Belfast 1932

Being Out-Of-Work

The Depression devastated the export industries Northern Ireland’s economy relied on: shipbuilding and linen manufacture. There were few jobs even for skilled workers.

With no Welfare State, losing your job in 1932 was a frightening prospect. Most people were used to short periods of unemployment, and could make do between jobs. Long-term unemployment was different – it could mean starvation.

Image: Empty slips at Harland and Wolff’s shipyard, c. 1932. Not a single ship was built in the yard that year (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum).

As months stretched into years, people began to despair. Every possible economy became the way of life.

Winifred Campbell

At the end of his transitional benefit, as far as the state was concerned, [a man] could live on grass or whatever he liked.

Harold Binks

Insurance and Benefits

Some people had insurance against unemployment. If they were made redundant the insurance payments lasted six months. Then they were moved on to transition benefits, which were lower. When these stopped, there was one option left – known as ‘relief’.

48% of the unemployed in 1932 didn’t have insurance. Their only hope of avoiding destitution was to apply for relief.

Image: Homeless men sleeping in a Belfast brickworks, in around 1908 (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum).

Homeless men sleeping in a Belfast brickworks.


A children’s ward in Belfast workhouse in around 1906.

Northern Ireland still used the Poor Laws in 1932. These had been put in place in the 19th century to make sure there was some provision for people who couldn’t earn money. The laws allowed Boards of Guardians to decide who could get relief. Ratepayers elected the Guardians, because the money to help the poor was raised through rates.

In 1932 the Belfast Board of Guardians was flooded with applications for relief. Most Guardians were middle- and upper-class unionists who seemed to prefer to keep rates low. Many applicants reported harsh treatment.

Image: A children's ward in Belfast's workhouse in around 1906 (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum).

Mrs Coleman asked me if my wife was working… She was a housewife and I had a daughter with brain damage… [The Guardians] said… I wouldn’t be entitled to [relief] except my wife would sign for work. I could put my daughter in an institution.

Tommy Fitzpatrick

Indoor Relief

‘Indoor Relief’ meant the workhouse. People dreaded going into the workhouse. Families were separated and inmates were made to work for a bed and food, if they were physically able. There were around 2500 people in the Belfast workhouse in the early 1930s.

Outdoor Relief

‘Outdoor Relief’ meant work schemes, usually for able-bodied married men. There were many more applicants than there were jobs. Outdoor Relief workers were paid very little, and rates were low. A married man with one child would be given 12 shillings a week in Belfast, but 21 shillings a week in Manchester. When no work was available men were paid in food vouchers instead of cash. That made it almost impossible to buy clothes or fuel, or pay rent. The names of men receiving Outdoor Relief were put up on lamp-posts.

Outdoor Relief workers on the roads.

Image: Outdoor Relief workers on the roads (Belfast Telegraph, 18th October 1932, p13).

I’ve seen men was digging trenches in North Howard Street and it was raining and there was three inches of water in the trenches. There was no protective clothing, boots or wellies then. And those men was standing digging clay under them conditions.

Tommy Cochrane

Quotes from from Munck and Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties