Rising wages and falling prices, more things to buy – and more inviting shops to buy them from. An unprecedented boom in house-building offering opportunities to clear the slums, and provide for many a home of their own, with modern furnishings – on the ‘never never’ if necessary.


New light industries with better pay and jobs for women. A wireless in almost every home, a ‘dream palace’ cinema in almost every town, jam packed palais de dance and swing every night on the wireless. Faster, streamlined railways, a small car almost within reach for the working man, holidays with pay, the countryside ever more accessible, a rash of new lidos and government encouragement to ‘keep fit’ and enjoy the fresh air. What’s not to like about the Thirties?

Yet, sitting in a bar on 52nd Street in New York in September 1939, the poet WH Auden wrote of a “low dishonest decade”. And this is the label that has stuck.

But there are other, equally accurate labels that could be attached to the second decade of the interwar years: optimistic, experimental, hopeful, resolute – though confused fits too.

However, it is not hard to see why it is the dolorous aspects that persist down the years. Intractable levels of unemployment that reached almost three million in 1933 were evidence of a long term – and irreversible – decline in Britain’s traditional staple heavy industries: mining, ship building, iron and steel and textiles. Poverty, malnutrition and hopelessness were prevalent among the families of the unemployed. A loosely-knotted safety net sagged perilously for those suffering the vicissitudes of the job market, or the incidence of illness.

Meanwhile, the government seemed at its wits end to know what to do about getting the 'magneto' of British industry starting again – to paraphrase the most incisive economist of the decade, John Maynard Keynes. It also appeared wilfully indifferent to the plight of those caught up in the harsh cogs of industrial decline and the changing conditions of world trade, whose plight Charlie Chaplin epitomised in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times.

Hunger marches, the harsh, intrusive means test, the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism, the rise of fascism and communism at home and abroad, and the menace of Hitler’s insatiable territorial demands provided a bleak backdrop to the decade. War threatened, and then engulfed China, Japan, Abyssinia, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, then all of Europe, and finally the entire world.

More like this

When this picture has been challenged by historians, it has invariably been a largely economic tussle – the suburban estates and the baby Austin in every garage set against the Jarrow march and the derelict Welsh mining villages. Yet this is an easily resolvable debate: both were true. It depended where you lived, your age, what industry you worked in, whether you were skilled or unskilled, mobile or with too many family commitments to “get on your bike” to search for work.

The other charge that earned the Thirties the epithet the ‘devil’s decade’ was the policy of appeasement, the false hopes by which the ‘guilty men’ of Munich ceded to Hitler’s demands and lost their moral compass. But time has softened that harsh judgement. Chamberlain is no longer brought to the bar of history covered only by the pathetic scrap of paper promising ‘peace for our time’ that he waved after his meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938. His achievements as a reforming chancellor are given greater weight, and his actions seen not simply as craven acquiescence to the fascist dictators, but also a profound desire to avoid war – a fervent hope shared by the nation – and a reluctance to divert money required for social services into escalating rearmament costs.

A wider optic through which to view the Thirties was proposed by Richard Overy in his fascinating history of the interwar period The Morbid Age (2009), a time when intellectuals such as Arnold Toynbee, Charles Blacker (of the Eugenics Society), the 'gloomy Dean' Inge, Gilbert Murray, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, despaired that they were witnessing the decline of western civilisation – the death of capitalism, the fear of demographic decline – namely that the 'better sort' would be swamped by the socially undesirable yet fecund lower orders.

Yet that optic can be swung through 180 degrees and come up with a rather different view, one that concludes that for all its material hardships and international tension, the Thirties was also a decade of optimism and hope. It was an age of scientific experiments and progress: the atom was split, new drugs were developed, new materials invented, new technologies perfected. Above all, there was a confidence that scientific rationalism – hand in glove with reformist, or more often socialist politics – could build a brave new world (that was far distant from the dystopia Huxley had envisaged in 1932).

There was an unshakeable belief in planning: find out the facts, survey the options, then proceed – in economics, housing, education, the environment – with a proliferation of think tanks, ginger groups, luncheon clubs, pamphlets and documentaries, all dedicated to finding solutions to Britain’s economic and social problems.

In his English Journey, the Bradford novelist, playwright, broadcaster and journalist, JB Priestley, discovered 'three Englands' in the autumn of 1933. The first "Old England [was] the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways"; the second was Victorian industrial England with its "cynically devastated countryside", its "sooty dismal little towns", its industry in terminal decline "with no new life being poured into it"; the third was "the new postwar England… of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons."

Priestley didn’t much care for this third England. He saw the malign vulgarity of American consumer culture pervading, diluting and dumbing down Britain’s distinctive national culture and society. Yet he recognised that this was the future – as indeed it was.

What Priestley had seen was the democratisation of desire, when a factory hand or a shop assistant could dream of being a Hollywood film star, and fuel that dream by visiting one of the magnificent art deco or supremely modernist cinemas that could seat more than a thousand, where the price of a 6d or 1/– ticket gave working people a taste of luxury they had never sampled before: almost 2,000 cinemas were built between 1926 and 1938.

Increasing mass production brought the comforts, pleasures and trifles of the rich within reach of the poor. When the average working man earned around £3 a week, Woolworths boasted “nothing more than sixpence”, and customers could handle goods for themselves without some snooty shop walker interposing him or herself between ‘madam’ and the merchandise.

