The Golden Age of Edwardian Britain 1901–1914
It is time to look at a period in Britain’s history which may seem eerily
familiar to modern readers. It was a time when a Home Secretary stood
up in the House of Commons and admitted that there had, in the last
twelve months, been a net migration to this country of 600,000 people. Most
of these newcomers were seeking refuge from supposed persecution, who
we would today call ‘asylum seekers’. He also discussed the possibility that
some people were coming to this country for the sole purpose of seeking
medical treatment, which today we know as ‘health tourism’, and went on to
talk of ‘people smugglers’. It was a time when another MP complained that
at some schools in his constituency, ‘Few English pupils are to be found’. He
claimed that there was a housing crisis, caused by immigration. The debates
on this subject in Parliament were in response to a deep unease felt by ordinary
people about mass immigration. There was particular concern that the
influx of unskilled workers from Eastern Europe was driving down wages
and making it harder for British workers to find jobs. A far-right group
called the British Brotherhood was founded. Their slogan was, ‘Britain for
Edwardian architecture in Britain
The crisis in Britain over immigration at that time, which was running at levels
which dwarf anything seen today, was compounded by the fear of separate
societies developing, communities where many people did not even speak
English. It was thought that not only were all these foreigners taking jobs
away from the British, but that fanatical terrorists were being sheltered
within such communities and that bombings and shootings were taking
place as a direct consequence of allowing so many foreigners, with ideas so
different from those traditionally held in Britain, to flood the country. As if
that were not enough, tensions within society caused a series of strikes and
outbreaks of ferocious rioting, one hot summer, so widespread and violent
that the police were unable to cope. These problems were all being exacerbated
by a revolution in information technology, which mean that people
were learning far more rapidly than ever before about what was going on in
other parts of the country.
All this sounds uncannily like the kind of problems with which we are currently
wrestling and it is hard to believe that we are talking of the Edwardian
Era, over a hundred years ago. Mass immigration, terrorism, rioting, political
crises, industrial unrest, all fuelled and encouraged by an information
revolution; these are the themes at which we shall be looking in this chapter.
The idea that there once was a golden age, when everything was a lot better
than it is today, has been popular for at thousands of years. Sometimes,
the supposed golden age is thought to have been centuries ago. We saw an
example of this in Chapter 1 with the Victorian interest in the Medieval and
Gothic. For some artists and poets at that time, the fourteenth century was
manifestly a better era than their own. There has in this country, for over a
century now, been an enduring belief in one particular golden age which is
still thought by many people to have been a special time; a brief era when
everything was going well, at least for Britain and the British. This is the
Edwardian period, which is usually considered to have lasted from Queen
Victoria’s death in 1901 to the outbreak of the First World War in the summer
of 1914. Calling these years the ‘Edwardian’ period is something of a
misnomer of course, for Edward VII, after whom the era was named, actually
died in 1910. Nevertheless, most historians consider that 1914 marks the
end of the Edwardian Era of Britain.
Queen Victoria of Great Britain
The expression ‘Victorian’ can have negative connotations and may even
be used in a pejorative sense as being synonymous with ‘Dickensian’. When
we talk of ‘Victorian’ working conditions, we are calling to mind Oliver Twist
and workhouses. ‘Edwardian’, on the other hand, has quite another meaning;
the word is redolent of opulence, wealth and elegance. Those thirteen years
of the Edwardian period of Britain are often thought to have been the high-water mark
of empire, a time when Britain’s influence upon the world was at its zenith
and the country was enjoying the fruits of the mightiest empire which the
world had ever seen, one which covered a quarter of the earth’s land surface
and included a fifth of the world’s population. The Boer War had just ended
and Britain was to be at peace for the whole of those thirteen years. It was
a time of new technology and increasing standards of living. Prosperity at
home and power abroad are what the Edwardians are known for. It was the
age of Elgar and Kipling, a time of certainty about Britain and its values. In
later years, it would become customary to speak wistfully of the years ‘before
the war’ when everything had been so much better, in so many ways.
