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This beautiful nostalgic color film depicts London in 1920s

Ian Smith

The early 20th century, especially during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, saw the geographical extent of London’s urban area grew faster than at any point before or since. Most of the development was of suburban expansion into the neighbouring counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. A preference for lower density suburban housing, typically semi-detached, by Londoners seeking a more “rural” lifestyle, superseded Londoners’ old predilection for terraced houses. The rapid expansion of London during this period swallowed up large swathes of countryside. Fears over the loss of countryside led eventually to the introduction of the Metropolitan Green Belt, restricting urban growth.

This meant that London outgrew the boundaries of the County of London, which led to calls by the London County Council for the creation of a single Greater London authority covering the entire urban area, although this was rejected by a Royal Commission in 1921.

The color footage of London  that you are about to see, was shot by an early British pioneer of film named Claude Frisse-Greene, after an 840-mile road trip across Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Finishing his trip in London, he shot  stunning images later restored by BFI.

 

The rapid growth of London during this period was facilitated by a rapid expansion and modernisation of transport networks. A large tram network was constructed by the London County Council, through the LCC Tramways. And the first motorbus service began in the 1900s (decade).

 

Large scale electrification of London’s commuter railways took place during the interwar period, mostly by the Southern Railway, and the London Underground system was expanded to London’s northern outer suburbs. In 1933, the London Passenger Transport Board was created to coordinate transport over a large area of south-east England. The road network was modernised with a network of arterial roads being constructed in the 1920s.

The population of London’s urban area reached its all-time peak of about 8.6 million in 1939. All of this growth occurred outside of the boundaries of the County of London; the population of which actually fell during the interwar years from 4.5 to 4 million.

Prior to World War One, Britain was the world’s economic superpower. Despite its flourishing economy, Britain was simply not prepared for the economic impact that the war would have. While London remained fairly prosperous relative to the rest of Britain during the interwar years, their economy still experienced an inevitable decline. After the beginning of World War One in 1914, Britain experienced a massive financial crisis due to market panic.  There were several reasons why London was able to remain relatively prosperous throughout the interwar years. One major reason was the significant amount of population growth London experienced during these years. In fact, London’s population increased from 7.25 million in 1911 to 8.73 million in 1939. Another major aspect that helped fuel the economy was the Pax Britannica, which brought business through an increase in shipping, imports, and even investments.

Obviously, London was faced with the huge economic demand of war. In fact, Britain spent over 3,251,000,000 euros from 1914-1918. The government took action in order to raise money and revive the economy; Government officials raised direct taxes of property and income, took out large international loans, and increased the printing of money. And while these economic tactics were ultimately successful for all of Britain, London still had to endure rising unemployment and was forced to adapt its workforce. In fact, the unemployment rate for those workers who were covered by national insurance in London increased from 7 percent to 10 percent just from July to August 1914. A major reason why unemployment didn’t get too high during the interwar years was due to the significant increase of women in the workforce. While there was a relatively high number of women in the workforce prior to the war, the number continued to rise; “Women’s employment went from 23.6% of the working age population in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918”.The largest employer of women was the munitions industries – which were primarily employed by women at the time. By 1917, the munition factories in Britain accounted for 80 percent of all weapons and shells used by the British Army. Despite the huge role women played in the maintenance of the economy, they still only received around two-thirds of the pay that men received for the same jobs. “At the end of the first world war the combination of pent-up consumer demand, high money income, a large volume of liquid or near-liquid assets and a backlog of investment fuelled a boom in economic activity which lasted roughly one year, from March 1919 to April 1920”.

London managed to escape the worst effects of the Great Depression – which spanned from 1929 until 1939. “Even in the dark days of the 1930s unemployment barely bit because London, unlike the industrial North, had never become dangerously over dependent on the Empire, but the Empire was in tact”. Despite the fact that most parts of the United Kingdom were facing rising unemployment rates and widespread poverty even as early as 1929, London only had an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. The areas that were hit the hardest that were the ones that most reliant on heavy industry – such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. London, on the other hand, had relatively little business in the heavy industry and was more involved in some of the light industries – such as chemicals, electrical goods and automobiles