Friday, 15 Jan 2021

The Golden Age Of Edwardian Britain 1901–1914. Part Two

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Incredibly, the two deaths in Liverpool were not the worst loss of life in the disturbances which racked Britain that summer. Things were even worse in South Wales. In the mining districts, feelings were running very strongly against the authorities and there was great support for the striking railwaymen. Some engine drivers though resisted the call to strike and trains still ran. One reason that it was so important to the government that the railways kept running was that it was by means of the railways that troops were moved from one part of the country to another.

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The Golden Age Of Edwardian Britain

The Golden Age Of Edwardian Britain

Over 50,000 soldiers had been mobilized and the railway system was vital for transporting them to where they were needed. In addition to the other problems facing the government at that time, a civil war was looking increasingly likely in Ireland and it was necessary to move military reinforcements to ports in Wales, so that they could take ship for Ireland. The Great Western line, for instance, ran through South Wales to Fishguard and was a quick route to move men and equipment to the restive southern provinces of Ireland.

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James Tissot “The Ball on Shipboard”. Fashionable Victorian social scenes

James Tissot “The Ball on Shipboard”. Fashionable Victorian social scenes in Edwardian Britain

The railway line to the Welsh ports in the south ran through Llanelli and the strikers there and their supporters were utterly determined that there would be no strike-breaking in the area. Trouble erupted on 18 August, when hundreds of men, including not only strikers but also colliers and tinplate workers who supported the railwaymen, blocked two level crossings on the line through Llanelli. A local magistrate appealed for military assistance, as the police were unable to clear the tracks. The following day, troops from the Worcestershire Regiment arrived in Llanelli, with orders to secure the railway line and ensure that trains could pass freely through the district. When attempts were made to prevent a passenger train from advancing to the coast, the troops were given the order to fix bayonets and charge the crowd.

They did so, but as the train entered a steep cutting, some of the strikers climbed onto the locomotive and raked out the fire. This meant that the line between England and the South Wales ports was now completely closed. Soldiers who had followed the men intent upon sabotaging the train now found themselves trapped in the cutting and the crowd showed their feelings by throwing stones and lumps of coal down at them from the embankments.

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Vintage Scotland during the Edwardian era of Britain

Vintage Scotland during the Edwardian Britain

The situation for the surrounded troops was embarrassing, rather than dangerous and the obvious solution would have been for their officer to order them to retreat. As it was, he gave the order to open fire. Two men were killed in the first volley. This was the signal for some of the most ferocious rioting to be seen in Britain that year. Over the next few hours, trains were set on fire and looted, with terrible consequences. One wagon in a railway siding was full of calcium carbide, an explosive chemical. When this was torched, there was a tremendous blast, which killed four men.

The railway strike was settled by a combination of concessions which the companies running the lines were encouraged to make by the government and also, supposedly, by appeals to the patriotism of the strikers. The Agadir Crisis in July had nearly ended in war between Britain and Germany and the railways would have been crucial in mobilizing the army. The leaders of the strike were asked if they really wished to cripple the army, in the event of a war. This at least was the public perception of the resolution to some of the most violent and damaging industrial action ever see in Britain.

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Bright life of Edwardian Britain

Bright life of Edwardian Britain

There was another reason why the railway companies were urged to settle and end the strike. Having chosen to use the armed forces to confront the workers and prevent what could end up as a general strike, it was essential that troops could be moved swiftly to where they were needed in Britain; whether Liverpool, London or Llanelli. With the railway network more or less in the hands of the strikers, the very movement of the troops was under the control of the men facing them. It was, as the strike continued, becoming almost impossible for the government in London to be sure of transporting soldiers to where they were most needed. Home Secretary Winston Churchill summed the matter up in his usual, pithy manner, declaring, ‘We cannot keep the trains running. There is nothing we can do. We are done!’

