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