A century of change

A century of change

Suzanne Reid looks at how life changed for our families in the 20th century and how Victorian values gave way to consumer culture

Header Image: City of London

Suzanne Reid, historian and teacher

Suzanne Reid

historian and teacher

Never has life changed as quickly as in the 20th century. It may seem too recent to be history, but our parents and grandparents grew up in a very different world from ours.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901 she bequeathed a rigid society. Everybody had a place and everybody was expected to stay in it. The richest few owned vast estates run, managed and served by large numbers of servants. Businesses were owned by men and, on marrying, women were expected to give up their employment to look after house and home. The State had no mechanisms to support those unable to support themselves. A few philanthropists were beginning to change the lives of the disadvantaged, the elderly and the sick, engaging in social housing projects at Port Sunlight and Bournville and in studies undertaken by Joseph Rowntree.

Many people worked in the factories that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution and in the pits digging coal to fuel industry.

At the bottom of society meagre livings were made. Many worked long hours to earn just enough for shelter and food. There was no time or money for holidays, and starvation and homelessness were very real for those unable to work.

Titanic at Southampton docks
Titanic at Southampton docks in 1912, shortly before sailing on her doomed voyage

In the twentieth century Britain lost control of her Empire, went to war and became a bit too confident about its role at the forefront of technology, resulting in the most famous shipwreck of them all – the Titanic.

In social terms, the three main changes were state involvement in everyday life, the role of women and an increase in time and income which fuelled the leisure industry.

Poor pay and rising prices precipitated revolt and led to general strikes in the 1920s. People were short of bread and many starved. Out of these dark days the Welfare State emerged. Government taxed the rich heavily and allowed the wages of the poor to rise more quickly. Although it may seem surprising given ongoing social problems today, the 20th century saw a marked narrowing of the divide between the very rich and the very poor.

Domestic machinery, the motor car and mass production made life easier for people. As the century began, gas lighting was replacing candles and as it ended low energy light bulbs were all the rage. Some of the machinery for mass murder like bomber planes and tanks was not very advantageous to mankind but out of war came radar, flight navigation and computers. Where would we be today without these things?

Government wanted a healthy, well educated people. By the 1940s its stated aim was to provide a service from ‘cradle to grave’. The National Health Service developed and the school leaving age gradually rose. My mother left school at 14 but soon after children were expected to stay at school until they were 16.

Initially the type of education our older children received was dependent on their performance in the 11+ exam. The brightest children went to grammar schools with the expectation that they would become the important people of tomorrow. Others were sent to secondary moderns and were expected to be the workers in tomorrow’s society.

Almost from the very beginning the ‘two tier’ system came under attack. It fell out of use during the 1960s and 1970s as Local Education Authorities mixed their children together and sent them to comprehensive schools. The pendulum still swings and the ‘one size fits all’ system is changing to meet the demands of 21st century life.

WW2 Dig for Victory campaign
WW2 Dig for Victory campaign

Twice Britain plunged into wars of unprecedented scale. From 1914, for four long years the nation’s men were snatched up by war. Nearly every family in Britain lost a loved one. Within a generation, peace was shattered again. This time conflict lasted for six years and civilians were killed and injured alongside the soldiers. Over four million homes were destroyed or damaged so badly that they were uninhabitable.

Victory was celebrated with hooters and sirens and street parties, but war’s austerity had imprinted itself on our lives. The make do and mend practices of our grandparents came from war, with rationing lasting until 1920. After the Second World War rationing took even longer to end and my parents recall taking their ration books on honeymoon in 1952.

clamping down on rationing laws
Clamping down on rationing laws

Politicians set about rebuilding Britain. They copied the social housing experiments funded by philanthropists and started to build council houses to replace those ruined by Hitler’s bombs. They also constructed ‘new towns’, including Milton Keynes, Welwyn Garden City and Crawley.

Crawley, West Sussex in 1922the 'new town’ of Crawley
Left: the market town of Crawley, West Sussex in 1922; right, the 'new town’ of Crawley grew from the 1940s

Women, left at home while men went to war, picked up the work that the men usually did. In 1918, returning soldiers found women happy with their new-found freedoms and reluctant to give up their new status in society. The accepted social order was under serious attack. Women won the right to work but continued to campaign for equal opportunities and pay throughout the rest of the century.

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The Victorian social code became antiquated, irrelevant and moribund. Historians and sociologists have used a variety of terms to describe the divisions within society but I think that CFG Masterman in The Conditions of England, published in 1909, came up with some wonderful groups. He called the rich the Conquerors, the middle class the Suburbans and the working class the Multitude.

a 1950s breakfast scene at Snowshill Manor
A 1950s breakfast scene at Snowshill Manor

The old social code remained stubbornly in place through the 1940s and 50s but, as the working class experienced improvements in their pay and working conditions, they could afford labour saving devices at home and luxuries like holidays. Opportunities to travel were provided by an extensive rail network that hadn’t yet been slashed by Beeching and air travel. The first commercial passenger jet plane flew in the 1950s. Everyday people stopped looking up to the rich and looked to other everyday people for role models. The modern idea of celebrity was born.

De Havilland Comet
De Havilland Comet, the first passenger jet

Britain’s booming economy in the late 1950s and the 60s brought new waves of immigrants to live and work here. They brought different social customs and religions. At first there was greater social division but government policy was to include rather than divide and the multicultural society we enjoy today began to emerge.

A hundred years is a long time. In terms of ancestry it represents three or four generations and most of us have, at best, hazy memories of our great grandparents. In the 20th century, steam trains gave way to electricity, horse drawn stage coaches were replaced by diesel buses and most people gave up horses and bicycles in favour of cars. We tend not to think of ourselves as being upper, middle or working class any more but few of us delude ourselves that society is any less divided now than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. The divisions are just more subtle and diverse.

a typical early 20th century railway station office
A typical early 20th century railway station office (Martin Robson)

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