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Britain in the Twentieth Century (HI291)

The Modern Records Centre (MRC) holds internationally important collections for the study of political, social and economic history. Just a small selection of documents relevant to the course 'Britain in the Twentieth Century' have been digitised and are linked to below, many more sources are undigitised and can be seen by researchers at the Centre - book an appointment with a member of staff if you would like advice on using archives in your work or try searching our online catalogue to find other sources.

Most archive collections at the MRC come from trade unions, employers' organisations or individuals involved in the labour movement. Many of the documents below therefore reflect the attitudes and opinions of the political left.

Looking at the documents:

Most of the digitised documents for this and other courses are stored in our online archive vault. Click on the thumbnails and links in the sections below to see the whole document. Once you have opened the document, use the + and - sliding scale immediately above the image to zoom in and out. Click on the 'Next' and 'Previous' buttons (above the 'Print' and 'Download' buttons) to move to the next and previous pages (when applicable). Click the refresh button if part of the image doesn't load properly.

An Imperial People?

The Great War

Mass Culture and Popular Pastimes in Interwar Society

'Cycling' magazine, 27 October 1921

'Cycling' magazine, 27 October 1921

The cover contains an advertisement for 'Raleigh' bicycles, based on the perceived appeal of touring "old rural Britain, with all its rustic charm and quaintness".

[Included in the National Cycle Archive; document reference: MSS.328/NL/CYC/12]

'The Forbidden Land', 1924

'The Forbidden Land', 1924

Pamphlet by the mountaineer Ernest A. Baker, subtitled 'A plea for public access to mountains, moors and other waste lands in Great Britain'. Baker focuses on the situation in the Highlands of Scotland, where, he argues, access was restricted to hunting parties. He also argues that "this growing sense of the loveliness and worshipfulness of nature, this desire for a closer intimacy... must be satisfied, or our masses will remain barbarous".

[Included in the archives of the Union of Post Office Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/13/1/4]

The Worker Sportsman no.1

The Worker Sportsman, no.1, 1928

Bulletin of the London Group of the British Workers Sports Federation (an organisation connected with the Communist Party). It argues that the ruling class are using sport as a distraction - "Taking advantage of the instinctive desire for healthy physical recreation, they pose as its patrons and supporters, they try through this to win and maintain the respect and confidence of the workers, while at the same time, they ruthlessly attack their health and welfare".

[Included in a file on 'Workers' sports organisations', from the archive of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/807.12/5]

Draft report on the film industry

Draft report on the film industry, 1931

Joint recommendations of the Federation of British Industries (representing employers) and the Trades Union Congress (representing employees), to be presented to the government. They express deep concern over "the menace of the Americanisation of the world by means of the film".

[Included in a file on 'Film industry: Enquiry 1930', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/675.8/2]

An in-depth 1931 report on American control of the film industry in Britain is also available.

'After the day's work', 1928

'After the day's work', 1928

Photograph from the BBC report 'New Ventures in Broadcasting: A study in adult education'. The report focuses on the use of public broadcasting to educate and inform the masses.

[Included in the archives of the British Employers' Confederation; document reference: MSS.200B/3/2/C751/1]

The Daily Herald

'Beware of wireless! The government controls it', 4 May 1926

Article in the 'Daily Herald' (the newspaper of the Trades Union Congress) on the first day of the General Strike, informing its readers that the BBC will be used to “put across” the government's official “dope”. The article prompted a police raid on the newspaper, reported on in the TUC's strike bulletin 'The British Worker' on 7 May 1926. Other documents on the General Strike, including transcripts of BBC bulletins, are also available online.

[Included in the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/252.62/24/2]

'The Countryside', 1928

'The Countryside', 1928

Cartoon from 'Cycling' magazine contrasting "A favourite bit of road as it was in my youth" with "The same spot today".

[Included in the National Cycle Archive; document reference: MSS.328/NL/CYC/22]

Talks to unemployed clubs

'Wireless talks to unemployed clubs', 1934

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) circular, promoting talks aimed especially at listeners in the 2,500 occupational centres and clubs for the unemployed in Britain (with covering letter from the Trades Union Congress). The clubs provided access to information for those who would be unable to afford a radio in their own homes.

