1900 the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign before the short lived but significant Edwardian era.
1900 was the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign and delivered the British people into the Edwardian era, a mere nine years that seemed to become a divide between the perceived order and control of the Victorian period to the unleashing of a chaotic and troubled world beyond.
The last year of Victoria’s reign weighed heavy with the struggles in South Africa. The South African or Boer Wars, are maybe not considered as much as they should be, lost in the noise of a bigger and deadlier war that followed less than fifteen years later. Set in context however the Boer Wars were an immense affair, never before had such a large force been transported to engage the enemy such a long distance from home. It was a war that exposed Britain in an inglorious light. The black week in December 1899 when British forces were defeated at the battles of Colenso, Stormberg and Magersfontein showed that the mighty British had a vulnerable and weak under belly. In the short term the country rallied and the victory of Mafeking raised spirits at home but there was no doubting that the imperialistic column of British rule had taken a hammering at its base.
When Queen Victoria died she left her country with an uncertain future, her son King Edward VII was to prove to be a very different sort of monarch in what would become a very tense period for British politics. For a timeline of the C20th click here.
The Edwardian era seemed to draw a line between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The before being the Victorian period and the after, World War I and all that came crashing after that. The politician, Joseph Chamberlain, who would in the coming decades change so much in political terms, seized the moment to call attention to the fact that Britain’s economic supremacy in commerce and industry was slowly winding down, as it surely must. Lloyd George was not far behind him and likewise saw an opportunity to change what had gone before, stirring up a class war. The House of Lords challenged the supremacy of the House of Commons and women rose to challenge male supremacy forming the Suffragette movement. Winston Churchill cut his teeth on the politics of the time.
As the Edwardian period unrolled, major issues were set to confront British society. The Irish issue was an increasingly contentious issue. Belfast and Dublin demanded the attention of the government as they grappled with the struggles between themselves. The most significant change through this period was the rise of the working voice and the Edwardian era was to be the seed bed for political change in the decades that followed. The triple alliance of the miners, the dock workers and the railwaymen threatened the country with a general strike would, in later years turn the dynamics of Britain on its head.
The rise of the labour movement in the Edwardian era.
In the cold month of February 1900, when most of the country seemed to be focused on the battle at Ladysmith South Africa, another group of people were taking advantage of the change of mood in the country. A Labour Representation Committee was formed to promote working class candidates for parliamentary seats and thus establish a separate ‘Labour Group’ within the House of Commons. These working class members of parliament were nothing new. The Liberals had been supporting such men to such positions since the mid 1870’s but it was a mission of stealth, avoiding the the word socialism and all the negative connotations it was feared that would engender. It was to be the first voice of the working people to be heard at the heart of government. Although many held minor offices, the voice of Keir Hardie created the opportunity for the socialist Labour party, the herald in the late Victorian period would ricochet into the Edwardian period.
The importance of this movement of 1900 cannot be underestimated. It allowed the trade union movement hitherto a non political outfit a conduit for their concerns and their message to the government and people of Britain.
In the General Election of 1906 there was a huge swing to the left and thirty Labour members were elected to the House of Commons and the face of British politics had changed forever.
Change in how a population thinks can be a result of advances in technology.
The Victorians were wedded to the development of the railways and steam power, the steam locomotives and ships had mobilized several generations of people who, in the previous era, would have had little opportunity to travel. 1900 was to mark the return of road transport both two wheeled and four wheeled. The bicycle would have an impact and liberate both men and women, empowering them with freedom of movement. Under their own steam people from working class backgrounds who would never have afforded the luxury of coach travel, were able to go where they pleased, expanding their horizons under their own power. For women, the bicycle gave them independence to travel on their own, it gave them freedom. It changed fashions for women. To ride a bike in a long skirt proved tricky, by wearing trousers and or shortening the skirt, anything was possible. It allowed women to meet with each other, find work, join groups, it was in every sense liberating. To point to a singularity in time when daily life for women shifted would be illogical but the Edwardian period for women was a significant change in role and attitude.
Another enormous shift in technology was the development in the internal combustion engine. Still in its infancy in 1900, the engine was not a British invention but developed in the heart of an emerging German automotive industry. The British had fought off the invention in the previous decade by introducing the Red Flag Act, which put such stringent controls on operating such a vehicle that it made it almost impossible to do. The act was repealed in 1896 and the doors to a new motoring era were well and truly open. The people were mobilizing and it wasn’t long before aeroplanes were making successful long flights. The success of the Wright brothers was followed by Bleriot flying across the English Channel in 1909 and within another decade the transatlantic flight by two English men Alcock and Brown had taken place.
