Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Interwar Years 
by Melanie Tebbutt.
Manchester, 352 pp., £75, February 2012, 978 0 7190 6613 9
Show More
Show More

In August 1937, Les Tebbutt, a 17-year-old boy from Northampton, attended a Boys’ Brigade summer camp in Mablethorpe on the Lincolnshire coast. One night, as he and his friends made their way back through the camp after a trip to Butlin’s Pleasure Fair and a fish and chip supper, he noticed a ‘nice girl’ watching him from one of the caravans. After a few days of shy manoeuvring he got the chance to walk with her among the sand dunes. He then returned to Northampton, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the girl, Joan Burton. He wrote to her and she wrote back in a friendly but non-committal way. In September he went to visit her for the day, cycling sixty miles each way. Tebbutt continued his pursuit by letter throughout the autumn, but though his interest in the relationship was undiminished, Joan’s replies became less and less frequent. By Christmas he felt frustrated, but wasn’t sure whether or not to break it off. So he sought advice in a distinctively modern way: he wrote to Ruth English, agony aunt of Everybody’s, a weekly tabloid.

Advice columns very quickly became common in British newspapers and magazines in the late 1930s. Though the concept of the agony aunt extended as far back as the 17th century, it took the launch of the American writer Dorothy Dix’s column in the Daily Mirror in 1935 for the format to be adopted for a mass working-class audience in the UK. The Mirror’s success with Dix encouraged its rivals to hire agony aunts of their own. Soon they were appearing in more self-consciously serious publications such as Lansbury’s Labour Weekly and the Miner. Though the audience for these columns was often assumed by both editors and readers to be female, half of Dix’s letter writers were male. Mainly, and predictably, they wrote about love, relationships and marriage. The advice they received was mostly sensible, if mundane. Ruth English warned Tebbutt that his infatuation with Joan was probably going nowhere (she was right).

The adolescent dramas chronicled in the pages of Everybody’s don’t have any great historical importance. But the rise of the agony aunt in the 1930s was a response to the growing uncertainty among young people about how to fashion their private lives. Working-class boys and girls in interwar Britain were suddenly enjoying a level of personal independence never experienced by their parents, who had grown up in a late Victorian and Edwardian world of reassuringly stark behavioural expectations and taboos. Negotiating a social order in which the rules of appropriate conduct were no longer clearly demarcated turned out to be tricky. For young working-class men in particular, the problem was to figure out what masculinity might look like in a new age of mass consumption and leisure. In the absence of anyone else to advise them, boys turned to Ruth English.

The historian Melanie Tebbutt, Les Tebbutt’s daughter, has drawn on her father’s teenage diary entries, as well as contemporary memoirs and interviews, to try to reconstruct the inner lives of working-class boys in the interwar years. It’s a period in the history of young adulthood which hasn’t received a great deal of attention, or only by way of nostalgic contrast to the ‘materialist’ 1950s. In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart inveighed against the shallow Americanised world of the 1950s teenager, comparing London’s ‘harshly lighted milk bars’ to the communitarianism of prewar Leeds as he remembered it from his childhood. Hoggart was spinning a tale of moral decline that required him to forget how exceptional his own youth had been – he was a scholarship boy whose family had been unusually unengaged with popular culture: they didn’t acquire a radio until ‘quite late’ – and seems not to have known the extent to which American-style mass-consumer culture had already taken root in Britain before the war. Certainly, the working-class neighbourhoods of the 1930s, so sentimentally evoked in The Uses of Literacy, had not been regarded by older people at the time as havens of traditional values. In 1931, a youth organiser called Sidney Hatton was complaining about the ‘soft-faced, mealy-mouthed, dolled-up pomaded puppets’ so many young men had become, ‘given to the softer delights of the cinema and the dance hall’ rather than the manly pursuits of boxing and football. As far as observers like Hatton were concerned, Hoggart’s generation was infused with exactly the same ‘spiritual dry-rot’ that The Uses of Literacy was to associate with the ‘juke-box boys’ of the rock ’n’ roll epoch.

