Did Britain really roar in the 1920s?
Could a nation traumatised by war truly let its hair down and embrace the possibilities of peace? Ahead of the release of the 1921 census of England and Wales, Sarah Hellawell takes Britain’s temperature at the dawn of the “roaring” twenties
Please note: this article was written before the release of the 1921 census on 6 January 2022
It was a year of hope. It was a year of regret. It was a time of boundless optimism at the possibilities offered by peace. It was a time of almost unimaginable grief at the ravages of the First World War. It was a “roaring” year of dancing and decadence, flappers and frivolity. It was a year of social unrest and guerrilla war. It was a brave new world of motor cars and disposable income. It was a world of grinding poverty and industrial collapse.
1921 may appear ever more distant as we advance further into the 21st century. Yet this January that year will be thrown into sharp focus once more – thanks to the release into the public domain of the 1921 census for England and Wales.
The census promises to unlock a treasure trove of information about what life was like in Britain a century ago. It was the largest survey of its kind yet, posing Britons questions about everything from their professional occupation and educational background to marital status. And the government didn’t intend to simply collect this information and set it aside to gather dust. Instead, it promised to use that information as a force for good, announcing (rather grandly) that the census would facilitate plans “for the betterment of social and national conditions”, informing policy on everything from pensions and unemployment insurance to housing, schools and transport.
Not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of offering up personal information to faceless government officials. Yet, for all that, the press and public in 1921 do appear to have been genuinely fascinated by what the census would reveal about their country. One newspaper even declared that “we want to know where we stand after years of war such as were never experienced before”.
And it’s that very sentiment that makes 1921 such a fascinating year to look back upon from today’s perspective. Where did Britain stand as it attempted to come to terms with one of the most traumatic conflicts in its history? What was the mood of a populace grappling with the issues of commemoration and grief, while looking to strike out and grab the opportunities provided by the postwar world? And did Britain really “roar” at the dawn of the 1920s?
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Emblem of the fallen
Whatever hopes Britons invested in the future, there was no escaping the fact that 700,000 men had lost their lives during four years of conflict. Surely no section of the 1921 census captures the human cost of the war better than the one that asked which Britons had suffered the death of a parent.
The death toll was inevitably reflected in one of the census’s headline findings: population size. The census established that the population in England and Wales (the just-formed Northern Ireland had no census that year and Scotland had a separate census) stood at around 38 million – the largest ever recorded. However, this was only a 1.8 million increase on 1911, the smallest growth in a century – a product of the death toll and lower birth rate brought about by the disruption of the war years.
No section of the census captures the terrible cost of the war more than the one dedicated to the death of a parent
With the death toll being so high, it was surely inevitable that remembrance would become an integral part of British life. In November 1921, the Royal British Legion sold 9 million red poppies as an “emblem of the fallen” in the run-up to armistice day. Formed six months earlier as an amalgamation of existing ex-servicemen groups, the Legion provided support for ex-service personnel (of whom 1.75 million lived with injuries or disability) and their families.
A sharp economic downturn and rising unemployment levels in the immediate postwar years meant that many of those who had served in the armed forces were out of work in the early 1920s. “The longed-for and dearly bought peace was a profound disappointment,” observed the author and war poet RH Mottram, capturing the dissatisfaction felt by many ex-servicemen that their peacetime jobs were not accompanied by a higher status or wage. In response, ex-servicemen’s associations, charities and government schemes aimed to support veterans’ rehabilitation into society.
Although personal remembrance of the fallen had begun long before the war ended, it was in the early 1920s that official commemorations became part of the fabric of public life. Local communities, churches and schools unveiled plaques and monuments and, in November 1920, the Cenotaph was unveiled on Whitehall. That same
year, the unknown warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, while the Belgian marble tablet that covers the grave was unveiled during the 1921 Armistice Day service.
Conflict on the continent may have come to an end, but that didn’t mean that the United Kingdom was entirely at peace. From January 1919 to July 1921, war raged in Ireland as the nationalist campaign for independence escalated into outright hostilities.
This was a war that had been brewing for years. Irish nationalists had been agitating for greater self-determination since the 19th century – a campaign that culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and declaration of independence. Two years later, Sinn Fein leaders ratified the Proclamation of the Irish Republic following their electoral success at the general election.
