Britain in 1947

London. New Year’s Day, 1947

It was the winter of a great nation’s discontent. An air of melancholia hung like a chill fog over London. Rarely, if ever, had Britain’s capital ushered in a New Year in a mood so bleak, so morose. Hardly a home in the city that festive morning could furnish enough hot water to allow a man to shave or a woman to cover the bottom of her wash-basin. Londoners had greeted the New Year in bedrooms so cold their breath had drifted on the air like puffs of smoke. And yet that sad, joyless city was the capital of a conquering nation. Only seventeen months before, the British had emerged victorious from mankind’s most terrible conflict. Their achievements, their courage in adversity then, had inspired an admiration such as the world had never before accorded them. The cost of that victory, however, had almost vanquished the British. Britain’s industry was crippled, her exchequer bankrupt, her once haughty pound sterling surviving only on injections of American and Canadian dollars, her Treasury unable to pay the staggering debt she’d run up to finance the war. For Londoners, the New Year beginning on 1 January 1947  would be the eighth consecutive year they’d lived under severe rationing of almost every product they consumed: food, fuel, drinks, energy, shoes, clothing. ‘Starve and Shiver’ had become the byword of a people who’d defeated Hitler proclaiming ‘V for Victory’ and ‘Thumbs Up’. Only one family in 15 had been able to find and afford a Christmas turkey for the holiday season just past. Many a child’s stocking had been empty that Christmas Eve. The treasury had slapped a 100% purchase tax on toys. The word most frequently scrawled on the windows of London’s shops was ‘No’: no potatoes, no logs, no coal, no cigarettes, no meat. Indeed, the reality confronting Britain that New Year’s morning had been captured in one cruel sentence by her greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, who had told his countrymen the year before: ‘we are a poor nation, and we must learn to live accordingly'.

Freedom At Midnight
Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre (1975)

1947 was a hard year in Britain. Saddled with a huge wartime debt that sapped the nation’s ability to spend on consumer goods, the rationing of food continued, as it would until 1954. Partly because of the obligation to feed the heavily-populated British zone of occupation in Germany, bread rationing, never imposed during the war, was introduced in the summer of 1946. The coal industry was nationalized in January, just as the worst winter in a century began to take hold with a freeze that lasted until the end of March. The country was blanketed with snow, trains and coastal shipping were immobilized, and supplies of coal dwindled in the face of unrelenting demand. Industries closed down, throwing 800,000 people out of work.

On VJ Day Britain faced a stark choice between three alternatives: beg, borrow or starve. Deciding that more borrowing from the United States was the only viable option, the government drew up a statement of the country’s economic position after the war. It made depressing reading. The country faced a financial burden twice that caused by the Great War. Foreign investments worth £1.1 billion had been sold to pay for imports; 15.9 million tons of shipping, worth about £700 million, had been sunk. Damage to housing came to about £1.5 billion. Britain still had large foreign investments, yielding a return of about £170 million a year, but because armies in Egypt and India had been financed by loans raised on the spot, there were debts amounting to more than £3 billion and despite the low interest rates at the time, they would still cost about £75 million a year. Repaying the debts (sometimes referred to as sterling balances because the balances were in favour of Britain’s creditors) was going to take a long time. And now there would also be new debts owed to the United States and to Canada, which on a per capita basis had made a loan considerably larger than the American one. 

Despite the bleak outlook, Great Britain embarked on a bold redevelopment programme which would be the subject of both praise and criticism for decades to come. Notwithstanding the enormous  practical difficulties, the government decided that the country should embark on the creation of a network of new towns to facilitate the decentralization of industry from Greater London and a re-housing of the ‘excess’ population living in over-crowded, bomb-damaged inner cities. The initial progamme called for the creation of a ring of eight new towns around London. Harlow was one of them.