Roadhouses such as the Ace of Spades on the Kingston bypass offered a near nightclub experience far removed from West End prices. The popularity of greyhound racing might have miniaturised the ‘sport of kings’ but that and the weekly football pools offered a faint chance of riches to those who would never rise far above the breadline any other way.

The ‘bypasses and arterial roads’ were a vector out of the grimy, polluted cities into the countryside so that it was possible to have a day out, or a weekend ramble or hike in the fresh air, stopping for sustenance on the way, maybe staying at a newly-established Youth Hostel. There was even the opportunity to spend a week by the sea at one of the new ‘fun round the clock’ holiday camps that were catering for those who, after the 1938 Act, could enjoy a holiday with pay for the first time.

Yet such roads as the Kingston bypass, the Great West Road, and those radiating from Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow were ways out in the Thirties in a more profound sense. Housing was the great social blight, its relief the most discussed topic. Four million houses were built between the wars: local authorities increasingly recognised – albeit reluctantly – the need to become landlords and municipal housing accounted for a million new homes.

Families that were moved as a result of slum clearance or overcrowding were rehoused in new estates on the outskirts of cities – Becontree, the St Helier Estate, Wythenshawe and others – which owed more than a nod to the principles of the Garden City movement.

Owner-occupation became a possibility for a growing number of lower middle-class and better paid working-class families. Rows of ‘Tudorbethan’ semis with gardens front and back stretched out of the cities served by new railway lines – or, on the outskirts of London, the extended tube lines – several with startling modernist stations.

Yet there was more to Thirties housing than spec-built suburban semis. Workers’ flats in Vienna inspired the massive municipal Quarry Hill estate in Leeds with features designed specifically for modern urban living, while Wells Coates designed the Lawn Road apartments in north London for busy professionals with no time to cook or launder.

Architects fleeing from Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria bought modernist ideas of clean-lined functionality and penetrating light to Britain, not only evidenced in ‘machines for living’ for progressives, but also in the conviction that buildings profoundly affected how people lived. This translated into the flat white boxes commissioned by ‘Pink’ Crittall for the company’s workers manufacturing metal window frames (a ubiquitous feature of Thirties modernist architecture) and to forward looking health centres. One, located in Finsbury, was a ‘megaphone for health’ amidst the dingy streets of one of London’s poorest boroughs; another, in Peckham, was started by two local doctors in the belief that “health was as infectious as disease”.

The Thirties ended in the most dreadful war the world has ever known, many of the socially-minded scientists such as JD Bernal and Solly Zuckerman went to work on military projects, while rearmament contracts effectively ended unemployment in the shipyards and increased demand for coal and iron. Pacifism, which had seemed such a vibrant force mid-decade, all but died in the face of the evils of fascism, flat roofs leaked and soon the sinuous glamour of the Thirties gave way to the utility designs of the Forties. Consumer choice was replaced by rationing.

The Thirties was, it has to be admitted, largely an unrealised decade, yet one that provided both the commitment to, and blueprints for, the postwar welfare state, and many projects that are still being developed today – from the South Bank complex to nationwide polyclinics.

Architectural gems

Penguin pool, London Zoo

When the Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin came to Britain in 1931 he considered it to be “almost 50 years behind, as though locked in a deep provincial sleep”. But soon Lubetkin and his company, Tecton (Greek for ‘carpenter’) had been commissioned to build a penguin pool at London Zoo. His elegant design was far removed from the usual constricting animal enclosures with its white concrete spiral ramps (constructed using the expertise of the engineer Ove Aarup) and splash pools. Indeed, some wondered “why human beings cannot be provided, like penguins, with an environment so well-adapted to their needs”.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex

The De La Warr Pavilion, opened on 12 December1935, is named after the far-sighted ninth Earl de la Warr, who was mayor of Bexhill in Sussex. ‘Buck’ (as the earl was better known) organised a competition to find an architect for an entertainment and leisure venue for his town. It was won by Erich Mendelsohn, who had fled to Britain from Nazi Germany, and the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff. Their masterpiece, an art deco “socialist palace by the sea”, exemplifies Thirties modernism with its ocean liner look, welded steel frame, curved glass façade reflecting the seascape, and stunning spiral staircase.

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, Lancashire

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe, which opened in 1933, was designed by Oliver Hill for the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway). The concrete art deco design curves out towards the sea at the front, and enfolds a view of the railway station at the back. A showcase for Thirties art and design, it incorporated panels carved by Eric Gill, murals painted by Eric and Tirzah Ravilious, and rugs by the textile designer Marion Dorn. The murals had to be repainted after falling foul of the rain-swept Lancashire coast. However, the building is now enjoying a new lease of life, reopening to the public in 2008 following a restoration.

Juliet Gardiner is the author of a new history of the Thirties. Her other recent books include Wartime: Britain 1939–1945 (Headline, Review, 2004)

BOOKS: The Thirties: An Intimate History of Britain by Juliet Gardiner (Harper Press, February 2010); Britain in the Nineteen Thirties by Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971); The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon (Jonathan Cape, 2000); The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties 1919–1940 by Ronald Blythe (Hamish Hamilton, 1963); Britain Between the Wars by Charles Loch Mowat (University of Chicago Press, 1955); The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars by Richard Overy (Allen Lane, 2009)


This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine