When the First World War ended in November 1918, the men returning home from the trenches were promised ’Homes Fit for Heroes’, by politicians, greedy as ever for votes. But how did the 1920’s turn out for people in Northeast England?
Did they get the kind of society that they had been promised and which the sacrifices of so many in the previous decade deserved?
The terrible conflict that was the First World War caused major changes in patterns to trade and this had disastrous consequences for the Northeast.
The region had built up many serious international markets for both its coal and the great ships that were built along the Rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees. Indeed, at one time a third of the ships built in the entire world were built on those three rivers a mere forty miles apart.
The ship that held the Blue Riband as the fastest ship across between 1909 and 1929 was the Mauretania, built at Swan Hunter shipyard at Wallsend, as was the Carpathia, the ship most of those rescued from the Titanic ended up on.
In 1905 every ship in the Japanese Navy that famously beat the Russian Navy in a naval war was also built on the Tyne, leading to the famous Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, coming to Wallsend as an engineer to oversee the building of icebreakers for the Russian empire and work out how Tyneside shipbuilders were so good. But after the First World War many of the foreign markets both for Northeast ships and coals began to disappear.
The first signs that all was not well and that soldiers returning from the front were not going to necessarily going to get the better world they had been promised came in 1921.
By the end of the First World War, the economy of the Northeast had become a very narrow affair, based around a few key industries; coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, and engineering.
Consequently, if there were problems in these industries, then this would have serious consequences for the working people of the region.
In 1921, miners went out on strike as the government returned the mines to private ownership and there was a serious trade depression and a slump in coal exports. Unemployment among miners grew sharply and those who were still working at the coalface were having to face the prospect of lower wages.
The miners demanded a national pool to equalise wages across the country, but this was rejected by the mine owners, leading to a National Lockout, beginning on 1st April 1921. The miners hoped that they would get support from the other two sections of the so-called ‘Triple Alliance’, transport and railway workers would come out in solidarity with the miners.
However, two weeks later, on 15th April, came what became known as ‘Black Friday’ when the leadership of the transport and rail workers announced that they would not be coming out on strike in solidarity with the miners.
So, the miners would have to go it alone, amidst an atmosphere of great distrust with their fellow trade unionists in the rail and transport sectors.
This was to have disastrous consequences for many thousands in the Northeast as the region suffered terribly from the economic and social consequences of the strike as unemployment rose sharply and whole communities were left without an income.
Meanwhile, the bad news was not just confined to the mining industry.
Again, the problems began in 1921, when output at Sunderland shipyards was only half of what it had been a year before and the same was sadly true of shipbuilding in Hartlepool. In May 1921 came the closure of four shipyards in Sunderland a further two on Teesside.
Shipyards that were able to stay open still struggled as the price of ships fell to about half of their pre-war level.
Some parts of the world might have been enjoying a ‘Roaring Twenties’, but that certainly wasn’t the case in Northeast England. And while there was some recovery by the mid-twenties, the situation for many Northeast workers was still precarious.
On 6th November 1924, Winston Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer, formally re-joining the Conservatives, having been a Liberal M.P. for many years. He began working on his first budget, which was due to be held on 28th April 1925 and intended to pursue his free trade principles.
At the same time, the Bank of England was calling for a return to the Gold Standard, an idea which Churchill initially opposed. However, after consulting various economists, Churchill was won over to the idea and became an avid supporter of the idea.
Consequently, Churchill returned the UK to the Gold standard at the 1914 parity of £1=$4.86. This was to cause enormous problems in the coalfield areas. Returning gold to parity with what pertained in 1914 is believed to have caused deflation. Additionally, the higher rate for the pound meant that demand for coal exports, which as we have seen were already in decline, were further reduced and this caused widespread unemployment and suffering in coalfield areas such as the Northeast.
The General Strike
The situation which then developed, with high unemployment and cuts in pay for miners and other workers who still held jobs led in 1926 to the General Strike, the only one which this country has seen.
It was on 3rd May that the Trade Union Congress called the General Strike, which saw millions of people across the country on strike. However, it only lasted nine days.
The General Strike began with a confrontation on the coalfields, where, as we have seen, mining was badly affected by the return to the Gold Standard and the loss of overseas markets after the First World War.
It has been noted that this meant that, “the miners’ pay in a seven-year period was reduced from £6.00 to a miserly £3.90, an unsustainable figure contributing to severe poverty for a generation of workers and their families. When the mine owners announced their intentions to reduce wages further, they were met with fury by the Miners Federation.”
