A New Civilisation? London Surveyed 1928-40

Alexander, Sally A.. 2007. A New Civilisation? London Surveyed 1928-40. History Workshop Journal, 64(1), pp. 297-320. ISSN 13633554 [Article]

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London between the wars was the location of experiments in living, an exemplar of the civilizing influence of education and a principal focus of Labour’s determination to raise expectations. It was also a source of anxiety. Fears of urban contamination penetrating countryside and people, of population decline and demographic imbalance, of Britain’s weak industrial structure and the threat of aerial bombardment run through the condition-of-Britain literature. London’s expansion in the 1920s and ’30s restructured the economic geography of Britain and with it people’s lives and futures. With a population of 8.65 million and still growing Greater London stretched for a twenty-mile radius from Charing Cross, eating up agricultural land, swallowing small villages and towns its population swelling not from births but from migration; hacking, chopping sucking, vampiric metaphors described London’s annihilating advance.

Ten years earlier London’s growth had been seen as neither ominous nor dangerous. In the late nineteen-twenties a vision of the metropolis as a vital economic force, risen from the ashes of the Great War and governed by a progressive political authority which extended outward to empire and inward to an educated, democratic population, was imposed over London’s rambling development by the New Survey of London Life and Labour (1928-1935). The New Survey, product of the London School of Economics, follow-up to Booth’s pioneering study forty years earlier, uncovered higher incomes, less poverty, a shorter working day and improved literacy. Londoners were readers, gardeners, ‘listeners-in’; they were dancers, musicians, gamblers; they had acquired the ‘habit of travel’ and went to the cinema once a week – the price of ticket so cheap it kept the cost of all entertainments low. All these forces combined to ‘shift the main centre of interest of a worker’s life more and more from his daily work to his daily leisure’.

This essay explores these historical forces – economic growth, the commerce in pleasure, migration, housing, city mentality – through the lens of the New Survey which captured London’s economy and people on the cusp of change from want to ‘decent comforts’. Education is the ‘master-key’ of progress; mobility and aspiration follow in its wake. If social research is the means through which the nation understood itself, then the New Survey marks a shift in liberal sentiment from empathy to entitlement, and its idiom overlaps with that of oral and written memory.

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October 2007Published

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12 Mar 2009 15:41

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27 Jun 2017 10:07

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