[Included in a file on 'Wireless Talks for Unemployed', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/135.712/4]

On the BBC broadcasts to the unemployed

"...that which serves as dope...", November 1934

The unimpressed thoughts of Frank Forster on the BBC talks broadcast to unemployed clubs. Frank Forster was born in 1910 in Saltney, Cheshire. He was intermittently employed as a casual labourer, having previously worked in horticulture, and as a fitter's mate. With a strong leftwards political consciousness, he recorded his thoughts on politics, culture, international affairs and his own personal situation in a particularly detailed diary.

[Included in the diaries of Frank Forster; document reference: MSS.364/1 (page 6)]

Precis of discussion about BBC programmes

Women's conference: Precis of discussion about BBC programmes, 1936

The conference was, in effect, the first BBC focus group. Female delegates from Britain and overseas gathered in London in April 1936 to tell the BBC what they wanted from the Corporation. Questions discussed included the timing and subjects of programmes for women - many delegates comment on the educational use of the BBC (there is also the occasional complaint about the 'low-brow' nature of some of the more popular programmes).

[Included in a file on 'British Broadcasting Corporation: Talks', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/787.18/3]

The Community Theatre

'The Community Theatre', 1932

Leaflet appealing for funds to create a citizen's theatre in England, as "it must come as a shock to every thinking person in this country that the workers, manual and mental, have no direct means of expression in the theatre" - "the most powerful instrument for the dissemination of ideas". The members of the Community Theatre Offices take inspiration from the political "workers'" theatres in Germany, Russia and Poland, and identify the "mass psychology" of the theatre as "an instrument for experiment and for progress".

[Included in a file on 'Entertainment industry: Theatres, plays, dramatics', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/674.2/1]

Unity Theatre handbook

Unity Theatre handbook, 1939

The Unity Theatre was precisely the type of organisation that the Community Theatre Offices were calling for. It was formed in 1936 as a "revolt against the “escapism” and false ideology of the conventional theatre", and put on plays with a political or social message. This handbook provides an overview of the first three years of the Unity Theatre Movement and contains information about key productions, including the highly popular satirical pantomime 'Babes in the Wood' (performed shortly after the Munich Agreement and starring Neville Chamberlain as the 'Wicked Uncle').

[Included in the archives of the Union of Communication Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/13/42/9]

Left Book Club leaflet

Left Book Club leaflet, 1939

The Left Book Club was formed in 1936 by the publisher Victor Gollancz to provide cheap editions of books on social or political issues (with a left-wing bias) to a mass audience. Within three years it had more than 50,000 members and nearly 1,000 local discussion groups. The Left Book Club was linked with other left-wing groups, including the Unity Theatre.

[Included in the archives of Victor Gollancz; document reference: MSS.157/4/LB/2/6]

On the Left Book Club and Unity Theatre

"...a glorious opportunity of meeting with people of advanced views...", April 1938

Extract from the diary of Frank Forster, including comment on his membership of the Left Book Club and rehearsals of his local Unity Theatre group. This volume of his diary includes regular comment on LBC meetings and his involvement with the theatre.

[Included in the diaries of Frank Forster; document reference: MSS.364/11 (page 56)]

Community Singing Choruses

Publicity material for Nat Travers, "King of the Cockney comedians", 1930s-1940s

Nat Travers was a music hall or variety act who performed from the late 1890s onwards. In the late 19th and early 20th century, music hall was a highly popular form of entertainment, particularly with the working classes. It declined with the growth of cinema and radio after the First World War. The songs of Travers included standard Cockney subjects such as beer, his dear old mother and "diamonds in the rough" cheeking the "toffs".

[Included in a file on 'Publicity and public relations (general)', from the archives of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/6/7/3]

Examples of documents on the growth of cinema as a method of communication and form of entertainment, as well as regarding its link with the idea of a British national identity, are included in the online exhibition on 'The Power of the Cinema: Film in the 1920s and 1930s'.

