Walter Greenwood and 'Love on the Dole'
Walter Greenwood was born in 1903 in Ellor Street in that area of Salford which he called Hanky Park. He described it as a district in which "the identical houses of yesterday remain, still valuable in the estate market even though the cost of their building, not to mention a highly satisfactory profit, has been paid for over and over again by successive tenants". 1
His parents and grandparents were workers who encouraged him to develop the family traditions of radicalism, the love of books and music. He also inherited their determination to escape from the "jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together" in which "men and women are born, live, love and die and pay preposterous rents for the privilege of calling the grimy houses 'home'". 2
After an elementary education at the local school in Langworthy Road, he left at thirteen. He supplemented the family income while still at school by working as a milk-roundsman's lad and then as a pawnbroker's clerk. He then tried his hand as an office boy, a stable boy, a clerk, a packing case maker, a sign writer, a car driver, a warehouseman and a salesman, never earning more than a pittance. Several times he was unemployed and experienced the degradation of being on the dole. 3
Encouraged by his family, by James Openshaw, a Labour Councillor who later became Mayor of Salford and by Rev. Samuel Proudfoot, Vicar of St. Thomas Church at Pendleton, he started writing. He began making observations of the scenes that he saw about him. The actual writing of Love on the Dole was preceded by ten years of preparation spent in the slums of Salford and on the fringes of the working class movements of the twenties and early thirties.
Salford was one of the earliest industrial centres in England. It developed with the textile industry and the steam engine. In the inter-war years, it was rapidly overtaken as a centre of heavy industry by the newly developing industrial nations such as America, Germany and Japan. Much of Salford's plant was out of date and uneconomic.
In the depression of the late twenties and early thirties, many local long-established firms went out of business and many highly skilled men found themselves in the dole queue alongside their brethren who were designated 'unskilled' or 'labourers'. Greenwood captured that situation in the advice Larry Meath gave to young Harry Hardcastle on his first day at Marlowe's, the huge engineering works in Trafford Park. "You're part of a graft, Harry," he said. "All Marlowe's want is cheap labour, and the apprentice racket is one of their ways of getting it." 4
Marlowe's was Metropolitan Vickers 5 and it was one of the few large engineering works to remain open during the recession mainly due to orders from Russia for generating plant. Unemployment reached a record figure of just under three million by the beginning of 1933. Marlowe's was able to take on boys at fourteen knowing that they could be thrown out when they reached a man's wage at twenty one. "The day was Monday. The Saturday previous, Harry's apprenticeship had come to an end." Together with the other young men who had been taken on at the same time, he was dismissed and had to join the dole queue with the older men whom he had seen shuffling along the pavement outside the Labour Exchange.
Although Greenwood did not work in an engineering factory, his descriptions have the ring of truth. The foundry, the forge, the rivetting shop are all vividly described. He must have been round the factory and talked to the workers.
However, there is an essential difference between his descriptions of the scenes in the works where he was obviously fascinated by the sheer beauty and immensity of the production processes and his attitude towards the unemployed demonstration which is central to the book. He felt little involvement and saw himself as an observer standing on the side-lines watching others taking part.
The world economic crisis in 1929 found a Labour Government no match for the capitalists whose main aim was to place the burden of the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the workers. A committee under the chairmanship of Sir George May was set up to look at national expenditure. Their report forecast a budget deficit of one hundred and twenty billion pounds. Immediate decisions were taken to introduce stringent cuts in public expenditure. Unemployment Benefit (the dole) was to be cut by ten percent and it was also recommended that Health Insurance, Maternity and Child Welfare should be reduced.
A split occurred in the Cabinet. Ramsey MacDonald, Philip Snowden and Jimmy Thomas joined with Conservatives and Liberals to form a National Government. In the General Election that followed, the Labour Party was defeated and the newly formed government proceeded to press home the projected cuts with a vicious disregard for the workers.
The Civil Service, teachers and public employees as well as the armed services were all included. The sailors were ordered a cut of a shilling per day. They decided not to accept it and on 15th September, 1931, the Fleet at Invergordon refused to sail. Meetings were held in barracks and on board and the government was forced to retreat and revise the cuts.
Unemployment Benefit, however, was severely reduced, from eighteen shillings to fifteen shillings and three pence. In addition, the hated MEANS TEST 6, graphically described by Greenwood, came into operation at the beginning of September. Harry Hardcastle was informed that his dole was to stop because his father's dole and his sister Sally's meagre earnings were considered sufficient to keep him. His vision of getting married and setting up home was shattered at a blow.
The Unemployed Workers' Movement led a fight-back. Huge demonstrations were held throughout the country and the severe handling of the unemployed by the Police assumed disgraceful proportions. The Salford demonstration that Greenwood describes was held on 1 October 1931.
Greenwood was obviously present because his descriptions of people are identifiable. He was seen on the edge of the crowd making observations to incorporate in his story. The "diminutive, pugnacious individual" who mounted guard over the big drum was a Scotsman, Hughie Graham. He kept marching time with his beats as the procession of "shabby fellows, scrawney youths mostly wearing caps, scarves and overalls, coughing and spitting" set off towards the Town Hall and the City Council which was meeting to discuss the implementation of the cuts.
The "stocky, wire-haired fellow speaking in a strong Scots accent" was Tommy Morris. The "insistent clamour of a hand bell" was supplied by Alex Armstrong, a rambler and outdoor enthusiast whose love of life took him to Spain to fight against the Fascist invaders. He lost his life in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
Edmund Frow was "the finely featured young man" who was depicted as the leader of the demonstration and who was "set upon by a couple of constables, knocked down savagely, and frog-marched away by three hefty policemen". What Greenwood did not see was the scene inside the Town Hall where those who had been arrested were battered by police truncheons with unprecedented cruelty and disregard for life or limb. Edmund Frow ended the day in hospital with a broken nose. 7
The Larry Meath in the story was Larry Finley. Greenwood portrayed him as the hero and in part, both he and Harry Hardcastle are autobiographical sketches. Harry's early experiences follow fairly closely, the pattern of Greenwood's life in Ellor Street. His descriptions of life in Hanky Park were not exaggerated. The Salford Branch of the Unemployed Workers' Movement conducted a survey in Ellor Street at the time and found that few houses had furniture because it had been pawned or burned for fuel. Food consisted of bread, margarine and a cup of tea. Salford was designated a distressed area, but cuts in Poor Law Relief continued to be applied. It is difficult to imagine what this meant in human misery, but the fictionalised account in Love on the Dole gives a more graphic picture than any statistics could convey.
Larry Finley 8 (who was killed off in the story as a victim of consumption) lived and made a significant contribution both to working class organisation as a shop steward and in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, but also as a philosopher and historian. He was involved in research into labour from primitive communism to capitalism and had completed one section before he died on 27 October 1974. Another piece of work on Inflation and Marxist Theory was published in Marxism Today in May 1974. It is possible that Finley and Greenwood had long discussions at Ashfield Labour Club where much of Love on the Dole was written.
Love on the Dole was Greenwood's first novel. It is an important contribution to working class literature. Harold Laski commented, "to convey so imaginatively and with such insight the tragedy of the poor is a noble service as well as a distinguished contribution to letters." 9 He did try to become involved in Labour politics by joining the Labour Party and standing as a candidate in local elections. But he decided it was not his scene and took himself away to the Isle of Man to write at least nine more novels in addition to articles, stories and film, radio and television scripts.
