Edwardian Era Society and Culture
The Edwardian era stands out as a time of peace and plenty. There were no severe depressions, and prosperity was widespread. Britain’s growth rate, manufacturing output, and GDP (but not GDP per capita) fell behind its rivals, the United States and Germany. The nation still led the world in trade, finance and shipping, and had strong bases in manufacturing and mining. The industrial sector was slow to adjust to global changes, and there was a striking preference for leisure over entrepreneurship among the elite. However, major achievements should be underlined. London was the financial centre of the world—far more efficient and wide-ranging than New York, Paris or Berlin. Britain had built up a vast reserve of overseas credits in its formal Empire, as well as in its informal empire in Latin America and other nations. It had huge financial holdings in the United States, especially in railways. These assets proved vital in paying for supplies in the first years of the World War. The amenities, especially in urban life, were accumulating—prosperity was highly visible. The working classes were beginning to protest politically for a greater voice in government, but the level of industrial unrest on economic issues was not high until about 1908.
Class and society
Status of women
Women and birth control
Although abortion was illegal, it was nevertheless the most widespread form of birth control in use. Used predominantly by working-class women, the procedure was used not only as a means of terminating pregnancy, but also to prevent poverty and unemployment. If a woman died or became ill from an abortion, the abortionist could be imprisoned or even sentenced to death. Those who transported contraceptives could also be legally punished. As the standard of living increased, so did the prevalence of contraception and abortion. People did not want to provide for larger families, but rather to have smaller families and more money. Contraceptives became more expensive over time and had a high failure rate. Unlike contraceptives, abortion did not need any prior planning and was less expensive. Newspaper advertisements were used to promote and sell abortifacients indirectly.
Not all of society was accepting of contraceptives or abortion, and the opposition viewed both as part of one and the same sin. Abortion was much more common among the middle classes than among those living in rural areas, where the procedure was not readily available. Abortion was a risky endeavor that could lead to illness or death. Those who used lead pills often had ongoing sickness, headaches, and in some cases paralysis of the hands. Women were often tricked into purchasing ineffective pills. In addition to fearing legal reprimands, many physicians did not condone abortion because they viewed it as an immoral procedure potentially endangering a woman’s life. Because abortion was illegal and physicians refused to perform the procedure, local women acted as abortionists, often using crochet hooks or similar instruments.
Feminists of the era focused on educating and finding jobs for women, leaving aside the controversial issues of contraceptives and abortion, which in popular opinion were often related to promiscuity and prostitution. The Church condemned abortion as immoral and a form of rebellion against the child-bearing role women were expected to assume. Many considered abortion to be a selfish act that allowed a woman to avoid personal responsibility, contributing to a decline in moral values. Abortion was often a solution for women who already had children and did not want more. Consequently, the size of families decreased drastically.
Poverty among women
The 1834 Poor Law defined who could receive monetary relief. The act reflected and perpetuated prevailing gender conditions. In Edwardian society, men were the source of wealth. The law restricted relief for unemployed, able-bodied male workers, due to the prevailing view that they would find work in the absence of financial assistance. However, women were treated differently. After the Poor Law was passed, women and children received most of the aid. The law did not recognise single independent women, and lumped women and children into the same category. If a man was physically disabled, his wife was also treated as disabled under the law. Unmarried mothers were sent to the workhouse, receiving unfair social treatment such as being restricted from attending church on Sundays. During marriage disputes women often lost the rights to their children, even if their husbands were abusive.
At the time, single mothers were the poorest sector in society, disadvantaged for at least four reasons. First, women had longer lifespans, often leaving them widowed with children. Second, women’s work opportunities were few, and when they did find work, their wages were lower than male workers’ wages. Third, women were often less likely to marry or remarry after being widowed, leaving them as the main providers for the remaining family members. Finally, poor women had deficient diets, because their husbands and children received disproportionately large shares of food. Many women were malnourished and had limited access to health care.
Edwardian Britain had large numbers of male and female domestic servants, in both urban and rural areas. Men relied on working class women to run their homes smoothly, and employers often looked to these working class women for sexual partners. Servants were provided with food, clothing, housing, and a small wage, and lived in a self-enclosed social system inside the mansion. The number of domestic servants fell in the Edwardian period due to a declining number of young people willing to be employed in this area. Unmarried men were much more likely to employ servants than were married men at the time.
The upper classes embraced leisure sports, which resulted in rapid developments in fashion, as more mobile and flexible clothing styles were needed. During the Edwardian era, women wore a very tight corset, or bodice, and dressed in long skirts. The Edwardian era was the last time women wore corsets in everyday life. According to Arthur Marwick, the most striking change of all the developments that occurred during the Great War was the modification in women’s dress, “for, however far politicians were to put the clocks back in other steeples in the years after the war, no one ever put the lost inches back on the hems of women’s skirts”.
The Edwardian period corresponds to the French Belle Époque period. Despite its brief pre-eminence, the period is characterised by its own unique architectural style, fashion, and lifestyle. Art Nouveau had a particularly strong influence. Artists were influenced by the development of the automobile and electricity, and a greater awareness of human rights.
In fiction, some of the best-known names are J. M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, John Galsworthy, Kenneth Grahame, M. R. James, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Saki, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P. G. Wodehouse. Apart from these famous writers, this was a period when a great number of novels and short stories were being published, and a significant distinction between “highbrow” literature and popular fiction emerged. Among the most famous works of literary criticism was A. C. Bradley‘s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). Mass audience newspapers, controlled by press tycoons such as the Harmsworth brothers, Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe and Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, became increasingly important.
The available recordings of music, such as wax cylinders played on phonographs, were poor in quality by modern standards. Live performances, both amateur and professional, were popular. Henry Wood, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Arnold Bax, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Thomas Beecham were all active. Military and brass bands often played outside in parks during the summer.
Cinema was primitive and audiences preferred live performances to picture shows. Music hall was very popular and widespread; influential performers included male impersonator Vesta Tilley and comic Little Tich.
The most successful playwright of the era was W. Somerset Maugham. In 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously in London, and Punch published a cartoon of Shakespeare biting his fingernails nervously as he looked at the billboards. Maugham’s plays, like his novels, usually had a conventional plot structure, but the decade also saw the rise of the so-called New Drama, represented in plays by George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker, and Continental imports byHenrik Ibsen and Gerhardt Hauptmann. The actor/manager system, as managed by Sir Henry Irving, Sir George Alexander, and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was in decline.
Notable architects included Edwin Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Giles Gilbert Scott. In spite of the popularity of Art Nouveau in Europe, the Edwardian Baroque style of architecture was widely favoured for public structures and was a revival of Christopher Wren–inspired designs of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The change or reversal in taste from the Victorian eclectic styles corresponded with the historical revivals of the period, most prominently earlier Georgian and Neoclassical styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon documented many scenes from Britain, Ireland and Scotland from 1900-1907, sports, parades, factory exits, parks, city streets, boating and the like. Their films have fortunately survived in very good quality restored from the original negatives.
Science and technology
The period featured many innovations. Continental Europeans such as Max Planck and Albert Einstein were producing some of their greatest work. The first Nobel prizes were awarded, and Ernest Rutherford published his book on radioactivity. The first transatlantic wireless signals were sent by Guglielmo Marconi, and the Wright brothers flew for the first time.
By the end of the era, Louis Blériot had crossed the English Channel by air; the largest ship in the world, RMS Olympic, had sailed on its maiden voyage and her sister RMS Titanic soon to follow; automobiles were common; and the South Pole was reached for the first time by Roald Amundsen‘s and then Robert Falcon Scott‘s teams.
The 1908 Summer Olympic Games were held in London. Popularity of sports tended to conform to class divisions, with tennis and yachting popular among the very wealthy and football (soccer) favoured by the working class.
Aston Villa maintained their position as the pre-eminent football team of the era, winning the FA Cup for the fourth time in 1905 and their sixth League title in 1909–10. The club colours of claret and sky blue were adopted by Burnley as a tribute to their success in 1910. Sunderland achieved their fourth league title in 1901–02. The era also saw Liverpool (1900–01, 1905–06), Newcastle United (1904–05, 1906–07, 1908–09) and Manchester United (1907–08) winning their first league titles.
Politics and significant events
In the early years of the period, the Second Boer War in South Africa split Britain into anti- and pro-war factions. Great orators, such as the Liberal David Lloyd George, who spoke against the war, became increasingly influential although pro-war politicians, such as Unionist Joseph Chamberlain, held power. The Unionists proposed Tariff Reform (a form of protectionism) to make the British Empire an economic unit; the Liberals claimed this would make food dearer, and, in the general election of 1906, the Liberals won a landslide. The Liberal government was unable to proceed with all of its radical programme without the support of the House of Lords, which was largely Conservative. Conflict between the two Houses of Parliament over Lloyd George’s 1909 People’s Budget eventually resulted in a reduction in the power of the peers in the Parliament Act 1911. The general election in January 1910 returned a “hung parliament” with the balance of power held by Labour and Irish Nationalist members.
The Edwardian period is sometimes imagined as a romantic golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, basking in a sun that never sets on the British Empire. This perception was created in the 1920s and later by those who remembered the Edwardian age with nostalgia, looking back to their childhoods across the abyss of the Great War. The Edwardian age was also seen as a mediocre period of pleasure between the great achievements of the preceding Victorian age and the catastrophe of the following war. Recent assessments emphasise the great differences between the wealthy and the poor during the Edwardian era and describe the age as heralding great changes in political and social life. Robert Tressell’s popular novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a strong example of the era’s social critique.
Despite this, this type of perception has been challenged more recently by modern historians. The British historian Lawrence James has argued that, during the early 20th century, the British felt increasingly threatened by rival powers such as Germany, Russia, and the United States.
World war I Society and Culture
Propaganda and censorship were closely linked during the war. The need to maintain morale and counter German propaganda was recognised early in the war and the War Propaganda Bureau was established under the leadership ofCharles Masterman in September 1914. The Bureau enlisted eminent writers such as H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle,Rudyard Kipling as well as newspaper editors. By the summer of 1915, the Bureau had printed over 2.5 million books, speeches, official documents and pamphlets. Masterman also commissioned films about the war such as The Battle of the Somme, which appeared in August 1916, while the battle was still in progress as a morale-booster and in general it met with a favourable reception. The Times reported on 22 August 1916 that “Crowded audiences … were interested and thrilled to have the realities of war brought so vividly before them, and if women had sometimes to shut their eyes to escape for a moment from the tragedy of the toll of battle which the film presents, opinion seems to be general that it was wise that the people at home should have this glimpse of what our soldiers are doing and daring and suffering in Picardy”.
Newspapers during the war were subject to the Defence of the Realm Act, which eventually had two regulations restricting what they could publish: Regulation 18, which prohibited the leakage of sensitive military information, troop and shipping movements; and Regulation 27, which made it an offence to “spread false reports”, “spread reports that were likely to prejudice recruiting”, “undermine public confidence in banks or currency” or cause “disaffection to His Majesty”. Where the official Press Bureau failed (it had no statutory powers until April 1916), the newspaper editors and owners operated a ruthless self-censorship. Having worked for government, press barons Viscount Rothermere, Baron Beaverbrook (in a sea of controversy), and Viscount Northcliffe all received titles. For these reasons, it has been concluded that censorship, which at its height suppressed only socialist journals (and briefly the right wing The Globe) had less effect on the British press than the reductions in advertising revenues and cost increases which they also faced during the war. One major loophole in the official censorship lay with parliamentary privilege, when anything said in Parliament could be reported freely. The most infamous act of censorship in the early days of the war was the sinking of HMS Audacious in October 1914, when the press was directed not to report on the loss, despite the sinking being observed by passengers on the liner RMS Olympic and quickly reported in the American press.
The most popular papers of the period included dailies such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Post, weekly newspapers such as The Graphic and periodicals like John Bull, which claimed a weekly circulation of 900,000. The public demand for news of the war was reflected in the increased sales of newspapers. After the German Navy raid on Hartlepool and Scarborough, the Daily Mail devoted three full pages to the raid and the Evening News reported that The Times had sold out by a quarter past nine in the morning, even with inflated prices. The Daily Mail itself increased in circulation from 800,000 a day in 1914 to 1.5 million by 1916.
The public’s thirst for news and information was in part satisfied by news magazines, which were dedicated to reporting the war. They included amongst others The War Illustrated, The Illustrated War News, and The War Pictorial, and were lavishly filled with photographs and illustrations, regardless of their target audience. Magazines were produced for all classes, and ranged both in price and tone. Many otherwise famous writers contributed towards these publications, of which H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling were three examples. Editorial guidelines varied; in cheaper publications especially it was considered more important to create a sense of patriotism than to relay up-to-the-minutes news of developments of the front. Stories of German atrocities were commonplace.
On 13 August 1914, the Irish regiment the Connaught Rangers were witnessed singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as they marched through Boulogne by the Daily Mail correspondent George Curnock, who reported the event in that newspaper on 18 August 1914. The song was then picked up by other units of the British Army. In November 1914, it was sung in a pantomime by the well-known music hall singer Florrie Forde, which helped contribute to its worldwide popularity. Another song from 1916, which became very popular as a music hall and marching song, boosting British morale despite the horrors of that war, was “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag“.
There was also a notable group of war poets who wrote about their own experiences of war, which caught the public attention. Some died on active service, most famously Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen, while some, such as Siegfried Sassoon survived. Themes of the poems included the youth (or naivety) of the soldiers, and the dignified manner in which they fought and died. This is evident in lines such as “They fell with their faces to the foe”, from the “Ode of Remembrance” taken from Laurence Binyon‘s For the Fallen, which was first published in The Times in September 1914. Female poets such as Vera Brittain also wrote from the home front, to lament the losses of brothers and lovers fighting on the front.
On the whole the British successfully managed the economics of the war. There had been no prewar plan for mobilization of economic resources. Controls were imposed slowly, as one urgent need followed another. With the City of London the world’s financial capital, it was possible to handle finances smoothly; in all Britain spent 4 million pounds everyday on the war effort.
The economy (in terms of GDP) grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943). The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from the U.S. Shipments of American raw materials and food allowed Britain to feed itself and its army while maintaining his productivity. The financing was generally successful, as the City’s strong financial position minimized the damaging effects of inflation, as opposed to much worse conditions in Germany. Overall consumer consumption declined 18% from 1914 to 1919. Trade unions were encouraged as membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5 million in 1918, peaking at 8.3 million in 1920 before relapsing to 5.4 million in 1923. In Scotland, the shipbuilding industry expanding by a third. The trade unions enthusiastically supported the war, apart from the coal miners who were much less enthusiastic.
Women were available and many entered munitions factories and took other home front jobs vacated by men.
In line with its “business as usual” policy, the government was initially reluctant to try to control the food markets. It fought off efforts to try to introduce minimum prices in cereal production, though relenting in the area of controlling of essential imports (sugar, meat and grains). When it did introduce changes, they were only limited in their effect. In 1916, it became illegal to consume more than two courses whilst lunching in a public eating place or more than three for dinner; fines were introduced for members of the public found feeding the pigeons or stray animals.
In January 1917, Germany started using U-boats (submarines) in order to sink Allied and later neutral ships bringing food to the country in an attempt to starve Britain into surrender under their unrestricted submarine warfare programme. One response to this threat was to introduce voluntary rationing in February 1917, a scheme said to have been endorsed by the king and queen themselves. Bread was subsidised from September that year; prompted by local authorities taking matters into their own hands, compulsory rationing was introduced in stages between December 1917 and February 1918, as Britain’s supply of wheat stores decreased to just six weeks worth. It is said to have in the most part benefited the health of the country, through the ‘levelling of consumption of essential foodstuffs’. To assist with rationing, ration books were introduced on 15 July 1918 for butter, margarine, lard, meat, and sugar. During the war, average calories intake decreased only three percent, but protein intake six percent.
Total British production fell by ten percent over the course of the war; there were, however, increases in certain industries such as steel. Although Britain faced a controversial shell shortage, this has been attributed to extraordinary orders placed by the government at the outbreak of war (without concern for the capacity of its industry), rather than inefficient production. In 1915, the Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd-George was formed to control munitions production and had considerable success. By April 1915, just two million rounds of shells had been sent to France; by the end of the war the figure had reached 187 million, and a year’s worth of pre-war production of light munitions could be completed in just four days by 1918. Aircraft production in 1914 provided employment for 60,000 men and women; by 1918 British firms employed over 347,000.
It was only as late as December 1917 that a War Cabinet Committee on Manpower was established, and the British government refrained from introducing compulsory labour direction (though 388 men were moved as part of the voluntary National Service Scheme). Belgian refugees became workers, though they were often seen as “job stealers”. Likewise, the use of Irish workers, because they were exempt from conscription, was another source of resentment. Worried about the impact of the dilution of labour caused by bringing external groups into the main labour pool, workers in some areas turned to strike action. Voluntary agreements with trade unions in the early stages of the war became official with the advent of the Munitions of War Act in June 1915, which also placed restrictions upon the speed with which workers could move from job to job.
Energy was a critical factor for the British war effort. Most of the energy supplies came from coal mines in Britain, where the issue was labour supply. Critical however was the flow of oil for ships, lorries and industrial use. There were no oil wells in Britain so everything was imported. The U.S. pumped two-thirds of the world’s oil. In 1917, total British consumption was 827 million barrels, of which 85 percent was supplied by the United States, and 6 percent by Mexico. The great issue in 1917 was how many tankers would survive the German u-boats. Convoys and the construction of new tankers solved the German threat, while tight government controls guaranteed that all essential needs were covered. An Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference allocated American supplies to Britain, France and Italy.
Fuel oil for the Royal Navy was the highest priority. In 1917, the Royal Navy consumed 12,500 tons a month, but had a supply of 30,000 tons a month from British Petroleum, using BPs oil wells in Persia.
Variously throughout the war, serious shortage of able-bodied men (“manpower”) occurred in the country, and women were required to take on many of the traditional male roles, particularly in the area of arms manufacture; though this was only significant in the later years of the war, since unemployed men were often prioritised by employers. Women both found work in the munitions factories (as “munitionettes”) despite initial trade union opposition, which directly helped the war effort, but also in the Civil Service, where they took men’s jobs, releasing them for the front. The number of women employed by the service increased from 33,000 in 1911 to over 102,000 by 1921. The overall increase in female employment is estimated at 1.4 million, from 5.9 to 7.3 million, and female trade union membership increased from 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918—an increase of 160 percent. Beckett suggests that most of these were working class women going into work at a younger age than they would otherwise have done, or married women returning to work. This taken together with the fact that only 23 percent of women in the munitions industry were actually doing men’s jobs, would limit substantially the overall impact of the war on the long-term prospects of the working woman.
When the government targeted women early in the war focused on extending their existing roles – helping with Belgian refugees, for example—but also on improving recruitment rates amongst men. They did this both through the so-called “Order of the White Feather” and through the promise of home comforts for the men while they were at the front. In February 1916, groups were set up and a campaign started to get women to help in agriculture and in March 1917, the Women’s Land Army was set up. One goal was to attract middle-class women who would act as models for patriotic engagement in nontraditional duties. However the uniform of the Women’s Land Army included male overalls and trousers, which sparked debate on the propriety of such cross-dressing. The government responded with rhetoric that explicitly feminized the new roles. In 1918, the Board of Trade estimated that there were 148,000 women in agricultural employment, though a figure of nearly 260,000 has also been suggested.
The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel‘s Women’s Social and Political Union, calling a ‘ceasefire‘ in their campaign for the duration of the war. In contrast, more radical suffragettes, like the Women’s Suffrage Federation run by Emmeline’s other daughter,Sylvia, continued their (at times violent) struggle. Women were also allowed to join the armed forces in a non-combatant role and by the end of the War 80,000 women had joined the armed forces in auxiliary roles such as nursing and cooking.
Following the war, millions of returning soldiers were still not entitled to vote. This posed another dilemma for politicians since they could be seen to be withholding the vote from the very men who had just fought to preserve the British democratic political system. The Representation of the People Act 1918 attempted to solve the problem, enfranchising all adult males as long as they were over 21 years old and were resident householders. It also gave the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers, though the actual feelings of members of parliament (MPs) at the time is questioned. In the same year the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women over 21 to stand as MPs.
The new coalition government of 1918 charged itself with the task of creating a “land fit for heroes”, from a speech given in Wolverhampton by David Lloyd George on 23 November 1918, where he stated “What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” More generally, the war has been credited, both during and after the conflict, with removing some of the social barriers that had pervaded Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
The War had a profound influence upon rural areas, as the U-boat blockade required the government to take full control of the food chain, as well as agricultural labor. Cereal production was a high priority, and the Corn Production Act of 1917 guaranteed prices, regulated wage rates, and required farmers to meet efficiency standards. The government campaigned heavily for turning marginal land into cropland. The Women’s Land Army brought in 23,000 young women from the towns and cities to milk cows, pick fruit and otherwise replace the men who joined the services. More extensive use of tractors and machinery also replaced farm laborers. However, there was a shortage of both men and horses on the land by late 1915. County War Agricultural Committees reported that the continued removal of men was undercutting food production because of the farmers’ belief that operating a farm required a set number of men and horses.
