Life in Lincoln during the Great Depression

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Comparisons have been made between the present economic difficulties and that of the twenties and thirties. Yet, what was life like for ‘ordinary’ people living through this difficult period? This looks at life in Lincoln during the interwar period.

At the time of the 1931 census Lincoln’s population was 66,243; of whom 32,126 were male and 34,117 were female. The census also shows that of these, 16,300 males were in employment and 4148 were seeking work; but only 6058 women were in employment and a further 615 were registered as unemployed.. [1]

This meant that a father’s income greatly affected his children’s education and employment opportunities, home life, health and leisure activities. Lincoln’s male population included a relatively high proportion of skilled manual labourers, foremen, small businessman and clerical workers who would have earned relatively good wages particularly in comparison to regional agricultural workers.[2] Local autobiographies suggests that among these families, if the head of household was in regular employment and they only had two children; they could live in relative comfort, go on holidays, save for emergencies and often provide their children with some form of post-fourteen education.

However, many Lincoln men were employed in lower paid occupations and many (even skilled workers) experienced at least one period of interwar unemployment. Most found new employment as trade improved but for some, like my great grandfather, unemployment could last many years. Families struggled to manage on unemployment benefits. During the 1930s my great grandfather received only twenty-six shillings a week unemployment benefit for himself and three daughters. From this, five shillings then had to be paid in the weekly rent for a two roomed cottage that had no gas, electricity or indoor running water. [3]

Local charities such as The People’s Service Club attempted to help the unemployed. However, it was a daily struggle to provide enough food and basic goods, including clothing, for all the family; non-essential items including holidays, magazines, even meat, cake and sweets had to be sacrificed.  Local autobiographies clearly indicate the extent that parental (especially mother’s) effort and inventiveness contributed towards keeping children from these families clothed, fed, and entertained.

Local autobiographies also illustrate the importance of friends and neighbours sharing goods and services; suggesting a common acceptance of second-hand clothing, literature, toys and goods. My great-grandfather would mend his daughters (and neighbours) shoes using scraps of leather that others no longer wanted. Neighbours would sometimes pass on vegetables from their allotments and rabbits could often be bought from the local poachers for a few pence. In addition married women, children and occasionally unemployed men in financial difficulty would often undertake seasonal agricultural work for which they earned basic wages and fresh produce.Each Christmas one thousand schoolchildren from the poorest families were treated to the ‘Robins Dinner’ which involved a free Christmas dinner at the Drill Hall and cinema or theatre visit.

Interestingly, Lincoln School Medical Service found significant improvements in general standards of nutrition in elementary schoolchildren during the Second World War.[4]

Year Class A (Good) Class B (Fair) Class C (Poor)
1938 27.9 64.9 7.2
1948 42.1 55.3 5.8

These improvements are accounted for by high levels of employment in the forties and fifties, better food nutrition, and the widespread introduction within Lincoln of free school milk and subsidized midday meals in 1942. These meant that despite the austerity and rationing the war and immediate post-war years brought, full employment and the introduction of welfare measures (including benefits and the NHS see blog post: https://historytiglet.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/happy-47th-birthday-to-the-nhs/) ensured that standards of health were significantly higher for most people than during the interwar years.

[1] Lincolnshire Echo, 24th January 1935, p.  19.

[2] University of Portsmouth, ‘Vision of Britain’, Available on http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/data_cube_page.jsp?data_theme=T_SOC&data_cube=N_SOC_GEN&u_id=10168624&c_id=10001043&add=Y, [Acessed 30th August 2009].

[4] Bery, Lincoln School Medical Report, 1938 and 1948.

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One thought on “Life in Lincoln during the Great Depression

  1. Great post!! It’s really interesting to read about what life was like during that time, and especially about Grandma’s dad… I know little bits from what she’s told me, but had no context within which to place it all.

    Like

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