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The 1920s: Roar or Whimper?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

GCSE and A level historians from Bolton School and Turton School were treated to a fascinating evening lecture by Professor Kate Williams in which she contemplated whether the 1920s offered a roar or a whimper. 

Kate Williams, Professor of History at the University of Reading and well known television presenter, pitched the audience of students, teachers and parents through a decade which saw enormous societal change and development – in the role of women, in technology, in politics, in fashion, in travel and in many other walks of life. Despite the advancements and the glamour of the 1920s, there was poverty and squalor during the era which set and created the conditions for the Great Depression. 

An opening slide illustrated how there was a massive surge in births immediately after World War One. However, this was still a society missing large swathes of young men who had lost their lives during the Great War and women were told they would need to do something with their lives as the chances were they would never marry. Whilst men had been away at war women had taken up many roles including in munition factories, as auxiliary nurses and ambulance drivers; post-war many were determined to keep their new-found independence. As the 1920s unfolded, the “flapper” girl about town emerged – she was independent and smoked, drank, danced and voted. She cut her hair in a bob-style, wore make-up and spoke her mind. The Charleston was her dance. The rise was fuelled by the development of cinema, literature and fashion including the growth of Chanel and make-up products. Professor Williams pointed out that it is ironic that during a boom period, women’s skirts become shorter and during recession, skirts become longer. The Conservatives gave the vote to 8.4 million propertied women aged 30 and over as they worried that they could not secure a Tory vote with so many men having perished in the War. 

Home ownership expanded dramatically as did travel, which was no longer a preserve of society’s elite. Ten million cars were produced in the US in 1921, Amelia Earhart became the first female pilot to fly across the Channel and then the Atlantic, there were big developments in science and medicine including the discovery of insulin and penicillin, the invention of the television by John Logie Baird and the launch of the first liquid-fuelled rocket. 

In politics, there was war with Ireland, Germany struggled to pay reparations imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles, the USSR was formed, Gandhi protested in India and Prohibition in the US led to organised crime and speakeasys, which inadvertently allowed the jazz and swing movement to flourish, in turn changing music and dance forever. The General Strike of 1926 could have overthrown the state and in 1929 the Wall Street Crash saw the US economy collapse, quickly followed by that of Europe, which was largely propped up on American loans.

And the conclusion? Did the 1920s roar or whimper?  Professor Williams offered a cautious roar, taking into account the changing role of women, an American decade, growing wealth, the fun, growing excess and societal change. However, it was noted that this was very much counter-balanced by poverty and hunger among the working class, unemployment for men and the General Strike. 

Summing up her career to date, Professor Williams said she had decided at school that she wanted to write books and that there had been much serendipity in her life, particularly around becoming a television personality. After questions and answers, she dashed to the station to catch the London train where she intended to work further on her next novel which is set in the post-war 1920s period and is due out in November of this year. 

Professor Williams is a renowned academic, author and television personality. She is the in-house historical analyst for CNN, providing expert commentary for news and events such as the D-Day anniversary, the commemorations of the Holocaust atrocities and the funeral of Baroness Thatcher. She has worked with BBC politics and BBC events for many exciting events, most recently covering the Scottish Referendum with Andrew Neil for BBC One, travelling to Belgium to cover the anniversary outbreak of World War I with Sophie Raworth, and the 70th anniversary of VE Day last May. 

Kate often reviews the newspapers on Sky News, BBC Breakfast and Radio 4 Broadcasting House. She has presented radio documentaries on The History of the Smile and on Samuel Smiles, the author of Self Help. She appears often on Radio 4 programmes including Today, Woman's Hour, PM, World at One and World Tonight and also on Radio 2 shows including the Jeremy Vine show and the Chris Evans show. 

Kate is a New York Times bestselling author of six historical books. Her biographies of Josephine Bonaparte are being made into a major TV series by Ecosse and her biography of Emma Hamilton is being made into a film.

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Professor Williams is welcomed to Bolton School by GCSE and A level historians

Professor Williams is welcomed to Bolton School by GCSE and A level historians - and former History teacher Mrs Head who returned for the evening

The audience was given an in-depth review of the 1920s

The audience was given an in-depth review of the 1920s

The rise of the "flapper" girl was considered

The rise of the "flapper" girl was considered