By Tim Lambert

There were two sides to the 20th century. On the one hand there were severe recessions in the early 1930s and in the 1980s and 1990s. There were also two terrible world wars. On the other hand there was a vast improvement in the standard of living of ordinary people. Life expectancy also rose. In 1900 in Britain it was about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. By the end of the century it was about 75 and 80. Life was also greatly improved by new inventions.

Even during the depression of the 1930s things improved for most of the people who had a job. Real incomes rose significantly during the decade. The same was true of the 1980s.

Society in the 20th Century

British society changed greatly during the 20th century. In 1914 only about 20% of the population was middle class. By 1939 the figure was about 30%. In the late 20th century the number of 'blue collar' or manual workers declined rapidly but the number of 'white collar' workers in offices and service industries increased rapidly.

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society.

There was another change in British society. In the late 20th century divorce and single parent families became much more common.

Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct 'youth culture' emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers and in the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Hayley.

The history of English society

Women in the 20th Century

In 1918 in Britain women over 30 were allowed to vote. More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. In 1916 the first policewoman (with full powers) was appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first female solicitor was Carrie Morrison in 1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.

Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men for doing work of equal value. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

Work and Industry in 20th Century Britain

In the years 1900-1914 the British economy was stable and unemployment was quite low. However during the 1920s there was mass unemployment. For most of the decade it hovered between 10% and 12%. Then, in the early 1930s, the British economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 unemployment among insured workers was 22.8%. However unemployment fell substantially in 1933, 1934 and 1935. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. Unemployment continued to fall and by 1938 it was around 10%.

However although a partial recovery took place in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland and South Wales. On the other hand new industries such as car and aircraft making and electronics prospered in the Midlands and the South of England where unemployment was relatively low.

The problems of depression and high unemployment were only really solved by the Second World War, which started industry booming again. Unemployment remained very low in the late 1940s and the 1950s and 1960s were a long period of prosperity.

However this ended in the mid-1970s. In 1973 there was still full employment in Britain (it stood at 3%). However shortly afterwards a period of high inflation and high unemployment began. In the late 1970s unemployment stood at around 5.5%.

However in the years 1980-1982 Britain was gripped by recession and unemployment grew much worse. It reached a peak in 1986 then it fell to 1990. Unfortunately another recession began in 1990 and unemployment rose again. However unemployment began to fall again in 1993 and it continued to fall till the end of the century.

Meanwhile in the late 20th century a change was coming over the British economy, sometimes called de-industrialization. Traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles and shipbuilding declined rapidly. On the other hand service industries such as tourism, education, retail and finance grew rapidly and this sector became the main source of employment.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

The history of work

Poverty in 20th Century Britain

At the beginning of the 20th century surveys showed that 25% of the population of Britain were living in poverty. They found that at least 15% were living at subsistence level. They had just enough money for food, rent, fuel and clothes. They could not afford 'luxuries' such as newspapers or public transport. About 10% were living in below subsistence level and could not afford an adequate diet.

The surveys found that the main cause of poverty was low wages. The main cause of extreme poverty was the loss of the main breadwinner. If dad was dead, ill or unemployed it was a disaster. Mum might get a job but women were paid much lower wages than men.

Surveys also found that poverty tended to go in a cycle. Workers might live in poverty when they were children but things usually improved when they left work and found a job. However when they married and had children things would take a turn for the worse. Their wages might be enough to support a single man comfortably but not enough to support a wife and children too. However when the children grew old enough to work things would improve again. Finally, when he was old a worker might find it hard to find work, except the most low paid kind and be driven into poverty again.

In the 1900s some women made their underwear from bags that grocers kept rice or flour in. Poor children often did not wear underwear. Some poor families made prams from orange boxes.

A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and they made some reforms. From that year poor children were given free school meals. In January 1909 the first old age pensions were paid. They were hardly generous - only 5 shillings a week, which was a paltry sum even in those days and they were only paid to people over 70. Nevertheless it was a start.

Also in 1909 the government formed wages councils. In those days some people worked in the so-called 'sweated industries' such as making clothes and they were very poorly paid and had to work extremely long hours just to survive. The wages councils set minimum pay levels for certain industries.

In 1910 the first labor exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up.

Then in 1911 the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefit for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. In 1920 unemployment was extended to most workers although it was not extended to agricultural workers until 1936.

Things greatly improved in Britain after the First World War. A survey in 1924 showed that 4% of the population were living in extreme poverty. (A tremendous improvement from the period before 1914 when it was about 10%). A survey in Liverpool in 1928 found that 14% of the population were living at bare subsistence level. (That figure may not apply to the whole of Britain as Liverpool was a poor city). In 1929-30 a survey in London found that about 10% of the population were living at subsistence level.

A survey in 1936 found that just under 4% were living at bare survival level. Poverty had by no means disappeared by the 1930s but it was much less than ever before.

Pensions and unemployment benefit were made more generous in 1928 and in 1930. In 1931 unemployment benefit was cut by 10% but it was restored in 1934. Furthermore prices continued to fall during the 1930s. By 1935 a man on the 'dole' was about as well off as a skilled worker in 1905, a measure of how much living standards had risen.

By 1950 absolute poverty had almost disappeared from Britain. Absolute poverty can be defined as not having enough money to eat an adequate diet or afford enough clothes.

However there is also such a thing as relative poverty, when you cannot afford the things most people have. There was still relative poverty in the late 20th century and it increased in the 1980s. That was partly due to mass unemployment and partly due to a huge rise in the number of single parent families, who often lived on benefits. During the 1980s the gap between rich and poor increased as the well off benefited from tax cuts.

The history of poverty

Homes in 20th Century Britain

At the start of the 20th century working class homes had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.

This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire. Rising living standards meant it was possible to furnish all rooms properly not just one. During the 20th century ordinary people's furniture greatly improved in quality and design.

In the 1920s and 1930s a new style of furniture and architecture was introduced. It was called Art Deco and it used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of the earlier Art Nouveau. The name art deco came from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs.

At the beginning of the 20th century only rich people could afford electric light. Other people used gas. Ordinary people did not have electric light until the 1920s and 1930s.

In the early 20th century vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.

Labour saving devices and new cleaning materials meant that housework was usually a part time job rather than a full time one. That made it much easier for women to work outside the home.

The first practical electric fire was made in 1912 but they did not become common until the 1930s. Central heating became common in the 1960s and 1970s. Double glazing became common in the 1980s.

Plastic or pvc was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic.

In 1900 about 90% of the population of Britain rented their home. However home ownership became more common during the 20th century. By 1939 about 27% of the population owned their own house.

Meanwhile the first council houses were built before the First World War. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s and some slum clearance took place. However council houses remained rare until after World War II. After 1945 many more were built and they became common.

In the early 1950s many homes still did not have bathrooms and only had outside lavatories. The situation greatly improved in the late 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1950s and 1960s large-scale slum clearance took place when whole swathes of old terraced houses were demolished. High-rise flats replaced some of them. However flats proved to be unpopular with many people. Some people who lived in the new flats felt isolated. The old terraced houses may have been grim but at least they often had a strong sense of community, which was usually not true of the flats that replaced them.

Furthermore in 1968 a gas explosion wrecked a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and public opinion turned against them. In the 1970s the emphasis turned to renovating old houses rather than replacing them.

Then, in 1979 the government adopted a policy of selling council houses.

The history of English homes

20th Century Food

The diet of ordinary people in Britain greatly improved during the 20th century. In 1900 some families sat down to tea of a plate of potatoes and malnutrition was common among poor children. Food was also expensive. In 1914 a working class family spent about 60% of their income on food. By 1937 food was cheaper and they only spent about 35% of their income on food.

Moreover sweets were a luxury in 1914. They became much more common in the 1920s and 1930s.

Food was rationed during World War II. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon and ham were rationed. Tea was also rationed from 1940. Rationing became more severe in 1942. From July 1942 sweets were rationed. Instead of real eggs many people had to make do with 'dried eggs' imported from the USA.

Rationing lasted for several years after the war. Tea rationing lasted until 1952. Sweet rationing ended in 1953. Meat and cheese remained until 1954.

In the late 20th century convenience foods became far more common. That was partly because fridges, freezers and later microwave ovens became common. (Microwave ovens first became common in the 1980s).

The British diet also became more varied. Chinese and Indian takeaways and restaurants became common. So, in the 1980s, did hamburger and pizza chains.

Several new foods were invented in the 20th century. People had been eating ice cream for centuries but in 1903 the ice cream cone was invented. Hot dogs went on sale in 1908. Choc-ices went on sale in the USA in 1921. Sliced bread was invented in the USA in 1928 and it went on sale in Britain in 1930. Spam was invented in 1936. Instant coffee was invented in 1938 and tea bags went on sale in Britain in 1953.

Fish fingers went on sale in 1955. Meanwhile in 1954 Marc Gregoire developed the non-stick frying pan.

Many new kinds of sweets were introduced in the 20th century. They included Milky Way (1923), Crunchie (1929), Snickers (1930), Mars Bar (1932), Aero and Kit Kat (1935), Maltesers and Blue Riband (1936) and Smarties and Rolos (1937). Later came Polo mints (1948), Bounty (1951), Yorkie and Lion Bar (1976) and Twix (1979). Also in the 20th century new biscuits were introduced including the custard cream (1908) bourbon (1910) and HobNobs (1986). Furthermore the ice lolly was invented in 1924.

At the end of the 20th century the first genetically modified foods were introduced. Today scientists are developing soya beans that can help prevent heart attacks and tomatoes that can help to prevent cancer as well as rice that can resist drought and needs fewer nutrients.

The history of food

The history of drinks

The way people shopped also changed. In the early 20th century people usually went to small local shops such as a baker or butcher. Shops usually did deliveries. If you went to the butcher you paid for meat and a butchers boy on a bicycle delivered it. The first supermarket in Britain opened in 1951. In the 1950s and 1960s supermarkets replaced many small shops.

Credit cards became available in 1966 and at the end of the 20th century shopping on the internet became popular.

20th Century Clothes

At the beginning of the 20th century fashionable men wore trousers, waistcoat and coat. They wore top hats or homburgs.

In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only 'hobble' along while wearing them. However during World War I women's clothes became more practical.

Meanwhile in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time.

In the early 1920s women still wore knickers that ended below the knee. However during the 1920s knickers became much shorter. By the late 1920s they ended well above the knee. During the 1940s and 1950s younger women wore briefs.

A revolution in women's clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However in the 1930s women's dress became more conservative.

During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. Clothes were rationed until 1949.

Meanwhile the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an 'hour glass' figure.

During the 1950s women's clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965 Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.

After the First World War men's clothes became less informal and more casual. In the 1920s wide trousers called 'Oxford bags' were fashionable. Men also often wore pullovers instead of waistcoats.

In the 19th century men's underwear covered almost the whole body, stretching from the ankles to the neck and the wrists. However in the 1920s they began to wear shorts that ended above the knee and sleeveless vests. The first y-fronts went on sale in the mid-1930s.

In the second half of the 20th century fashions for both sexes became so varied and changed so rapidly it would take too long to list them all. One of the biggest changes was the availability of artificial fibers. Nylon was first made in the 1935 by Wallace Carothers and polyester was invented in 1941. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924. Trainers were designed in 1949 by Adolf Dasler.

The history of clothes

20th Century Transport and Communications

The first cars appeared at the end of the 19th century. After the First World War they became cheaper and more common. However in 1940 only about one in 10 families in Britain owned a car. They increased in number after World War II. By 1959 32% of households owned a car. Yet cars only became really common in the 1960s. By the 1970s the majority of families owned one.

In 1903 a speed limit of 20 MPH was introduced. It was abolished in 1930. However in 1934 a speed limit of 30 MPH in built-up areas was introduced. Meanwhile in 1926 the first electric traffic lights were installed in London. A driving test was introduced in 1934. Also in 1934 Percy Shaw invented the cat's eye.

The parking meter was invented by Carlton Magee. The first one was installed in the USA in 1935. In 1983 wearing a seat belt was made compulsory.

Meanwhile in 1936 Belisha Beacons were introduced to make road crossing safer. The first zebra crossing was introduced in 1949.

In 1931 an American called Rolla N. Harger invented the first breathalyzer. It was first used in Indianapolis USA in 1939.

A Swede named Nils Bohlin developed the three-point seat belt in 1959.

Meanwhile in the late 19th century horse drawn trams ran in many towns. At the beginning of the 20th century they were electrified. However in most towns trams were phased out in the 1930s. They gave way to buses, either motor buses or trolley buses, which ran on overhead wires. The trolleybuses, in turn were phased out in the 1950s. Ironically at the end of the 20th century some cities re-introduced light railways.

In the mid-20th century there was a large network of branch railways. However in 1963 a minister called Dr. Beeching closed many of them.

In the early 20th century only a small minority of people had a telephone. They did not become common till the 1960s. Even so, in 1979 31% of households did not have a phone.

Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call in the USA in 1973. The first mobile phone call in Britain was made in 1985. Mobile phones became common in the 1990s. Emails also became common at that time.

In 1919 planes began carrying passengers between London and Paris. Jet passenger aircraft were introduced in 1949.

However in the early 20th century flight was a luxury few people could afford. Furthermore only a small minority could afford foreign travel. Foreign holidays only became common in the 1960s.

The Boeing 747, the first 'Jumbo jet' was introduced in 1970 and the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994.

The history of transport

20th Century Leisure

During the 20th century people had more and more leisure time. In 1900 the average working week in Britain was 54 hours. By the 1980s it was 39 hours. Furthermore in 1900 most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. In 1939 a new law said that everyone must have one weeks annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks were common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks annual holiday.

In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the boy scouts. In 1910 the girl guides were formed.

The first crossword was devised in 1913 by Arthur Wynne.

In the early 20th century films were often shown in theaters but an increasing number of purpose built cinemas appeared. The great age of cinema going was the 1930s when most people went at least once and sometimes twice a week. At first the films were silent but the first 'talkie', The Jazz Singer, was made in 1927. Early films were also black and white but in the 1930s the first color films were made. (Although it was decades before all films were made in color).

Radio broadcasting began in 1922 when the BBC was formed. By 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio.

Television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of the that year showed that about one quarter of households had one. By 1959 about two thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment - at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity.

At first there was only one TV channel but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982.

In Britain BBC 2 began broadcasting in color in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969.

Video recorders became common in the early 1980s. Many video hire shops opened at the that time. At the end of the century videos were replaced by DVDs.

Portable TVs became common in the 1980s and satellite broadcasting began in 1989. Satellite or cable TV became common in the 1990s.

Personal computers became common in the 1980s. The internet became common in the 1990s.

Furthermore in the late 20th century gardening became a very popular pastime. So did DIY.

The history of games and leisure

Education in 20th Century Britain

In 1900 children in Britain sometimes left school when they were only 12 years old. However in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14. Between the wars working class children went to elementary schools. Middle class children went to grammar schools and upper class children went to public schools.

In 1947 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1972 it was raised to 16.

Following the 1944 Education Act all children had to sit an exam called the 11 plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However in the late 1950s public opinion began to turn against the system and in the 1960s and early 1970s most schools became comprehensives.

Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. Corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in 1999.

The history of corporal punishment

There was a huge expansion of higher education in Britain in the 1960s and many new universities were founded. In 1992 polytechnics were changed to universities. Meanwhile the Open University began in 1969. In the late 20th century people had far more opportunities for education and training than ever before.

The history of education

Medicine in The 20th Century

Medicine made huge advances in the 20th century. In 1900 Freud founded psychoanalysis when he published The Interpretation of Dreams. In 1920 Hermann Rorschach invented the Rorschach test (patients are asked to look at ink blots and say what they see).

Vitamins were discovered in 1912. Insulin was first used to treat a patient in 1922.

The iron lung was invented in 1928. In 1943 Willem Kolf built the first artificial kidney machine.

In the years 1935-1940 a group of drugs called the sulphonamides were discovered. They were used to treat bacterial infections such as gonorrhea.

Antibiotics were discovered too. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming but it was not widely used till after 1940. Another antibiotic, streptomycin was isolated in 1944. It was used to treat tuberculosis. They were followed by many others.

