Directory:Article Purgatory/British working class

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Template:Ntnes The Great War cost Britain 750 000 thousand lives and injured 1.6 million[1], of these casualties the majority were of working class origin, the war demanded manpower both at home in the industries and on the front line, this demand was met for the most part by the working class. The demands of war were such that unemployment throughout remained low, in June 1914 the number of unemployed was 2.4%, by August 1918 it had shrank to 0.5%[2] . Due to almost full employment throughout the war and the complexities that it caused, the trade union movement gained in strength and numbers, whilst the Labour Party experienced growth that it would have unlikely been able to achieve otherwise. The working classes despite suffering enormous losses during the war emerged from it in a far better position than they had entered. They had a stronger representation in Parliament through the Labour party; they gained the vote in 1919 and Trade Union membership was soaring having doubled in size between 1914 and 1920 (4.145 million and 8.347 million respectively). Those who worked in the interwar years gained a higher ‘real’ wage and a generally higher quality of life than in pre-war years, especially those involved in the new industries. However, increased efficiency in output and loss of markets for the old staples resulted in over one million lost jobs and massive suffering for those left without employment. This serves to show that the result of the Great War was not felt equally amongst workers and that massive disparities existed across Britain, however as the following text will show, as whole and in the long run the Great War served to unite and strengthen the British working class.

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With the onset of war the government called for volunteers to fight, the response was so great that within a year one fifth of those who worked in the coal-mining industry had signed up[3]; the effect was similar in other industries as well resulting in recruiting officers having to refuse some entries based upon the wars requirements on industry.

The rise of Labour

The Government had to gain the support of the workers and so in 1915 Arthur Henderson the secretary of the Labour Party, joined the coalition government as president of the board of education and unofficial advisor on labour, later in 1916 several more trade unionists joined Henderson in high profile government roles. Henderson was promoted to the inner war cabinet, John Hodge became the minister for labour and George Barnes became minister of pensions[4]. There is no doubt that the coalition government didn’t need labour representatives to fill these roles, however the Government desperately needed the support the trade unions for the war effort. The decision to include labour representatives was a move to gain more support from the workers, the important point however, was that Labour was now gaining much needed experience in the practical running of government, something that couldn’t have been achieved without the advent of war. The inclusion of Labour representatives was a massive decision in the face of British politics, this event brought about the accelerated growth of the Labour Party and decline of the Liberal Party. Labour's share of the vote rose from 7% in 1910 to 21% in 1918 whilst the Liberals' share was reduced from 44% in 1910 to 13% in 1918[5]. Labour's participation in Government during the war ensured that it became Britain’s second party. The party of the working classes as a direct result of the war had firmly established itself as the second political power within Britain, giving the working man a voice within parliament and strengthening his position within British society.

War and women

Women from both the middle class and the working class were heavily involved in the First World War, for the first time they filled many of the vital roles previously held in reserve for men. The number of women in commerce increased immensely during the War from 505 000 to 934 000, the number of women in government and education rose from 262 000 to 460 000[6]. This shows a significant shift in Britain’s dependency from male labour to female labour. For working class women, work was not a new experience, the change that they experienced was in the manner they were employed. There was a definite shift away from traditional service female roles and those employers in sweated labour found it hard to retain staff. Working class women most famously went into munitions factories where they would regularly work up to fourteen hours per day. The conditions within the factories were appalling and many workers were labelled canaries due to the yellowing effect that exposure to high explosives caused. However from the outbreak of war work the munitions factories offered a starting wage of thirty shillings per week rose to two pounds by 1918[7] , compared to the average women’s wage of just over eleven shillings before the war.


With the massive influx of working class voters after the war the Labour Party's share of the vote increased, and kept increasing till the end of the 1920s. In 1924 the Labour Party managed to form a minority government, an astounding feat for a party that had been in existence for less than twenty five years. The Great War had allowed for the rise of the Labour Party and trade unions, even though trade union membership continued to rise throughout the 1920s, fewer people were in work. The loss of markets for the staple industries (coal, iron and steel, ship making and textiles) teamed with increases in efficiency in production led to over one million jobs being lost, mass poverty hit the nation in a big way and all the gains in the Great War did little to ease the suffering of the unemployed working classes. However, for those who found employment in the interwar years improvements were felt, smaller working hours, higher ‘real’ wages and greater job security with large unions to support them all ensured a better quality of life. It is important to note that there were massive disparities even within the working classes, as those without jobs felt no benefit, and those with work, especially in the new industries enjoyed an overall better quality of life, this was further proved by the marked increase in average fitness in the men who fought in the Second World War. In monetary terms the employed working classes were better off by around twenty pounds per year.


Cole, G.D.H. a short history of the British working class movement 1789-1927 Volume 3 (London George Allen&Unwin ltd 1932)

Hopkins, Eric A social History of the English working classes 1815-1945 (Hodder and Staughton 1979)

Kirk, Neville Change, continuity and class, labour in British society 1850-1920 (Manchester University Press 1998)

Hutt, Allen The post-war history of the British working class, (EP Publishing Limited 1972)

Lane, Tony The union makes us strong (Arrow books 1982)

Blackwell, Trevor A world still to win (Faber and Faber Limited 1985)

External links


  1. ^ Eric Hopkins, A social History of the English working class 1815-1945, Hodder and Stoughton 1979, p211.
  2. ^ Eric Hopkins p211
  3. ^ Eric Hopkins, a social History,
  4. ^ Tony Lane, The Union makes us strong
  5. ^ 1929 General Election
  6. ^ Eric Hopkins, A Social History, p215
  7. ^ Eric Hopkins