A Royal Commission had been set up under the guidance of Sir Herbert Samuel to try and sort out what should be done about the situation in the coalfields.
One of the commission’s main recommendations, was to reduce miner’s wages by 13.5%, while at the same time advising the withdrawal of the government subsidies from the coal industry.
Naturally, this did not go down well with the Miners’ Federation, and it has been noted that, “by 1st May all attempts at a final negotiation had failed, leading to the TUC’s announcement of a general strike arranged in defence of the miners’ wages and working hours. This was organised to begin on Monday 3rd May, at one minute to midnight.”
So, what were the General Strike and much longer Miners’ Strike like in the Northeast?
The battle went on in individual villages, but it can also be argued that it was to some extent a regional battle, with a Strike Bulletin distributed throughout the region.
The strikes also caused a lot of increased hardship across the Northeast. In places like Chopwell there were wild animals in the soup, while it has also been stated that, “the Coop certainly played a key role in sustaining the strikers.” The aforementioned Chopwell became famous for its militancy, which has been seen as both a very English phenomenon, but also linked to the idea of a worldwide struggle for workers’ rights.
For a few days, the General Strike remained solid. Millions of workers across the country came out in support of the miners and the situation seemed hopeful, even as students and others began to undertake some of the jobs vacated by strikers, such as driving buses. However, a turning point came when it became clear that unions other than the miners’ unions were not being protected by the Trade Dispute Act of 1906, meaning that all but the mining unions became liable for the intention to breach contracts. Consequently, on 12th May, the TUC met and after a mere nine days, the General Strike was called off.
The miners continued to strike, with some carrying on for another 6 months until the cold, dark days of November, but it was a futile struggle. As a result, it has been noted that, “many miners faced unemployment for years whilst others had to accept the bad conditions of lower wages and longer working hours.”
For a few heady days, the miners had received incredible support during the General Strike, but in the end, it was a failure. And the consequences for the Northeast were severe, as the defeat was to cause a decline in the self-confidence of working people, which had been so prominent as they had made advances over the previous 100 years.
Wall Street Crash
The 1920’s continued in much the same vein, until of course in October 1929 there came the Wall Street Crash as the American stock market collapsed after years of over speculation amid the fantasy that share prices could only go up.
For a while, as the USA became the first real consumer market in the world and people bought up fridges, cars, and a whole assortment of other new-fangled consumer items, so the share prices could continue to rise as factories stayed busy.
But eventually by the end of the 1920’s, everyone in the USA who could afford these items had bought them and factories started to close, share prices began to fall and people started selling their shares as quickly as they could. This caused a panic and share prices fell even quicker and so the stock market on Wall Street crashed.
A depression followed, as President Hoover struggled to respond and such was the interdependent nature of the world economy even back then, that as the saying goes, once America sneezed, so the rest of the world caught a cold. And in this country, it was people in regions like the Northeast who suffered the most, with their economies dominated by a few already struggling industries, like coal and shipbuilding.
Consequently, the 1930’s were to be even worse in some ways than the 1920’s, with its culmination coming in 1936 in the Tyneside town of Jarrow, after the closure of Palmer’s shipyard and the subsequent Jarrow Crusade, which saw 200 unemployed Jarrow men, walk all the way to London to ask for government support for the opening of a steelworks in the town to replace jobs lost.
But at least they won… in the end. At the time they only got to speak to a few minor players at Westminster and a cup of tea for all their effort.
Then it was off to King’s Cross and the train back to the Northeast, to the news that their paltry dole money had been taken off them for the duration of their march, because it was deemed that while walking those long, tiring roads, they weren’t officially’ available for work’. Yes, some things you just can’t make up…
But come 1945 many voters across the country, remembered back nine years to the saturated men from Jarrow, walking in the rain in their flat caps and capes, led by a group of harmonica players and they remembered the suffering that had caused them to march. And they voted Labour, so that those dark days would never return.
Difficult days for the people of the Northeast
The 1920’s were very difficult days for many of the people of the Northeast.
Many the precious markets for coal and ships, which had helped to sustain the industrial base of the region and make it one of the great pioneering regions of the Industrial Revolution, disappeared.
It was the decade of the General Strike, which ended in defeat for the working-classes of the Northeast and consequently a loss of confidence, which in some ways might be seen as persisting today. It would be good to think that, exactly one hundred years later, we could make the 2020’s the decade when we finally really recover our self-confidence as a region and go forward.
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