By Tim Lambert
The Middle Class
In 1912 only about 20% of the population of Britain was middle class. (To be considered middle class you would normally need to have at least one servant). In 1912 well-off people lived in very comfortable houses. However, to us, middle-class homes would seem overcrowded with furniture, ornaments, and knick-knacks.
Gas fires became common in the 1880s. Gas cookers became common in the 1890s. The electric light bulb was invented in 1879. By 1912 most towns had electric street lights. However, at first electric light was expensive. In 1912 the majority of middle-class families still used gas for lighting their homes.
By 1912 middle-class people in Britain usually had bathrooms. The water was heated by gas.
Middle-class people played games like lawn tennis and snooker Board games like snakes and ladders and ludo were also popular in 1912.
In 1912 bicycling was a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale in 1885. Bicycling clubs became common.
Reading was also popular in 1912. The first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. A new form of writing was science fiction pioneered by men like H G Wells.
The Middle class was very fond of the theatre. However, the cinema was a new pastime although films were silent and in black and white. Around 1910 cinemas were built in many towns.
In 1912 going to the seaside was very popular with those who could afford it. Meanwhile, the first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterward, photography became a popular hobby.
In 1912 middle-class children in Britain had plenty of toys. They played with wood or porcelain dolls and toys like Noah’s arks with wooden animals. Poor children did not have any toys. Plasticine was invented in 1897 by William Harbutt. It was first made commercially in 1900. Also in 1900, Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano.
The Working Class
For the working class in 1912 life was hard and terrible poverty was common. Nevertheless, life was improving and certain reforms were introduced around that time.
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 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. Working-class people 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 lowest-paid kind, and be driven into poverty again.
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 labour exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up. However, the economy was stable in the years 1900-1914 and unemployment was fairly low.
Nevertheless, in 1911 the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefits for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. Meanwhile, the workers had formed powerful trade unions.
In 1912 a typical working-class family lived in a ‘two up, two down’. They had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The downstairs front room was kept for the best. The family kept their best furniture and ornaments in this room. They spent most of their time in the downstairs back room, which served as a kitchen and living room.
In 1912 working-class homes were lit by gas. Most working-class homes had outside lavatories. From about 1900 some houses were built for skilled workers with bathrooms and inside toilets. However, they were still rare in 1912. Moreover, very poor families sometimes lived in just one room.
Food was expensive in 1912 and some working-class families sat down to tea of a plate of potatoes and malnutrition was common among poor children. Food was also expensive. In 1912 a working-class family spent about 60% of their income on food. Moreover, sweets were a luxury in 1912. However, for those who could afford it, new types of biscuits were available. The Digestive was invented in 1892. Custard creams were invented in 1908 and bourbons were invented in 1910.
In 1912 railways were the main form of overland transport. Cars were very rare although number plates were introduced in 1903. The same year a 20 MPH speed limit was introduced. Most towns had electric trams. In many towns by 1912, there were also motor buses.
In 1900 the average working week in Britain was 54 hours. By then many people only worked half a day on Saturday. Skilled workers often had paid holidays but most people only had bank holidays. Nevertheless, the working class was starting to have more leisure time and football matches became a popular pastime. Many towns had free public libraries. Newspapers also became much more common. The Daily Mail was first published in 1896, The Daily Express was first published in 1900 and the Daily Mirror began publication in 1903.
By 1912 life expectancy in Britain was about 50 for a man and about 54 for a woman.