Titanic: Living in 1912
In 1912 Britain was the largest exporter of manufactured goods accounting for 30% of the world's total. According to the 1911 Census, manufacturing and construction accounted for 50% of total employment. The average income per head in Britain was the third highest in the world (slightly less than USA and Australia).
Someone born around 1850 would have received only 5 years education. However, by 1912 most children were leaving school at 13 years. Only a privileged 1% went into higher education. In 1912 there were 20,000 university students. The average age was 25 (39 in 2012).
Women were second class citizens, without the right to vote, and earning only 50% to 60% wage for the same job as men. British society was marked by a huge degree of inequality between the richest and poorest. The top 1% owned 70% of total wealth, and top 10% owned around 90% of the total wealth. £160 per year was the annual income at which income tax became payable, and considered to be the dividing line between working and middle class.
The average working week in 1912 was 56 hours. A skilled man in regular work on £100 per year could probably bring up a family without too much strain. A crewman on the Titanic might hope to earn around £60 per year provided he was in good health and kept regular employment. Many struggled to survive on less. Closely linked with the question of wages was that of unemployment.
The trade cycle of slump and recovery resulted in unemployment fluctuating between 3% and 10%. Poor people often found thenselves on the bread-line. In 1900, 40 per cent of recruits to the armed services were rejected on health grounds.
In the worst cases of hardship, the only form of assistance were private charities and the Poor Law. The Poor Law offered help only after a humiliating inquiry into the means of the claimant. For most it was the last desperate port of call. Even so, in 1912, 780,000 people in England and Wales were receiving relief. Of these 372,000 were inmates in residential institutions such as a hospital, asylum or workhouse; and 408,000 were receiving out-relief in their own homes.
Trade Union membership was growing rapidly between 1900 and 1913 from 2.0 to 4.1 million. In 1912 over 40 million days were lost through strikes. The coal strike lasting from February to April during the bitter winter of 1912 resulted in thousands dying of hypothermia, and forced over one million out of work. In Southampton ships were laid up and 17,000 seafarers suffered the economic consequences.
However, a foretaste of the welfare state came in 1908 with the introduction of the Old Age Pension, calculated at 5 shillings per week for those over 69 years. This was followed in 1911 by the National Insurance Act, which provided health and unemployment benefit to around 13 million workers, calculated at 10 shillings per week. The scheme was financed by contributions from the state, employer, and employee. Significantly it did not cover the insured's dependants.
Southampton particularly suffered from casual and uninsured employment including dock workers, and some ship and yacht repair workers. Seafarers were casually employed. The Atlantic round trip of 17 days was followed by 4 days ashore without pay; similarly the South African trip took 7 weeks, followed by 12 days ashore without pay. Dock labourers queued at the Dock gates each morning hoping for work.
Several thousand of Southampton's poorest lived in tenements or courts, with families sharing water and drainage. These courts were entered by narrow streets such as Canal Walk, Back of the Walls, Sugarhouse Lane and Oriental Terrace. Here were packed hundreds of little dwelling often rat infested and unsanitary.
These areas were increasing overlooked and forgotten by the wealthier citizens who had moved out to the leafy suburbs of Shirley, Portswood, Bitterne Park and Highfield taking advantage of better transport links, and private cars.
Despite the poverty and inequality, 1912 was not without optimism. There was universal pride in being English. People believed they were better off than the previous generation, and that their children would be better off than they were. Companies such as Thorneycroft (1904); Harland & Woolf (1907) offered good employment prospects, and the service sector was expanding.
New industries associated with electricity, auto-manufacture, and chemicals would soon offer cleaner and more reliable work. In the following year two major employers, BAT and Pirellis established operations in Southampton, and Supermarine from 1916.
Ref: Peter Dewey (1997) War and Progress.

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