‘Nice’ working-class boys like Tebbutt’s father grew up in the long shadow of the Great War. Many fathers didn’t return from the Western Front, or did so ruined in body or mind. Bernard Scott, who grew up in Stockport after the war, described it as a ‘town of broken men’, with crippled and deformed ex-soldiers selling shoelaces and trinkets on street corners. He remembered encounters with a shell-shocked veteran called ‘Noddy’ whose entire body quivered violently as he sat slumped in a rag-and-bone cart, head lurching to one side or the other. Heroic masculinity couldn’t survive such grisly pathos; patriarchal authority never again seemed so wise. Hostility towards the ‘warmongering’ of the foolish old men who had taken the country into the war in the first place simmered among the young. The ebullient militarism of the Edwardian boys’ movement, with its drill practice and its kit inspections and its hectoring ‘dulce et decorum’ refrain, lost its appeal. Indeed, faced with falling enrolments, groups like the Boy Scouts and the Boys’ Brigade had little choice but to refocus their energies on artistic and natural pursuits, abandoning much of the paramilitary-style training they had offered unembarrassedly before 1914.

While young men’s bodies had been wrecked by the war, women seemed to have emerged from the conflict worryingly emancipated – not just in the literal sense of having (some of them) acquired the vote but also as a consequence of the unprecedented career and social opportunities it brought. To older male observers, the ‘new woman’ of the interwar years, with her androgynous clothes and her impertinent adoption of masculine habits like smoking in public, signalled a permanent shift in the balance of power and authority between the sexes. The decline in the birth rate intensified these fears. By 1934, the journal of the National Association of Boys’ Clubs was comparing with alarm the ‘shadowy and shiftless’ British teenage boy to the ‘men of heroic mould’ being produced by the Fascist youth movements of Italy and Germany. Without the introduction of a ‘vital blood-and-soil experience’ of outdoor labour service such as that of the Opera Nazionale Balilla or the Hitler Jugend, it wrote, the contemporary British boy seemed doomed to anaemic decline.

In fact, young British men were healthier than they had ever been. Improvements in diet and public sanitation since the Edwardian period meant that by the 1930s the typical 16-year-old boy applying for a job with the Post Office was 16 lbs heavier and one and a half inches taller than he had been a quarter-century earlier. And far from shying away from outdoor pursuits, boys and girls were enjoying unprecedented access to the countryside. The expansion of rural bus routes meant that it was easier than ever for young people to escape the towns and cities for a weekend spent camping and rambling. But the greatest emancipator of all was the mass-produced bicycle, the procurement of which (often on hire-purchase) was to become a rite of passage for working-class boys. In 1935, Les Tebbutt recorded with great solemnity in his diary his brother Frank’s first down-payment on a BSA model 503A with Trivelox gears, costing £6 10s. Les was to ride a similar machine to Nottingham two years later in his fruitless pursuit of Joan. More than ten million bicycles were in use in Britain before the Second World War, the great majority of them by boys such as the Tebbutts.

What this suggests is that the panic about masculinity between the wars was driven as much by the young men’s new-found independence as by their putative physical decline. Fathers raised on a model of austere conformity found the unprecedented personal choices available to their sons and the freedom that this new, consumer-driven lifestyle afforded them troubling. It may seem strange now to think of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s as a land of plenty, given how central ‘the Slump’ remains to the national memory of the 20th century. The wretchedness of mass unemployment in places such as Jarrow, ‘the town that was murdered’, was all too real. But such miseries were confined to Victorian mill, mining and shipbuilding communities. In the thriving light-industrial areas of the Midlands and Home Counties, the period leading up to the war was one of affluence and opportunity. If Jarrow represented the collapse of one world order, the Somerdale chocolate factory near Bristol and the Morris Motors plant at Cowley represented the rise of another, organised not around heavy industry but around the manufacture of cheap retail goods.

Young workers at factories like Somerdale and Morris Motors consumed as well as produced such goods. Between 1913 and 1938, the average weekly wage of manual labourers almost doubled. Even after contributing to the family expenses, boys in their mid-to-late teens were able to hold on to a much bigger share of their earnings than had been the case before 1914. And they had time to enjoy this money: not only did weekly working hours fall steadily between the wars, but by 1938 almost half of all employees were receiving paid holidays. It was the increase in discretionary spending power and leisure time among the young that J.B. Priestley thought was producing a Britain of ‘arterial and by-pass roads … giant cinemas and dance halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, and factory girls looking like actresses’. As a fitter-welder in relatively prosperous Northampton, Tebbutt was very much part of this new world. Its fascinations and fears were his own.

