Twentieth Century Overview

There were two sides to the 20th century. On the one hand there were severe recessions in the early 1930s and in the 1980s and 1990s. There were also two terrible world wars. On the other hand there was a vast improvement in the standard of living of ordinary people. Life expectancy also rose. In 1900 in Britain it was about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. By the end of the century it was about 75 and 80. Life was also greatly improved by new inventions. Even during the depression of the 1930s things improved for most of the people who had a job. Real incomes rose significantly during the decade. The same was true of the 1980s.

Society in 20th Century Britain

British society changed greatly during the 20th century. In 1914 only about 20% of the population was middle class. By 1939 the figure was about 30%. In the late 20th century the number of 'blue collar' or manual workers declined rapidly but the number of 'white collar' workers in offices and service industries increased rapidly.

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society.

There was another change in British society. In the late 20th century divorce and single parent families became much more common. Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct 'youth culture' emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers and in the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

Women in the Twentieth Century

In 1918 in Britain women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. The first policewomen in Britain went on duty in 1914. The 1919 a new law allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first female solicitor was Carrie Morrison in 1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.

Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

Work and Industry in the Twentieth Century

In the years 1900-1914 the British economy was stable and unemploymenwas quite low. However during the 1920s there was mass unemployment. For most of the decade it hovered between 10% and 12%. Then, in the early 1930s, the British economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 unemployment among insured workers was 22.8%. However unemployment fell substantially in 1933, 1934 and 1935. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. Unemployment continued to fall and by 1938 it was around 10%.

However although a partial recovery took place in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland and South Wales. On the other hand new industries such as car and aircraft making and electronics prospered in the Midlands and the South of England where unemployment was relatively low.

The problems of depression and high unemployment were only really solved by the Second World War, which started industry booming again. Unemployment remained very low in the late 1940s and the 1950s and 1960s were a long period of prosperity.

However this ended in the mid-1970s. In 1973 there was still full employment in Britain (it stood at 3%). However shortly afterwards a period of high inflation and high unemployment began. In the late 1970s unemployment stood at around 5.5%.

However in the years 1980-1982 Britain was gripped by recession and unemployment grew much worse. It reached a peak in 1986 then it fell to 1990. Unfortunately another recession began in 1990 and unemployment rose again. However unemployment began to fall again in 1993 and it continued to fall till the end of the century.

Meanwhile in the late 20th century a change was coming over the British economy, sometimes called de-industrialization. Traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles and shipbuilding declined rapidly. On the other hand service industries such as tourism, education, retail and finance grew rapidly and this sector became the main source of employment.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

Poverty in Twentieth Century Britain

At the beginning of the 20th century surveys showed that 25% of the population of Britain were living in poverty. They found that at least 15% were living at subsistence level. They had just enough money for food, rent, fuel and clothes. They could not afford 'luxuries' such as newspapers or public transport. About 10% were living in below subsistence level and could not afford an adequate diet.

The surveys found that the main cause of poverty was low wages. The main cause of extreme poverty was the loss of the main breadwinner. If dad was dead, ill or unemployed it was a disaster. Mum might get a job but women were paid much lower wages than men.

A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and they made some reforms. From that year poor children were given free school meals. In January 1909 the first old age pensions were paid. They were hardly generous - only 5 shillings a week, which was a paltry sum even in those days and they were only paid to people over 70. Nevertheless it was a start.

Also in 1909 the government formed wages councils. In those days some people worked in the so-called 'sweated industries' such as making clothes and they were very poorly paid and had to work extremely long hours just to survive. The wages councils set minimum pay levels for certain industries. In 1910 the first labor exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up.

Then in 1911 the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefit for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. In 1920 unemployment was extended to most workers although it was not extended to agricultural workers until 1936.

By 1950 absolute poverty had almost disappeared from Britain. Absolute poverty can be defined as not having enough money to eat an adequate diet or afford enough clothes.

Homes in Twentieth Century Britain

At the start of the 20th century working class homes had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.

This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire. Rising living standards meant it was possible to furnish all rooms properly not just one. During the 20th century ordinary people's furniture greatly improved in quality and design.

In the 1920s and 1930s a new style of furniture and architecture was introduced. It was called Art Deco and it used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of the earlier Art Nouveau. The name art deco came from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs.

At the beginning of the 20th century only rich people could afford electric light. Other people used gas. Ordinary people did not have electric light until the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 20th century vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.

Labour saving devices and new cleaning materials meant that housework was usually a part time job rather than a full time one. That made it much easier for women to work outside the home.

The first practical electric fire was made in 1912 but they did not become common until the 1930s. Central heating became common in the 1960s and 1970s. Double glazing became common in the 1980s. Plastic or pvc was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic.

Twentieth Century Food

The diet of ordinary people in Britain greatly improved during the 20th century. In 1900 some families sat down to tea of a plate of potatoes and malnutrition was common among poor children. Food was also expensive. In 1914 a working class family spent about 60% of their income on food. By 1937 food was cheaper and they only spent about 35% of their income on food.

Moreover sweets were a luxury in 1914. They became much more common in the 1920s and 1930s. Food was rationed during World War II. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon and ham were rationed. Tea was also rationed from 1940. Rationing became more severe in 1942. From July 1942 sweets were rationed. Instead of real eggs many people had to make do with 'dried eggs' imported from the USA.

Rationing lasted for several years after the war. Tea rationing lasted until 1952. Sweet rationing ended in 1953. Meat rationing remained until 1954. In the late 20th century convenience foods became far more common. That was partly because fridges, freezers and later microwave ovens became common. (Microwave ovens first became common in the 1980s).

The British diet also became more varied. Chinese and Indian takeaways and restaurants became common. So, in the 1980s, did hamburger and pizza chains.

Many new kinds of sweets were introduced in the 20th century. They included Milky Way (1923), Crunchie (1929), Snickers (1930), Mars Bar (1932), Aero and Kit Kat (1935), Maltesers and Blue Riband (1936) and Smarties and Rolos (1937). Later came Polo mints (1948), Bounty (1951), Yorkie and Lion Bar (1976) and Twix (1979). Also in the 20th century new biscuits were introduced including the custard cream (1908) bourbon (1910) and HobNobs (1986).

Twentieth Century Education

In 1900 children in Britain sometimes left school when they were only 12 years old. However in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14. Between the wars working class children went to elementary schools. Middle class children went to grammar schools and upper class children went to public schools.

In 1947 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1972 it was raised to 16. Following the 1944 Education Act all children had to sit an exam called the 11 plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However in the late 1950s public opinion began to turn against the system and in the 1960s and early 1970s most schools became comprehensives.