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Affluence, class, and Crown Street: reinvestigating the postwar working class

An article by Selina Todd, which appeared in Contemporary British History (2009)


In spring 1956, Liverpool University sociologists ventured into the slums surrounding the University’s campus, half a mile from the city centre. Led by John Barron Mays and Charles Vereker, they examined ‘the social structure and family life of the district seen against its economic background and living conditions’.[i] This ‘blighted and partly blitzed’[ii] area, dubbed ‘Crown Street’ – the name of the road that snaked through it – was the intended site of extensive postwar redevelopment, brought about by the University’s expansion and the slum clearance enacted by Liverpool’s first Labour council. Seven years later, Liverpool’s sociologists revisited Crown Street to uncover the results of intervening slum clearance and the growth of the welfare state. Recognition of postwar change led them to include Woolton, a south Liverpool suburb in which many inner city residents had been rehoused.

Thus far, the surveys offer a familiar frame for historians of postwar Britain: the migration of the working class from poverty-stricken inner cities to more affluent suburbs where domestic privacy replaced older, communal forms of leisure.[iii] This influential narrative derives from some of the more famous postwar sociological studies, particularly the investigation of Luton’s affluent workers carried out by Goldthorpe et al in 1962.[iv] Criticism of Goldthorpe has centred on his conclusion that rising affluence led to working class privatism.[v] I argue, however, that the assumption of working class affluence that frames such debates requires revision. This conclusion is derived from the archived data of the Liverpool surveys, which provide the substance of this article. The first section outlines and contextualises the studies. In the second section, I examine living standards in postwar Liverpool. Despite an increase in state welfare provision, and high labour demand, vulnerability to poverty continued to characterise postwar working class life – in suburban streets as well as within the inner cities. This challenges the current orthodoxy that shapes the historiography: ‘austerity’ followed by ‘affluence’ disrupted by the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ by Abel-Smith and Townsend in the mid-1960s.[vi] The final section of the article argues that class remained important as a social relationship in ways that the sociologists didn’t recognise. The researchers were keen to discover how material conditions shaped people’s lives and identities. However, their methods – the questionnaire and, increasingly, the use of in-depth interviews – neglected change over time. As a result, they underestimated the importance of economic developments in shaping working class life – as well as working class people’s contribution to these changes. Conversely, their respondents drew on personal histories of hardship to understand their place in society, their opportunities, and the limits of their agency. Consequently, I argue, we need to take a historical approach to understand how class works.

The surveys

Liverpool had a chequered postwar history. The city’s blitz rendered large swathes of the centre derelict into the 1960s, but didn’t lead to the extensive postwar redevelopment experienced by Coventry and Portsmouth. The 1950s were not good to Liverpool. Six per cent of economically active men in the city were unemployed in 1961, twice the national average.[vii] Reliance on the shipping trade’s uncertain fortunes in this ‘City of the Sea’[viii] meant that a disproportionately large number of the city’s workforce were in casual, insecure, or unskilled work –9.7 per cent of Liverpool’s male workforce were labourers in 1961 compared with 7.5 per cent nationwide. Liverpool’s first Labour Council began to clear the slums and build new houses in the late 1940s, but progress remained sluggish until the mid-1960s.[ix] By then, Liverpool was a centre of youthful creativity and consumption. ‘Merseybeat’ attracted teenage runaways and London record deals.[x] It was not until 1968, however, five years after the last of the studies examined here, that the Daily Mirror heralded Liverpool as a ‘boom city’.[xi]

[i] Vereker and Mays, Urban Redevelopment, 4.

[ii] Ibid, 3.

[iii] See, for example, Bourke, Working Class Cultures; Giles, The Parlour and the Suburb.

[iv] Goldthorpe et al, Affluent Worker.

[v] Devine, Affluent Workers Revisited, 14-31.

[vi] Gazeley, Poverty, ch. 6.

[vii] Census of England and Wales, 1961: Occupation Tables, table 2; Census of England and Wales, 1961: Occupation Tables for Lancashire, table 1.

[viii] Lane, City of the Sea.

[ix] Murden, ‘“City of Change and Challenge”’, 396-98.

[x] ‘Found in Liverpool. Schoolgirl Missing From Kent’, Liverpool Echo, 3 June, 1965, 10; ‘It’s a Record…A Record…A Record…A Record!’, Merseybeat, 6 June 1963-13 June 1963, 2.

[xi] J. Pilger, ‘The treble chance city’, Daily Mirror, 20 Feb, 1967, 13.

Access the rest of this article here

Young women, work, and family in England, 1918-1950 (Oxford, 2005)

A book by Selina Todd

Click here for the order page

Follow this link to hear Selina Todd talk to BBC Radio 4’s Laurie Taylor about the place of class and youth in her book, Young Women, Work, and Family in England, 1918-1950.



An article by Selina Todd available in Past and Present (2009)


Far from being symbols of a bygone era, ser vants remain central

to life in modern Britain. One in ten British households currently

employs domestic workers. The ‘disappearance’ of service —

already heralded in the 1920s, when press coverage of ‘the ser-

vant problem’ was filled with nostalgic laments for the faithful

Victorian maid — never happened. Change, of course, did occur

— the live-in housemaid of the 1900s was replaced with the part-

time cleaner of the 1950s — and it is that transition on which I

focus here. I therefore treat the history of twentieth-century

domestic service as one of development, rather than decline.

Moreover, I argue that relations between ser vants and their

employers illuminate the important and dynamic role that class

has played in modern British history — though we would not

know it from the silence on ser vice that characterizes the major

historical studies of class in twentieth-centur y Britain.’

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