ROUNDABOUT BLOG

Britain in the Interwar Years

Posted on: October 18th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

Cast of Time and The Conways. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Time and the Conways follows a family through a span of years known as “the interwar period.” Between 1919 and 1939, Britain was recovering from World War I, isolating itself from political turmoil across Europe, and watching as its Empire began a slow decline. Domestically, England struggled with a slow economy, while social shifts laid the ground for greater equality. We first meet the Conways in a celebratory mood, but as time moves forward, they reflect their country’s shift into disappointment and depression.

 

IMPORTANT EVENTS IN THE CONWAYS’ TIMES

1918- World War I concludes on November 11, with Germany’s agreement to stop fighting.

1918- The Representation of the People Act gives the vote to married women over 30 and reduces most property qualifications for men.

1919- Treaty of Versailles, led by England, U.S. and France, imposes harsh punishments and severe financial penalties on Germany.

1919- Widespread strikes in England by miners, railroad workers, and police lead to military force used against mobs.

1921- Greatest recession experienced in England, caused by war costs and decline in trade.

1926- General Strike by over 2 million English workers lasts 9 days but ends with no gains for labor.

1927- The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act makes widespread general strikes illegal.

1928- Representation of the People/Equal Franchise Act lowers the voting age for women to 21 and removes remaining property qualifications for men to vote.

1929- Stock Market Crash destroys not only the U.S. but also England and European countries dependent on American loans.

1931- The Great Slump (England’s term for The Great Depression) hits England’s economy the hardest, although it begins to recover a year later.

1933- Adolf Hitler comes to power in Germany, with a program to reverse the Versailles Treaty.

1936- Abdication of King Edward VIII, who gives the crown to his brother George IV in order to marry his American mistress Wallis Simpson.

1936- Hitler’s Germany re-militarizes the Rhineland. England tries to cooperate with the Germans, hoping to delay armed conflict.

 

HUMAN COSTS OF THE GREAT WAR

World War I was popular with the English, who saw it as one Britain’s greatest victories, but the celebratory mood soon gave way to despair. The death toll surpassed any 4-year period in history; nearly three-quarters of a million British died in the war, wiping out almost an entire generation. Surviving veterans, many working class, returned with physical disabilities and mental distress, leaving a bitter legacy for these men and their families. As the English wondered whether the victory was worth the human sacrifice, politicians came to view military force only as a last resort. This wariness to use force reduced Britain’s role as an international power, contributing to the erosion of the British Empire and causing its slow, reluctant entry into World War II.

 

Steven Boyer in Time and the Conways. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

1920s: A DECADE OF ECONOMIC DECLINE

Britain’s economy stagnated in the interwar years, while the U.S. gradually emerged as the leading industrial power. During the war, England incurred enormous debt, primarily owed to American banks. The war hurt Britain’s lead on foreign trade, as countries once reliant on British goods developed their own industries and now became competition. England experienced a difficult recession in 1920-21, and the next decade brought currency deflation, high unemployment, and stagnant growth. The coal industry was struck especially hard due to lowering supplies, rising costs, increasing competition in Europe, and a growing preference for oil. Although the economy stabilized by the late ‘20s, the American stock market crash of 1929 spurred a worldwide recession. However, England’s lackluster economy made the impact of the Depression less stark than in the U.S.

 

LABOR STRUGGLES

The interwar years were marked by great labor unrest. Unions grew in size and strength during World War I, but labor had limited power. The British viewed the Russian Revolution as a warning of what could happen if order was not upheld. In 1919, widespread strikes by miners, railway workers, and the police led to riots on the streets; some divisions of the army rose in mutiny. Rather than allow a Russian-style revolution, union leaders gave in to the industrialists and government. In 1926, the country experienced a 9-day general strike, starting with 1.2 million coal miners striking against wage reductions and longer work shifts, supported by 1.3 million workers from other industries. Despite large numbers and solidarity, the workers had little support from the government and the upper- and middle-classes. When the strike ended, the miners received none of their demands, and a year later, the government outlawed all general strikes. Despite these failures, the Labour Party, which represents the interests of working people, elected more representatives than ever and actually controlled parliament for two short periods in the ‘20s.

 

A MORE DEMOCRATIC ENGLAND

British society, with its stratified class structure, became modernized during World War I and more democratic in the interwar period. Social barriers were reduced in the battle trenches, where men of different classes fought together. The landed classes suffered a higher proportion of casualties, reducing the upper class within the overall population. After the war, an increasing number of the working class rose to white collar professions. As women and the working class gained the vote and became more organized, there was less deference to the upper classes and overall loosening of rigid class hierarchy throughout English society.

 

FROM SLUMP TO THE NEXT WAR

While the English did not feel the impact of the Depression as severely as Americans and Germans, unemployment rose to 25% in 1933. The northern industries—coal, iron, and steel—had failed to modernize and were hit the hardest. Southern England fared better in these years. Many English saw their quality of life improve, due to increased new housing and conveniences like radios, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. Looking abroad, the British watched carefully as Hitler gained power in Germany and seized territory throughout Europe. Throughout the ‘30s, politicians followed a policy of appeasement—giving Hitler what he wanted in the hopes of avoiding war, but by 1939, Germany’s invasion of Poland made the next World War inevitable.

 


Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on October 10, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.



Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways


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