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  3. Life in the capital; London in the 1930s
A black-and-white photograph showing busy scenes at the London Docks, with many barges and steamers close together and cranes dotted around the landscape.

Life in the capital; London in the 1930s

Pre-war London was Britain's seat of power, and would suffer worse than any other city during The Blitz

Discover life in 1930s London with the 1939 Register

There has been a settlement in London for at least two thousand years, and Britain's capital has, over the past millennia, established itself as a global city, and a world leader in culture, finance, art and fashion.

In the run up to the War, London experienced a large population boom; by 1939 there were nearly 8.1 million people living in the borough of London and surrounding areas. Pre-war London was less industrialised than other British cities; therefore over 400,000 people were employed in personal service, and a further 268,000 in commercial activities. As the national hub for travel, thousands of buses, trams and trains passed through the capital, employing a further 265,000 people.

In the run up to the War, London experienced a large population boom; by 1939 there were nearly 8.1 million people living in the borough of London and surrounding areas.

A black-and-white photograph of a London street. The image is dramatic and high-contrast. Sunlight streams down from above, and the streetlamps, cars, and people on the street are silhouettes.
An atmospheric street scene in London with sunlight streaming down from above the tall buildings. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/MARGARET MONCK

The 1st of May, 1939 was marked by a large march organised by various socialist parties and trade unions. Passing along the Embankment and past Buckingham Palace, protesters urged for a change of government and the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. And in recognition of the increasing likelihood of war, specifically a war that would involve aerial bombardment, others complained about the lack of ‘deep’ air raid shelters.

The importance of London to the Allied war efforts made it a prime target for German forces, and the run up to the War saw government, industry and the civilian population implement measures intended to protect against bombing and invasion. Anderson shelters were issued from early 1939, sandbags were filled to protect important landmarks, children and vulnerable adults - and the paintings from the National Gallery - were evacuated to the countryside for their own safety. In September  1940, the German bombers arrived, subjecting Londoners to 57 consecutive nights of heavy raids intended to break the morale of the Londoners huddled in their shelters. When this bombing campaign - The Blitz - came to an end, much of the city was in ruins, over 30,000 Londoners had been killed and thousands more left homeless. Germany's plan had failed, the spirit of London was intact.

Anderson shelters were issued from early 1939, sandbags were filled to protect important landmarks, children and vulnerable adults - and the paintings from the National Gallery - were evacuated to the countryside for their own safety.

A black-and-white photograph of Trafalgar Square. The fountain is in the foreground, with a few people sitting on the edge and talking. In the background there are many more people milling around. On the side of a building there are large, lit adverts for 'BOVRIL', and 'SCHWEPPES'.
Pedestrians mill around Trafalgar Square and five women sit on the edge of one of the fountains. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

London may well have been Britain's most advanced city, but rural traditions continued on the outskirts of the capital. In recognition of this, a sheep shearing competition was held in Hyde Park in June 1939. Hundreds of bemused city dwellers gathered to watch as men scrambled to shear the sheep against the clock. Sheep shearing was still a relatively male-dominated activity (on the competitive front anyway), so a special award was made to Miss Wood as the only female contestant on the day.

Main image: Barges, cranes and tramp steamers at the London Docks. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

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