In his first election in Seedley ward in 1933, the year the novel was published, he polled over a thousand votes against his Liberal opponents' fourteen hundred. The following year he stood in St Matthias, one of the worst slum wards in Salford and won the seat by 750 votes. A survey conducted in the ward in 1931 described it as "a district of large works and factories with high chimneys and overshadowing walls under which are huddled congested slum houses, mean streets, running at odd angles, designed only from the point of view of the most rigid economy of ground. Here and there is a narrow overhung passage twisting into a confined croft or court, or an ill-paved, badly drained, narrow alley, in which rubbish collects." Many of the houses were rat infested. Most lacked elementary amenities and decencies and there were no open spaces for children to play in. Out of 950 houses visited by the Inspectors, 257 were found to be in a state of bad repair with leaking roofs, stripped plaster, broken flooring and rotten woodwork. Continually throughout the enquiry, the Inspectors were "struck by the courage and perseverance with which the greater number of tenants kept their houses clean and respectable under most adverse conditions ... all honour is due to those brave housewives who, whilst waiting for better conditions are straining so hard to improve their present environment." 10
Greenwood must have found his year as a City Councillor both depressing and frustrating. It took a world war and vast changes in social attitudes before Salford became able to tackle the problems with which it was beset.
Love on the Dole did not make an immediate impact when it was published, but when it was dramatised by Ronald Gow and shown at The Garrick Theatre, Altrincham, it became a best seller. There were three impressions in 1933, two in 1934 and it was then re-printed four times in 1935 and annually after that. The income from the sales was sufficient to allow Greenwood to 'emigrate' to the Isle of Man where he spent the rest of his life.
It is interesting that the social conditions found in Salford in the inter-war years are not only reflected in Greenwood's novel but also in L.S. Lowry's paintings. 11 There are many similarities between their work. Both mirrored the appalling conditions of the time and both had an obvious sympathy for the under-dog suffering the cruel effects of the capitalist system. But both distanced themselves from the workers they portrayed so graphically. Their work was a commentary rather than an involvement. Lowry's small almost dwarfed figures indicate a lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to control their own lives. They were victims and as such deserved to have their plight depicted in prose or paint. But they were not shown as activists in the labour movement. That was outside the comprehension of both Greenwood and Lowry. Their mission was to remain on the fringes observing without becoming involved.
They never grasped the truth that it is not enough to interpret the world, the point, however, is to change it.
1 Salford is the twin city of Manchester. They are either side of the River Irwell. Salford's story is often inextricably mixed with Manchester's. Salford was the medieval Hundred and therefore senior to the village of Manchester. But Manchester overtook Salford in importance as the centre of the textile industry during the eighteenth century. Salford developed rapidly after the technical changes known as the industrial revolution. From being a small town whose inhabitants worked in their own homes and on farms to supply the family needs, it became a centre of industry and reflected the tensions and contradictions associated with rising capitalism.
3 The Dole: a term of contempt used to indicate those who had to accept Unemployment Benefit and Relief from the National Assistance Board. The implication was that it was a charitable hand-out to work-shy and lazy recipients.
5 Metropolitan-Vickers: originally Westinghouse Brake Company, an American firm, it became part of Associated Electrical Industries and later part of the General Electrical Combine. It was one of the largest manufacturers of electrical generating plant as well as other electrical equipment.It was sited in Trafford Park adjacent to the Ship Canal. Many Salford people worked there.
6 The Means Test: This assessed the family wage as a basis for Unemployment Benefit.Often young people were made responsible for keeping their parents which made many of them leave home. There was also a "genuinely seeking work" clause by which unemployed people had to supply proof of their efforts to find work. If they were unable to provide proof, they were taken off Benefit.
11 LOWRY, Laurence Stephen. Born 1 November 1887. Died 23 February 1976. Moved from Manchester to Salford when he was 22. Worked as a rent collector. 1915-20 began to develop his interest in the industrial scene. Elected Royal Academician 1962. Received Freedom of The City of Salford 1965. His work has been widely acclaimed.
BRANSON, Noreen and HEINEMAN, Margot: BRITAIN IN THE NINETEEN THIRTIES. Weidenfield and Nicolson. 1971.
HUTT, Allen: THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN BRITAIN. Martin Lawrence. 1933.
WINCOT, Len: INVERGORDON MUTINEER. Weidenfield and Nicolson. 1974.
KLAUS, H.Gustav: THE SOCIALIST NOVEL IN BRITAIN. Harvester Press. 1982.