It was not until after the First World War, however, that the early years
of the twentieth century began to be viewed with such nostalgia. It was then
that a term was coined for the late Victorian and Edwardian period in Western
Europe. The expression chosen to define this period was ‘La Belle Epoque’,
which translates roughly as ‘the beautiful era’. The poet Wordsworth wrote
that ‘distance lends enchantment to the view’ and nowhere is the truth of
this sentiment better illustrated than in the view of Edwardian Britain; which
became increasingly enchanting the further the distance in time which separated
it from observers grew. Within twenty years of the end of that epoch,
the false view of the pre-war years had become firmly established and a new
golden age existed as the focus for the nostalgia of those who really ought to
have known better.
Illustration shows the kind of visual image which the word ‘Edwardian’
evokes for many of us. It shows grandly-dressed ladies at Ascot in 1905.
Sunny days such as this, with people dressed up for Henley or Ascot sum up
Edwardian Britain – a never-ending summer, where everything is right in
the world and Britain enjoys its rightful place in the world. No more pressing
concern than which lacy parasol to choose that day. The reality though,
could hardly be more different.
Edwardian Britain fashion
In recent years, the Western World has gone through what is sometimes
referred to as the ‘Digital Revolution’. The after-effects of this technological
upheaval are still being felt and it has not yet ended. Mechanical household
gadgets with which we have been familiar for many decades have all been
swept away: the typewriters and cameras, telephones and radios, record
players and tape recorders, all have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
This rapid process has changed British society in many ways and had a dramatic
affect in many ways upon how we run our lives. Much the same thing
was happening in Edwardian Britain, but this revolution was an analogue,
rather than a digital, one. It added to the feeling among ordinary people that
the world was changing more rapidly than ever before and that nobody quite
knew what would happen next.
Britain has changed greatly in the last twenty years or so for other reasons,
beside the introduction of amazing new ways of communicating with
other people and handling information. Mass immigration has altered the
face of the larger cities irrevocably and the spectre of terrorism has, at the
same time, grown to be an ever-present fear. These two things, immigration
and terrorism, are often connected in people’s minds, because most of the
terrorism which occurs in Britain seems to be carried out by people whose
origins lie outside the country. This too would have been an idea familiar to
the Edwardians. We begin our survey of the Edwardian ‘golden age’ of Britain by looking
at the way in which the people of that time saw their country changing
and the uneasiness which this occasioned in some citizens.
In twenty-first century Britain, anxieties about immigration and terrorism
often centre around Muslims. It is feared that many of them owe their
first allegiance not to Britain, but to an unfamiliar religion which causes
them to think and act in very different ways from most British people.
Combined with this is a supposed propensity among some Muslims for violence
and terrorism. However irrational these feelings might be; they are
certainly held by a large section of the population. A century earlier, the
fear was of Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, and the way in which they
flooded the country and occupied swathes of what we now refer to as the
‘inner cities’. They spoke other languages, either followed a strange religion
or were atheists, and ate unfamiliar foods. This led to a tendency to form
parallel societies and embrace dangerous political ideologies; some of which
led to violence. They certainly didn’t subscribe to what we now call ‘British
Weddings in Edwardian Britain
Perhaps one or two specific instances of the way in which the events in
Edwardian society and the fears that such things generated precisely mirror
what is going on in Britain today will make this easier to understand. In 2005,
an armed robbery in Bradford was bungled disastrously and a police officer,
Sharon Beshenivsky, was shot dead. The crime was carried out by asylum
seekers and some people drew conclusions from this about the wisdom of
allowing large numbers of such people to enter the country and remain here
as long as they pleased. That the killer was a Muslim did not help matters.
There was a general feeling that this was a uniquely horrible crime which
was symptomatic of modern society. Surely, this kind of thing didn’t used to
happen in the old days?
On Saturday, 23 January 1909, a crime almost identical to the murder of
Sharon Beshenivsky took place in the north London suburb of Tottenham.
Tottenham is today known as an area with many ethnic minorities, not a few
of whom are asylum seekers. The situation was no different a century ago,
except that at that time, most of the asylum-seekers were from Poland and
Russia and many of them were Jews. In fact before the First World War, one
part of Tottenham was known as ‘Little Russia’, due to the large number of
Russians who had settled there. The area had a number of synagogues.
On that Saturday morning in 1909, Schnurmann’s rubber factory in
Chesnut Road, just off the high road, was just about to stop work for the
weekend. Saturday was payday and a car arrived from a nearby bank with
the wages. No sooner had the clerk got out of the car, than two men rushed
up, knocked him down and made off with the bag containing £80. Some
of the workers from the factory, angry at the prospect of being deprived of
their money, gave chase. At the corner of the street, the two robbers turned
and opened fire with automatic pistols, wounding one man and sending the
others diving for cover.
The Golden Age of Edwardian Britain
The sound of gunfire brought three police officers running from nearby
Tottenham Police Station. The gunmen opened fire at them and the three
men sheltered behind a wall. At this point, a ten-year-old boy called Ralph
Joscelyn ran out of his house to see what was going on. He was promptly
shot dead. The bandits hoped to escape across the open country which surrounded
Tottenham at that time and they made off across the fields towards
Walthamstow. Some of the policemen from the police station followed them,
while others broke out the revolvers which were kept there. Incredibly, there
were also in the armoury cutlasses, which were at one time standard issue
to the police in Britain. These too were handed out and some officers then
set off on bicycles, waving swords. It might have been comic if not for the
deadly serious threat faced by both the police and civilians caught up in the
The first police officer to catch up with the men who had carried out the
wages snatch was PC William Tyler. He was shot dead. There then followed
a long chase, in which the bandits exchanged shots with not only the pursuing
police, but also several farmers armed with shotguns. At one point, a
tram was hijacked and then, when they could flee no more, the two men shot
The men who had carried out the robbery which went so disastrously
wrong were both Eastern European asylum-seekers, Jewish anarchists who
had been allowed to settle in Britain. Their names were Paul Hefeld and
Jacob Lepidus. They had been trying to raise funds to finance revolutionary
activity in their home countries on the Baltic Sea, which were at that
time part of the Russian Empire. The funerals of PC Tyler and little Ralph
Joscelyn were held together on the same day and some 50,000 people lined
the route of the funeral corteges. There was already a lot of anti-Semitism
in the country and the fact that both the killers were Jewish refugees exacerbated
this. That they were also anarchists did not help either.
The Golden Age of Edwardian Britain. Fashion
Today, there is a general lack of understanding in Britain of an ideology
which causes men to sacrifice their lives in suicide bombings. We view such
actions as quite mad. Since the people who carry out these crimes are invariably
Muslims, there is an association in the minds of many ordinary British
people with the idea of Islam and ruthless murders carried out without any
regard for the lives of the perpetrators. Much the same was thought about
Jews and anarchism in the early part of the twentieth century. Bombings,
shootings and assassinations were being carried out across Europe by men
who seemingly did not care if they sacrificed their own lives in the process.
As far as could be understood, these dangerous fanatics were opposed to our
very way of life and once settled in Britain would not hesitate to carry on
with their conspiracies and terrorist campaigns. The resonance between this
situation and the state of affairs in modern Britain is strong.
The popular feeling after what became known as the ‘Tottenham Outrage’
was that these murderous terrorists had been sheltered in a community
which had been given refuge in the country, and had allowed these men to
live among them. It was not precisely a rational viewpoint, but we see similar
sentiments after crimes by asylum-seekers in Britain today.
The year after the Tottenham Outrage, there was an even more brutal
crime involving the murder of police officers by Jewish anarchists. On the
night of 16 December 1910, a group of foreign terrorists living in the East
End of London were disturbed by the police while in the process of burgling
a jeweller’s shop. The unarmed officers were gunned down, two sergeants
and a constable being killed. There had been nothing like this before
in Britain and three police officers would not be killed simultaneously in this
way again until the Shepherds Bush murders in 1966.