More documents on British political theatre between the 1930s-1950s are included in our online resources for Theatre and Performance Studies.


Politics and everyday life in Interwar Society

Digitised sources relating to politics and everyday life in Britain during the inter-war period are included in the following MRC resources:

A 'ready-made' search of the MRC catalogue is available for selected sources on UK fascism during the 1920s-1940s.


The People's War?

'Ready-made' searches of the MRC catalogue are available on the following aspects of the British Home Front: Civil defence, air raid precautions and the Home Guard and women at war (these are not comprehensive lists of everything we hold on these subjects, but a selection of relevant documents).

Peace or war?

'Peace or War?', 1939

Communist Party leaflet issued shortly after the outbreak of war. It argues that "the continuance of this war is not in the interests of the people of Britain, France or Germany", as it is "a fight between imperialist powers over profits, colonies and world domination... [which] will bring only great suffering and boundless misery to millions of working-class homes".

[Included in the papers of Ken Tarbuck; document reference: MSS.75/3/4/160]

No war for Warsaw!

'No war for Warsaw!', [1939]

British Union of Fascists' leaflet or small poster, suggesting that the public should "mind Britain's business" rather than support a war "for Poles, parties and finance". There is an echo in this of Neville Chamberlain's 1938 comments on Czechoslovakia, that "how horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing".

[Included in a file of British Union of Fascists ephemera, from the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/3022]

A leaflet on the BUF's "peace policy" is also available.


Householder's Air Raid Precautions chart, [1939?]

Illustrated version of Home Office instructions to British householders, showing how to "gas proof" their homes in the expectation that civilians on the Home Front would come under direct attack.

[Included in a file on 'Wartime and immediate post-war: Miscellaneous', from the archive of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/4/74/32]

A leaflet asking for volunteers for the ARP service is also available online.

Circulars and petition about air raid precautions

'Protection for Holborn!', September 1940

Circulars and petition about air raid precautions, produced by the Holborn Tenants' Defence League after bombing of the Holborn area. They call for the authorities to provide adequate and properly equipped bomb shelters for the protection of the local population (resident and working).

[Included in the archive of the Association of Building Technicians; document reference: MSS.78/BT/5/5/1-3]

The Swiss Cottager

'The Swiss Cottager', nos.1-3, 1940

"Greetings to our nightly companions, our temporary cave dwellers, our sleeping companions, somnambulists, snorers, chatterers, and all who inhabit the Swiss Cottage Station of the Bakerloo, nightly from dusk to dawn" - bulletin produced by a committee representing air raid shelterers at Swiss Cottage Station, London, during the Blitz, "issued in the name of co-operation so that we may find what comfort and amenities there may be in this our nightly place of refuge". It includes appeals to the shelterers to behave in a community-spirited manner and information on the work of the committee to purchase first aid equipment, tea making facilities, etc.

[Included in the archive of the Association of Building Technicians; document reference: MSS.78/BT/5/6/1-3]

Share and share alike

'Share and Share Alike', January 1940

Text of a broadcast made on 6 January 1940 by W.S. Morrison, Minister of Food, two days before the introduction of food rationing. The public announcement (almost certainly made through the B.B.C.) attempts to answer key questions on the subject of rationing, including "is it necessary?", "does it mean a shortage of food?", and "why now?". This published version of the broadcast is taken from the Ministry of Food bulletin, no.16, 12 January 1940 (the full bulletin is also available online).

[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/1311/16]

More documents on food rationing are included in the resources for War and Economy in the 20th Century.

What do I do?

'What do I do...?', July 1940

Ministry of Information posters containing basic advice to the general public on how to behave in an air-raid or in the event of a German invasion. They were to be displayed in public places, including pubs.

[Included in a file on 'Collective advertising campaigns, 1933-1940', from the archive of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/6/3/1]

Examples of some other government posters are also available.

Resolutions on Keynes

Resolutions on J.M. Keynes' proposed scheme of compulsory savings, 1940

Examples of ​resolutions sent by union branches and local trades councils to the Trades Union Congress, protesting at Keynes' proposals to part-fund the war by a compulsory savings scheme. Under the scheme, a proportion of everyone's earnings would be "deferred" - given to the government and paid back once the war was won. This proved controversial and a voluntary savings scheme was adopted instead.

[Included in a file on 'War. Finance', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/402.2/2]

More documents relating to the debate on how to fund the war are included in the resources for War and Economy in the 20th Century.


'Welcome!': pocket guide to Britain for US servicemen, 1942

Introduction to Britain during wartime. The guide includes advice on traffic, currency, rationing and differences in the common language.

[Included in the archive of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/7/16/17]

A note of a meeting at the Ministry of Information on improving relations between US servicemen and the British in public houses is also available.

Adolescents in public houses

Report on 'Adolescents in public houses', 1942

The report was the result of an enquiry by the brewing trade into the possible increase of drunkenness and sexual immorality in major towns and cities as a result of wartime conditions.

[Included in the archive of the Brewers' Society; document reference: MSS.420/BS/4/64/1]

Reports on the possible increase in crime and drunkeness immediately after the outbreak of war, a report on an Alliance of Honour meeting to "Save Our Girls" from excessive drinking and a decline in morals, and an appeal regarding excessive drinking by young people are also available.

How to keep well in wartime

'How to keep well in wartime', 1943

Ministry of Health booklet which provides guidance on how to "keep the nation fighting fit". The introduction explicitly identifies maintaining a healthy populace to be part of the war effort.

[Included in a file of 'Publications and posters re Home Front (World War Two)', from the archives of the Brewers' Society' document reference: MSS.420/BS/7/16/18]

1945 election leaflets

Leaflets for the 1945 general election

Examples of leaflets issued by the three main parties in the constituency of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The idea of a post-war "peace for the people" is explicitly referred to by the Labour Party candidate, Reg Groves.

The MRC has a large amount of publicity material and other archive sources relating to the 1945 general election.

[Included in the archives of Reg Groves; document references: MSS.172/LP/A/129, MSS.172/LP/A/140 and MSS.172/LP/A/143]

Straight Left!

Straight Left!, 1945

Illustrated booklet for voters, produced by the Labour Party in the run up to the 1945 general election. It refers to the "people's victory" in the war "won by the collective will, sacrifice, heroism, fortitude, initiative and labour of all of us", and argues that the same unified purpose should go into winning the peace.

[Included in the archives of Reg Groves; document references: MSS.172/LP/A/160]


The Welfare State

Sources on healthcare and social welfare are also included in our digital resources on British healthcare before the NHS, 1900-1948 (more than 250 documents online), and online resources for the Sociology module Social Welfare in Britain.

The hospital problem

The Hospital problem, 1924

Report of a conference arranged by the Labour Party to discuss various aspects of hospital policy - in particular "should further state aid be given for the extension and maintenance of hospital accommodation ?". A wide range of organisations participated, including representative bodies of medical practioners (including doctors and nurses), insurers, and charitable providers of health care. Different points of view on the merits and disadvantages of state control are given.

[Included in a file on the Labour Party from the archives of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; document reference: MSS.36/L41/1/8]

Pictoral charts with explanatory notes

The Beveridge Plan illustrated, January 1943

These pictorial charts, with explanatory notes, were produced and sold by the Pictorial Charts Service shortly after the publication of the Beveridge Report. The company suggests that the charts can be used "for display on factory notice boards, in canteens, at meetings, and may also be reproduced in journals" - an demonstration of the broad popular interest in Beveridge's proposals.

[Included in a file of correspondence and papers re the Beveridge Report and National Insurance, from the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: 126/TG/377/1/1 - permission from the union is needed to view the whole file]

News for Citizens

'What is this "Beveridge Report"?', March 1943

Explanation of the Beveridge Report produced by the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and published as part of its regular 'News for Citizens' series. The summary includes general information about the background to the report and its contents, together with comments on the "political crisis" that it has caused.

