The country en suite, en masse

Twentieth Century British Social Trends
November 10, 2000

This is a distinguished (but overpriced) book by a collection of authors who are all acknowledged specialists in their subjects, brought together by a distinguished editor and his colleague. It is a massive source and reference book, a bow from social statistics to the millennium year in which it is published. It will take its place in every library serving social scientists, administrators and politicians in the many institutions that it details, as far as statistics allow. The book features almost no individual people, but it has a great deal about what people in the mass have done since 1900 to change the ways in which we live.

The interest for readers old enough to have been alive in some of the periods covered by the statistics is that they are invited to remember a little about this or that debate and to add a personal judgement to the usually implicit judgements made in the book. Experts wielding statistics have as firm a collection of opinions as the rest of us, but are trained to hide them. Their search is for as much objectivity as they can muster. They never fully succeed, of course, and part of the fun of the book is to compare their opinions, insofar as they are apparent, with one's own. Sometimes it induces the kind of shock caused by perusing old photographs of children lined up in a schoolyard in 1909 or 1929 or 1959, or of photographs in a family album. Can it really have been like that so recently? Is that really me?

But the book is not supposed to be fun. It has a very serious face. It follows two earlier books from A. H. Halsey, in 1972 and 1988, and is full of mild but implicit exclamation marks. "This is how it was earlier in the century!", "Think of that!" Manual workers in 1900 worked longer hours and sometimes over a longer period than today. There is a reference to one man, as revealed by the first Rowntree inquiry in York in 1899, who worked from the age of seven until he was 70. People worked and lived in more arduous and dangerous conditions, had no bathrooms and shared water taps and outside lavatories with other families, if they were lucky enough to have a dwelling of their own. They had almost no health services to support them. They had no pension before 1908. As R. H. Tawney says, they were propertyless.

Now, most workers are like other people - men and women of at least some property. Far more people own their own houses, and even where they do not own the fabric, they own much that is within it. With more space, specialisation has taken over. There are bathrooms, lavatories, bedrooms and shelves for children's toys.

The quadrupling of real national income per head over the century has had one of its most marked effects on the places in which people spend most of their hours, and on the shifts in official policy on the subject. As A. Holmans points out in his chapter on housing, the aim for the wartime coalition government in 1945 was "a separate house for every family that wishes to have one". That has not quite been achieved. Still, enough has been done to make a large difference to many people. The number of households sharing the same dwelling decreased from nearly 2 million in 1921 to 340,000 in 1991, and the trend has continued. "A decent home for every family at a price within their means" was the government's promise in 1971 and Holmans showers us with figures about the extent to which we have approached "decency".

As for the other sort of material presented, the chapter on "Immigration and ethnicity" by C. Peach, A. Rogers, J. Chance and P. Daley seemed particularly valuable. As a broad generalisation, inward migration was mostly Irish in the 19th century and, by the close of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, predominantly Jewish. "By 1911 there were 68,000 Russian Jews in London, the vast majority living in Stepney." There was another wave in the 1930s, when 50,000 of those fleeing from Hitler came to Britain. Britain's Jewish community became the fourth or fifth largest in the world.

The second world war was the watershed. Before that, immigration was white; after that, it was non-European. In 1948, 417 Jamaican immigrants arrived on the aptly named Empire Wind-rush . The ship was returning via the Caribbean from a voyage taking British emigrants to Australia.

Since then, much immigration has been from the West Indies and South Asia and from other parts of what was once the British empire. London and some other large cities have changed strikingly as a result. The authors do not say that the empire, which had so much influence on "home" before 1948, continued after 1948 to exert, in absentia, such a growing influence on the country.

The crucial comparisons are not only with the earlier part of the century, but between the 1970s and 1990s. This is most evident in the outstanding contribution made in his chapter on distribution of income and wealth by A. B. Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College, Oxford. He opens with a quotation from Milton's Paradise Regained , in which Jesus replies to Satan that "Riches are needless, then, both for themselves/ And for the reason why they should be sought -/ To gain a sceptre, oftest better missed."

Atkinson acknowledges that the quote was suggested by the editor, but he does not follow in that vein. Riches may be needless, but they are of enduring interest to those who do not have them as well as to those who do. Milton's advice is seldom taken. Atkinson summons a masterly collection of facts and figures about changing distributions in the course of the century. He acknowledges, as he must, that material standards have risen. There was also a decline in the share of the wealthiest up until and beyond the time at the Royal Variety Performance, in 1963, when John Lennon asked people in the cheaper seats to clap and the rest to "rattle your jewellery".

In later years, the first signs of darker clouds emerge. While the trend in wealth concentration up to 1980 became less marked from the mid-1960s onwards, it was most emphatic after 1984. What had been somewhat more equal became more unequal, due to lower income transfers within the welfare system, less progressive taxes and more regressive indirect taxes on goods and services, and due also to unemployment and widening inequality of earnings. In this, Atkinson is referring to the Thatcher era and its extensions under later governments. Speaking of the forces that underlie the distribution of income, he concludes "some at least of the forces are subject to the influence of our elected representatives. To that extent, the distribution of income in the 21st century is in our own hands."


Lord Young founded the Institute of Community Studies, Bethnal Green in 1953.

Twentieth Century British Social Trends

Editor - A. H. Halsey with Josephine Webb
ISBN - 0 333 72148 9 and 72149 7
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £95.00 and £25.00
Pages - 784

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