Meanwhile, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) prosecuted a guerrilla conflict against the British authorities. David Lloyd George’s government responded by sending in new recruits for the Royal Irish Constabulary. These were the feared Black and Tans (so named after the mismatched colours of their uniforms), a unit chiefly made up of ex-servicemen returning from the frontline.
Trailblazers of 1921: the birth control pioneerThe Mothers’ Clinic for Constructive Birth Control opened on 17 March 1921 in Holloway, a working-class area of north London. Its founder, MARIE STOPES, sought to make the use of birth control within marriage respectable and to ensure “joyous and deliberate motherhood”.
The clinic was free and open to all married women to provide education. Three years earlier, Stopes’ book Married Love had become a best- seller. Although her legacy has been damaged by her eugenicist views, Stopes was a pioneer in women’s sexual health education.
Brutality was rife on both sides of the conflict. In fact, so bloody did the fighting become that British women in the Labour party were moved to condemn the terror directed against Irish women and children. In doing so, they drew similarities with the “the devastated regions in France and Belgium” under German occupation in the First World War.
1921 was a transformative year for Ireland. By the end of the year, the Anglo-Irish War was over and both sides had agreed to come to the table. On 6 December, an Irish delegation headed by Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, reached a deal with David Lloyd George in London. Following a night of high political drama, the two parties signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, not only creating the Irish Free State but also allowing for partition, as the six counties of Ulster opted to remain part of the union with Great Britain. The island of Ireland now consisted of two very different political entities, and has continued to do so ever since.
England, Wales and Scotland were largely spared the political turmoil and bloodshed endured by the people of Ireland. But, all the same, 1921 was a year of great hardship for many families. Although most people equate economic depression with the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, Britain was jolted by a series of economic shocks in the early 1920s. And, for all the lofty postwar rhetoric of building “homes fit for heroes”, living conditions in Britain’s inner-city slums remained, for the most part, grim. One London mother reported feeling disheartened, miserable and “worn out with struggling in these wretched rooms”. A woman from south Wales told the Trades Union Congress that “she would like to hand over all my family for a while to those in power to see if they could feed them on the money I get”.
The waning of traditional heavy industry and rising foreign competition inevitably led to unemployment in key sectors – and that triggered widespread industrial unrest.
Coal mining had been a staple industry of prewar Britain and the main source of employment in parts of the north-east of England, Yorkshire, south Wales and Scotland. By the early 1920s, a deeply uncomfortable truth was dawning on the industry: it was clearly struggling to replicate its 19th-century success.
One mother reported feeling miserable and 'worn out with struggling in these wretched rooms'
During the First World War, the government had nationalised the mining industry, deeming coal production essential to the nation’s survival. On 31 March 1921, however, it placed mining back in the hands of private owners – a move that had dire consequences for industrial relations. Miners’ wages were cut, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called for a strike and, faced with the prospect of the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation also striking in sympathy, David Lloyd George employed the Emergency Powers Act to recall troops.
In the end, transport workers and railwaymen chose not to join the strike, and a mass walk-out of more than 2 million workers didn’t materialise. The nightmare scenario of a general strike in 1921 never came to pass, but the threat of mass disruption had implications for the timing of the census, which was postponed from April to June.
The party decade?
When the census did eventually go ahead, it revealed an “excess of women”. Given the huge death toll of the First World War, this was hardly surprising. All the same, to reporters and establishment figures alike, this was a cause of great concern. In fact, so worried was the political establishment by the prospect of female voters being in the majority that, in 1918, it had seen to it that the franchise was limited to women over the age of 30.
Despite such moves, suffragists were determined to build on the hard-earned gains of the war years, and continued to lobby MPs to extend the franchise to all women, demanding “that they should now be allowed their share of the responsibilities of citizenship”.
Trailblazers of 1921: the political leaderThe second woman to take up a parliamentary seat in the House of Commons was elected on 22 September 1921 at a by-election in Louth, Lincolnshire. MARGARET WINTRINGHAM was the first British-born woman to sit in the Commons, as Sinn Fein member Constance Markievicz abstained from taking her seat and Nancy Astor hailed from Virginia, USA.
Wintringham was active in both the Liberal party and the women’s movement, using her position to lobby for equal franchise, equal pay and widows’ pensions. In her maiden speech to parliament, she argued that women “feel that the best investment for the nation at the present time is good education and good health”.
