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Were the 1930s all grim?

This book reviewer says the 1930s were, on the whole, a pretty good time to be British. It is a point of view one does not come across very much, that is for sure. The stock image of the 1930s is the era that saw the rise of the Nazis, the Great Famine in the USSR, the Great Depression, Roosevelt, the Royal Abdication Crisis, etc. But was there more to it than that, at least at home? The book says that British society was in some ways in pretty good shape.

In military terms, at least by the end of the 1930s Britain had evolved what ultimately proved to be a very well organised air defence system, with radar and nifty fighters like the Spitfire. The 1930s was stylistically elegant: the cars of that era looked absolutely glorious.

On the other hand, I would argue that the 1930s was a period in which limited government continued to be under siege and apostles of planning and greater government regulation were gathering momentum, to reach fruition – if that is quite the right word – in 1945 with the election of the Attlee Labour government.


23 comments to Were the 1930s all grim?

  • the rise of the Nazis

    A government.

    the Great Famine in the USSR

    Caused by a government.

    the Great Depression, Roosevelt

    Caused by several governments… and lengthened and deepened by Roosevelt…

    …hmm. My brain cell senses a pattern here.

    the Royal Abdication Crisis

    And this was… bad? It gave the media something scandalous to write about and set millions of lips flapping. Vastly entertaining. It is not like the monarchy actually mattered in any serious objective sense, I mean what ruinous economic policies did the King actually foist on anyone?

  • Jeebus!

    JP. If it ain’t Bond it’s the bloody Spitfire. How sodding British are you?

    The P-51D-25 (and derivatives) was the greatest fighter of the war. Discuss. Though the P-38 came close and if Lockheed P-80 had entered service…

  • Bessie

    In 1931 my grandfather, aged 27, having spent years sleeping on a camp bed in his mother’s tenement flat in Lewisham, had finally saved up enough money from his lowly clerk’s job to get married and put down a deposit on a nice semi in the suburbs. In fact, most of his siblings and in-laws made a similar move in the 1930s. I think that was the point at which my family officially became middle class. It certainly wasn’t grim.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Perry, I mentioned the Abdication Crisis simply because it was one of the controveries of the time

  • Kim du Toit

    Oy. I can’t think of a single reason why the 1930s were a good time to be alive, in just about any country, unless one were a Nazi.

  • MikeG

    On the upside you could have gone to Spain and shot at as many commies and nazis as you like. A civil war with a bring your own guns policy.

  • Ian B

    Here’s where I haul out my favourite monograph to show that by the 1930s, anything one might call limited government had already disappeared. We were already a big government, progressivist, moralitarian nation. Things undoubtedly got far worse with the terrible Attlee regime, but the die was already cast. To quote the article-

    “Now this anomalous situation will probably ultimately evolve into the Servile State of Mr. Belloc’s thesis. The poor will sink into slavery; it might as correctly be said that the poor will rise into slavery. That is to say, sooner or later, it is very probable that the rich will take over the philanthropic as well as the tyrannic side of the bargain; and will feed men like slaves as well as hunting them like outlaws.”

    Which is what Attlee’s gang did, effectively.

  • Laird

    But they did have great automobiles (at least, in the early- to mid-30’s; by the end of the decade they had lost all their style and had begun the metamorphasis into the drab, ugly beasts of the 40’s).

  • Ian B

    On the other hand, womens’ fashions were at an absolute nadir that didn’t really recover until the post war period and the “New Look”.

  • Corsair

    >>The P-51D-25 (and derivatives) was the greatest fighter of the war

    The F4U Corsair? The Hawker Tempest? The P-47D? Late mark Spitfires, FW-190s and Lavochkins? The P-51D was probably the prettiest fighter, and was undeniably great, but the greatest?

    As for the 1930s, what’s not to love about airships and flying-boats?

  • Corsair

    Oh, and I forgot the P-40, a great ’30’s invention, that fought in all theatres for the entire war and looked great in it’s AVG livery.

  • Nick Timms

    Great looking automobiles sure, but unaffordable by any but the wealthy.

    Very few people owned motorcars in the 1930’s, 40’s or even 50’s. Mass car ownership did not really get started til the 60’s.

  • Arterial roads. The A40. A127. The A10.

    Suburbs with houses with drives. Crittall windows.

    Gillette building.

    What have we got?

  • Brian

    Not necessarily unaffordable. My Great-Grandfather was a gardener during the 30s. He bought a car (Model-T, natch), but it was gently hinted to him by his employers that it really wouldn’t do.

    I’m not sure that Head Gardener (it was spelt in capitals in those days and was roughly the equivalent of Regimental Sergeant-Major in the below-stairs pecking order) was quite what we’d call ‘working class’ nowadays, but there you are.

  • llamas

    Corsair wrote:

    ‘As for the 1930s, what’s not to love about airships and flying-boats?’

    You mean apart from the crashing and the inefficiency and the unreliability? Apart from that, I guess there’s nothing not to love about either one – and at least you could smoke on any one of the international airships and flying boats, and get a decent drink besides.



  • Corsair

    Bexleyite: What have we got?

    The Internet
    The handheld computer

    but I take your point. And like the thirties we have rampant anti-capitalism and millenialist political cults with useful idiots to advocate them. I once wrote of Margot Wallstrom’s blog that the 2020s would be the 1930s: maybe I overestimated.

  • RobtE

    In one word? The music.

    It was the Thirties that gave us the really great Swing bands. I’ve little to no time for the dance bands that swang (the Dorsey brothers, Glen Miller and so on), but oh lawdy, the jazz bands that swang… Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington.

    Jazz was mainstream. High school students cut classes to form queues so long they wrapped around the block (several times) to get in the concerts. And Goodman, who took his music (too?) seriously he asked his audience to stop dancing in the aisles and to revere his music.

    Did cars ever look better? Was fashion ever kinder to women? Was architecture ever more grand yet more human?

    And of course, none of this says anything about the really great dance bands in the big London hotels. jack Hylton, anyone?

    Seriously, if you want to know what was being played in the great London hotel ballrooms in the ’30s, try listening to R2 on Sunday eves from 22.00.

    Give me a time portal. You won’t see me for the dust.

  • permanentexpat

    Glad to see Kim here with his two penn’orth. Sorry you folded the great blog, Kim.
    Like most things, the ‘Thirties’ was a Parson’s Egg. It was also the last Parson’s Egg of its kind. Since WW2 there has been absolutely no ‘good in parts’.

  • British Empire (hurrah!) slumbering peacefully under the sun. Suburbs, plus-fours, scots terriers and bridge. Punch magazine often funny, cartoonists (Pont, Fougasse &c) of genius. Imperial Airways flying boats. English prose at a zenith. Nuclear physics.

    “To-day was a beautiful day, the sky was a brilliant
    Blue for the first time for weeks and weeks
    But posters flapping on the railings tell the fluttered
    World that Hitler speaks, that Hitler speaks
    And we cannot take it in and we go to our daily
    Jobs to the dull refrain of the caption ‘War’
    Buzzing around us as from hidden insects
    And we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
    Just like this before, we must be dreaming”

    Louis MacNeice, “Autumn Journal”

  • bob

    You could still walk down Oxford Street with a loaded revolver in your pocket – although you needed a licence by this stage, so it was tougher than many US states are now.

  • Kim du Toit

    …unless, of course, you’d prefer my other collective noun for you: librarians.

  • Corsair,

    The F4U was a great plane… but… The Hellcat was better. The Corsair might have been faster but the ‘Cat had the energy addition rate. The late Spits were fine planes but… Hell’s teeth by then they’d shark-jumped. The Tempest was (and which Tempest do you mean – the 2 or the 5?) way too late to make a big impact. The P-51s had the range to go to Berlin and back. The Spit was a great defensive fighter but it was not capable of going on the offensive. The P-51 was (read Johnnie Johnson on the importance of offensive fighter operations). By the start of 1945 1/3 of all German war work was AAA. Ever wonder why? The 8th AF Mustangs were caning the FW-190s and whatnot of the Luftwaffe. Caning them.

    The P-38 almost got there but… It was built to a contract for a very small number of craft and it took Lockheed a lot of time to re-jiggle it for mass production. The P-47 was dreadful. The initial test-pilot said “It can dive great which is good because can it hell climb”. Designed as an interceptor and almost exclusively used as a fighter-bomber. Ever wonder why?

    No, the Mustang is king of the hill. A Spit 8, 9 or 14 could wax it in a furball but (critical point) not over Berlin.

    P-51D-25 – almost the Sabre. Now that was something special.

  • Zimon

    What was ‘critical’ about flying to Berlin? By the end of ’43 before the Mustangs introduction the general course of the war was decided. Italy was out, the battle of the Atlantic was won and the tide had divisively turned in the east. The Luftwaffe had already failed the army in 2 theatres why would it have turned things around in ’44 if left alone in the hole it had been chased into by aircraft other than the P51?