The Economic Crisis in Stavanger, 1920-1930 – Louis on the move along the railway

From the fall of 1920, the postwar economic depression reached Stavanger. The canning exports fell, and that meant a crisis for Stavanger. In 1885 the town had six canning factories. By around 1920 there were close to 60 of them in the city. 70% of the canned goods exported from Norway were sent from Stavanger. 4,000 women and 4,000 men worked in the canning industry during the first World War. The canning industry also created business for the tin can factories, the sheet metal fabricators, packaging, nail factories and graphics printing industry. 65% of the workers in the town were tied to canning or to companies that were, in turn, connected to the canning industry. It was canning which had created the only industrial activity of any significance in Stavanger, and when this trade stalled, the whole town fell on troubled times. From 1920 the prices for canned goods fell on the global market. This sparked a price war between the various canning firms in Stavanger. The profits were few, people lost their jobs, and the town’s tax revenues fell. The tax rates were raised from 12 to 15% in 1920, and then to 20% in 1924 to compensate for these losses.

Louis was transferred from station to station in order to relieve railway workers who were sick or were on vacation. Pauline saw so little of her husband that she did just as well by moving back to Flekkefjord for a time. Louis didn’t always get an apartment where he went. He often slept in the office of the station building. It wasn’t terribly comfortable to sleep on top of the desks with some books for a pillow! Being a railway worker was no lucrative occupation either, around the year 1920. Louis earned about 100 kroner per month as a telegraph operator. It was only half of a normal salary in that time. Louis applied for a 270 kroner advance on his salary to pay for wood. He got the amount, but had to pay it back within six months, something that was incredibly hard. The office workers in the railway demanded higher pay in 1920. They threatened to strike and chose Louis to be their foreman and strike leader. He thought that he was too young, but when his fellow workers wanted him, he took on the role. He travelled 20 times to Oslo to negotiate with the leadership in NSB, but got nothing out of it but a transfer to Nærbø where he had to live in a boarding house. He saw nothing of a pay raise. Louis wanted to be able to live with his wife so he applied for an office job at the station in Kongsberg. He got the job and moved east with Pauline. Soon after, he applied again for work in Rollag in Numedalen where there was a lot of activity in connection with construction on the Numedals railway line.

Through the Stavanger newspapers Louis kept himself informed about what was going on in his hometown. In May 1921 he read in the First of May about a journalist who visited a family in Lervig who lived in an unpainted house where the plasterwork was flaking off the foundation wall. In the basement he found a family that included a mother, father, and seven children aged nine months to sixteen years of age. The kitchen floor was flooded with water. It had been this way for a year, explained the mother, and now the floor had completely rotted. The smell made it clear that it was sewage water that was seeping up between the floor boards. The water was greatest when it rained and when she washed clothes. In the living room the journalist noted how the sewage water that had leaked under the linoleum squirted as he walked. It smelled mouldy throughout the whole house, which belonged to the canning factory (A.S. Kippers). Even if the water had only come into the apartment in the past year, the journalist felt it was awful that the «sanitation authorities» allowed people to live in this way in Stavanger – something Louis was in complete agreement with.

Louis was also left with a deep impression when he read in Stavanger Aftenblad, before July 1922, about 500 Stavanger families who had applied for assistance from the «relief center» before the festive season. A journalist had taken the trip out to one of these families. The ramshackled house lay only a few minutes walk from the Domkirken cathedral. A little girl met the journalist and led him through narrow alleys and hallways to a door where the girl’s father lit a match so that the journalist could see where he walked. He was then led into a single room apartment with an additional small sleeping alcove. Husband and wife and eight children aged four months and up lived in the apartment. The baby had bronchitis and lay coughing on one side of the mother’s bed. On the other side was a three year old. In the sleeping alcove two beds had been squeezed in. Four children lay on the two beds, using clothes and rags as bed sheets. In the narrow opening between the two beds the oldest boy lay on the floor. He was just back from the Lindum tuberculosis sanatorium in Suldal. The mother tried to raise the temperature in the apartment by burning some straw and a pair of old shoes. She had no idea how she was to find food for the large family for Christmas given that both her husband and herself were without work.

