Spirit of England - England in the Twenties and Thirties

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013

This section is adapted from  'So Long Ago So Clear' - the biography of Peter Crawford


It is almost impossible for us now to understand the sense of revulsion and horror that came upon people as they surveyed the devastation that had been caused by the First World War.
This was the first truly 'industrialised' war.

First World War - Trench Warfare
All the resources of the warring nations had been focussed on the mass-production of the most hideous weapons of war.
Such weapons included machine guns, aerial bombing, poisonous gas, colossal mines, flame-throwers - some of which were of massive proportions, and the first armoured tanks.
And all of this took place in the appalling environment of the mud-drenched, corpses-littered trenches.
During the First World War England had seen a massive devastation and loss of life.

Sir Edwin Lutyens' Cenotaph
However, more people lost their lives in Eastern Europe than in the west, but the outcome was different.
In the west, and in response to the victory, most of the cities in the countries involved in the conflict, including England, erected monuments to the 'glorious dead', with the memorials in smaller villages and towns often listing the names of each local soldier who had been killed.
Almost everyone at the time believed that what they called the 'Great War' had been the 'war to end all wars'.
And how wrong they were.....

'Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.'

Laurence Binyon 1869-1943

Funeral of King Edward VII
Treaty of Versailles
The period of the 1920s and 30s  was, undoubtedly, one of the strangest and most significant  episodes in the whole of English history, but very few people living at the time realised that simple fact.
Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote a book about the period and called it 'The Long Weekend' - which in one sense was very appropriate, despite the fact that it was a period of unprecedented change which dramatically altered the everyday lives of practically everyone - at least everyone in the developed world.
The world of 1919 was very similar to the world of 1914, despite the technological advances that had been made during the war.
Oxford Street 1914
Oxford Street 1939
The world of 1939, the year the Second World War started, however, was almost totally transformed.
The 'Long Weekend' was a period of many things, but most significant were the changes in everyday life and in society that undoubtedly contributed to the economic and political instability that precipitated the Second World War.
So what were these changes ?

London Underground - 1930s
Great West Road - Middlesex
Well, it was not a decline into abject poverty, as so many people imagine.
There is a myth that the Twenties were relatively prosperous, while the Thirties were a time of unmitigated unemployment  slump and poverty.
In fact the later part of the Thirties, particularly in some parts of Britain, were a period of unparalleled growth and development.
The extreme west and the north of of the United Kingdom were badly affected by the Wall Street Crash and the slump that followed.

Great West Road - Hounslow
The South of the UK, and particularly the south-east of England, however, were able to quickly recover from the Thirties slump, and by the late middle to late Thirties were experiencing a boom.
There was a vast expansion of the suburbs - which is still visible today - and the area around London was christened 'Metroland' as those suburbs we conveniently connected to London by the Metropolitan Underground Railway.

1930s Bakelite Wireless Set
In addition there was considerable expansion of 'light industries' around London and other large conurbations in the south-east of England - as exemplified by the Great West Road in Middlesex.
The south was also the home of new developing industries such as the electrical industry, which prospered from the large-scale electrification of housing and industry.
Mass production methods brought new products such as electrical cookers, washing machines and radios into the reach of the middle classes, and the industries which produced these prospered.
Nearly half of all new factories that opened in Britain between 1932 and 1937 were in the Greater London area (see Great West Road above).

1930s English Agriculture - Ploughing
1930 Austin 7 Tourer
Another industry that prospered during the 1930s was the British motor industry.
For cities that had a developed motor industry such as Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford, the 1930s were also a boom time.
Manufacturers such as Austin, Morris and Ford dominated the motor industry during the 1930s, and the number of cars on British roads doubled within the decade.
British Agriculture also flourished in the 1930s.