Suffragists remained a force to be reckoned with in 1921 and would continue to be so throughout the twenties. But if one group of women was to come to epitomise the
decade more than any other, it was surely the “flappers”. Casting off the limitations of the Edwardian period, these young women came of age during the postwar period.
The stereotypical flapper wore her hair bobbed, her hemline short and her waistline dropped. She drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, attended outrageous parties and danced to jazz. In short, she challenged accepted norms of femininity. As a result, she was soon perceived as a threat, arousing fears of sexual immorality and the Americanisation of British culture.
Flappers drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, partied hard – and challenged stereotypes of femininity
Thanks, in part, to the rise of the flappers, the 1920s will always be remembered as a party decade. Modern popular culture has certainly bought into this image,
with TV series such as Peaky Blinders glamourising a golden age in which Britain apparently “roared”. Countless column inches have been dedicated to the Bright Young Things – a set of young socialites who partied hard, and became a media obsession in the process.
Trailblazers of 1921: the radical reformerIn September 1921, 30 councillors from Poplar – including GEORGE LANSBURY, a radical social reformer – were imprisoned for their roles in resisting central government taxes. Poverty was rife in this East End borough, and Poplar’s councillors argued that rates should be spread equally across the London boroughs. From prison, Lansbury wrote to the home secretary, Edward Shortt: “I am guilty of no crime, but find myself treated as such.”
After almost six weeks, the councillors were released and parliament passed a new bill to alter the rates. Lansbury went on to serve as leader of the Labour party between 1932 and 1935.
The 1920s was indeed a decade when nightclubs boomed and jazz culture, imported from the USA, swept British cities. A key moment in the birth of Britain’s jazz age arrived on 27 August 1921, when the government relaxed the wartime Defence of the Realm Act restrictions, loosening regulations on the sale of alcohol. The early 1920s saw Kate Meyrick, the so-called “Night Club Queen”, opening a series of clubs in Soho (and, despite the easing of restrictions, receiving numerous prison sentences for serving alcohol without a licence).
Meanwhile, hundreds of dance halls popped up across the country, and jazz bands, described by one dancer as the “essence of happiness and jollity”, toured
the nation. One young man in Newcastle upon Tyne described going to the local “Palais de Danse” on a Saturday evening and watching the “moving sea of dancers coagulated in front of the stage”.
Despite these descriptions of dancing and decadence, in reality most Britons in 1921 let their hair down not in a nightclub, but in a cinema. The 1920s was a golden age of Hollywood, and in working-class communities many people went to the pictures more than once a week, even during the depression at the end of the decade. One unemployed worker from Lancashire captured the mood perfectly when reporting how, after going to the library to read the papers, “in the evening we used to go to the pictures. That was how we spent the dole money.”
If cinema was the leisure pursuit of the 1920s, then London-born Charlie Chaplin was one of its greatest stars. On 9 September, Chaplin returned home to London for the first time in nine years. The “King of Mirth” had crossed the Atlantic to promote his first feature-length film as director and star, The Kid, and he was welcomed like a conquering hero. One young lad presented him with a letter that read: “You were one of us. You are now famous over the world.”
Not everyone was in thrall to this cultural invasion, though. By 1927, with anxieties about the Americanisation of British life reaching a crescendo, the Cinematograph Films Act made it mandatory for cinemas to show a quota of British films. Yet that wasn’t enough to assuage the fears – voiced regularly in the media – that cinema was too passive, that sensationalised storylines did not depict social reality, and that violent films would lead to rising crime levels.
Britain’s self-appointed moral guardians may have fretted over the nation’s direction of travel as it advanced into the 1920s. But for those living in poverty, menaced by unemployment, the cinema did something every bit as effective as the bright lights of Soho and fast living of the jazz age: it provided an invaluable form of escapism from the realities of everyday life.
So did Britain really roar in 1921? For some, it certainly did
So did Britain really roar in 1921? For some, it certainly did. There’s little doubt that people in work – especially those employed in the booming service sector and buoyant light industries – had a greater choice of how to spend their disposable income. Leisure, travel, electrical appliances and even motor vehicles were now more attainable to more people than ever.
But these people were well and truly in the minority. To most Britons in a time of economic turbulence and sprawling slums, the world of haute couture and high society parties would have appeared impossibly remote. To them, the “roaring” twenties was a phenomenon that happened to other people – the preserve of the lucky few.
Sarah Hellawell is lecturer in modern British history at the University of Sunderland