A few years later, in 1914, David Lloyd George revealed that even without the use of railways, Winston Churchill had thought that the government could still defeat the rebellious strikers in Wales. The account which Lloyd George gave of the crisis shows more clearly than anything, just how fragile was the stability of Edwardian Britain and how close it really was to the abyss of what was practically civil war. Writing of the summer of 1911, he said that: Winston then had a plan to shut the Welsh miners into their valleys by a military cordon and to starve them out. A mad plan. He had all the country planned out for a military campaign. I shall never forget the remarkable scene which I witnessed at the Home Office. Winston with his generals, and his plan of campaign. Fortunately, wiser counsels than Churchill’s won the day and the plan for what would have amounted to a war was quietly abandoned. In Wales though, there was to be still more disorder which would need to be put down by the army, even with the end of the railway strike. We saw earlier in this chapter that there was considerable unease about the scale of immigration into Britain in the first years of the twentieth century. Some of this popular discontent was linked to anti-Semitism, a large number of the refugees being Jewish. As is still the case today, most of the asylum seekers sought to stay in London and the other large cities, the places where there were already communities of people from the same countries as those from which they had fled. There was also more opportunity for work in the cities.Some though  found their way to South Wales, where they mostly set up as small shopkeepers.

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Bride from Edwardian Britain

Bride from Edwardian Britain

The newsreels of the ‘Battle of Stepney’, as the Siege of Sidney Street was also known, had been shown at cinemas and music halls across the whole country and the scenes of soldiers engaging in a gun battle with foreign Jews brought out the worst instincts in some people. There was general anger not only about the danger posed by allowing so many asylum-seekers into Britain, people who would willingly shelter terrorists, but also against Jews in general. This led to the first pogroms in Britain since the Middle Ages.

The railway strike had been settled on 19 August, but there was still unrest and it was not long before a new target for the angry working men of South Wales was found. Tredegar was a town containing 20,000 people. Of these, only thirty families were Jews. The rumour began to be spread that these Jews monopolized the shops and other businesses in the town. There were in fact just seventeen Jewish shopkeepers in Tredegar, along with arabbi and one or two other  businessmen. No sooner had the strike ended and the troops returned to their barracks, than rioting began in Tredegar, with the aim of driving out all the Jews living there. Shops were besieged and looted, the police being unable to cope with this new outburst of violence.

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A beautiful British actress Lily Elsie

A beautiful British actress Lily Elsie. Edwardian Britain period

From Tredegar, the anti-Jewish rioting spread to Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr, Bargoed and several other villages and towns. The single avowed aim of those taking part in these disturbances was to drive all the Jews from South Wales. In Ebbw Vale, a tobacconist’s shop owned by a Jew was surrounded and then broken into and looted. The owner and his family retreated upstairs to their

living quarters and then barricaded themselves into the attic. Even the floorboards were ripped up and the light fittings pulled from the walls, so as to render the place uninhabitable.

The police in Wales were quite unable to cope with the mounting disorder in the valleys of South Wales and, for the second time that month, the decision was made to call for the army to come to the aid of the civil power. Elements of the Somerset Light Infantry and Worcestershire Regiment were brought into Tredegar and other towns. It took some determined efforts, even for the troops, to bring the situation under control and bayonet charges were made along the streets, before the rioters realized that there was to be no more pussy-footing around. A number of Jewish families were evacuated from the area, leaving behind their wrecked homes. It was one of the most shameful episodes in twentieth-century British history, a pogrom indistinguishable from those taking place at that time in Tsarist Russia.

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Edwardian Britain. Fashion

The events which we have been examining in this chapter do not really give the appearance of any kind of ‘golden age’. The Edwardian period instead looks very much like our own, with many of the same problems with which are all too familiar today. It is fascinating though to see how modern politicians talk about this kind of thing now, as though nothing like that used to happen in the old days. After the rioting in the summer of 2011, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, gave a speech in which he outlined the thesis that Britain was, in some obscure way, ‘broken’. Cameron went on to detail just how this state of affairs had arisen, explicitly stating that it was a relatively recent development and that this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened in the good old days. In adopting this line, the Prime Minister was making a quite conscious and deliberate attempt to present a rose-tinted image of the past, a time when rioting youths would not have been tolerated. He said: So this must be a wakeup call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face . . . Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations? . . . Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. It will be observed that the problems which caused the rioting are apparently relatively recent: only a few decades or generations ago, things were quite different in this country.