Herbert Henry Asquith
In the 1920s and 1930s, Britain had a relatively advanced welfare system compared to many of the industrialised countries.
In 1911, a compulsory national unemployment and health insurance scheme had been put in place by the Liberal government of Herbert Henry Asquith (see Liberal reforms).
This scheme had been funded through contributions from the government, the employers and the workers.
At first, the scheme only applied to certain trades but, in 1920, it was expanded to include most manual workers, however, the scheme only paid out according to the level of contributions made rather than according to need, and was only payable for 15 weeks.
1930s Government Employment Exchange
Anyone unemployed for longer than that had to rely on poor law relief paid by their local authority.
In effect, millions of workers who had been too poorly paid to make contributions, or who had been unemployed long term, were left destitute by the scheme.
With the mass unemployment of the 1930s, contributions to the insurance scheme dried up, resulting in a funding crisis.
In August 1931, the 1911 scheme was replaced by a fully government-funded unemployment benefit system.
This system, for the first time, paid out according to need rather than the level of contributions.
This unemployment benefit was subject to a strict means test, and anyone applying for unemployment pay had to have an inspection by a government official to make sure that they had no hidden earnings or savings, undisclosed source(s) of income or other means of support.
The response of the average English family to the experience of the First World War, particularly in the 1930s, was in many ways predictable.
Families turned in on themselves.
Those husbands and fathers, who had survived the carnage of the trenches, had had quite enough of 'adventure'.
 Sir Ebenezer Howard
What they wanted were the quiet joys of a relatively simple family life.
This was seen particularly in the expanding suburbs (see Metroland above).
These suburbs were partly inspired by the 'Garden City' movement.
The 'Garden City' movement is a method of urban planning that was initiated in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard.
Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by 'green-belts' (parks), containing proportionate areas of residences, industry and agriculture.

Metroland Poster - 1930s
The idealistic aim of such planning was to combine the benefits of city living with life in the country, and in some ways the Metroland suburbs did, in fact, achieve such an ideal.
For those, particularly in Southern England, who had settled down and married there was the prospect of buying, (rather than renting) a home.
In the developing, light industrial economy of the South, jobs were well paid and secure, and mortgages were easy to obtain.
All over Southern England estates of new homes sprung up.
But the style mirrored the attitudes of a nation shocked by the trauma of an industrial war.
Not for them the white painted concrete, flat roofs and tower blocks favoured by Corbusier and his like.
No - the people of England looked back to a more peaceful and tranquil time.

 'Tudorbethan' - Merrie England
'Heroic' architecture was not for them.
Instead they longed for a quiet domesticity.
For them a new style was created - 'Tudorbethan'.
This style represents a subset of Tudor revival architecture; the word is modelled on John Betjeman's 1933 coinage of the 'Jacobethan' style, which he used to describe the grand mixed revival style of circa 1835–1885 that had been called things like 'Free English Renaissance'.
'Tudorbethan', however, took things a step further, eliminated the hexagonal or many-faceted towers and mock battlements of Jacobethan, and applied the more domestic styles of 'Merrie England', which were cosier and quaint.
 'Tudorbethan' is also used synonymously with 'Tudor Revival', and more specifically 'Mock Tudor'.
The emphasis was on the simple, rustic and the less impressive aspects of Tudor architecture, imitating in this way medieval cottages or country houses.
'For many, a mythological Elizabethan age and the Tudor past represented an age of stability and secure living, producing a house that at least gave an outward impression of unshakeable stability.'

The 'Mock-Tudor' style in the Suburbs
Though the style follows these more modest characteristics, items such as steeply pitched roofs, half-timbering often in-filled with herringbone brickwork, tall mullioned windows, high chimneys, jettied (overhanging) first floors above pillared porches, dormer windows supported by consoles, and even at times thatched roofs, gave 'Tudorbethan' its more striking effects.
Half-Timbering is the 'trade-mark' motif of the style, although the appearance of solid beams and half timbered exterior walls is only superficial.
Artificially aged and blackened beams are constructed from light wood, bear no loads, and are attached to ceilings and walls purely for decoration, while artificial flames leap from wrought iron fire-dogs in an inglenook often a third of the size of the room in which they are situated.
When it came to furnishing the new 'Tudor' home, the 1930s home-maker would be able to buy affordable oak furniture that recreated a Jacobean or Tudor style.
Lifestyle magazines such as 'Good Housekeeping' showed the latest home styles.
These new and influential magazines encouraged the lady of the house to keep up with the 'Jones' and the man to use his spare time on DIY projects.