Before the First World War, ‘apprentice adulthood’ had been spent under the persistent judgmental gaze of family and neighbours. Now traditional institutions like church, chapel and even music hall gave way to the shadowy, anonymous and erotically charged private contemplations of the cinema. By 1939, there were 990 million annual admissions to cinemas across Britain. Les’s Northampton alone had 12 of them. Most working-class teenagers went to the movies once or twice a week; young wage-earners in Manchester were spending a third of their leisure time there. The cinema was not merely a technological novelty, but the central site of identity formation. More than any other medium, film taught the teenagers of the rising glass and concrete world how to walk, talk and carry themselves. Denis Norden, born in 1922, suggests that working-class boys of his generation learned how to be ‘human beings’ via the cinema screen – how to hold a cigarette, wear a hat, chat up a girl. And they did so increasingly the American way. Though the wartime doughboys had briefly brought a touch of transatlantic glamour to our shores, it was film – especially the talkie from 1927 onwards – that permanently established the sounds and cadences of Hollywood within British youth culture. The 1929 musical Broadway Melody was said to have spawned a patois of ‘OK baby’, ‘Gosh oh gee’, and ‘Hi ya babe’; even American walking patterns and posture stealthily colonised British pavements and parlours. Big screen icons – at first Rudolf Valentino and Ramon Navarro, later William Powell and Franchot Tone – increasingly defined what it meant to be a man.

The education in performative masculinity acquired within the dark recesses of the local Hippodrome or Coliseum needed a practical outlet. The Sunday evening stroll or ‘monkey parade’ along the high street, a fixture of working-class courtship since the mid-19th century, still provided opportunities for young men and women to meet, preen and flirt. By the 1920s, however, the real action was moving indoors, into the commercial space of the dance hall. Between the end of the Great War and the mid-1920s, 11,000 palais de danse opened up in Britain. By the end of the 1930s, about two million young people were going dancing each week; 750,000 of them to the great public dance halls of which the Hammersmith Palais (stormed by a crowd of six thousand when it opened in 1919) was the most famous. Together, the cinema and the dance hall transformed courtship. Film provided instruction in manliness and the dance hall was where young men put what they had learned into practice. But it could be an unforgiving venue. As the eccentric, improvised jazz styles of the early 1920s gave way to the more formalised choreography of the foxtrot and the quickstep, so fashionable young men had to keep up with an increasingly rococo and fluctuating repertory of steps. At the approach of a 16th or 17th birthday, dancing, in the words of one young man, ‘assumed, quite suddenly, a devastating importance, an arcane significance’. There were just as many male as female wallflowers at the Hammersmith Palais, self-conscious boys shuffling awkwardly at the periphery of the dance floor.

Unfamiliarity with the latest dance steps was only one of many sources of unease for the new young man. As courtship moved beyond neighbourhood circles, so appearance and deportment acquired a heightened importance. The availability after the war of good quality off-the-rack suits from Burton’s and Fifty Shilling Tailors created an expectation that men would dress smartly and fashionably in public, opening up a possibility of embarrassment hitherto unknown to working-class men. Les Tebbutt’s diary chronicles persistent anxiety about his sartorial decisions. A tweed overcoat from the Co-op proved a good investment, but the gangsterish trilby he received with such pleasure as a Christmas present in 1936 was greeted with hoots of laughter by his mates. Personal grooming became more important as a way for boys to look different from their fathers. Comb, brush and brilliantine were vital for the young man eager to achieve a trendily patent leather gloss to his hair. Advertising of personal hygiene products was aimed mainly at young women, but boys were also swept up in the new insecurity about perspiration and bad breath. As working-class men became more visibly indistinguishable from the middle class, so they acquired all the hang-ups of embourgeoisement.

Seventy years later, the apprehensions and desires of boys like Les Tebbutt seem quaint. For all the carnal frisson of the dance hall and the titillation of the racier movies of the day, they were still remarkably ignorant of some of the basic facts, let alone practices, of sex. All the same, to many of their fathers who had come of age before 1914, they seemed a grotesquely louche, dissolute, unserious lot. With his ‘constant combing of well-oiled locks of long hair, tidy clothes and well-kept hands and nails’, as one exasperated army physical training instructor put it, the new teenager was symptomatic of a greater national effeminisation that was undermining Britain’s ability to defend itself in an ever more dangerous world. And here lies a great historical irony. For while at the beginning of the 21st century our fading ‘Greatest Generation’ is lauded for its hardscrabble upbringing and its stoic sacrifices, on the eve of the Second World War it was being lambasted by its elders for being spoiled, self-absorbed and dandified. ‘By comparison with the French, or the Germans, for that matter, our men for the most part seem distressingly young, not so much in years as in self-reliance and manliness generally … they give an impression of being callow and undeveloped,’ General Auchinleck was to warn the war cabinet in 1940. Not so long before Dunkirk, Britain’s heroic Tommies had been its wayward youth.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences