Saturday, 8 December 2012

Homes fit for heroes- 1920s in N Staffs



When Prime Minister Lloyd George announced at the end of the First World War the hope that victory in 1918 would result in making Britain a “land fit for heroes”. There was a expectation born in many people of North Staffordshire that the titanic struggles of the war were not in vain. The 1920s has therefore to be seen in the light of that pledge to the returning veterans that the blood shed by the 750,000 UK servicemen had worthwhile.

The history of North Staffordshire in the 1920s has to be framed in the light of the Great War. The pages of the local papers especially during Remembrance Sunday each November bear testimony to the pain endured by many in the area. Thousands of men returned home with some disability, blind, deaf or limbless. Thousands of women who lost fiancées or husbands and were to remain single for the rest of their lives. Many children would be fatherless Scores of men resident in local asylums the consequence of psychological trauma. And there were the dead always to be remembered at the building of the Great War memorials testifies. The Nicholson War memorial in Leek was constructed and dedicated by 1925 as just one example of many in the area.

The mid date of the decade- 1925- was also an important one for Stoke on Trent which received its City status by King George V whilst visiting the area and laying a foundation stone at NSRI. The title of Lord Mayor was granted by royal patent three years later on the first citizen of the City. But the City in terms of size and prestige had received a tremendous boost at the beginning of the decade when it increased in area in 1922 when large swathes of land were acquired from Chell in the north to Meir and Lightwood in the south.

It was an important decade politically as throughout the period the Labour party grew to be the principal political force in the area both in Council and parliamentary terms a pre-eminence it has rarely ceded in the last 80 years.

The City expanded in size and population growing from 240,000 in 1921 to 276,000 in 1931. Its growth and the condition of the housing stock were a priority for the City Council in the 20s and it was a test that it tried to deal with robustly. Linked with the problem of over crowding and poor housing stock in the City was the question of public health. Stoke on Trent in the early 20th century had an appalling public health record, for instance it was considered the scarlet fever capital of the UK. Many inhabitants fell ill and died from a variety of illness associated with poor living conditions such as typhus, smallpox and TB which was a major killer and which accounted for my grandfather at an early age in 1932.

The state of the housing stock can therefore be described as dire. By the 1920s 25,000 houses had no inside toilet and 19,000 were simply ashpits. A major public works scheme using local unemployed labour virtually solved this problem by the end of the decade. I cannot help but think from the position of 2011 that the same drive and vision directed at addressing adequate insulation of homes and fuel poverty could equally provide work for local unemployed 80 years later.

An issue facing the City Council was a problem caused by smoke from pottery manufacture, which accounted for high levels of respiratory illness. The bottle ovens being low, unlike the tall chimney associated with the textile industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire, meant that pollution blew over nearby housing causing health problems. Acquiring land after 1922 enabled the Council to begin building estates aided by progressive housing legislation passed by the first Labour Government in 1924. During the decade Stoke was building 550 houses a year in areas such as Stansfields, Chell, Abbey Hulton and Meir.

The private sector had a role as well and the activities of Sutton Housing Trust should be mentioned. Over 300 houses were built in the Trent Vale area by 1929.

One evident benefit from the improved sanitation, housing and living conditions especially an awareness of hygiene was a dramatic reduction in infant death rates, which halved from 1900 to 1940

Services followed the new estates The Hardman Institute in Milton housed the first community library during the decade and others were to follow during the 1930s.

The same development was occurring in Newcastle as 2,700 houses were built during the decade. The 20s also saw the growth of private estates in the Westlands and Clayton

But what about jobs?


Coal, Pottery, Iron and Steel and Textiles dominated the local economy.

 In the early 20s nearly 54,000 people or half the work force were employed in the pottery industry. A significant proportion of the labour force were women. A local trade directory of 1920 identified 250 firms that were associated with pottery production. Yet it was an industry that was trying to re establish its pre war dominance and was under threat from foreign competition most notably from East and Central Europe. However it was an industry that understood the need to adapt and during the 20s pottery manufacturers were beginning to install gas and electrically fired kilns. Another development especially with the growth of the new electricity industry was the expansion of ceramic insulators at a new factory in Milton.

The local tile manufacturers in Etruria also benefitted from the boom in house building in the inter war period.

Coal was mined at about 70 pits in North Staffordshire at the start of the decade with the largest mines owned by companies such as Shelton Iron and Steel and Florence Coal and Iron. The geologists were finding new and deeper seams and pits were being developed at Wolstanton, Hem heath and Chesterton. 37,000 men were employed in local pits at the start of the decade, which fell to 30,000 as the slump began to bite, Of course the work was always hazardous and shortly before the decade proof of the dangers of mining was demonstrated by the Minnie Pit disaster of 1918 at Halmerend which killed 156 men and boys.

 Given the nature of the work relationships between the men and mine owners were always fraught and it was the coal mining industry which was the front line of the struggle between the forces of capital and labour which culminated in the General Strike of 1926. The roots of the strike were the increasingly acrimonious series of disputes. 1921 saw a lengthy strike over pay and conditions, but following a report that recommended cutting miners pay and conditions coupled with an increasingly hard line taken by the owners and Government the Trade Union Congress agreed to support the Miners. A General Strike was called for the 9th May 1926. In reality both the TUC and the Government did not want a prolonged strike and the General Strike only last 9 days.

