The Richmond Spend for Employment Scheme, 1933

A few years ago, I was given a messy envelope of papers that had belonged to my grandfather (1898-1970). Amongst them is a set of documents relating to his involvement in the early 1930s in a scheme intended to help the unemployed and to alleviate unemployment in the municipal borough of Richmond, Surrey. In 1932, with the support of the Richmond mayor, the Council of Social Services, of which my grandfather, Francis Christopher Gibbons, was the honorary secretary, set out its aims to ’unite all engaged in social service and to bring together those who need help and those who can bring help’. It opened a room which unemployed people could use in any ways that might further their chances of getting work and a canteen supplying cheap refreshments each morning. In 1933 it initiated a Scheme for Employment with the intention of generating employment, largely for local tradesmen. The idea was that residents who could afford to, would pledge promises of work, using their money to stimulate local trade rather than sitting on their savings.

As someone who never ceases to feel the excitement of looking at archival material, I was excited to find myself the custodian of such a collection of material. At the same time, I wasn’t quite sure how –   or even if – to tell its story. The unemployment of the inter war years, heightened for so many by the financial ‘crash’ of 1929 and its aftermath, was a tragedy for thousands of families. National averages for unemployment rates, rising to over 20 per cent in the early 1930s, meant nothing in regions where dependence on Britain’s traditional heavy industries – coal, steel and shipbuilding, for example – sometimes saw localized unemployment at 70 per cent. The hardship experienced by these areas has become one of the dominant narratives of 1930s Britain. There were government attempts to encourage regeneration in the worst affected regions – South Wales, Scotland and the Northeast, for example. We read also of the affluent Southeast and the Midlands, where ’new’ industries, including the production of cars, electrical equipment and consumer goods such as radios and telephones, were big employers, paying relatively decent wages and contributing to rising living standards.

Such a small, localized initiative in a leafy, conservative borough in Southeast England seems almost unworthy of attention compared to the devastation inflicted in the worst affected industrial areas where thousands of lives were blighted by unemployment. With its focus on self-help rather than political agitation for change, it was a far cry from the demonstrations and campaigns of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (and which is more akin to research into labour and trade union history I usually engage in).What on earth can we learn about the Depression years from the efforts of a group of well-wishers in Richmond, Surrey, where the unemployment rate in early 1933 was around two per cent? As it turns out – quite a lot, actually.  What the Richmond scheme reminds us – and others which were similar, operating around the country – is that the effects of the Depression were widely felt. Unemployment in Richmond, as in many small non-industrialised towns, was not due to the impact of depression on one industry but was spread, as the Mayor explained, over occupation, trade and profession, ‘a creeping paralysis of all trade and commerce’.[1] Unemployed workers who lived in places associated with affluence can too easily disappear into a polarized narrative in which life in the depressed regions was bad and life in the south was good. Unemployment hurts whether you are surrounded by others who are also out of work or if you are living in a community where most people have jobs.

And the documents themselves deserve to be shown. I am guessing that this was work that my grandfather was proud of, given the prominence of these amongst the papers I received.

In early 1932 the Prince of Wales spoke about the need for communities to do whatever they could to help those in need during the economic crisis. As patron of the National Council of Social Service, promoting the spirit of public service, the Prince delivered the speech at the Royal Albert Hall to an audience of 10,000 which included many invited young people and representatives of organisations delivering social service. The BBC broadcast the event and it was heard by many more people across the country who gathered at venues to hear  – and to heed, it would seem – the message to ‘the rising generation’ to play its part in time of crisis.[2] Richmond was one of many areas to embark on projects intended to offer support and increase opportunities for employment and my grandfather, known as Frank (and as Christopher in business) stepped forward to do what he could.

A word first about Frank (who used his middle name, Christopher for business purposes). In 1932 he was 34 and married with two children. Family folklore, combined with what I found amongst his papers, suggests that his fortunes were badly affected by the economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Certainly, a shirt and pyjama manufacturing business in Dalston in which he had been a joint partner since 1928 was in serious trouble in late 1930, when a creditors’ meeting was held and arrangements made for the two owners to pay their debtors in instalments. What happened to the business after that is unclear, but I suspect that Frank’s part in it at least did not last much longer. I know that he had an outfitters’ shop in Richmond for some years but this appears to have been over by the mid-30s when he and his family moved back in with his mother in her rented house in Chelsea.

So, as honorary secretary of the Richmond Council for Social Service and then secretary of the Mayor’s Scheme for Employment in the town, Frank was able to get involved in the challenge laid down by the Prince of Wales. He was either unemployed or business was so slack that he had spare time to give. Also, as a small business owner, he had everything to gain from an initiative designed to generate employment. The first efforts went into the establishment of the ‘recreation’ centre, with further plans to include boot and shoe repairing facilities and physical training for young men. Then came the Employment Scheme, launched with the support and approval of the Mayor and Town Council.

Letter from a Richmond citizen offering to help the Council of Social Service

Spend to Employ

Distinct from money set aside by the Borough Council for public works, those involved in setting up the new scheme were at pains to stress that the venture was not funded by rate payers but was wholly dependent on private expenditure. Richmond citizens were asked to fill out pledge cards, promising to spend money during February, March and April – recognised as the slackest months of the year – of 1933 which would lead to chances of work for local unemployed workers. Rather than saving for a rainy day, those with available money were asked to spend it locally and provide work for tradesmen and businesses, by committing to having work done that was beyond the strictly essential. Leaflets, promises cards and appeal letters were distributed to all Richmond households by an army of volunteers, all supplied with specially designed armbands.

