For Britain, this was the dawn of a new era, one with a reinvigorating new sense of self inspired by a new monarch. There is an argument that says this optimism was illusory, and that whilst the era was a defining moment in British history it was the beginning of the end of the Empire. The British Empire had reached its peak under Queen Victoria but Britain still enjoyed huge influence throughout the world. Given that the Edwardian era was sandwiched between the stagnating Victorian era and the horror of the First World War , with the Edwardians enjoying a decade of peace, then it is understandable that the era should be known as La Belle Époque, and be remembered with fondness.
With a popular monarch on the throne, the reasonably august fortunes of the British economy, and alliances with France and Russia in the Triple Entente securing peace between the three empires, there was much still for Britain to cheer. Much of the Britain we know today was sired in the first ten years of the 20th Century, with the nation’s food producers embracing marketing as ageless brands were created that exist to this day. For instance, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was introduced in 1905 and looking back is a fascinating insight into how Britons have cherished their brands through the years.
Throughout La Belle Époque British culture moved on at pace. The Sunday roast, the most important meal of the week, was a tradition that took root in the Edwardian age. The era was defined by new fashions, again, another influence of a gregarious monarch whose girth is said to be responsible for the accepted practice of leaving the bottom button undone on a gentleman’s suit jacket. The roly-poly monarch was also responsible for making tweed, Homburg hats, black tie dinners, Norfolk jackets popular, and changing forever where the crease was ironed in trousers. He may not have been a stickler for the sanctity of marriage but his sartorial compass was always pointing to magnetic north. There is no question that – despite not taking such a hands-on role in the country’s governance like his mother – King Edward VII ’s accession to the throne changed the country profoundly,
On 22nd January 1901 , Queen Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle Of Wight . Britain's longest serving monarch had reigned for over sixty years. But since the death of her husband, Prince Albert , she had all but disappeared from public life. Her son restored the monarchy’s profile, becoming the poster boy of a country whose society was modernising at pace, transformed from the early Victorian era into a technology focussed society where Marconi would make the first transatlantic telegram, and the navy would launch their first submarine – after complaining for years that the idea of submarines in warfare was in some way poor sport.
By the turn of the century Britain’s might was both industrial and imperial. But such power was not to go uncontested and the future was looking increasingly uncertain in a time when the German Empire was rising. Edward’s Britain sought out new alliances amidst the changing geopolitical dynamic. Britain recognised that it was no longer enjoying the apogee of its imperial influence. Colonial wars in the Boer Republics and a rapidly growing socialist movement changed the dynamics of power in British society and empire.
At the time of Edward’s coronation, British troops were still trying to suppress the Boers . They did so. But British tactics drew widespread condemnation, with the use of concentration camps a profound black mark against colonial rule. The Treaty Of Vereeniging ended the second and most protracted of the conflicts. The war divided political opinion at home and asked some searching questions of Britain’s ability to govern as a colonial power. The country needed new allies, it needed a more confident voice on the world stage.
Britain had long since been isolated from the rest of Europe, preferring only to enter into European politics as and when the need arose. But the mood was changing. After centuries of war, imperial sparring and distrust, intense negotiations between French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé and British foreign secretary Lord Lansdowne, France and Great Britain signed the Entente Cordiale on the 8th April 1904 . It wasn’t a hard and fast alliance, but both Empires’ interests in Africa, America, Asia and the Pacific were secured. France would be respected as colonial governors of Morocco and the British would be in control of their affairs in Egypt. It could have been very different.
In 1898, before the accession of Edward, Britain had been involved in talks with the Germanic Empire. But colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s entreaties were in vain. Instead, Britain looked to France, who had made a lasting alliance with the Russians in 1892. The German reaction was like that of a spurned lover. In the aftermath of France’s defeat in their 1871 war with Prussia, Germany aspired to isolate the French. Now similarly irked, the Germans under chancellor Bernhard Von Bülow wanted to test this new alliance.
