chapter  4
28 Pages

Home on the Dole in the Hungry Thirties

The homes and living conditions of the working classes were a matter of urgent public debate in the 1930s. With an ‘underfed’ population estimated at over 10 million and between one and three million people out of work between 1920 and 1939, working-class homes became part of the public consciousness as social explorers, documentary film-makers and propagandists sought to uncover the effects of the Great Depression. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), one of the 1930s’ most famous journeys of social reportage, George Orwell went tapemeasure in hand to discover the impact of mass unemployment in ‘the little brick houses’ of the industrial towns. Though he found the view monotonous – ‘the interiors of these houses are always very much the same’ – he offered a moving portrait of the current ‘housing problems’:

The majority of these houses are old, fifty or sixty years at least, and great numbers of them are by any ordinary standard not fit for human habitation. They go on being tenanted simply because there are no others to be had. … It means that people will put up with anything – any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents – simply to get a roof over their heads.2