Expansions of horizons in such a short period must have had a profound effect on a population.
Not only were people physically more mobile and able to engage with the wider world, the world was becoming more accessible inside their own homes. The turn of the century saw the establishment of newspapers that we are still reading today. Harmsworth’s Daily Mail was followed by Pearson’s Daily Express, quickly followed in 1903 by a new sort of newspaper, the Daily Mirror. This was a newspaper reaching out to those in the population for whom literacy was a challenge and though it is painful to acknowledge, it was meant, in terms of its style, to appeal to female readers. The name ‘The Daily Mirror’ was in itself attractive to female readers. In many ways Harmsworth was simply building on a style of journalism that already existed. He used the ideas from the weekly ‘Tit-bits’ publication, small snippets of gossipy news, easily digested and wove the idea into a daily newspaper reporting on news from home and abroad. It had an instant appeal and although some may have been scandalized, the effect was the delivery of easily digested news into ordinary working class households. You can read more about the role of women in the Edwardian era here.
Keeping the Sabbath in the Edwardian era was losing ground.
Sunday became a day to visit museums and art galleries, to promenade in parks and listen to music. Evening concerts became available at popular prices to a working class population that was becoming more discerning and demanding about leisure time activities.
Despite all this the Edwardian era was the preparation ground for world war.
British dominance was beginning to wane, Roosevelt became the first U.S president to become globally known, his intention, to put America on the global map. In Europe, divisions and inevitable power struggles deepened. The German Kaiser began to build a navy that would threaten the superiority of the British Navy. On the other side, in 1904 the ‘Entente Cordiale’ between Britain and France was a surprising development after centuries of bitter wars with the French. Russian aggression in the Far East and the Anglo Japanese Alliance put a different spin on relationships in that part of the world. Australia became federated as a single Commonwealth and Indian reforms were about to begin. There was a headlong rush out of the Victorian period into the Edwardian era and it produced a rapid period of change in social attitudes as at any other time. Within five years, the devastating effects of World War 1 would be ricocheting around the globe.
And what of the man who gave his name to the Edwardian period, what was he like?
In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales Albert Edward, known as Bertie to his parents had been a constant disappointment to them. He did his best to develop under the critical and demanding eye of both Queen Victoria and Albert. His marriage to Princess Alexandra was a wise and good one but Queen Victoria’s refusal to allow the Prince to see state papers or meet with visiting statesmen undermined his position. He fell back on a pleasure filled existence, an existence that his mother abhorred and thought would provoke the working classes to radical ideas calling for greater democracy and she was right.
He was interested in people from all backgrounds and although surrounded by aristocrats, he also found time to meet interesting people from other walks of life. He met Joseph Arch, the founder of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, bankers and business men. He adored women and had a string of mistresses, one of the best known, Lily Langtry. His wife stood by him and he loved his children. His life was undoubtedly lived on the edge of acceptability and when he became King in 1901 it was hoped he would alter his attitudes. He was not particularly interested in the social and intellectual changes going on around him although he was interested by the personalities involved. Five years into his reign, the Liberals triumphantly won the 1906 General Election, they introduced old age pensions, national insurance and put in place the beginnings of the modern welfare state.
King Edward VII was a Conservative, he would vehemently deny women the right to the vote, his admiration of them running only skin deep it seems. He engaged in international politics and indeed his visit to Paris in 1903 laid the ground for the ‘Entente Cordiale’. He tried by sheer force of his equable personality to forge a peace in Europe, even though he disliked his cousin the Kaiser. His visit to the Tsars in Russia however was an unpopular move and he was criticised by politicians at home.
He earned himself the nick name ‘Edward the Peacemaker’ and a popular song at the time had as one of its lines;
There’ll be no war as long as there’s a king like good King Edward
The crisis at the end of the Edwardian era
King Edward VII died in 1910 when Britain faced its greatest constitutional crisis since the 1830’s when the House of Lords and the Liberal government locked horns in an epic battle for supremacy. The King was called upon to intervene but he was deeply uncomfortable with Churchill’s and Lloyd George’s attacks on the Lords and equally uncomfortable with the far right Conservatives who refused to budge. He was implored by the Liberals to create more Liberal peers but he turned the problem back to electorate and at the pivot-able point in the crisis King Edward VII died.
This complex and brief period of British history is one of the most fascinating to study, its legacy never far from us in modern day society. The following fifty years would in part grow from the ideologies and aspirations created by those who lived through it.
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