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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

module:Britain between the wars

The decline of the old industries and the rise of the consumer market

page:Introduction


Interwars frontis

The nineteenth century witnessed enormous industrial growth in the British economy, as seen in the ‘Workshop of the World’ learning module. Above all, the country experienced the growth of four key industries for which Britain became one of the greatest producers for the world: textiles, coal, iron, steel, and shipbuilding.


The textile mill at Saltaire, West Yorkshire. Textiles were a key export from the UK in the nineteenth century. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Together in 1914 these staple (or exporting) industries provided three-quarters of British exports and employed about a quarter of the country’s labour force. Such growth had led to large-scale movements of populations into the areas whose work force now became dominated by a particular industry.

The prosperity of these industries reached a peak on the eve of the First World War in 1914. After the war, Britain found it increasingly difficult to withstand the growing foreign competition for the export markets that she had previously dominated.


'Clacton-on-Sea', LNER poster, 1926. The tourist industry experienced growth in the interwar years. picture zoom © National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

This tutorial examines these previously successful, now declining industries, which had been so dependent on export. It also considers the evidence of new growth in other industries. While new areas of manufacture and consumer industries were emerging, these were not generally in the industries that had undergone so much growth in the nineteenth century and were now in decline.

The contrast between the new areas of growth, and the areas with old industries painfully adjusting to new circumstances, was a noted feature of the interwar years.

On top of these problems, the 1930s also suffered a short-term but worldwide depression. This added to the difficulties of the old industrial areas, both in the depths of the depression and in the duration of their decline. The southeast escaped from depression much faster and it was only the approach of war that once again pushed the old industrial areas back to work.


Queue of unemployed men, London, 12 December 1938. picture zoom © Daily Herald Archive/Science & Society Picture Library


Resource Descriptions

The textile mill at Saltaire, West Yorkshire. Textiles were a key export from the UK in the nineteenth century.
'Clacton-on-Sea', LNER poster, 1926. The tourist industry experienced growth in the interwar years.
Queue of unemployed men, London, 12 December 1938.
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