World war and its repercussions for the ordinary person in the North West

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.’

This is the poem, written in tribute to the soldiers of World War I, that inspired the title for Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed recent documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, which used oral interviews and restored video footage to bring to life the stories of the soldiers. The work done here at North West Sound Heritage is also supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the same purpose, to forever preserve priceless oral history, in such a way for it to be more accessible in modern times. 

When listening to interviews conducted in the 1970s with elderly local residents, I was similarly struck by the First World War and the lives it affected. Their voices provide a unique insight to a period in history which encompasses a World War, the Great Depression, and the aftermath of these events. Whilst doing research, my focus was not on the soldiers of the war, but the average citizens of the North West and how their lives were shaped by rapid social upheaval, for good or bad.

For people born at the start of the 20th century, life from being a child to becoming an adolescent changed dramatically.

Mr. Pennington, born in 1907, had a comfortable family life as a child, with his father a businessman who earned enough to own a large home and shop. Merely seven years later however, by the start of the First World War, which ran from 1914-1918, the economy had crashed, and soon his father sold his house to repay his debts.

This was by no means an uncommon story. On the contrary, by 1918, poverty was a reality for many families.

Poverty was a reality for many families… (1103/56)

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It was common to see children with no shoes and wearing large hand me down clothes to school.  Their parents simply did not have the means to support them.

Their parents simply did not have the means to support them. (1103/56)

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This sudden helplessness was due to the Great Depression, overall the largest and most disastrous economic downfall in the 20th century. Although officially recognised as from the years 1929-1933 worldwide, experts have stated that for England, the economy declined rapidly from 1918 and that in the UK the great depression lasted twenty years, beginning a year before the first world war. Britain’s world trade fell by half and unemployment reached 70% in some areas. More than 3 million people were out of work and many families lived through payments from the government known as the dole.  Areas such as the North West, reliant on the coal, cotton and mining industries, were struck hardest.

Mrs. Dingley recalls her brother, husband and father all made redundant at different times during the Depression, relying on the dole to live for years.

Mrs. Dingley’s brother, just like ‘all the other boys’ found himself out of work suddenly, destroying a future for a career he had spent seven years working in an apprenticeship position for. For two years she describes his desperation in applying for anything he could find.

…his desperation in applying for anything he could find. (1103/54)

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Mr. Dingley was a victim of the north west cotton trade collapsing, similarly out of work for years. He also had the added trauma of serving in the war and being a prisoner of war in enemy camps for a year.  When he came home he couldn’t afford rest and began working straight away.

…began working straight away. (1103/54)

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This had not just a physical and practical effect on them in terms of lack of money, but also a mental toll, particularly for the men whose mind set perhaps was to provide for themselves and their families, and who were used to working. Mrs. Dingley describes how her brother’s mental health was affected by long periods of unemployment.

…how her brother’s mental health was affected… (1103/54)

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Interestingly the misfortunes of the men did give an avenue for women to step up into work shoes and help support the family financially.

When Mrs. Dingley’s father went from a successful businessman who could afford to move his family to a ‘nicer’ neighbourhood, found himself short charged a couple years later, her mother stepped up and became a maid to aid the family financially. Being in service was the typical and usually only avenue for women to work at the time.

Being in service was the typical and usually only avenue for women to work at the time. (1103/56)

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Mrs. Dingley herself however, at a time where all the males in her family were out of work, defied the norm by being a successful bookkeeper with a comfortable wage. This perhaps reflects the unexpected effect of the war and the success of the Suffragette movement in 1913 in helping women to secure more varied positions.

However, those who did find jobs were faced with their own struggles. The pressure felt to provide as well as not be replaced meant working long hard hours. Mrs. Dingley eventually had a breakdown at 25 from overwork and stress.

…a breakdown at 25 from overwork and stress. (1103/54)

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When eventually her brother managed to gain employment as a fisherman after two years of being unemployed, he worked long hours for scraps of payment.

…he worked long hours for scraps of payment. (1103/54)

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Mr. Pennington similarly describes his work week and how he had no time for anything else.

Mr. Pennington similarly describes his work week. (1103/56)

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Despite this, overall those who did find any type of work counted themselves lucky and did whatever they needed to to adjust to a new skill set or trade.

Mr. Pennington described how his father resourcefully began to make and sell beer after his previous business crashed. The ale, though sold very cheaply so people could afford it, was extremely successful for an surprising reason; as a form of treatment for the Great Flu Epidemic.

…a form of treatment for the Great Flu Epidemic. (1103/56)

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The Great Flu Epidemic, also known as the Spanish flu epidemic, ravaged the entire world from 1918-1919. Once again connected to the war it was spread by soldiers returning home and had catastrophic consequences. Over 50 million people died worldwide and a quarter of the British population were affected. Surprisingly, young healthy adults were the most affected.

These accumulative catastrophes, from the war, to the Flu, to the Depression, began to have an effect on the stability of society, particular on young men. It is perhaps unsurprising then that social unrest began to rear its head publicly in 1919, with looting and rioting breaking out in Manchester.

Mr. Penington gives an amusing anecdote of police catching thieves that is akin to a Laurel and Hardy sketch!

Mr. Penington gives an amusing anecdote of police catching thieves. (1103/56)

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Eventually the situation escalated across England, with police officers striking too, to the point of martial law being imposed in 1919. Mr. Penington recalls he witnessed his aunt getting shot in the crossfire of rioters and the army. It is not often one can claim to have skirted death on a simple trip to the grocers!

…he witnessed his aunt getting shot in the crossfire of rioters and the army. (1103/56)

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m3096 Policemen’s march, 1909. (Manchester Local Image Collection)

Yet another consequence of the war and economic collapse was a housing crisis emerging, with families desperately needing somewhere to live but unable to afford anything, even whilst on the dole.

…families desperately needing somewhere to live… (1103/56)

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…not necessarily better off. (1103/56)

Even those who had housing however were not necessarily better off.

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Here we see the lengths some had to go to to receive government assistance if they were presumed wealthy enough to own a house. Luckily the story has quite a fortuitous ending!

There was good news overall too with the introduction of the Housing Town and Planning Act, also known as the Addison Act in 1919. This was the start of what we may call council houses, with a new collective social view and the government taking responsibility to provide homes for people.

With thousands of people signed up to the list for housing as previously mentioned, the allocation was random in terms of when and where you would be housed, with previously sparsely populated areas like Wythenshawe coming into their own when homes were built there for people. Here Mr. Pennington describes the house he received, which also included a garden and allotment.

Mr. Pennington describes his house. (1103/56)

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Whilst for some the commute to work became longer and there was less social activity, it is clear overall the Addison Act was a huge positive after a decade of turmoil, with people being able to settle into their lives once more and being helped when situations felt helpless.

Overall, getting a glimpse into the lives of those who grew up during this time was fascinating. From the war, to the depression, to the flu epidemic, it is hard for us now to wrap our heads around the struggle most people who lived locally in the North West must have gone through on a day to day basis. It is equally interesting to witness a shifting societal outlook, with women taking on a more active role outside of the house, and the government taking on active roles in providing financial help like the dole and the Addison Act during the depression.

Iram Mahmoud, UOSH Project Volunteer, North West Hub.

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