1920s Britain

The Roaring 20s is a decade bookended by global catastrophes: the First World War and the Influenza pandemic (1914-20) and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which precipated the Great Depression. While the 20s is certainly remembered as a decade of wealth and excess, it is important to remember the ongoing human cost of these global disasters and how they impacted this ‘roaring’ decade.

The Impact of the the First World War


As a result of new military technologies and the horrors of trench warfare, the First World War saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. By the time the war was over 16 million people – soldiers and civilians alike – were dead.

In many ways the First World War was the first modern ‘total’ war, and it had far reaching implications for the army and civilians alike. From 1915 onwards the government also increasingly intervened in ordinary people’s daily lives. For example, interventions into rent control were made in 1915, conscription in 1916, price control in 1917, rationing in 1918 and even alcohol dilution. The war also heralded seismic political shifts including the collapse of the Liberal Party, the rise of the Labour Party and Britain’s first near-democratic franchise when the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918.

This increased state intervention led to a period of rising living standards and new opportunities in Britain. The mass unemployment of the pre-war years disappeared, women joined the labour market in large numbers for the first time, life expectancy (outside the trenches) increased and infant mortality declined. Falling levels of alcohol consumption improved the general health of the nation.

The First World War uprooted millions of European civilians, most of whom were innocent bystanders. The resulting crisis had profound consequences, not only for the individuals directly affected but also for officials and relief workers who attempted to relieve their suffering and for the local communities that hosted refugees. In 1914-15 Belgian refugees arrived in France and the Netherlands in large numbers. Around 160,000 refugees found shelter in the UK, where the government kept a close watch on them. In Britain more than 2,500 committees provided charitable relief to Belgian refugees and the crisis did not end with the close of the war in 1918.

The Impact of the ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic


While the First World War claimed an estimated 16 million lives, the ‘Spanish’ Flue which raged across the world between 1918 and 1920 is estimated to have killed 50 million people. In Britain alone there were 228,000 recorded deaths; 1918 was the first year since official records began that deaths in Britain outnumbered births. 

An emergency hospital during the Influenza pandemic. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

In the late spring of 1918 the first wave of the pandemic emerged with what became known as the ‘three-day fever’. At this stage the majority of people who caught the flu managed to recover. However, when the disease appeared again in the autumn of 1918 it was much more deadly. There was also a third, less serious, wave of the pandemic which appeared in the second half of 1919.

As well as the sheer number of fatalities, the 1918-1920 pandemic was unusual in that it killed young and healthy people in large numbers, rather than those who were elderly or frail. This was a particularly hard blow after so many young men had been lost in the trenches.

The Impact of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression


After a decade of wealth and excess which was built on post-war optimism, the 1929 Wall Street Crash heralded the end of the Roaring 20s and the start of the Great Depression.

On Tuesday 29th October 1929, or Black Tuesday as it became known, 16 million shares were sold on the stock market, located on Wall Street, and the economy almost completely collapsed. A number of influencing factors contributed to this global financial disaster including overproduction and underconsumption in both agricultural and consumer goods, increased mechanisation leading to a decline in ‘traditional’ industries, the laissez-faire attitude of post-war governments, and increasing consumer debt usually as a result of speculation on the stock market.

Crowds gather outside the New York Stock Exchange, 1929. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

The Wall Street Crash and resulting economic depression affected most of the globe. In the UK, by the end of 1930, unemployment had risen from c. 1 million to c. 2.5 million and exports had fallen in value by an astonishing 50% The 1930s witnessed a series of hunger marches, the largest of these taking place in 1932. Entering into its next decade the world could not have looked more different.

Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC.