Social and economic context of the 20th century – Dawn Lyon and Graham Crow

The history of Sheppey is intertwined with the history of the Naval Dockyard, established in Sheerness in 1665. In the early twentieth century, it was the major employer on the island. This is indicated by demographic and employment data. Sheerness had a population of 18,000 in 1901 (compared to less than 12,000 at the time of the 2001 census). In 1931, 60% of local men who were employed worked in the Dockyard. The very existence of a technical school that trained boys to take the entrance exams and get apprenticeships indicates the extent to which the island was geared around the Dockyard. By the time of its closure in 1960 however, employee numbers had dropped to ca 2,500 people.

The presence of the Dockyard as a single large employer dominating the local economy created an ‘occupational community’ which brought people together with a shared sense of purpose and belonging, and in a spatially concentrated setting. The geographical isolation of the island, exacerbated by poor public transport and low car ownership, meant that the Navy had access to an isolated workforce. There were few alternative sources of steady employment. Although the east of Sheppey, notably Leysdown, was a holiday destination in the early part of the twentieth century, the leisure industry on Sheppey was not developed to the same extent as other coastal resorts in Kent. It was the Dockyard that dominated the economy, social and cultural life, and the landscape. Wages were not especially good but there were benefits (promotion prospects and pensions) and these generated loyalty. According to Ray Pahl, the Admiralty was an ‘indulgent’ employer, creating a relatively ‘docile’ if dignified workforce in which there was little unionisation, in sharp contrast to the strength of the Dockers’ union in many commercial ports. The pace of work was not particularly demanding and the control and autonomy of skilled workers was high. Working arrangements included the right (or at least tacit approval) to use the facilities and materials to undertake private work (Pahl, 1984: 165-6) – hence the blue of Blue Town, painted with Dockyard supplies.

Alongside the pleasures and benefits of belonging to a strongly defined occupational community, there were internal divisions and the exclusion of outsiders. Segregation by social status in the local residential patterns meant that Mile Town and Marine Town were dominated by Shipwrights and metalworkers, whereas the poorer housing in Blue Town was home to labourers and less skilled workers. There was enormous pressure on young men to pass the Dockyard entrance exam. For those who did not succeed, they either became part of the group of ‘hired men’ who nevertheless worked regularly in the Dockyard, were employed in the private sector, were part of a casualised secondary labour market, or engaged in the informal economy (including in smuggling!) (Pahl, 1984: 166). Furthermore, there was very little opportunity for women to undertake paid work before the First World War and Sheppey was socially conservative. A ‘respectable’ possibility for married women was to offer lodgings or Bed and Breakfast and this was a significant activity. Single women could work in the local shops. Some worked as landladies in the many pubs.

Still, the community associated with the Dockyard is mostly celebrated and its demise is mostly experienced as loss by the interviewees in Pahl’s study (1984: 186). This fed into ordinary people’s understandings of the island that Pahl recast as a ‘Durkheimian theory’, according to which the Island ‘never recovered from the sudden closure of the Dockyard in April 1960. A strong sense of social cohesion existed, built up over the centuries, based on the pride of craftsmanship, the patriotism associated with working for the Army and Navy, and the solidarity based on working men’s clubs and the co-operative movement’ (1984: 186). Although some Dockyard workers were transferred up the River Medway to Chatham upon the closure of Sheerness, nevertheless 700 people were left out of work altogether, and unemployment locally was 11 per cent when the national rate was 2 per cent (Pahl, 1984: 169). The loss was real and decline in the social and physical landscape of Sheppey visible.

However, the theme of loss in accounts of this time does not apply exclusively to the closure of the Dockyard in the case of Sheerness, but to shifts in production processes and levels of employment in the previous decades. Furthermore, some of the interviewees’ accounts collected as part of the current project are not especially negative about their experience of closure of the Dockyard at the time of closure in their present-day accounts of it. These interviewees are perhaps a selective sample of those who benefited from other opportunities when the Dockyard was closed, and who did not therefore directly experience redundancy as socially and economically disastrous. Their accounts may also indicate that it is over time that the impact of such a major local economic change is felt as the social and cultural life of a place such as Sheerness starts to unravel, and yet, at another level, not felt, as people accommodate to new contexts.

If anything, by the time of Pahl’s arrival on Sheppey, the ghostly presence of the Dockyard, already a commercial port, was the legacy of a previous era and the material and symbolic historical backdrop to his team’s research on the island. In the space of a generation Sheppey had become a different world. Similarly, our interest in this ‘lost community’ means that our current study is of a community that no longer exists in a formal sense, and of a place that no longer exists in its previous form but whose legacy lingers. The infrastructure and activities of the port overlay the Dockyard, much of which has been destroyed (buildings) or erased (railways tracks). In Blue Town itself, the timber-framed dwellings that housed working-class families have been demolished. From a population of ca 8,000, there are now just 100 people living there. Still, the economic legacies from former patterns of work and employment leave their mark for long periods including as cultural markers on the landscape, in the minds of people who have lived through this change, and in the imagination of young people who are unwittingly shaped by this past.

By the late twentieth century, Pahl’s ‘portrait of an industrial island’ (1984: ch.6) refers to several large private sector employers in steel, pharmaceuticals, and electricals, all of which were badly affected by the 1980s recession. Into the twenty-first century, the local economy is dominated by the car import business (generating jobs in driving), the importing of fresh produce (meat, vegetables and fruit), and the production of concrete garden ornaments! The local economy remains volatile with a high percentage of people employed in vulnerable industries, including in retail and seasonal work. In terms of public sector employment, there is work in healthcare, education, and the prison service (Sheppey has three prisons). Unemployment remains high, especially amongst young people. Current regeneration projects at Queenborough and Rushenden appear to be housing rather than job-led.

It is unclear what proportion of people who work on Sheppey are resident on the island as the ‘new’ bridge, the Sheppey Crossing (which opened in 2006) has facilitated commuting. Pahl estimated that in 1980, 25-30 per cent of working people commuted off the island and 14 per cent commuted on, mostly in managerial/professional jobs (1984: 144). He adds that 90 per cent of skilled workers at the steel mill came from off the island (1984: 170). The picture is unlikely to have improved as educational attainment in terms of qualifications remains low in Sheppey and is well below the average for the South East (18.6 per cent of the population in Swale have level NVQ4 and above compared to 30.8 per cent in the South East). Furthermore, Sheppey ranks highly on ‘indices of deprivation’, and life expectancy is as much as eight years lower in some parts of Sheppey than it is in other parts of Swale and the South East (Swale Borough Council, 2009).

At the same time, Pahl was keen to emphasise that islanders stood out in their aspirations to owner-occupation, and achieved it more than might have been expected, despite it being a poor area, as a result of cheaper housing and a tradition of self-building/DIY and of self-employment. ‘Most of these households in the middle mass own their own homes and, judging from the Sheppey Survey, gain substantial satisfaction from creating a style of life based on small-scale domesticity’, he wrote (Pahl 1984: 320).

Pahl, R.E. (1984) Divisions of Labour, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Swale Borough Council (2009) Ambitions for Swale, Swale’s sustainable community strategy, 2009-2026.