On 31st March 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Morocco to give a provocative speech against French colonialism. The French were not to be moved, but eventually ceded control of policing the country to local forces. It was vintage sabre rattling from the Germans but the alliance held firm. On 31st August 1907, the Triple Entente was completed when the Anglo-Russian Entente was brokered in Saint Petersburg by Sir Arthur Nicholson, British ambassador to Russia, and Count Alexander Izvolsky, foreign minister of the Russian Empire. The following year Edward became the first British monarch to visit the Russian Empire. And that was typical of the man who was nicknamed the Uncle of Europe. With family in Spain, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Romania and Norway, his nickname was more than appropriate.
Edward’s family life closer to home was equally as complicated. In 1863 he married Princess Alexandra at Saint George’s Chapel , Windsor . But he enjoyed over indulging with women as well as his food. Throughout his marriage was rumoured to have up to nine mistresses. Before his accession to the throne he was involved in a number of scandals. In 1869/70 he was embroiled in a controversy involving Sir Charles Mordaunt’s divorce, and the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1891 saw him called as a witness after playing an illegal card game for money. Edward was ahead of his time when it came to exciting the tabloids. But it suited his image of the untamable bachelor, the bon viveur. His diplomacy extricated him from trouble, and he still enjoyed considerable popularity during his short reign as king, just as he had when heir apparent.
Edward loved a bit of pomp, a bit of ceremony. He renovated royal estates. While his mother was a crestfallen widow, his remit was to attend state events. A keen traveller and a speaker of German and French, a statesman’s role was one that he enjoyed. He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts. He founded the Order Of Merit, which Florence Nightingale received on 29th November 1907 . He loved music, gambling, golf and horse racing too. He was a very different monarch to his mother, and this was perhaps reflected in society’s values of the time.
The Edwardian era was less austere morally. The first international beauty contest was held on 14th of August 1908 – there are few records detailing whether world peace was the most popular issue amongst contestants, but such an even would have been unthinkable three decades earlier. Music hall culture blossomed. Good fortune smiled on the country when London chanced upon the 1908 Olympic Games. Rome was considered unsafe with Vesuvius on the boil, threatening to spit lava onto the track. The White City Stadium was specially constructed in the city’s West End and the games were a huge success. The king lived in an age of plenty. This was a good time to be a monarch; he needn’t worry about budget constraints, his was a life of absolute privilege.
Edward’s privileged lifestyle was shared by many in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor had widened considerably. Never before had British society’s lifestyles been so stratified. For all the rose-tinted retrospective about long summers in floppy hats, garden parties and the romance of the time, there was great hardship. Social reform became a real political concern. It was in the Edwardian era that the Labour party harnessed the bargaining power and was founded out of the need for parliamentary representation for trade unions. Socialism had been practised before by the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party. But the unions were still underrepresented in Westminster . Come the turn of the century events would force the unions to work together. The party that the working class had been waiting for was about to make its presence felt.
After the Taff Vale case, where the Amalgamated Society Of Railway Servants were sued to the tune of £23,000 for industrial action, trade unions realised that without parliamentary representation, their collective bargaining position was greatly compromised. If the common law principle ruled in favour of employers then the workers were effectively without voice. Male suffrage for the working classes had been fought over in the previous century. Now with the threat of legal censure, it was time to harness their political freedom and momentum; The Labour Representative Committee convinced the unions that it was time to speak with one voice. At the meeting of the Trade Union Congress in February, 1900, Keir Hardie passed the motion that the labour movement speak as one. Labour as a movement had begun.
Early electoral successes were marginal at best. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1903 that a clandestine pact between the Liberals and the Labour party cleared the way for Labour to run uncontested against the Conservatives. Ramsay MacDonald and Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone brokered a deal which helped the LRC win 29 seats in the 1906 election. On February that year, the LRC officially became the Labour party, with Keir Hardie as chairman.
The Liberals won the 1906 general election, defeating the Conservatives under the Arthur Balfour, whose government had collapsed on the issue of trade tariff reform. This was a subtle yet defining moment for British politics; in allowing Labour to get a foothold in parliamentary politics the Liberals had sowed the seeds of a political model dominated by two parties. Though it would not be until 1924 that a Labour government would assume power, it was in the early 20th century when the party made its first electoral gains.
