Social Problems and the Shadow of War

In August 1931, economic crisis brought down the Labour Government. A national coalition government was formed with Ramsay MacDonald still as Prime Minister. Drastic economies including a cut in dole to the unemployed caused riots in London, Liverpool and Glasgow and a naval mutiny at Invergordon. A general election gave the National Government a majority of 500 : MacDonald remained PM until 1935 but the government was predominantly Conservative.

The depression hit Glasgow in 1931-32 with catastrophic effect on ship building, the output being the lowest since 1860. The Cunard Co. stopped work on "No 534" (later the Queen Mary) at Clydebank and proposed to leave her on the stocks until economic conditions improved. A government subsidy saved her in 1933 and she was launched the following year - the largest ship built on the Clyde, since the Aquitania in 1913. In the years before the war the Queen Mary had a keen struggle with the French " Normandie " for the Blue Riband of the Atlantic and was holding it when the second world war began.

Shipbuilding was not the only industry in trouble. Between 1910 and 1939 the production of the Lanarkshire coalfield was halved. The consequent unemployment brought distress to countless families. In 1931 the number of unemployed in Britain was three million, almost double since 1921, and in 1932, 30% of the insured population of Scotland was unemployed.

Abroad, the clouds were gathering. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the League of Nations was powerless to stop him.

King George V died in January 1936 and was succeeded by the well-meaning but unstable Prince of Wales as Edward VIII. His involvement with Mrs Wallis Simpson led to his abdication on 10 December. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and transformed the British monarchy.

Meantime the Spanish civil war had broken out and another dictator, Franco, emerged victorious. Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 (March) and went on to dismember Czechoslovakia. Britain prepared for war and gas masks were issued to civilians. Despite the dramatic dashes of Chamberlain to visit Hitler on three occasions the Munich agreement gave Hitler almost all he asked for. It was less than a year after that the Second World War started with the invasion of Poland.

Despite the grim economic and social conditions and the threat of international catastrophe, all was not doom and gloom in Glasgow in the Thirties. The city became the dancing capital of the British Empire. People passed their evenings away with the Foxtrot, the Tango, the Charleston and the Black Bottom, swaying to American tunes played by jazz bands. Glasgow had a higher proportion of dance halls to the population than anywhere else in the British Isles and the standard of dancing was considered, up till 1940, the best in Britain. Dennistoun Palais held 1700 dancers and was the biggest dance hall in Glasgow. The Plaza was renowned as a place for family parties, particularly 21st birthday celebrations. The Locarno in Sauchiehall Street was also fashionable and was the First, at a later date, to experiment with "jive". In a broadcast, a girl reported that she danced seven nights a week - six nights at the Barrowland in the Gallowgate and Sunday nights at a special dance club, probably the Locarno.

The music hall and pantomime played a great part in Glasgow social life before the advent of television. Great comic stars like Harry Gordon, Will Fyfe, Tommy Lorne, Dave Willis, Jack Anthony and Alec Finlay could convulse audiences with laughter. The tradition continues today with Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton and others.

The cinema became increasingly popular and new palatial buildings arose in the centre of the town - the Regal, the Paramount and Green's Playhouse, which with 4400 seats was the largest cinema in Europe. In a number of suburbs there were two or even three cinemas, some with dance hall and café attached and these were social centres for the young. Whole families often attended the cinema together. After the outbreak of war everyone used a torch to get there through the blackout.

As the Thirties drew to a close, people in Glasgow seemed to be happier (whether this was a self delusion or not) and were certainly healthier. The expectation of life increased. Rickets, which had been the cause of much dreadful disfigurement and great suffering to women in childbirth was largely overcome and the ragged, barefoot boy disappeared from the streets of Glasgow. There was a mood of optimism starting with the great national celebrations at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. The famous Coronation tram cars were created. School children were given medals, commemorative mugs and square blue Coronation tins with assorted toffees and all were taken on school picnics and games to celebrate the occasion. These were as far afield as Rouken Glen or some of the outlying parks and all travelled by tram of course. These events were all pictorially described in Glasgow's beloved Bulletin newspaper. The Empire Exhibition opened in Bellahouston Park in 1938. From Thomas Tait's 330 foot steel tower visitors could gaze down on a city of palaces and pavilions designed in the lines and curves of modern architecture. (It was the age of Art Deco). It was "a city of light, colour, spaciousness, spectacle and gaiety", according to the Exhibition handbook. Much of the gaiety was provided by a giant Amusement Park. Other novelties included a Highland Clachan, with its own Post Office, and an Indian restaurant (a novelty in those days) as well as national pavilions. Thirteen and a half million visitors attended the exhibition despite appalling weather; perhaps people sensed it was to be the last opportunity for a carefree time for years to come. Tait's tower was rapidly dismantled in case it became a landmark for enemy bombers.

An event of 1938 which gave even more delight to children than the Empire Exhibition was the first issue of the 'Dandy', that beloved comic paper.

Scientific and technical discoveries which made an impact on daily life included the invention of Perspex in 1930, the first commercially prepared detergent made by ICI in 1934 and Laszlo Biro's introduction of the ball point pen in 1938. But the most important event of the 1930s did not receive much publicity; in 1932 Earnest Rutherford, in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, split the atom.

The Club in the 1930s

In June 1932, the Third Annual Conference of the National Union of Soroptimist Clubs of Great Britain was held in Queen Margaret College, Glasgow. Miss Canto, ex-president of the Glasgow Club, was National President in that year. Speakers addressed meetings on themes including "Women's Employment", "Women in Business" and "Women in Finance".

Dr Frances Melville, Mistress of Queen Margaret College held an "At Home" with supper, cards and conversation and there were various other receptions and outings; two plays were performed by the Scottish National Players specially for the delegates' entertainment. The producer was a member of the Glasgow Soroptimist Club - Miss Elliot Mason.

By the early '30s, unemployment had raised its ugly head in Glasgow and members of the Soroptimist Club wanted to give practical help. In 1934, a committee was formed to consider possible measures and an "unemployment bank" was started. This bank stood by the door at luncheon meetings and members contributed whatever they wished and the bank's contents went towards helping individual cases of hardship.

On 2 November 1935 the Club held its biggest money raising effort, when a "Muckle Mercat" was held in the McLellan Galleries, in aid of the Glasgow Council for Community Service in Unemployment. The Duchess of York (now HM the Queen Mother) consented to be patron of the "Mercat" and sent good wishes for its success. The sum raised by the "Mercat" itself, and by a Plaza dance organised by Miss Crammond, amounted to £1800. £1800 was indeed a vast sum for 34 members to raise. In the 1930s a teacher earned only £480 a year, a clerical worker £192 and general practitioners and solicitors, then at the top of the scale, just over £1,000 a year. No solicitors or GPs are listed as members that we know of and earnings for the other categories are not available. A lot of sacrificial giving must have been going on. The money was divided between various clubs in the city, with the largest share going to the Bridgeton Women's Institute, founded by one of the Glasgow Club's Charter Members. From then until the Bridgeton Women's Institute closed more than ten years later, Club members helped in activities which varied from teaching singing to purchasing a second-hand bath, so that the women who attended the Institute might bathe their children! Concerts, parties, entertainments and instruction of all kinds were conducted there and Soroptimist members, infected by the enthusiasm, lent their time and talents to the Institute. The loan training fund was started during this period, members of the Club contributing what they could to help any young woman, recommended by a Club member, whose income was insufficient to cover the cost of training for her own career.

Meanwhile, the Club membership was climbing steadily: 64 in 1934, 88 in 1937. In 1936 the Divisional Union system was started and Glasgow was placed in D.U. Scotland South which now consists of 19 clubs. Divisional Union Councils unite a group of clubs and constitute a channel of communication which is the lifeline of our organisation.

Members remained careful to avoid extravagance as in 1934, when a menu for the annual dinner at 8s 6d per head was accepted with great reluctance and the President, Miss Rottenburgh was enjoined to obtain some further reduction in the price. (Perhaps she did this at gun point!)

In 1938, the Empire Exhibition brought Soroptimist visitors from a' the airts to Glasgow and many were given hospitality by Glasgow members. In the same year the first outing for the men of Erskine hospital was started and the place of the Monday lunches was changed from the Ca'doro to the Gordon Restaurant.

In the spring and early summer of 1939, the Club did what it could to help the tragic problem of refugees from Europe, both by donations of money and by offering hospitality. When war broke out, it was realised at once that adjustments must be made in the Club's activities. The compulsory 50 per cent attendance rule was waived and executive committee meetings were held during the day instead of in the evenings, because of the "black-out". By December 1939, an initial grant had been made to Glasgow's Central War Relief Fund and early in 1940 a subscription was sent towards the Soroptimist Ambulance Fund.