Maps for the National Plan

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Maps for the National Plan, Association for Planning & Regional Construction, 1945

Over December I was the very fortunate recipient of a book advent calendar from my lovely wife. I could rhapsodise about some of the books but to avoid losing the reader, I’ll concentrate on just one. It wasn’t a hint when I retweeted Otto Saumaurez-Smith, but also it wasn’t subtle:

He tweeted about Maps for the National Plan, produced in 1945 by the Association for Planning and Regional Construction. Associations like this were popping up all over – Birmingham and the Black Country had its own West Midlands Group on Post-War Reconstruction and Planning based at the University of Birmingham (their archives are still there), and comprised of local academic and industrial interests. Their Conurbation in 1948, particularly, shows similar themes and is a hugely interesting read. Business was key in the production of these volumes, as they weren’t financed centrally: Sir Richard Cadbury chaired the West Midlands Group, and Maps for the National Plan features a long list of financial contributors including Boots Pure Drug Co. of Nottingham; Bovril Ltd.; Montague Burton Ltd. of Leeds; and so on. There’s at least three firms with a Black Country link, Chance’s of Smethwick, Courtauld’s with their huge works in Wolverhampton, and British Industrial Plastics, headquartered in London but manufacturing polymers in Oldbury and Streetly.

This is a glorious hardbound book of thematic maps of the UK, built on data taken, mostly, from the previous census in 1931. That’s simply because no census was taken during the war (the 1939 National Register was by no means equivalent) but it does mean that this set of maps tells its own particular story, helping to put into context the massive social changes that occurred post-1945. (By the way, this is an interesting comparison to the research I’ve been conducting for the Black Country Living Museum for their new post-war development – I’m employed by them so don’t/can’t blog my findings; but fingers crossed there’ll be a publication to promote within a couple of years.)

There’s so many maps here that I might get a good few posts out of it. They’re all accompanied by sections from one of the several major reports into the condition of life in 1940s Britain – with this population change map are two paragraphs from the 1940 Barlow Report, set up to “investigate the causes of the existing distribution of the industrial population, future trends and the social, economic and strategic disadvantages of concentration and to propose remedies.” Despite the modest improvement in the economy in the late 1930s, foremost in many minds were still the Special or Distressed Areas – places like North-East England, South Wales, and so on. This was undoubtedly due in part to the famous Jarrow March and others like it, but the fact remained that these had become desolated industrial regions, nearly destroyed by the depressions and crashes of inter-war Britain.

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Maps for the National Plan, Association for Planning & Regional Construction, 1945

This map shows how clearly urbanisation as a process was still ongoing. Barlow referred to the “vast – and many would add alarming – growth of population in London and South-Eastern England, largely at the expense of the rest of the country.” Across the country as a whole, population was sliding South-Easterly – Barlow notes that in many traditional industrial regions (Lancashire, the North-East) relative population had declined, and in South Wales, even absolute population had declined – something unheard of in a century. The exception throughout the 1920s and 1930s were the Midland counties, though no explanation is offered here.

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Soon-to-be Edward VIII visiting Dowlais Steelworks near Merthyr Tydfil in 1936. This visit to the devastated South Welsh works was soon to become iconic, his words redolent of the era: “These steelworks brought the men hope. Something must be done to see that they stay here – working.” Dowlais was the largest ironworks in the world at one point, and was operated by the British Iron & Steel Co., a company formed by names very familiar in Black Country industry, Guest Keen & Nettlefold (GKN) and Baldwin’s [Source: Daily Herald ]

Further explanation is found in the map of employment rates. Here, we can see the push factor behind this internal migration: lack of employment. In counties like Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), Monmouthshire, Glamorgan, Cornwall and elsewhere, between only 37.5% – 41.5% were employed or insured unemployed. This is not the same as a modern unemployment rate, but the national comparisons are clear: work is not short in the Midlands, Lancashire still, the South, and other spots. London and the Midlands, quoting Barlow again, show a much higher proportion of insured workers than anywhere else. This was “facilitated, if not indeed made possible, not only by net migration into [London] and lack of net migration out of [the Midlands] but also by the entry into gainful occupations of sections of the population that had previously not been so occupied.” This is compared to the older, younger and female sections of the workforce who struggle to get jobs elsewhere.

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Maps for the National Plan, Association for Planning & Regional Construction, 1945

The key explanation to all of this, and that which occupied the government that set up the Barlow Commission, was seen to be a geographic one. In particular, an industrial geographic one, as the next map shows. It hardly seems feasible in today’s post-Thatcher, post-industrial Britain, but wherever you lived in the country, the economy was dominated by manual work, whether that was agriculture, fishing, mining, manufacturing, dock labour, or whatever. Commerce and finance played important roles in London and the Home Counties of course, and “personal service” in places like Blackpool; but the makers of these maps saw the division of industrial labour between industries as key to the whole economy.

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Maps for the National Plan, Association for Planning & Regional Construction, 1945

Hence, this wonderful analysis of employment map, based again on the 1931 census. The squares are sized by population, and ringed by a diagrammatic representation of their industry. We can see that South Wales, West Yorkshire, Durham, etc. are dominated by Mining & Quarrying. Stoke of course is full of pottery, the North of Scotland is agricultural (much more than any English or Welsh area), Greater Manchester is textile country. High specialisation is a gamble, for Barlow. The cotton industry revolves around Liverpool’s docks, Lancashire’s mills, Manchester’s market and the expertise, education and skill that build up around them, and does well. But an over-reliance on, say, mining, seems to be a death knell. As Barlow notes, in these cases specialisation denotes failure to adapt, and vulnerability to economic change.

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Maps for the National Plan, Association for Planning & Regional Construction, 1945

Birmingham, Coventry, and the Black Country appear to have taken the former route. Despite these areas appearing to be monolithic metal-working territories, the occupational classification of “metal trades” actually covers a vast multitude of professions. In the Black Country, for instance, this ranged from raw steel production at places like Round Oak, Bilston and Patent Shaft, right through to highly-specialised component and engineering manufacture at the Beans foundry, or Nettlefolds’, or in the Willenhall lock industry, by this time approaching something like 90% of the world market in lock manufacture. This diversity, and appropriateness to the economic aims of the government of the time, seemed to have shielded the West Midlands from the worst devastations of the inter-war depression.

This book was published in 1945, at, or just prior to, the outbreak of peace. Reconstruction and re-configuration of the economy was in the air, and publications like this added to the overarching cry of “never again!” Not just that there should never again be a war like that just ending; but never again should there be the economic turmoil and personal hardship that came with an industrial economy constructed as it was in the 1930s. While it wasn’t published under the auspices of any political movement, this book represents a planning movement that fell easily in line with Labour’s centralising, modernising, nationalising, socialising manifesto. It’s a fascinating use of history and geography to make an argument, as maps always do: that the era of unbridled capitalism had failed, and that the nation’s problems could be solved.

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