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Fashion in Of Edwardian Britain

Fashion in Of Edwardian Britain

It is soft teachers in schools, single-parent families and courts that are not strict enough which have brought about the crisis; contributing to, or even causing, ‘broken Britain’. Things were, we are given to understand, very different in the past, when children had fathers, schools had discipline and crimes were punished. This is either shameless dishonesty on an industrial scale, or abysmal ignorance. When making these references to a lost golden age of stability and order, did Cameron really not know about the waves of rioting which have regularly swept Britain for the whole of its history? Instead of moaning about ‘broken Britain’, he should have been counting himself lucky that it had not been necessary, as it had been for a British Prime Minister a century earlier, to mobilize the army and navy to tackle the disorder!

Even odder was the expressed opinion of David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, where the rioting had begun. Mr Lammy thought that a contributory factor in the riots had been the Labour government’s decision in 2004 to tighten up the law around corporal punishment given to children by their parents. He said in an interview, ‘Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying, “You guys stopped us being able to smack our children.”’ Apparently, the MP, who smacked his own small children, tended to agree that a lack of corporal punishment had led to young people getting out of control. We see in the views of both the former Prime Minister and also an MP who was at one time an Education Minister, a yearning for a vanished past, where parents, especially fathers judging by what Mr Cameron said, kept order and disciplined their children so that they would not end up as hooligans.

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Edwardian Britain architecture

Edwardian Britain architecture

It is unclear from what Cameron said, precisely when this golden age of well-behaved children and tough schools and courts actually was. Presumably the time of his own childhood, three or four decades earlier. The yearning for a vanished golden age of stability an order is a persistent one and manifests itself in various ways down the years. Edwardian Britain has lingered on as an idealised version of this fantasy.

After the dreadful events of 1911, there may have been those who hoped that life in Britain would improve, but they were destined to be disappointed. Industrial unrest soared in the following years. In 1911, a total of ten million working days were lost due to strike action. The following year, this had risen to forty million days lost. Not only that, but the country was slowly but inexorably slipping towards civil war. At that time, Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom and yet the government was planning to introduce a measure of Home Rule. This was being vociferously opposed by many politicians and senior army officers. Protestants in the north of Ireland were preparing to fight against any Home Rule and were, with this end in mind, smuggling arms into the country. The intention was to set up a provisional government in Belfast. Nationalists too were running guns into the country and it was not clear if the army would obey orders to tackle the Unionists in Ulster or if they would instead side with them.

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Edwardian Britain architecture

Edwardian Britain architecture

The very real chance that a civil war would break out in Britain and that the army would lack the resolve necessary to tackle it was a terrifying one for the government of the day. There seemed no way out of the crisis until the same Deus ex machina as the one which resolved the struggle with the suffragettes intervened and rescued Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. War broke out in the summer of 1914, just as it seemed as though fighting was about to start in Ireland for control of the country. The resultant surge of patriotism postponed the day of reckoning for a few years.

The image of the Edwardian period as a golden sunset of empire is an enduring and attractive one. Even today, when somebody talks of Edwardian Britain, it summons up for most of us images of grand garden parties and vintage motor cars driven by wealthy men, rather than soldiers gunning down strikers in the north of England. There is a reason for this attachment to the ludicrous idea that the years leading up to the First World War were part of a lost golden age. The whole idea of ‘La Belle Epoque’ did not appear before the 1920s. After the hideous slaughter which took place across Europe between 1914 and 1918, the long, hot summer of 1911 probably did feel like a golden age. The peace itself which had lasted in Europe since the end of the Franco-Prussian War over forty years before 1914, must have seemed like a dream. So much changed in the aftermath of the war, and not for the better, that it became quite common to blame the First World War for anything which was wrong with the world in the 1920s.

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The Franco-Prussian War

The Franco-Prussian War

Edwardian Britain illustrates two of the mythic narratives beloved of the British and segues smoothly into a third. The golden age archetype is the dominant theme of this era, but events at that time were heavily bound up with the idea of foreigners swarming across the English Channel and occupying the country. This ‘Invaders from the East’ motif is as popular now as it was a century or so ago; as may be seen from current anxieties about immigration. The period ends with another well-known feature of British history, when the country had to send military forces across the channel to sort out Europe’s difficulties.

«Myths That Shaped Our History From Magna Carta to the Battle of Britain»

Simon Webb



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