Following on from the death, destruction and depression of the First World War, the early 1920s ushered a new era of energy, economic prosperity, fashion and fun into the UK.
More houses were wired with electricity and fitted with indoor bathrooms. Cars became common. Skirts gradually rose higher and Bright Young Things launched themselves on society in flapper dresses or sleek evening suits to enjoy the music, dancing and martinis that became available in newly-opened jazz clubs and cocktail bars.
Women became increasingly independent too. The war had given many of them the chance to leave traditional domestic or retail workplaces to engage in ‘men’s work’ in factories, transport and on the land. Wages for ‘men’s work’ were better, and with money came the freedom to make choices and enjoy life.
Politically, a start had been made towards universal suffrage with the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave property-holding women of 30 or older the right to vote. Later legislation gave all women the right to vote from the age of 21 and also allowed women equal rights with men to divorce their spouses for adultery.
Life was far from being rosy for all, however. For many women it was a case of one step forward followed by two steps back as their jobs and opportunities were given to men returning from the war or growing into adulthood. Those women were expected to fade uncomplainingly back into domesticity or ‘women’s work’, and discrimination against the female sex continued to be rife.
As for general living conditions, the glamour of jazz clubs, cocktail bars, lavishly-beaded dresses and fast cars was enjoyed only by the privileged few. For others life was hard. Accommodation could be overcrowded and slum-like with no bathing facilities and only outside toilets that often had to be shared with other families. Work could be insecure and ill-paid. Health could be precarious.
State support during periods of hardship was limited. Means-tested Old Age Pensions had been introduced in 1908 at five shillings per week (below subsistence level) but only for people of good character who had worked and who were over 70. At that time life expectancy was just 51 years for men and 55 years for women.
In 1919 the pension increased to ten shillings per week. To give this some context, ten shillings would have paid for:
- 2 loaves of bread
- 250g butter
- 2 pints of milk
- 125g tea
- 250g sugar
- 12 eggs
- 500g cheese
It wouldn’t have stretched to meat, vegetables, rent or fuel let alone to clothing or entertainment.
Wage earners who paid National Insurance contributions were entitled to a certain level of healthcare but their families were not. Dole could be paid on the loss of a job but only at below-subsistence level and not for long.
When things became desperate, people were driven to harsh and sometimes brutal workhouses where families were separated and work imposed in return for dormitory accommodation and meagre rations. No wonder the entrance to one workhouse – Birmingham Union – was known as The Archway of Tears.
The early 1920s were therefore years of contrasts. Some people roared with fun while others raged at the unfairness and desperation of their lives.
Should that matter to us almost a hundred years later? I certainly think so. Studying the past gives us a sense of how far we’ve come and how we far we still need to go. It also warns us to take care that we don’t slide backwards.
My novel, The Silver Ladies of London, places four young women – Ruth, Lydia, Jenny and Grace – in 1923 and explores the challenges they meet. Do let me know if you enjoy reading about them.