While the working classes were finding a voice politically, woman were still seeking suffrage. On 10th October 1903, the Women’s Social And Political Union (WSPU) was formed in Manchester by six woman, including Emmeline Pankhurst , and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU quickly grew more militant than its predecessor, the National Union Of Woman’s Suffrage. The actions of the Pankhursts and their supporters became known as the Suffragette movement, whose profile rose dramatically in the brouhaha that followed the defeat of a suffrage bill put forward by MP Bamford Slack in 1905. A year later, the WSPU petitioned parliament, only to be met by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman ’s stoic refusal to consider their pleas.
By 1907, Votes For Woman was launched, a monthly journal for the Suffragette movement. The WSPU were more organised, more adept at raising funds, and had mobilised enough supporters to hold an impassioned 300,000 strong rally in London’s Hyde Park . By now, the Suffragettes were engaged in large scale civil disobedience. Phone lines were cut, vandalism accompanied rhetoric in their campaign to be heard. The Woman’s Tax Resistance League was formed.
In the lead up to the First World War, their radicalism became more pronounced. Hungerstrikes were met with force-feeding in prison, winning the hearts and minds of those outside. The authorities’ heavy handed tactics did them no favours in dealing with the militants. The Temporary Discharge For Ill Health Prisoners Act was introduced in 1913. Hungerstriking Suffragettes were released and then re-imprisoned. The bill became known as the ‘Cat And Mouse Act’.
The most iconic moment of Suffragette militancy came in 1913 when Emily Davison ran out to disturb the Epsom Derby and was struck by the king’s horse, Anmer, and killed. By the time the First World War had arrived, the Edwardian era was officially over, the suffrage movement’s radicalism was receding. Christabel Pankhurst moved to Paris. In 1917, the WSPU was abandoned as Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Party. Their campaign for suffrage finally ended in 1918 women received the right to vote.
Social reform was clearly a sticking point, and despite the gaudy recollections of an era of peace and prosperity, the status quo was buttressed by an anachronistic parliamentary model that led to the constitutional crisis of 1909, as the People’s Budget proposed by Liberal chancellor David Lloyd George , was defeated in the House Of Lords by predominantly Conservative peers. The Liberals dropped the land tax proposals and contested two general elections in 1910, both resulting in hung parliaments and the Liberals dependent on support from Labour and the Irish Nationalists. One of the lasting legacies of the Liberal era was the state pension, introduced on 27th October 1908, with a means tested five shillings available for all over the age of 70.
The Liberals’ battles in government were not confined to social reform. Under pressure from the admiralty and the Conservative opposition, there was pressure to commission more battleships. The Germans were building a fearsome fleet and the admiralty wanted the same. The campaign to launch more dreadnought battleships was, transparently, an arms race. The tensions that had arisen from the Triple Entente were ratcheted up in the years leading up to the war.
Amidst ‘The People’s Budget’ constitutional crisis, the king died on 6th May 1910. He had suffered a heart attack, but had been in ill health for some months. Succeeded by his son, King George V , Edward had the distinction of ruling during a time of relative peace. Among the notable events that occurred in the years after Edward’s death and the commencement of the war, was the sinking of the Titanic, 15th April 1912 . This was the age of the ocean liner and the Titanic was the biggest of them all. Thought unsinkable, it wasn’t, and sank after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, killing 1,490 people. Like the Titanic, the peace that had been fostered in the years following the Boer Wars could be sank at any moment. With the arrival of the First World War La Belle Époque was over. 800,000 British soldiers would not return home and Britain entered a period of war and economic turmoil. With that in mind, the Edwardians really did enjoy a golden age.
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1 Response to Edwardian Britain
From Kathy on 13th November 2012
I would like to commend you on a very well written and interesting piece. When it's good, you can't put it down, and so this serves as a testimony that I couldn't! I would like to politely suggest to watch spelling, misplaced articles (ie inserting the word 'the' unnecessarily)double words, and correct grammar. Perfection is then attained ! Thank you again.
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