Jean Edmond looks back to the poverty and defeats of the 1930s, and warns against them returning. This article appeared in Issue 10 of the Northern Star, a Leeds based publication.
My name is Jean Edmond. I was born on 19th March 1921 in Bootle near Liverpool, the daughter to a struggling housewife and an irregularly employed docker. I was the sixth sibling and followed a baby brother, William who had died two years earlier aged six weeks from measles. His death greatly scarred and embittered my father who had to take household possessions to pawn in order to pay for the funeral.
My father came from a Westmoreland family who had walked all the way down to Liverpool in search of work in the 1880’s. My mothers’ family had emigrated from Riga in Latvia in order to escape both poverty and the pogroms. My (mothers’ side) father had been radicalised by the poverty he saw around him and became a socialist. For many years he campaigned with the dockers’ against the cattle-market casualised labour system and in particular against the method of payment which usually meant getting your wages from a brutal foreman in the pub at the end of the week. For this reason he became a temperance campaigner.
My grandfather died of TB, the very year in which he would have become the first ever Labour mayor of Bootle. The only memory I have of him is a post-card photograph of the huge crowd at his funeral. At the bottom next to his name are the words; ‘He gave his life for others’. Not a bad way to be remembered.
When I was born in our home in Boswell Street, Bootle, it was to an under-nourished mother who had endured a long and difficult labour. On first sight the midwife is said to have uttered; ‘This one looks like a skinned rabbit. She won’t be long for this world’. How wrong she was.
My memories of early childhood are of perpetual cold and hunger. Of course as everyone in our neighbourhood was in the same condition, I naturally assumed that this was both natural and normal. Poverty was all around us and it was only later that I was to discover the reason for my own father’s irregular and low paid work. In 1926 during the General Strike in support of the locked-out miners, my father had been involved in active strike action and as such, had been a marked man ever since.
And it is here that I want to make a point. It was that huge defeat and betrayal of the 1926 general strike that made it so hard for us to fight against the most horrible mass unemployment, hunger and poverty in the 1930’s.
But that aside for the moment, my childhood was spent in a loving family and my early education was one of fun and stimulation at the Bootle Board of Education at Gray Street primary. Later, my teachers were to urge my parents to enter me for a selection exam for grammar school but fearful of the costs of uniform and books, they, to my enduring regret, declined the offer. My remaining years at Gray St would have coincided with the beginning of the great depression which unbeknown to me at the time, started with the Wall Street crash of the summer of 1929.
With Liverpool being the largest port in the country and with Bootle being in the heart of the docks, the sudden impact of a world slump had a massive and immediate effect on the fortunes of our family. And despite the election of a Labour government in the October of that year, there was nothing to protect an already poor community from the hurricane of the depression to come and the humiliations of deeper poverty and the dreaded means test that would literally determine who, or who would not, eat.
But however bad 1929 had been, it was nothing compared with yet another crash two years later in the summer of 1931. Overnight male unemployment on Merseyside leapt from 18% to 31% and when as a last act of betrayal to the working class, Ramsay MacDonalds’ government cut the dole by a further 10% on the eve of its resignation, over 60,000 people engaged in demonstrations and riots in the centre of Liverpool.
But it is the examples of individual suffering that stay with you the most. Like my Catholic friend who on finding she was pregnant chose suicide rather than the shame that the confessional would bring on her and her family. Of young women forced into prostitution and then in desperation seeking abortions from which some would die of septicaemia. Of the neighbouring family being visited by a means test inspector on the eve on their baby son’s funeral and told that they would have to pawn the table upon which the coffin lay before they could qualify for unemployment relief.
And then the evictions, of families being broken up and for those fit enough to work, the prospect each morning of fighting at the docks gates in the hope to catch the eye of the foreman and a days’ work. And the dread of an illness in a family for which there would be neither, money for medicine nor a welfare system for care.
But as a young woman, I was increasingly aware of the growing scale of the crisis beyond the streets of Bootle. In 1933 the horror of depression was to be compounded by the nightmare of fascism as Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany. And then three years later General Franco attacked the Spanish republic and unleashed nearly four years of murderous civil war.
Whenever even to this day, I look back on the 1930’s, I am more and more convinced that if it had not been for the 2nd World war, there would have been a revolution. And with all the pent up anger and memories of past humiliations and suffering, it would have been a revolution on which there would have been no going back.
Which brings me to today. Despite being a child of the 30’s, I have gone on to have a good, fulfilled and happy life. Much of this has been due to the very real gains that we WON after the war in the form of the welfare state, the NHS, pensions, comprehensive education and improved housing. But now there is another crisis, and if I understand the economic comments today correctly, then this one will probably be bigger, deeper and longer.
If this is correct, then whatever the gains of the past 60 years, then they are now all up for grabs. For nearly two generations, I have always hoped- with a degree of certainty that the lives of my grand-children and great grand-children would be better than mine. Now I can no longer say that, and I fear greatly for their futures.
And although it pains me greatly that the Tories are back in office- and here I will remind you of the words of Nye Bevin ‘that the Tories are one stage lower than vermin’, there is still room for optimism. Nowhere in the world has a working class yet suffered a total defeat. You have not had a 1926 that so hobbled our generation. And everywhere, the capitalists and their hangers-on are still as greed-driven and every bit as stupid as they ever were.
But this time around there can be no recourse to the horrors of a world war that can save them. Although it would be stupid to under-estimate their ability to destroy the basis of both humanity and the eco-systems of our planet in their frantic bids for survival, it is nevertheless essential that we always uphold the combined capacities and potential of the working class to win through.
However bad things are, the basis for resistance is still intact and unlike us in the 1930’s, you have not been half beaten before you start. And always remember that what the Tories and their class are inflicting on us is in part because they fear us. Now is the time to frighten them further- to frighten them to death by taking on what my generation was unable to do.
That is to build a society that will forever rid the world of the want, suffering and ignorance that has for all too long been the lot of humanity. That means that the best way of never going back to the 30’s starts now through the struggle for a socialist revolution.