The literature included lots of ways to help, including having work done on the home (decorating, distempering, new shelves and cupboards, reupholstery), garden (rockery, garden seats and summer houses) and car (loose covers for seats, carpets, new paintwork), buying new household goods and tools (buckets, brushes and hardware, ordering new suits, shirts and underwear, repairing old ones, having a telephone and a wireless with aerial fitted. Alternatively, donations were welcomed, as were all offers of help at the headquarters – open for long hours each day – lent by the Borough Council, from which the Scheme was run ‘with military precision’.[3]

The pledge card sent to every household

The plan was not to provide odd jobs for the unemployed (apart from anything else, this had implications for those in receipt of unemployment benefit) but to ensure that orders went to local businesses who could then retain men who would otherwise have been laid off through lack of orders. The advantages were emphasized in the press; tradesmen kept and used their skills and self-respect and in addition increased consumer power worked to the advantage of shopkeepers who were able to pay off their debts and improve business.

It is fair to say that talk of the tragedy of unemployment was assumed to relate to men, despite heavy unemployment among both men and women nationally. It does seem that in Richmond (which was no exception to the general rule) solutions were directed almost entirely at male unemployment. It is men who are specifically mentioned as attendees at the recreation room and I reckon it would have been a brave woman who turned up for a cup of tea with bread and dripping.  The 1930s was a tough time for a woman to be looking for work – and thousands were. If she was single, it was assumed either that someone would provide for her or if not, that domestic work was her natural sphere. Such work was no more popular than it had been after the First World when it was widely seen to be the answer to women’s unemployment and no end of training programmes to give it the illusion of either vocation or professionalism ever changed women’s minds. So, it is no real surprise to hear the Mayor of Richmond, at the Employment Scheme launch, mention women just once and suggest domestic service as ‘ideal work’ for them.

The model chosen by Richmond was the so-called Bristol Scheme, established by the Bristol Rotary Club in 1932 to encourage citizens to ‘spend that others may earn’. This – or variants of it – was established – or at least tried –  in the spring of 1933 in over a hundred locations across Britain, from large cities including Edinburgh, Sheffield and Birmingham to towns such as Stockport and Winchester and several London boroughs.  In Richmond the intention was to obtain £30,000 worth of promises and by April, the local newspaper reported that it had succeeded in bringing in pledges and donations totalling £40,000. How much work was found is unknown, but a scheme run in nearby Barnes and Mortlake, claimed, at the conclusion of its scheme, to have secured full time employment for 150 men and additionally some obtained casual work. It was no cure for unemployment and across the country only small successes were claimed but those who championed it believed that one of its biggest advantages was the encouragement given to local people to come face to face with the problems of unemployment and think seriously and deeply about its causes and effects.

The premises lent by the Borough Council for the purposes of the Scheme, at 23 Hill Rise, Richmond
This is the same shop on Hill Rise as above. My grandfather is standing (hatless) in the doorway at the back) Photo from Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

In a letter to the local press in March 1933, Frank was at pains to allay suspicions that by improving their homes, the Borough Council would then consider their value increased and re-rate their properties. This, he wrote, was only the case if structural alterations, such as extensions, were made., whereas keeping property in good order was never used to increase its gross rental value.[4] He also praised the ‘extremely generous help from Richmond tradesmen and wholehearted co-operation from all sides’.[5] In April he resigned as Organising Secretary of the Employment Scheme, the reply he received from the Mayor thanking him for his service and noting with pleasure that the reason he could not continue in post was due to business engagements. As I don’t know yet when Frank’s shop (which was on Paradise Road in Richmond) opened, it is hard to know if those engagements were the result of improved business or a brand-new venture. Either way, it was a temporary reprieve and when the shop closed (or was sold), Frank eventually – back in Chelsea – went into the Civil Service, where he remained for the rest of his working life.

So far, this role of woven tags is the only evidence I have of my grandfather’s shop in Paradise Road

It’s not hard to see why the Scheme appealed to my grandfather, Frank. Public spirited he may have been but ultimately, he needed an upturn in business. It is no wonder that local businessmen might get involved to bolster their own fortunes. Its advocates were at pains to show that the Scheme was non-political but there is little doubt that it had considerable Conservative appeal, making no demands on the rates and boosting trades and businesses in which many local councillors were involved.[6] The local Labour Party, whilst wishing the Council for Social Service every success, warned it not to imagine that the people of the country were satisfied with the Government’s action in ‘shelving its responsibility and putting it on the shoulders of a charitable organisation’. Labour also criticized the paltry amount given by the Borough Council (just over £4000) for relief works for unemployed men.[7] I think probably that the self-help philosophy underpinning this endeavour is the reason it has taken me so long to write about it – no matter how hard I look, there are absolutely no elements of either socialism or cooperation apparent in these papers! Yet still they provide a remarkable insight into the efforts of individuals to do something, however small or even ultimately ineffectual about the social and economic crisis that blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people during the Depression in Britain.


I think that the documents ought to be preserved in the area to which they relate. I intend to offer them to Richmond Archives.

[1] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[2] Hampshire Telegraph, January 1 1932

[3] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[4] Richmond Herald, March 25 1933

[5] Richmond Herald, March 11 1933

[6] Forgive my early research on this. The makeup of the Borough Council is hard to determine at this time when so many councillors referred to themselves as Independent. The determination by many of them to keep party politics out of local elections was a determination to keep out the socialists.

[7] Richmond Herald January 14 1933

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