The Crash of 1929 was an apocalypse, Northumbrian towns were worse than those in occupied France and even the Times admitted there was great poverty.
The economist John Maynard Keynes suggested the world was entering a new dark age in the 1930s. Photograph: Hulton Getty
Pope Pius XI said that the Great Depression of the 1930s was “the worst calamity that has befallen man since the Flood”. Such pronouncements might be expected from the Vatican, but apocalyptic language became commonplace during the “devil’s decade”.
The writer and critic Edmund Wilson likened the crash of the US stock market in 1929 to “a rending of the Earth in preparation for the Day of Judgment”. The economist John Maynard Keynes suggested that the world in the grip of the economic blizzard was entering a new dark age that would last a thousand years. The French premier Léon Blum was one of many who compared the Depression to Armageddon, declaring that its effects were as traumatic as those of the first world war. The poet Edwin Muir described the army of unemployed as “the dead on leave”.
With the collapse of industries that had made Britain the workshop of the world – iron, steel, coal, textiles, shipbuilding – some parts of the country did appear to have experienced the ravages of war.
In 1933, JB Priestley found places in Northumberland and Durham that looked worse than towns he had seen in northern France that had suffered four years of German occupation. Tyneside was the epitome of dereliction, full of ruined factories, deserted warehouses, rusting cranes and decomposing ships. In Jarrow, starting point of the most famous of many hunger marches, 80% of the population lacked jobs and were subject to the tyranny of the means test and the hopelessness of the dole. The government designated such districts “special areas” but, wrote the novelist James Hanley, they constituted “a new kind of social hell, with nothing special about it except the demoralisation of a whole people, physical and moral”.
Yet large sections of the British people came relatively well out of the Depression – so much so, indeed, that some historians have dismissed the “hungry 30s” as a myth.
It is true that prices fell, while average incomes and living standards rose appreciably. Prosperity stemmed from the boom in housebuilding and the production and sale of consumer goods: cars, clothes, furniture, radios, telephones, vacuum cleaners, cigarettes. Clearly visible in the south and east of England were the beginnings of an affluent society.
Nevertheless, even the Times acknowledged that half the population was “living on a diet insufficient or ill-designed to maintain health”. In the midst of plenty, their poverty was especially galling.
Even those in work were haunted by the spectre of unemployment. As the Tottenham-born playwright Ted Willis wrote: “It was impossible not to sense, and to share, the atmosphere of fear and foreboding which lay on the district like a frost.”
Such anxieties contributed to a pathological pessimism about the future of civilisation which characterised what historian Richard Overy subsequently labelled “the morbid age”.
Piers Brendon is the author of The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s.
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