Kenneth Morgan argues that, ‘the overwhelming mass of the Welsh people cast aside their political and industrial divisions and threw themselves into the war with gusto.” Intellectuals and ministers actively promoted the war spirit. With 280,000 men enrolled in the services (14% of the population), the proportionate effort in Wales outstripped both England and Scotland. However Adrian Gregory points out that the Welsh coal miners, while officially supporting the war effort, refused the government request to cut short their vacation time. After some debate, the miners agreed to extend the working day.
Scotland’s distinctive characteristics have attracted significant attention from scholars. Unlike England, Scotland specialized in providing manpower, ships, machinery, food (particularly fish) and money. Daniel shows it supported the war effort with widespread enthusiasm.
In the post war publication Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914–1920 (The War Office, March 1922), the official report lists 908,371 ‘soldiers’ as being either killed in action, dying of wounds, dying as prisoners of war or missing in action in the World War. (This is broken down into the United Kingdom and its colonies 704,121; British India 64,449; Canada 56,639; Australia 59,330; New Zealand 16,711; South Africa 7,121.) Listed separately were the Royal Navy (including the Royal Naval Air Service until 31 March 1918) war dead and missing of 32,287 and the Merchant Navy war dead of 14,661. The figures for the Royal Flying Corps and the nascent Royal Air Force were not given in the War Office report.
A second publication, Casualties and Medical Statistics (1931), the final volume of the Official Medical History of the War, gives British Empire Army losses by cause of death. The total losses in combat from 1914 to 1918 were 876,084, which included 418,361 killed, 167,172 died of wounds, 113,173 died of disease or injury, 161,046 missing presumed dead and 16,332 died as a prisoner of war.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 888,246 war dead from the UK and colonies (excluding the dominions, which are listed separately). This figure includes identified burials and those commemorated by name on memorials; there are an additional 187,644 unidentified burials from the Commonwealth (then Empire) as a whole.
The civilian death rate exceeded the prewar level by 292,000, which included 109,000 deaths due to food shortages and 183,577 from Spanish Flu. The 1922 War Office report detailed the deaths of 1,260 civilians and 310 military personnel due to air and sea bombardment of the United Kingdom. Losses at sea were 908 United Kingdom civilians and 63 fisherman killed by U-boat attacks.
With a population of 4.8 million in 1911, Scotland sent 690,000 men to the war, of whom 74,000 died in combat or from disease, and 150,000 were seriously wounded. At times Scottish troops made up large proportions of the active combatants, and suffered corresponding loses, as at the Battle of Loos, where there were three full Scots divisions and other Scottish units. Thus, although Scots were only 10 per cent of the British population, they made up 15 per cent of the national armed forces and eventually accounted for 20 per cent of the dead. Some areas, like the thinly populated Island of Lewis and Harris suffered some of the highest proportional losses of any part of Britain. Clydeside shipyards and the engineering shops of west-central Scotland became the most significant centre of shipbuilding and arms production in the Empire. In the Lowlands, particularly Glasgow, poor working and living conditions led to industrial and political unrest.
Legacy and memory
The horrors of the Western Front as well as Gallipoli and Mesopotamia were seared into the collective consciousness of the twentieth century. To a large extent the understanding of the war in popular culture focused on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Historian A.J.P. Taylor argued, “The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War: brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved.”
Images of trench warfare became iconic symbols of human suffering and endurance. The post-war world had many veterans who were maimed or damaged by shell shock. In 1921 1,187,450 men were in receipt of pensions for war disabilities, with a fifth of these having suffered serious loss of limbs or eyesight, paralysis or lunacy.
The war was a major economic catastrophe as Britain went from being the world’s largest overseas investor to being its biggest debtor, with interest payments consuming around 40 percent of the national budget. Inflation more than doubled between 1914 and its peak in 1920, while the value of the Pound Sterling fell by 61.2 percent. Reparations in the form of free German coal depressed the local industry, precipitating the 1926 General Strike. During the war British private investments abroad were sold, raising £550 million. However, £250 million new investment also took place during the war. The net financial loss was therefore approximately £300 million; less than two years investment compared to the pre-war average rate and more than replaced by 1928. Material loss was “slight”: the most significant being 40 percent of the British merchant fleet sunk by German U-boats. Most of this was replaced in 1918 and all immediately after the war. The military historian Correlli Barnett has argued that “in objective truth the Great War in no way inflicted crippling economic damage on Britain” but that the war only “crippled the British psychologically” (emphasis in original).