[Included in the archives of the YWCA; document reference: 243/1/9]

What they say about the Beveridge Report

'What they say about the Beveridge Report', January 1943

"A documentary of opinion" published in the left-wing journal 'Left'. This provides a survey of the initial reaction to the Beveridge Report from newspapers and journals on all sides of the political spectrum, and includes examples of quotes both in favour and opposed to the proposals.

[Included in a file on the Beveridge Report and social insurance, from the papers of Reg Groves; document reference: 172/BE/7]

Report on the Beveridge proposals

Report on the Beveridge proposals, 19 January 1943

This 20 page report was produced by an internal committee of the Conservative and Unionist Party, set up with the following terms of reference: "As members of the Conservative Party to analyse the merits of, and objections to, the main proposals and assumptions of the Beveridge Report".

[Included in a file on Social Services and insurance, January-February 1943, from the archives of the British Employers' Confederation; document reference: 200/B/3/2/C216/5]

Health service or panel?

'Health service or "panel"?', 1945

Leaflet issued by the Socialist Medical Association. The SMA was in favour of a comprehensive state run health service and produced a series of leaflets in the mid 1940s which attacked the attitude of the British Medical Association (BMA) towards a national health service. In this leaflet the author criticises the BMA's health care proposals and accuses the organisation of acting on behalf of vested interests (doctors), rather than the medical profession or nation as a whole.

[Included in a file on the National Health Service, 1944-1945, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: 292/847/3]

British Medical Association and the National Health Service Bill

The British Medical Association and the National Health Service Bill, 1946

In this policy statement, the BMA puts foward its objections to some of the government's proposals for a unified health service. This document also includes a statement by the Negotiating Committee (containing representatives of the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Royal Scottish Medical Corporations, the Society of Medical Officers of Health, the Medical Women's Federation and the Society of Apothecaries) on the subject of a national health service.

[Included in a file on the National Health Service, 1946, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: 292/847/4]

You must decide

'National Health Service: You must decide', January 1948

Circular issued by the Medical Practitioners' Union six months before the National Health Service Act came into effect. It gives answers to key questions affecting the union's members, such as 'is change inevitable?', 'is change fair to the doctor?', and 'is change needed?'.

[Included in a file on National Health Service, 1946-1952, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: 292/847/5]

The greatest folly in the world

"The greatest folly in the world"? 1948

The American Medical Association journal of 25 September 1948 included a strong attack on the "folly" of the National Health Service. This response was produced by the British Trades Union Congress. It criticises the original article for inaccuracy and exaggeration, and puts forward a defence of the newly formed health service.

[Included in a file on National Health Service, 1946-1952, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: 292/847/5]

Public Health in 1948

"Public Health in 1948: Remarkable Statistics", 31 March 1950

This is an eight page summary of the Ministry of Health's annual report for March 1948/1949 (including the first nine months of the National Health Service). The report highlights the "striking reductions" in death rates over this period and provides an outline of the "administrative revolution" resulting from the launch of the NHS.

[Included in a file on National Health Service, 1946-1952, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: 292/847/5]

Text of election broadcast

Text of election broadcast, 1950

Broadcast made by the Labour Party MP James Griffiths in the run up to the 1950 general election. Griffiths served as Minister for National Insurance between 1945-1950, and was therefore a key figure in the introduction of the post-war welfare state. In his speech he contrasts the state of the country in 1950 with pre-war conditions, and emphasises the benefits from the introduction of welfare reforms.

[Included in a file of publicity material for 1950s general elections, part of the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: 126/TG/RES/X/1004A/1]

Are you better off?

'Are you better off?', 1950

General election leaflet issued by the Conservative Party. It criticises key policies introduced by the Labour government over the previous five years. The National Health Service (credited to the wartime coalition government headed by Winston Churchill, leader of the Conservative Party) is said to be endangered by "wasteful mismanagement" of the socialists.

[Included in a file of publicity material for 1950s general elections, part of the archives of the Transport and General Workers' Union; document reference: 126/TG/RES/X/1004A/2]

Decolonisation and Immigration / Race and Racism in Multi-Cultural Britain

For reasons of copyright, we have only limited material digitised and online for the post-Second World War period. You may however be able to find relevant material through the following: