Priestley was a social campaigner, who was shaped by his upbringing and his later life experiences. His mother, who died when he was very young, was a mill girl and he grew up in Bradford on the periphery of industrial England – the plight of industrial workers was thus never far out of mind. His father was a socialist, who believed that ‘helping the less fortunate was . . . a moral obligation’ and who, as headmaster of a primary school, ‘administered the first free school meals in the country’.
Furthermore, Priestley himself was exposed to the harsh realities of social and class inequality during his stint as a soldier in the First World War.
Priestley subsequently dedicated his life to challenging social inequality and reporting on the problems faced by those who grew up in deprived, working-class areas. He was one of the first authors to travel through and write about the depressed areas in the UK, and was a great social commentator, publishing hundreds of articles that supported political campaigns and the formation of socialist institutions, such as the National Health Service. Throughout his life, he used his platform as a successful author to campaign for a socially just and equal society. It is unsurprising, then, that one of the key themes of An Inspector Calls is social inequality, notably social inequality with respect to class.
Priestley’s decision to set the play in 1912 is evidence of his commitment to challenging the social institutions and societal values that placed excessive significance on an individual’s socio-economic background and class, at the expense of their identity as a fellow human. Setting the play when he did, two years prior to the First World War, and having written it in 1945, enabled him to reflect and comment on the class divisions and social inequality, which he believed helped create the conditions for two world wars.