back then even when it was a matter of life and death the lack of 2/6d meant that you didn’t see a doctor.
As a result it was not uncommon for people to lose a child in infancy. Many died because of Pneumonia which was what two of my mothers siblings died from.
Even if the necessary 2/6d could be found, it was often not enough. After the doctor was paid there would be the cost of the medicine. The extra expense of medication often just could not be found.
Penicillin was not readily available in those days. Many quite commonplace illness which we treat with antibiotics today, were fatal back then.
In 1948 the National Health Service was born. From then on everyone in Britain could see a doctor when they needed to. A visit to the doctor was free to everyone at the point of service.
If treatment was necessary which involved a stay in hospital or an operation you got it. The NHS meant that this was now also free at the point of service.
Even if your treatment required that you saw a specialist you could see one on the NHS free. You might have to wait for an appointment but the consultation was free.
When the NHS came into being in 1948 even the prescriptions were free. At last medical care was free and based on need rather than on ability to pay.
Of course in the NHS is not free because our taxes pay the bills. But no one is denied access to treatment because they can't pay. Being poor and ill is no longer a death sentence like it was for so many back in the 1930's.
It is terrible when people need medical treatment and cannot get it because they cannot afford it.
It is so wrong in any society when we let people die just because they lack the money to pay for it.
When we have treatments available that would and can save people we should use them. Not just use them only on people who have the money to pay for them.
Like so many of that generation you only bought what you could pay for. Neither my grandparents or my parents ever had anything on credit. They both lived in rented accommodation all their lives.
This was the time before cheap plastic bags and things were often sold without packaging. In shops items would often be weighed out and put loose right into your shopping bag. Some things would put into brown paper bags or wrapped in newspaper.
When you got home the stuff that was in paper bags would be taken out of the bags and put away in their containers.
Biscuits for example went into the biscuit barrel. The paper bag that the biscuits came wrapped in was straightened out and folded up. The folded paper bags were then put away ready for use to wrap something else up in it.
Nothing was wasted if it could be put to use for something else later.
Back then they wasted nothing absolutely nothing. Potatoes at the greengrocers came in Hessian sacks that contained 56 lbs of potatoes. The grocer sold the potatoes straight from the sack.
Because everything that you bought was a necessity, you learned to waste nothing. Many items were often used more than once and by more than one person.
In the case of the Hessian sacks that the potatoes came in. It served its purpose holding potatoes at the greengrocers. But the Hessian sack's usefulness was not over yet.
I remember going to our greengrocer and asking for one of the empty sacks. My mum and I then used the Hessian sack as a foundation to make a peg rug. We placed that rug in front of our fireplace and it served us well for years.
Making a peg rug was a skill that my mum learned as a youngster in the 1930s and she passed that skill on to me.
Nothing is Wasted
When things came tied up with string the string would be untied, not cut. The string would then be wound up and put away to use again.
Jumpers and cardigans would be hand knitted not shop bought. When they got too worn to hand down then the garment would be unpicked. The unpicked wool was re-used to knit a new jumper or cardigan.
Often the unpicking would not be enough to make a whole new garment. This resulted in many a striped garments. The garments were striped because the unpicked wool from several different garments were necessary.
I remember unpicking jumpers and rewinding the wool back into balls ready for use again. The unpicked wool would be all crinkly as it held the shape of the knitted stitch. But this would not show when reused in a new garment.
Unpicked wool would also have knots tied in it.This was because where the garment had worn it had holes in it. The original wool would be broken .
Everything that could be recycled or repaired would be.
When socks got holes in them the socks would be darned as would any woollen garment.
I remember using a wooden mushroom inside my sock when I darned up holes. I actually enjoyed weaving the wool in and out and making the darn close knit and sturdy.
My darns would outlast the socks any day. It looks like the woman in the photograph could have done with the help of a mushroom don't you think?
With out that mushroom it was so easy to end up with pricked fingers and bloody garments.
Make and Mend
All kinds of garments would be re-used or re-purposed. Worn out adult clothing would be cut down to make children’s clothing.
Before an item was got rid of, any buttons zips or elastic would be removed so that they could used on something else.
When items could no longer be reused as clothing then they would be used for other things. The material might be to shoddy for clothing but could still be useful as cleaning rags or cut up to make Peg rugs.
Shoes were often mended at home. Most homes at that time had a cobblers last. Even in the 40s and 50s a cobblers last was still a common item in most working class homes.
