Skip to content
  1. Home
  2. 1939 Register
  3. Employment in 1930s Britain
A black and white photo of a group of men walking during the Jarrow March to London in 1936, one of the most famous Hunger Marches during the Great Depression. The photo is taken from behind the group of men, meaning only their back is visible.

Employment in 1930s Britain

During the Great Depression, unemployment in parts of 1930s Britain was at crisis levels, with many living in abject poverty

Explore England and Wales in the 1930s with the 1939 Register

The 1930s were a period of global economic turmoil. Caused by the Wall Street Crash of 1939, the Great Depression had plunged much of Britain into abject poverty. Slum living and homelessness became common, with malnutrition and its associated illnesses rife in certain parts of the country, particularly in the industrial north and Scotland, where a sudden lack of demand for products meant sweeping unemployment. 

Black and white photo of a group of five unemployed Italian men, in front of an empty storefront (maybe from a restaurant or bar). They all wear hats. Three of them are standing, and two are seating with one of the sitting men reading the newspaper.
A group of unemployed Italian men, Saffron Hill, near Farringdon, London EC1. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/MARGARET MONCK

In a country not yet recovered from the economic and social impact of the First World War, unemployment never had the chance to return to pre-war levels before Depression struck. In his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill – ill-advisedly – restored the Pound Sterling to the gold standard at its pre-war exchange rate, making British exports more expensive and further harming the chances of economic revival in certain sectors.

The Great Depression that began on Wall Street had a devastating effect on the British employment market. Within a year, unemployment had jumped from 1 million to over 2 million

All of this spelled mass unemployment. The Great Depression that began in New York had a devastating effect on the British employment market. Within a year, unemployment had jumped from 1 million to over 2 million. The Welfare State was, at this stage, in its infancy. Until August 1931, unemployment benefits were dependent on the recipient’s contributions to the scheme, so many working class people who found themselves out of work may never have been paid well enough to contribute, meaning they received nothing. Even if the claimant had contributed enough to receive payments, they would last a maximum of 15 weeks. As a consequence, working class areas of Britain – particularly the industrial north and mining communities – were plunged deeply into poverty. 

The Welfare State was, at this stage, in its infancy. Until August 1931, unemployment benefits were dependent on the recipient’s contributions to the scheme, so many working class people who found themselves out of work may never have been paid well enough to contribute

A black and white photo of a group of homeles people sleeping on London's embankment. There are two men and one woman recognisable, but there may be two other persons sleeping under blankets behind them. On the left, the feet of another sleeper are visible.
Unemployed and homeless people sleeping rough on London's Embankment Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

This scant protection for the unemployed was what made the recession of the 1930s so much worse for Britons than the recession of the 2000s. With no government assistance, avoiding complete destitution was in many cases impossible, and with unemployment on the rise in the first half of the 1930s, Hunger Marches – perhaps the most famous of which being the Jarrow March of 1936 - resurfaced as a means of the unemployed expressing their desperation.

The middle of the decade showed signs of recovery – unemployment rates were down from their peak of 22% during the Depression, and the economy was steadily growing again – however these signs of prosperity were not evenly spread.

The middle of the decade showed signs of recovery – unemployment rates were down from their peak of 22% during the Depression, and the economy was steadily growing again – however these signs of prosperity were not evenly spread. While a housing boom created by low interest rates in the South East was providing jobs and security, areas of Wales, the north of England and other centres of industry were crippled, with parts of the north east reaching unemployment rates of 70%. Conditions like scurvy and rickets became common in children living on a subsistence diet.

Black and white photo of a group of customers queuing at the service counter at the communal feeding center in Scotland Road, Manchester, on the 5th February 1941.

Towards the end of the decade, unemployment was on its way down. The government’s policy of rearmament helped to revitalise industry, and by 1937 unemployment had dropped to 1.5 million. The outbreak of war saw unemployment rates drop again, but this wasn’t the end of Britain’s hardship. Six years of war and a subsequent Age of Austerity meant that it would be a long time until the average Brit experienced prosperity again. 

Main image: The Jarrow March. to London, 1936. Image: Mary Evans/IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

Advanced
Advanced Search