The journalist climbed a narrow creaking stairway to the second floor. There he found two families in the attic. Under one of the inclining walls of the roof was a gas stove but anyone wanting to cook on it had to lean while standing given the steep incline. At any rate, there was seldom anything cooked there since the two families could rarely afford a dinner. In one end of the attic lived a family of six people. In the other end lived a widow with three children. She had just gotten a job at a factory in Hillevåg and was happy to be able to earn a little money for food before Christmas.

The journalist also visited a woman who lived together with her 12 children squeezed into a small apartment. She had also sought help from the «relief center» since her husband rarely showed up at home and drank up most of the money he made. In a crumbling house at Blåsenborg the journalist was met with the terrible stench of mould and rot. Soot from the chimney whirled around the room and covered the furniture and windowsills. Rats and mice crawled around in the corners. There were ants in the bed sheets and the clothes in the closet were green with mould. The walls of the attic stairs were rotten and the planks in the attic roof were loose. The journalist felt that the house should be torn down and was unfit for human inhabitants.

In the fall of 1925 Louis could read about more and more unemployed as Christmas approached. It hit the canning industry workers the hardest, but there were also losses at Stavanger Støberi casting firm, and Dok and Rosenberg. Many also lost their job in the ship building industry. By the middle of October, the town had 1,100 unemployed. This rose to 2,600 as July approached, some 1,910 men and 690 women. The police reported that there were many burglaries as a result of the unemployment. A correspondent in the First of May complained on 5 November that the bourgeoisie, who had a majority in the town council, did nothing to end the unemployment and that they allowed the millionaire Bjelland throw workers out on the street whenever it suited him.

Louis also read a petition for the provision of food in schools for the hungry students and the executive committee had pooled together to buy wooden clogs for students who lacked shoes. They also wanted to grant more money for porridge and food rations, together with 10,000 kroner for firewood for the poor in the city.

In the bourgeois newspapers Stavanger Aftenblad and the Stavangeren, they would read about the collections of food, shoes and clothes for the needy. From Varhaug, Nærbø, Riska, Randaberg, Forus, Fister, Sele, Madla and Sola sacks and truckloads came with potatoes and vegetables for those who starved in Stavanger. A letter to the Stavanger Aftenblad encouraged people to take hungry children they found in the city and offer them a proper meal in their own homes. The Stavangeren wrote about Christmas distributions of milk and food that the newspaper had collected and free anchovies offered by Bjelland’s factory. It was work that they wanted, wrote the letter’s author, but the editor of the newspaper had little sympathy for that perspective. He was more concerned about the 600,000 kroner deficit in the budge for the social welfare department.

In Stavanger Aftenblad Louis could learn that money was being collected from private individuals so that the unemployed could received a salary to start a walking path along Mosvatnet from Schancheholen to Mostun. By 20 November, some 2,573 kroner had been collected towards this goal. 30 men were put to work. On 14 December, the path was named Selvhjælpsveien, the «Self-help path» and by that time some 5,700 kroner had been collected and 40 men were at work on it. Since the path would need between 15-20,000 kroner to complete the path, there was still a long way to go.

It was the conservative party, Høyre, which, with the support of the liberal party, Venstre, held political power in Stavanger in the inter-war period. Criticism for the party’s passive political response to the unemployed came even from among supporters within Høyre. There were complaints over the fact that construction on the Eiganes garden city, Kampen school, and the expansion of Stavanger hospital had all be suspended because the municipal government didn’t want to take the loans necessary for the completion of these projects. Høyre’s leadership, along with mayor Middelthon, rejected the criticism and defended their policy of austerity.