I can remember my dad had a sheet of leather from which he would cut soles or heels to mend our shoes.
He would fix the new sole or heel onto the shoe using the cobbler's last to hold the shoe in place. Dad would put the shoe on the last while hammered in the tiny nails to hold the sole or heel in place.
I remember the excitement when the rubber stick-on soles came out. The stick-on soles were so much less trouble than having to fashion soles from leather.
The stick-on soles either came with glue in a small tube or they were already coated with adhesive.
First Up Best Dressed
Clothing and footwear were made to last and had to be looked after properly often being handed down to the next person in line.
My mum was lucky in this respect being the eldest of the ten children she often was the first one to wear an item before it began its journey down through the family.
It was not unusual for outer garments such as overcoats to be worn indoors in the wintertime as often fuel for the fire could not be afforded.
The inside of a house could be as cold as the outside, with ice building up on the inside of the windows.
They had a penny in the slot gas meter for the gas which was used for lighting and the gas stove. If you didn’t have a penny for the meter then you didn’t get any gas.
There is a saying that I think dates back to this time and it is ‘First up best dressed.'
This saying means that if for example there were four girls in the family, and only three pairs of knickers (panties), then the first three to get up and dressed would be the ones who would get to wear knickers that day.
Pawn Broker's Sign
No HP: See Uncle Instead
They didn't have HP back then (Hire Purchase). But back then, the pawn shop, also known as Uncle's or the pop shop, was the go to place for working-class people.
The symbol for a pawnbroker was three balls hanging outside the shop. I am not sure where the symbol came from or why they used it for a Pawnbroker.
There is an old joke about what the three balls stood for and that is “Two to one, you won't get your stuff back".
Items of value would be taken to the pawnbroker, who would give you a loan for a fixed rate of interest. If you paid back the loan and the interest in the time agreed you could redeem the item.
People pawned all kinds of articles to raise much needed cash: some of which were never redeemed and which were later sold off by the pawnbroker to get his money back.
My first pair of ice skates came from a local pawnbroker. You could often get a bargain in the pawn shops.
I use to love looking in the pawn shop windows as there was so much interesting stuff on view.
People Were Tough
Food was often scarce and it would be my grandmother that would go without. It was important to her that my granddad and her children would get enough to eat.
My great grandmother who lived round the corner from my grandmother had a chicken run in her back yard. These few chickens provided a steady stream of eggs.
My grandmother lived to be in her nineties but I don't know if that is in spite of, or because of, going without early on.
This way of life and living if you managed to survive made them tough people.
In this photograph you can see four generations: my Gran, my mum, me and my daughter.
"Know Your Place"
My grandparent’s generation and my parent’s generation knew their place. Because of this they had expectations according to that place.
They never thought to own a home or a motor car. They didn't dream of their children going to university. Those things were fitting for people of another class.
They endured hardships and poverty stoically. Why? Because that was the way of things back then, everything and everyone had their place.
Not that this is right, but I am sure that many people were happier because they didn’t focus on what they didn’t have. It is easier to think that this way of living is normal when no one else in your circle has it either.
I remember when my dad’s younger brother bought his own home. He was the first person in the family to buy a house. My parents thought he was mad and that the house would be a millstone around his neck.
If you tried to better yourself many thought you were a bit of a class traitor. It was as if you had ideas above your station in life, and ashamed of your origins.
When my uncle bought his own home he moved to a better district. The area he moved to was known in our working class area as 'Bread and Lard Island.'
The people who lived there we said were 'All fur coats and no knickers.'
These terms showed the disdain felt for them by those they left behind. We thought that folks like them were all show.
Yes they lived in better housing and looked better dressed. But most thought it to be just top show, they had those things but it came at a sacrificial price.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look at our family's way of life in the 1930s.
There was a strong sense of family back then. So in spite of all the hardships of the time the memories that my mum had of this time were mostly happy.
Other Working-Class Based Articles
If you enjoyed this article I have other articles that deal with similar material.
All these articles have the common theme of coming from a working class perspective, which differs quite a lot from that of the middle class and which has virtually nothing in common with the upper class perspective.
There is one period in modern times when all three classes had experiences in common, and that was during the Second World War.
I hope that enjoyed your foray into Working Class England. If you did please leave a comment, perhaps some feedback, or if I didn't cover what you were looking for let me know and perhaps I can do another article about that.