But the Miners continued with the strike for months before hardship forced the men back to work. The local writer Fred Leigh in a collection of essays on local history recounted the story of a miner called Archer living in Hanley who endured the misfortune of the dispute. In 1926 Archer was 30 years old and the father of 4. He was a veteran of the First World War having served on the Somme. As the strike went on the union strike pay ceased and the family were forced to pawn what little possession they had at the pawnshop in Hanley as well as relying on a little relief from the council. Archer also engaged in the illegal act of picking coal from a tip near Hanley Deep Mine to supplement his income. Eventually he was forced to pawn the war medals he had from the Great War. The manager of the shop did not want them and showed him a draw of medals proffered by other striking miners who were in the same predicament as Archer. The miner sold his medals for 4 shillings remarking in Leigh’s account.

“And those buggers said it would be a country fit for heroes”

Archer was caught taking coal from the waste tip near Hanley Deep Pit and was given 21 days in prison. The family’s humiliation is complete.

 Other big employer in the area were the iron and steel industry, which employed about 3,000 during the 20s and the silk industry based in Leek which continued to flourish during the period employing 4,500 in the town over half the working population of the town a majority women. The industry kept abreast of new technology with the company Wardle and Davenport pioneering artificial silk thread.

There were also new industries coming into the area and the most successful was Michelin allegedly resisted by local pottery manufacturers alarmed by the higher wages the French based company were paying their staff. Nevertheless attempts to block the tyre manufacturer failed and Michelin opened by 1927, it was employing 1550 by 1939.

Unemployment badly hit the area after the collapse of the economy after 1929. Kidsgrove was a particular black spot having an unemployment rate of 22% by 1929.

But what of activities to take the mind of the locals from a collapsing economy? Well, there was always football.

Port Vale had a good 1920s. It including beating rivals Stoke City in the 1925-6 season 3-0 on both occasions when both teams were in the Second Division. Vale after Stoke’s relegation from that division were the areas premier club. Vale was no doubt helped by one of the most prolific scorers in the clubs history Wilf Kirkham a local teacher and Methodist preacher. In three seasons in the 20s Kirkham scored a total of 109 goals.

Stoke City on the other hand hardly achieved their potential during the decade. Their promotion to the First Division proved short lived in 1922. They stayed anchored to the bottom of the division although and perhaps inevitably they did beat West Brom at the Hawthorns. They spent the decade bouncing between the divisions. A long term stalwart of the club who joined in the 20s was Bob McGrory and was to remain as player and manager for another 31 years despite the local legend that he so detested the industrial scenery of the area that he wanted to return to Scotland instantly

By the end of the 20s great emphasis was being placed on the younger players coming up. Stanley Matthews was given his debut for the club in March 1932.

Getting around the area was an important factor of life in the 20s. Trams, buses and trains presented the means by which locals moved around the conurbation at that time. The Potteries Electrical Traction expanded its bus service at the expense of trams, which it finally dispensed with in during the 20s. Stoke on Trent was unusual as it was one of the few manager cities that did not have its own passenger service unlike Liverpool, Manchester or Leeds. The period saw much competition for routes amongst many bus companies although PET emerged as the strongest of the companies and amalgamations occurred leading to PET, which eventually changed its name to PMT by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Incidentally the trams of Stoke on Trent received a type of literary immortality in their final year of existence in 1928 of being featured in Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel “Decline and Fall”. The” war hero” Captain Grimes admits that he really lost his leg, not in the trenches but falling over drunk and being run over by a tram in Stoke on Trent.

The times saw the demise of the fiercely independent local railway the North Staffordshire Railway known affectionately as the “Knotty” because of the use of the county symbol on the company crest. It had resisted attempts on a number of occasions of being taken over but in 1923 it became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway. During the summer holidays throughout this period the distinctive red livery of the NSR could still be seen as far away as Llandudno taking Potters on holidays to the North Wales coast.

It would be wrong not to include some of the activities that people of the decade would have enjoyed. The 1920s saw people taking advantage of good public transport to discover the surrounding countryside especially in such new organisations as the Scouts.

Scouting continued to thrive in North Staffordshire during this period and the local papers carried regular reports on the health of the movement. The founder Robert Baden Powell visited Leek in 1920 and his connections with the area have been well documented. His book “Scouting for Boys” was partly written in the Staffordshire Peak District before the Great War. In May 1924 an anonymous correspondent “Scouter” in the Leek Times rhapsodised on the coming of summer. One could look forward to the smell of the campfire and the early morning dip in the river and the pleasures of living the natural life as opposed to the artificiality of the modern town dweller.  Scouter however was troubled

“ A number of privileges are given to scouts are now be taken away owing to the careless habits of people who preceded them and who fail to see that there careless habits are spoiling the ground for others. Scouts do not do this and the object of the scout camper is to leave as little trace as possible and he usually manages to do this. To learn to fend for yourself should be the object of every youth”.

Not all youth or adults were as hale or hearty. Local cinemas pioneered by George Barber continued to attract huge audiences at this time. The Regent in Hanley opened in 1929 in time for the first talkies in the area with capacity to take over 2000 people. And for the home stayers radio began to establish itself although it was an expensive medium. The BBC was established during this time

But if I was to name one person who perhaps the essential positive and dynamic view the North Staffordshire had of itself during the 20s that person would be Clarice Cliff the Tunstall based working class woman who took the world of art deco pottery by storm. Her attractive designs and bright colours could for some encapsulate the Jazz Age. By the late 20s following a visit to Paris she was leading the way in innovative patterns demonstrated in her Bizarre range. The success of Bizarre was phenominal and stylish patterns and ware flowed from her studios. The paradox being that Clarice born in 1899 would not have been able to vote until 1929 as the vote did not include women under 30. It was only in the 20s did Britain eventually become a democracy.