London in Edwardian period of British history
The aftermath of what became known, due to the location of the crime,
as the Houndsditch Murders became headline news across the world.
Two weeks after the killing of the police officers, a tip-off led to a house in
London’s East End, where the killers were said to be hiding out. When the
police knocked on the door of the nondescript house in Stepney, they were
met by a hail of gunfire and swiftly retreated. The house, 100 Sidney Street,
was surrounded by the police and the famous Siege of Sidney Street had
The only firearms to which the police had access, shotguns and old
revolvers, were hopelessly inadequate for an operation of this sort. The men
in the upper stories of the house in Sidney Street were armed with modern
semi-automatic pistols, German Mausers whose magazines meant that they
were able to maintain a constant and withering fire against the men surrounding
their hideout. The police were forced to move back to the end of
the street and found themselves quite at a loss to know how to proceed.
The Home Secretary at the time was Winston Churchill and, as a former
soldier, he naturally favoured a military solution. Churchill was in the bath
when news was relayed to him of the gun battle which was raging in East
London. He dressed and immediately authorized the use of troops to tackle
this unprecedented situation. Soldiers of the Scots Guards, stationed at the
Tower of London, were sent for. The Home Secretary made the most injudicious
decision to go to Sidney Street and direct operations himself, something
for which he was later ridiculed in the House of Commons. When he
got to the scene, Churchill was greeted by the crowds gathered there with
catcalls and cries of ‘Who let them in?’, a reference to the widespread belief
that there was unchecked immigration into Britain and that this gun battle
was a natural consequence of what we now call ‘porous borders‘.
The soldiers who arrived to aid the police soon set up positions and began
exchanging fire with the cornered terrorists. In a decided case of overkill,
Churchill had also arranged for a troop of horse artillery to come to Stepney,
the intention being to shell the street in order to subdue the two or three
desperate criminals who were trapped in one house. In the event, field guns
were not needed, because the house caught fire and the charred corpses of
two men were found in the ruins.
It is in the sequel to this famous incident that the similarities with our
own time become very obvious. Today, news of even the most trifling incident
will be spread across the country, indeed the world, quite literally at
the speed of light. Electronic media mean that images from the scene of a
riot or terrorist attack begin circulating almost immediately. This marvel is
achieved by the use of digital technology; something which has had the most
profound effect on how we see and interpret current affairs. The Edwardian
period was on the cusp of another sort of information revolution, one which
had an equally great impact on society at that time.
Beautiful women of Edwardian Britain
Digital technology works by reducing information about photographs,
films, text, music and the spoken word to a string of binary digits, in which
form it may readily be transmitted along telephone lines or on radio waves
to a destination anywhere in the world. Once there, it is reassembled into a
coherent form which we understand. The predecessor to digital information
was analogue technology, whereby an image or piece of text is simply copied
and the copy sent, just as it is, to somewhere else. A traditional photograph
is a representation, or analogue, of the actual scene at which the camera lens
has been pointed.
In the nineteenth century, during the reign of Queen Victoria of Britain, the creation
and distribution of photographs and printed material was slow, laborious
and expensive; it hardly affected ordinary people. Newspapers, the
commonest means of presenting information about current affairs, were too
pricy for the working man or woman to think of buying and they seldom
contained photographs. A riot or terrorist bombing in Manchester during
the 1860s would only slowly, over a period of weeks, become known to the
man in the street and then almost invariably by word of mouth, rather than
by reading about it or seeing pictures taken at the scene. This meant of
course that in Victorian Britain, accurate and up-to-date information was
not a common commodity. All this was to change in the decade or so following
Queen Victoria’s of Britain death in 1901.