Furniture would often be large, boxy geometric shapes.
English Oak was popular but because of a shortage of wood, veneer and decorated plywood was greatly used.
The living room would often be carpeted.
In larger homes halls may have had panelled walls and parquet floors.
In kitchens they would have used linoleum or quarry tiles for the floor and plywood and Melomine for the units.
The bedroom more often of had fitted furniture, dark varnished floorboards and an electric fire.
Downstairs coal fireplaces were fitted with an oak or tiled surround.
The sun rising pattern was often found repeated in stained glass in doors and windows.
The garden became a focal part of the new domesticity.
Instead of digging trenches, the man of the house would be digging flower-beds and tending his roses.
Having spent years dedicated to killing, the men ho survived the was dedicated themselves to growing living things from the soil - and this was the origin of the average Englishman's obsession with his garden.
There was, however, another aspect to this apparent 'retreat from modernity'.
For some there was an acceptable face of 'modernity'.
Such people were usually 'upper middle-class' and well educated.

English Moderne 1930s
Like the traditionalist (who were the great majority), the 'progressives' wanted to 'step aside from the immediate past, but rather than go back to a pre-industrial 'Merrie England', they preferred to move forward to a 'brave new world' of light and freedom.
Theses people chose a style now known as Moderne (note the intentional 'e' at the end of the word).
During the 1930s, Art Deco had a noticeable effect on house design in the United Kingdom, as well as the design of various public buildings.
Classic Art Deco then morphed into Moderne.
Moderne was typified by straight, white-rendered house frontages rising to flat roofs, sharply geometric door surrounds and tall windows, as well as convex-curved metal corner windows, were all characteristic of that period.
The London Underground is also famous for many examples of Art Deco architecture, and many of the suburban stations in Metroland were designed in the Moderne style.
Du Cane Court, in Balham, south-west London, is a good example of the Moderne style.

Dominion Cinema - Hounslow - 1930s
Saltdean Lido - Sussex - 1930s
It was reckoned to be possibly the largest block of privately owned apartments under one roof in Britain at the time it was built, and the first to employ pre-stressed concrete.

Moderne, with its flat roofs and solaria was associated with the cult of sunbathing, health and fitness, and the style was used for the many Lidos that were built during the 1930s.
Where the war had destroyed bodies, the new era 'glorified' the fit, slim, healthy sun-tanned body.

German Völkisch Domestic Architecture
Strangely the ideals of the English middle-class, educated 'modernes' was matched in Germany and Austria by the Völkisch Lebensreform movement.
The Lebensreform ("life reform") was a social movement in early 20th-century Germany and Austria that propagated a healthy, back-to-nature lifestyle, emphasizing among other things health food and organic food, nudism and sunbathing, sexual liberation, and alternative medicine.
Equally the Völkisch movements had their German version of 'Merrie England' and a vernacular, domestic architecture which some have described as 'Black Forrest' style, which mirrored the Tudorbethan style prominent in England.
Both the English and the Germans were responding the the horrors of the 'Great War' with a strange combination of modernity combined with a return to to an imagined, romanticised and idealised past.

Health, Sun and Sport
Moderne Style - Odeon Cinema - 1930s
These reactions were responses to the perceived threat from and industrialisation of war, and an industrialisation of production, both of which were seen as destructive, both physically and environmentaly. 
But returning to England  - this was the era of suburban parks, with tennis courts, golf courses, bowling greens, lidos and paddling pools for the children.
As for other entertainments there were public libraries, dancing, and of course the cinema, many of which were built in the Moderne style, (particularly the Odeon chain).
So it was not, in England at least, the 'Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties', but rather an era of quiet, simple pleasures - an era of home, family and garden, and the enjoyment of health, sun and countryside.
Much of what we once considered the quintessence of the 'English character' was born in the leafy suburbs of the inter-war period.

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