In 1927 the labor party Arbeiderpartiet and the Social Democrats were again united into a single party. The demands from Arbeiderpartiet became more moderate, but the polarization between the socialist parties and the bourgeois, or non-socialist parties was still great, and it would become greater. The unemployed demonstrated both within and outside the halls of the town council outside the Stavanger Sparekasse bank in the marketplace.

The Høyre party thus was in the municipal leadership in the Stavanger city council during the difficult economic period after the First World War. The party took new loans to complete projects that the Arbeiderpartiet had begun during the war. It also took new loans to offer emergency assistance to the unemployed. Up to 1934 Høyre lead an austerity policy where the goal was to pay down some of the large debt that the city had worked up. The Arbeiderpartiet was against austerity. Instead, they wanted new loans to support new economic activity and get the unemployed back to work. As the leaders put it, they wanted to produce their way out of the crisis.

In 1921 80% of the city’s unemployed were given emergency work on the roads in Storhaug, Stokka, and Våland. They redid the road around Breiavatnet and built the wharf at Buøy. 1,200 men were at work on most of it. The salaries were so low that it was impossible to live properly off of them. Even so, the municipality had to take another half million kroner in loans each month in order to keep the emergency work going.

During that same year the Norwegian Employers Association cancelled labour contracts that ran out during the year. Hit the worst were those employed at sea who faced a 33% pay cut the moment this went into effect, together with the threat of worse cuts in the autumn if the economic situation did not improve. The Confederation of Trade Unions was convinced that other workers would face similar «offers» if those employed at sea submitted to these demands. The organization prepared its members for a large strike towards the spring of 1921.

Things got pretty «hot» in Stavanger during the strike. On Friday, 6 May, the city’s organized machinists, stokers, and deckhands went on strike, but since not all the seamen were unionized, the various strike committees tried to pressure their fellow workers. The first incident happened on the evening of Tuesday, 10 May when the night ship «Sandnæs» was to depart for Bergen. The police had set up roadblocks but the organized striking workers as well as some ruffians, managed to make their way through the roadblocks to prevent the loading of the boat. They also tried to prevent the boat from casting off. They knew that it was very important for the employers to keep the coastal traffic running and they sought to prevent this by force. However, both that night and on the following night, they lost to the police with their batons. Eventually, when the wharf workers also joined the strike, routes had to be cancelled and the broader population began to feel the impact of the strike. The strike divided the city into two camps, and the polarization was so serious that the 1921 17 May celebrations had to have two separate people’s parades, with each given their own speech for the day.

From the 26 May, 120,000 workers were on strike, but when the Confederation of Trade Unions could no longer afford the strike pay for these workers the strike would soon come to an end due to empty stomachs. The Confederation’s tactic of achieving a fast economic victory over the employers had failed. Many companies had overflowing inventories and were happy to save money otherwise spent on salaries for a time. The larger firms in the Federation of Industries and the Federation of Banks had also created an organization called Norwegian Social Help, which provided «help» to employers that would keep essential operations going in the event of a strike in the country. It was not difficult to find strike breakers among the poor workers and the rural population.

The strike breakers could feel relatively safe with protection provided both by the police and soldiers but there were still frequent fights between strikers and strike breakers. The polarization between socialist and bourgois newspapers also sharpened when words like ‘revolution’ and ‘uprising’ were used, and with the Russian Revolution neither far away nor long ago, the fear of a worker revolt was real for many. The great strike of 1921 broke after two weeks. It ended with an even smaller salary for the seamen than the employers had originally offered, but many workers didn’t get work again after the strike when several companies downsized or stopped operating. This led to many leaving the union organization.

In 1922 Stavanger Høyre felt that the payments to keep the unemployed working in crisis work were not sustainable. The municipal economy was in danger of collapse. So the party sought to have the responsibility for the unemployed transferred to the national government. From now on, the town’s welfare services were to bear the burden of the city’s large unemployment problem. The unemployed were from this point paid two weeks of unemployment contributions in cash together with some fuel and fuel. The food was distributed from the municipal food sales in the city market in exchange for a ration ticket. This saved many from total hunger.

While Louis and Peo stayed in Rollag in Numedal they had a son Torgeir who would later become a goal keeper for the Norwegian team and a professional football player in France. In 1925 Louis applied for work closer to home and he found work with the railway in Egersund. In Egersund, their daughter Solveig was born. She would later become a teacher in Stavanger. Louis joined the Norwegian Arbeiderparti, where he was elected chairman. Not long after he would sit both on the city council and the chairmanship. In Egersund he started a youth organization which was allowed to rent the town council room for its activities. Louis saw there was much idleness and drunkenness among the youth and the sobriety initiative he put in place soon had 100 members.

In 1924 Louis could read about new unrest in Stavanger where striking workers had beaten up some strike breakers, and the police chief and county governor responded by calling in the military, which offered 130 men with sharpshooter rifles and marines on board the armoured ship «Tordenskjold» (the shield of Tor). Below you can see the description of this episode that Louis could read about in the newspaper First of May.


The Military Puts itself at the Service of the Employers

The harbor is to be blocked off. Tonight there has been a mobilization of soldiers from Jæren. The city police chief has lost it. The mobilization takes place following a request from the employers. The municipality puts the People’s Theater at the disposal of the military.

The day before yesterday the steam shipping agents met to discuss the situation and agreed to make a request to the government for help. This request led quickly to the authorities putting the military at the employers authority and gave mobilization orders to the Vesterlen regiment. The order went out tonight. We made inquiries with the operating officer of the Vesterlen regiment, major Amdal, and asked him if it was indeed true that the military had been called up.

«Yes, the military has been given orders.»
«How many?»
«Well, I am not entitled to answer that.»
«Who has given orders to the military?»
«It is always the civil authorities who calls up the military. They have indicated that the city’s business will suffer millions in loses if the work stops.»
«By when will they be called in?»
«They will be assemble as soon as possible.»
«Which battalion?»
«The one residing closest by»
«Where will they be quartered?
«That has not yet been decided.»

From other sources we have determined that the mobilization will be of about 200 men. Yesterday, it was demanded that the gymnasium was to be vacated by today at 11:00, but it was understood that when the Rooster Show adamantly rejected this demand, it was necessary to find another location.

Has the city’s police chief totally lost it?

That police chief Ruus has had difficulties in keeping his cool when bigger tasks require it, is something that we have seen the proof of on several occasions. What the police chief can manage to to fuss about is over whether a café stays open a bit after 10 or a loaf of bread or two sells after closing time. Therefore, it surprises no one that he has completely lost it in the situation that the city has now ended up in. We asked him today if it was at his initiative that the military had been called up. We knew already roughly what kind of answer he would offer and we were weren’t disappointed: Can you wait for me to get you some information on that? Good bye. No, we couldn’t wait for the police chief to offer a proper answer to a polite question. His horizon is so darkened that one cannot ask that much of him. However, the second our correspondent was offered this answer from the city’s police chief, mayor Middelthon calls our editor, who is a member of the Cinema board and proposes the following: A request has come from the military authorities and the city police chief that municipal locations be put at the disposal of the military. The mayor has proposed that the People’s Theater be put at their disposal. With a vote of 3 against 2, Skaar and Olsen-Hagen, the Cinema board decided that the People’s Theater be offered to the military for use. Olsen-Hagen referred the case to the executive committee.

Captain Bergh Takes Charge

It will be Henry C. Bergh who becomes head of the security forces called up and they will be called up from the Jæren battalion.

This is a translation of chapter 11  from the book «Poor Stavanger – A book about Stavanger 1900-1940, written for young adults» (Fattig-Stavanger – En bok om Stavanger 1900–1940 skrevet for ungdom) by local historian Gunnar Skadberg. You can download a PDF of the Norwegian version of the entire book here. This translation is by K. M. Lawson