The rise of photographic film made from celluloid rather than glass
plates and the advent of cheap newspapers changed all this during the years
before the First World War. The arrival too of moving pictures made a huge
difference to the way that working people in Britain thought about their
way of life and the social order. The ha’penny newspapers such as the Daily
Mail, the Sketch and the Daily Mirror became tremendously popular and
each copy was passed around in public houses and so on. For the first time
in British history, the ordinary men and women of the country could read
about, look at photographs of and even see moving images of events which
they would never be likely to see in real life. For many, this was a revelation
with far-reaching implications. The ‘Siege of Sidney Street’, for example,
was filmed and the images shown at thousands of music halls and theatres
across the whole of Britain.
Siege of Sidney Street. History of Britain
By 1912 there were an estimated 4,000 cinemas in Britain and almost all
of them showed newsreel films as well as the main programme. In music
halls too, a very important part of working-class culture at that time, the programme
often ended with a newsreel produced by the Biograph company,
for instance. The majority of working people in the country would therefore
have seen Pathé newsreels of things such as the affair at Sidney Street and
other dramatic incidents like the suffragette Emily Davison throwing herself
under the horses at the 1913 Derby.
It was not of course only dramatic events such as terrorist attacks or spectacular
suicides which were being read about in the new, cheap newspapers or
watched in newsreels by working people. The lives of the wealthy and famous
were also featured, events such as Henley Regatta, the well-to-do at Ascot,
the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, Royal visits and many other news items
which showed the enormous gulf which existed between the rich and poor
of Britain. This could not but have the effect of drawing the attention of
working-class people at the music hall to the unbelievably ostentatious way of
life enjoyed by those above them on the social scale. These constant reminders
of their lowly status in the established order of things was manifested in the
rise of support for socialism and the trade union movement. The increased
support for trade union militancy, fuelled by a new awareness of, and anger
about, the inequalities in Edwardian society led to what became known as the
‘Great Unrest’. This was a series of strikes and demonstrations which culminated
in the most ferocious and deadly rioting ever seen in mainland Britain.
We tend all too often to take our view of Edwardian Britain from fiction,
rather than fact. Television programmes such as Upstairs, Downstairs
or Downton Abbey are treated as factual accounts of this period of history.
Sometimes, we have a vague idea about Edwardian London from watching
films like Mary Poppins, with the visually attractive and stable life of the
upper middle classes shown as the norm. Even the lives of working men such
as Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins are seen as being one long round
of gaiety and larks. The reality was very different. The years leading up to
the outbreak of war in 1914 were times of great hardship for many workers.
There was rising unemployment, with no social security benefits to cushion
the impact. Men, women and children were literally starving to death. It was
to stave off the rising tide of anger from the ordinary population that the
Liberal government of the time instituted measure such as Old Age Pensions
and embarked upon a scheme aimed at redistributing the nation’s wealth.
The effect upon somebody whose neighbours were literally dying of hunger
of seeing a newsreel of grand folk at the Henley Regatta can only be imagined!
Between 1910 and 1912, prices of goods in the shops, as well as rents,
rose inexorably. At the same time, wages fell in real terms. This produced
a feeling of despair, the practical expression of which was a wave of strikes
for increases in pay which grew to a crescendo in 1911. Dockers and railway
workers were among those involved in these industrial disputes, which
meant that imported food was left rotting by the dockside and that which did
get through the docks could not be transported to other parts of the country.
These labour troubles rumbled on until the summer and then exploded into
violence. Matters were not helped by the weather that year.
Mary Poppins – favorite book of Britain
It is a matter of common observation that rioting and disorder tends to be
more frequent in hot, sunny weather than when it is cold, rainy and overcast.
The summer of 1911 was gloriously sunny from May until September. In
July a temperature of 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at Ascot and that
month still holds the record for the amount of sunshine seen in one month
in this country, a total of 384 hours at the south coast resort of Worthing.
The heat however, welcome as it was for holidaymakers, had a bad effect
upon the crowds of angry and discontented workers who were striking that
summer. The industrial areas of Britain were a tinder box.
The hot weather coincided with a series of major strikes. In May in Britain, dock
workers went on strike for better working conditions and an increase in wages.
By August, 20,000 dockers had walked out in London and in Liverpool the
docks had been brought to a complete standstill. Some carters also came out
on strike, which meant that raw materials could not be transported to and
from the docks. There was mass picketing and violent scenes in London,
with lorries and buses overturned by angry crowds of strikers. On 11 August,
the government made the fateful decision to use troops to restore order and
ensure that supplies began moving again. The carters ended their strike that
day, but now it was the turn of the railwaymen to take industrial action.
A century ago, the railways were the arteries of Britain. They were the only
the way of getting from one end of the country to the other and no government
could allow its trade and industry to be paralysed by a union in this way.
Troops were sent into London and Liverpool to protect the railway lines from
sabotage and ensure that those who wished to continue driving trains were
not prevented from doing so by intimidation from union pickets. Over 12,000
soldiers were quartered in London and Hyde Park was turned into a tented
army camp. Troops with fixed bayonets guarded the main railway stations and
patrolled the lines. In Britain in Liverpool, 3,500 soldiers were brought in to prevent
disorder, but their presence in the city had precisely the opposite effect.
Almost a quarter of a million men and women were on strike in Liverpool
by 13 August and a strike committee was now virtually running the city,
deciding which vehicles could use the streets and who might and might not
work. It looked very much like a parallel government along the line of the
soviets which emerged during the Russian Revolution a few years later, and
when a crowd of 80,000 men gathered and began moving towards the centre
of the city, it was felt that firm action was needed. A large body of police
was formed to break up the march and they were backed by cavalry. After
the Riot Act had been read by a magistrate, anybody who remained on the
streets was defying the law and force could legitimately be used to disperse
any gathering. The mounted troops then attempted to clear the streets, with
Before the reading of the Riot Act, the demonstration had been peaceful,
if a little boisterous. When the police moved in and began to push people
back and the cavalry began riding into groups of strikers, violence erupted.
Almost 200 strikers were hospitalized with injuries caused by the heavyhanded
tactics used against them by the troops and police. Windows were
smashed, fires started and makeshift barricades set up to block the streets.
A hundred or so men and a few women were arrested and taken to court the
following day on charges ranging from obstruction to assaulting the police.
The stage was now set for the final act of the tragedy.
The Golden Age of Edwardian Britain
A warship, the cruiser HMS Antrim, had been ordered to Liverpool and
was anchored in the Mersey. Armed sailors landed and took control of the
docks, while heavily-armed troops patrolled the streets in a bid to deter further
gatherings of strikers. Police in armoured cars were also in evidence.
Illustration 16 shows a line of troops, behind which is a police armoured
car. This is not the usual sort of thing which we think of when Edwardian
Britain is mentioned! The stage was set for the final act of the tragedy.
The members of the crowd who had been arrested appeared in court on
15 August and were, almost without exception, either sentenced immediately
to prison or remanded in custody to face trial at a later date on more
serious charges. The vans carrying the prisoners to Walton Prison had been
assigned a guard of thirty hussars, mounted soldiers carrying rifles. The
relatives and friends of the men being taken off to prison had formed a sizable
and hostile crowd in the streets between the court and the prison and
were blocking the way forward for the prison vans. Then, bottles and stones
began to be thrown at the cavalry escort. It was unclear if this was an attempt
to rescue the prisoners by breaking open the vans, but whatever the intention,
it could have come as little or no surprise when things grew very ugly.
The vans and their military escort were now hemmed in on all sides and
unable to move forward or back. Some of the men in the crowd now darted
forward and grabbed at the bridles of the soldiers’ horses, perhaps trying to
move them away from the vans. At this point, the order was given to open
fire and the hussars levelled their rifles at the crowd and began shooting.
Five men were hit by the hail of fire, two of whom died almost at once. John
Sutcliff was shot twice in the head. He and Michael Prendegast, the other
fatality, were both in their twenties. The sudden, shocking death of these
two young men, both were in their twenties, seemed to bring the city of
Liverpool to its senses. Before the railway strike ended though, there was to
be even more bloodshed elsewhere in the country.
To be continued…
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