The Way We Were, 1938-1939: Times of Crisis

By Peter Bartram

Perhaps the earliest and most comprehensive measurement of British attitudes on political and social issues is contained in a series of surveys conducted by Gallup for the News Chronicle on the eve of the Second World War. The findings from these are bound to be of interest to all social historians and are now to be found in The Archive of Market and Social Research*.

The Gallup Poll had been set up in Britain under the direction of Dr Henry Durant in 1936, and its findings were initially published in the weekly news review ‘Cavalcade’. But in 1938 the News Chronicle acquired the exclusive rights to publish the findings in Britain and most of the British Empire.

While specific sample sizes were not included in the published reports, it was claimed that for this series of surveys they were “always more than 2,000”, and in December 1938 it was reported that more than 90% of people approached were willing to answer the questions. (Nowadays this figure is rarely above 50%).

The first of their surveys was conducted in October 1938, a fortnight after the Munich crisis, and found that –

On Political Issues:

  • 51% of voters were satisfied with Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister (compare with Teresa May, currently at 27%)
  • 72% were in favour of spending more on re-armament, and
  • 73% expressed the belief that the persecution of Jews was an obstacle to good Anglo-German understanding.

A picture of life in a very different Britain at that time is obtained from other findings including:

On International Issues:

  • Asked in January 1939 where their sympathies lay in the Spanish civil war, 72% backed the Spanish government, and only 9% backed General Franco.
  • If there were to be a war between the two, 59% would prefer Russia to win and 10% Germany. Similarly, if required to choose, 63% would prefer Communism and 21% Fascism.
  • 60% thought the British Government should continue its policy of allowing Jews to settle in Palestine while only 14% opposed the idea.

On Social issues:

  • Asked how often they go to a place of worship, 27% said regularly, 41% occasionally, 17% for weddings etc, and 15% never. (We are no longer a religious country: in 2018, only 5% attend a church on a typical Sunday).
  • While 52% were in favour of the BBC broadcasting a regular dance band feature on Sundays, as many as 32% objected, mainly for religious reasons.
  • Asked whether a woman should be barred from any form of employment simply because she is married, 28% said ‘yes’.
  • 49% said they went to the cinema at least once a week, and 47% said they “go in for the football pools”.
  • Only 15% claimed to own their home outright, 9% were in the process of buying it, and 76% were in lodgings or rented accommodation. (Now, 65% of homes are occupied by the owner, whether outright or on a mortgage)
  • 55% kept at least one pet, led by dogs 40%, and cats 37%. (In 2018, only 45% owned any pet, with dogs at 26% and cats at 18%).
  • 83% of men and 39% of women said they smoked. (Now, according to the Office for National Statistics, the figures are 17% for men and 13% for women)

As can be seen, in the 80 years since these surveys were done, we have become different people, living different lives.


*The Archive (www.amsr.org.uk) contains a wide range of valuable material that is free to access, and this may be found under ‘Opinion Polling Reports’, or by clicking this direct link to the archive (link will open as a separate page)