Unemployment – the aftermath of the First World War

A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project has explored the local and national impact of the unemployment that followed the ending of the First World War. The reporting was considered so important that the regular column in the Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper which had followed demobilisation under the by-line ‘Demobicus’ now turned to unemployment.

The end of the First World War saw major and far-reaching social upheaval. The Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism had repercussions throughout the world. While Britain escaped the serious violence that erupted in Germany between communist and non-communist factions there was a lot of discontent. There was a widespread feeling in the workplace of not wanting to go back to the conditions that existed prior to, and also during, the war. Some employers had taken the opportunity to downgrade jobs from skilled to unskilled, and. therefore, paid at a lower wage, when women were taken on. Their so-called reasoning was that if a woman could do the work then it was not a skilled job.

Not only were members of the armed forces looking for a job there were all those in civilian roles that, overnight, had effectively vanished. Of the estimated 306,000 who worked in ‘national’ factories, primarily on munitions, 75% had lost their job by March 1919. Typical was the Royal Naval Cordite Factory at Holton Heath where the weekly output of cordite fell from 150 tons to 30 tons and with it the need for a large workforce.

Many businesses faced a bleak future. The Wessex Shipbuilding Co of Poole had worked solely on the reconditioning and repair of numerous small Admiralty vessels during the war. The company had taken on extra staff to cope with a workload which had now disappeared.

Ex-servicemen returned to great uncertainty and there was a lot of antagonism towards individuals who, some believed, had avoided the war and were in employment. Even as late as 1921, Poole Council and the Poole Board of Guardians were requesting that the Admiralty should sack any men who were working at RNCF Holton Heath and who had not served, and replace them with ex-servicemen. The Admiralty replied that they were not able to agree to the request unless there were specific individuals who were ‘improperly retained’.  

Several demonstrations over unemployment took place in Poole during 1920. A placard at one demonstration read Discharged, Cold and Miserable’ – the DCM was the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Resentment was expressed that various groups, such as conscientious objectors and women, were in work while ex-servicemen were unemployed – but it was also not that straightforward. Those who had fought at the front often felt antagonism towards those who had been based at home and never experienced actual conflict, but expected to be treated the same as those who had put their lives at risk.

‘Bread – not Doles’ was the headline in December 1920 for an article about the visit by a group of out-of-work ex-servicemen to a Poole Council meeting. The men wanted the Council to help them obtain useful paid work and Captain G.J, Pitt was their spokesperson. Suggestions put forward included improving Alder Road, relaying the tramlines from Poole to Park Gates East which were said to be in an awful state, building houses using non-union labour, and employing people rather than giving out overtime. The Mayor responded that the Council had agreed to the improvement of Alder Road, widening the road in Hamworthy, and building concrete houses but many other suggestions were outside their control. At the end of November there were 594 unemployed ex-servicemen out of a total of 766 who were out of work; this did not include women and those who refused to accept what they considered to be ‘unproductive money’.

The meeting gave rise to the ‘Mayor of Poole’s Christmas Obligation Fund for Unemployed Ex-servicemen’ which aimed to provide vouchers and gifts over the festive period for those most in need. The fund had received nearly £800 by late December from individual donations or through fund-raising events. Labour Exchange staff worked in their own time to compile a list of those entitled to the gifts which were to be delivered by the Boy Scouts.

An impromptu demonstration in December gathered at Topp’s Corner, with the Town Crier calling out the news on the streets. The demonstrators then marched along the High Street to the Guildhall where they were met by the Mayor. Many of their arguments centred on who should get preference when jobs became available; for example, that ex-servicemen and married men should be employed in preference to single men. While the Alder Road scheme was welcomed it only employed 40 men when there over 700 out of work. The Mayor pointed out that the schemes announced by the Council were supported by Government funds and it was the Labour Exchange which determined who got the work. Nationally, the Ministry of Labour had decided that those out of work for the longest time and had large families should get preference.

One demonstration was reported under the headline ‘Nobody Wants Us’. There was a call for RNCF Holton Heath to make something for ‘the preservation of life’ rather than the military and the manufacture of fuel was one suggestion. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem as towards the end of the war Holton Heath had been investigating the manufacture of what we would call ‘bioethanol’ as an alternative to petrol. The theory was that heathland could be used to grow mangolds, a beet used in cattle feed, which would then be converted into ethanol by bacteria. The reason behind the scheme was the belief that the increasing demand for petrol would outstrip its supply. Early indications had suggested that 24 tons of mangolds could be converted into 240 gallons of ‘power alcohol’. Holton Heath already had experience of a fermentation process through the large-scale production of acetone used in the manufacture of cordite.  

Unemployment Advert

Unemployment Advert

     What financial assistance and other help was available in the absence of the welfare state?

In late November 1918, the Poole newspaper reported on a Government scheme to help ex- servicemen and civilians who were out of work because the war had ended. Men would get a payment of 24s (£1.20) per week and women 20s (£1) per week. There were additional payments for children under 15. A boy who had been employed, and was aged 15 -18, got 12s (60p) per week while a girl received 10s (50p) per week. The payment was for 13 weeks to civilians and 26 weeks to ex-servicemen.

These payments led to arguments over supposed ‘shirkers’ preferring the dole to a wage. In contrast, a Poole newspaper article of 1919 highlighted a man who had signed up in 1914, only just returned home and was offered a job at a weekly wage of 25s (£1.25) on which he was expected to support a family. The article ended with ‘let employers offer decent wages…then men will work’.

One major social change after the war was that the ‘Unemployment Insurance Bill’ of 1920 was expected to become law. The aim was to provide, on payment of a weekly sum, unemployment insurance for over 11 million workers with the idea of protecting them if they became unemployed; the previous system had only covered 3.5million workers. Interestingly, the old act paid out 11 shillings (55p) per week to men and women while the new version was to pay 15 shillings (75p) per week to men but only 12 shillings (60p) per week to women.

For most people, the Labour Exchange in Poole was the place to get a job and a long queue would form by the Oddfellows Hall each morning. With a high level of unemployment it was argued that there should be a sub-branch in Parkstone as men were having to pay 6d (2 ½p) to travel into Poole every time they sought work or had to sign on.

Oddfellows Hall c.1880, Hunger Hill

Oddfellows Hall c.1880, Hunger Hill

Nationally, there was an Appointments Department which was solely for officers and those of ‘higher educational attainment’ and in mid-1919 it had around 18,000 on its books having found jobs for nearly 10,000. Many had gone straight from public school or university into the military and had only a limited idea of civilian life. There was also a Training Grants Scheme which had 1420 men receiving training but still had 16,000 on its books.

Some former apprentices were able to re-join their schemes but many found either their former employer unwilling to take them back or that the business had closed. A national call was put out for employers to take on more former apprentices as they would become the skilled workers of the future. However, some employers were reluctant because they were now older, would want higher wages but still be unskilled.

The demand for jobs meant that any scheme to provide employment was enthusiastically received; another blog will feature some of these schemes which ranged from the small to the substantial. For example, teams of four men were paid £25 for every redundant tank they broke up at Wareham. They were expected to smash a tank into pieces for scrap in an arduous job that could take a week. In contrast, the Gardiner Shipbuilding Company anticipated employing thousands of men by creating one of the largest shipbuilding industries in the country in Poole. Unfortunately, it collapsed with alleged substantial debts.


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