A vaccine for measles was discovered in 1963.

In Britain the health of ordinary people greatly improved when the National Health Service was founded in 1948.

In the 1950s Dr Jonas Salk invented a vaccine for poliomyelitis.

Meanwhile surgery made great advances. The most difficult surgery was on the brain and the heart. Both of these developed rapidly in the 20th century. The first pacemaker was made in 1958. The first heart transplant was performed in 1967.

The first test tube baby was born in 1978.

In 1980 the World Health Organisation announced that smallpox had been eradicated. However in 1981 a terrible new disease called AIDS was isolated.

The history of medicine

20th Century Warfare

When the First World War began in 1914 it was impossible for infantry to advance without terrible losses because firearms were now so powerful. The result was a deadlock. By the end of 1914 both armies had dug lines of trenches with barbed wire and machine guns.

In 1915 the Germans used gas on the western front. At first they used chlorine, the phosgene. However troops were supplied with gas masks. Finally in 1917 the Germans used mustard gas. Yet gas failed to break the stalemate. Meanwhile in 1915 the Germans used the first flamethrowers.

Both sides tried to destroy the enemy trenches with mines. They dug tunnels under the enemies trenches then detonated mines to obliterate them. However both sides used listening devices to warn them if the enemy was trying to do that. If they detected sounds of digging they would dig their own counter-tunnels into the tunnels the enemy was making. A fight would then take place underground.

Meanwhile in September 1916 the British introduced the tank. They were used in the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. Unfortunately they were too few in number and too likely to break down to prove decisive. Tanks were first used in large numbers at Cambrai in November 1917. In 1918 British and French tanks proved decisive in winning the war. Meanwhile the first sub machine guns were developed in 1918.

One new weapon in the First World War was the U-boat. People had experimented with submarines since the early 17th century but it was the invention of the diesel engine that really made submarines feasible. The British launched their first submarine in 1901 but during the First and Second World Wars German U-boats sank hundreds of allied merchant ships.

During the First World War the allies introduced weapons to counter the U-boat menace. Some U-boats were destroyed by mines and from the end of 1915 by depth charges. The allies also used Q-ships (merchant ships with disguised guns). Furthermore from April 1917 allied ships traveled in convoys with escorts. By 1918 aircraft technology had improved so much planes could escort convoys. Despite all these measures submarines continued to play an important part in naval warfare.

Meanwhile in 1915 the Germans began using Zeppelin airships to bomb British cities. However Zeppelins proved very vulnerable to fire from planes and anti-aircraft guns.

At the beginning of the First World War aircraft were used to observe the enemy. During the war aircraft technology changed rapidly. However the war ended before aircraft could play a decisive part.

During the Second World War aircraft realised their full potential. Dive bombers were used to support the army while other planes were used to bomb cities and destroy the enemies industries.

In July 1918 aircraft took off from HMS Furious and bombed Zeppelin sheds. It was a portent of things to come. Although aircraft carriers came too late to play a significant part in the First World War they played a decisive part in naval warfare in the Second World War. In 1944 jet engines were introduced and planes became still faster. In 1947 a plane flew faster than sound for the first time.

During the Second World War tanks continued to play a dominant role despite the development of anti-tank guns. However during World War II there were two new developments. The Germans began using rockets. On 13 June 1944 they launched the first V-1 flying bomb. More dangerous was the V-2 rocket. It had a range of 200-220 miles. It rose to a height of 50 miles and traveled at over 2,000 mph.

In 1954 the Soviet Union made the first ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). The other development was the atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945 one exploded over Hiroshima. On 9 august another exploded over Nagasaki. Each killed tens of thousands of people. The Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb in 1949.

In 1952 American scientists invented the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. The USSR exploded a hydrogen bomb in 1954. The first nuclear powered submarine, the Nautilus was launched in 1955.

During the Vietnam War the Americans experimented with laser guided missiles. However they were not used on a large scale until the Gulf War of 1991.

The history of weapons

Daily life in 17th Century England

Daily life in 18th Century Britain

Daily life in 19th Century Britain

Women in the 20th century

Daily life in the 21st Century


Last revised 2013