Less concrete changes include the growing assertiveness of the Dominions within the British Empire. Battles such as Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand, and Vimy Ridge for Canada led to increased national pride and a greater reluctance to remain subordinate to the United Kingdom. These battles were often portrayed favourably in these nations’ propaganda as symbolic of their power during the war. The war released pent-up indigenous nationalism, as populations tried to take advantage of the precedent set by the introduction of self-determination in eastern Europe. Britain was to face unrest in Ireland (1919–21), India (1919), Egypt (1919–23), Palestine (1920–21) and Iraq (1920) at a time when they were supposed to be demilitarising. Nevertheless, Britain’s only territorial loss came in Ireland, where the delay in finding a resolution to the home rule issue, along with the 1916 Easter Rising and a failed attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland, increased support for separatist radicals, and led indirectly to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence in 1919.
Further change came in 1919. With the Treaty of Versailles, London took charge of an additional 1,800,000 square miles (4,700,000 km2) and 13 million new subjects. The colonies of Germany and the Ottoman Empire were distributed to the Allied powers (and to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) as League of Nations mandates, with the United Kingdom at least gaining control of Palestine and Transjordan, Iraq, parts of Cameroon and Togo, and Tanganyika. Indeed, the British Empire reached its territorial peak after the settlement.
Interwar Society and Culture
Historian Arthur Marwick sees a radical transformation of British society resulting from the Great War, a deluge that swept away many old attitudes and brought in a more equalitarian society. He sees the famous literary pessimism of the 1920s as misplaced, arguing there were major positive long-term consequences of the war to British society. He points to an energized self-consciousness among workers that quickly built up the Labour Party, the coming of partial woman suffrage, and an acceleration of social reform and state control of the economy. He sees a decline of deference toward the aristocracy and established authority in general, and the weakening among youth of traditional restraints on individual moral behavior. The chaperone faded away; village druggists sold contraceptives. Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.
British suffragettes were mostly women from upper and middle-class backgrounds, frustrated by their social and economic situation. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first introduced the idea of women’s suffrage on the platform he presented to the British electorate in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.
The term “suffragette” was first used as a term of derision by the journalist Charles E. Hands in the London Daily Mail for activists in the movement for women’s suffrage, in particular members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the objects of the intended ridicule gladly embraced the term saying “suffraGETtes” (hardening the g) implied not only that they wanted the vote, but that they intended to get it as well.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was founded in 1897, was formed of a collection of local suffrage societies. This union was led by Millicent Fawcett, who believed in constitutional campaigning, like issuing leaflets, organising meetings and presenting petitions. However this campaigning did not have much effect. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded a new organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst thought that the movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. The Daily Mail later gave them the name “Suffragettes”.
Early 20th century in the UK
From 1909, the ‘Pank-A-Squith’ board game was sold by the Women’s Social and Political Union to raise awareness of the suffragette campaign as well as to raise money. The board game is set out in a spiral, and players must lead their suffragette figure from their home to Parliament, past the obstacles faced from Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and the Liberal government. ThePeople’s History Museum in Manchester has a ‘Pank-A-Squith’ board game on display in the Main Galleries, as well as a replica version for visitors to play.
1912 was a turning point for the British suffragettes as they turned to using more militant tactics such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and occasionally detonating bombs. This was because the Prime Minister at the time, Asquith, nearly signed a document giving women (over 30 and either married to a property-owner or owning a property themselves) the right to vote. But he pulled out at the last minute, as he thought the women may vote against him in the next General Election, stopping his party (Liberals) from getting into Parliament/ruling the country.
One suffragette, Emily Davison, died under the King‘s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby of 4 June 1913. It is debated whether she was trying to pin a “Votes for Women” banner on the King’s horse or not. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and went on to refuse food as a scare tactic against the government. The Liberal government of the day led by H. H. Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act.
In the early twentieth century until the First World War, approximately one thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Britain. Most early incarcerations were for public order offences and failures to pay outstanding fines, with the first suffragettes – Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) and Annie Kenney – imprisoned in October 1905. While incarcerated, suffragettes lobbied to be considered political prisoners; with a designation as political prisoners, suffragettes would be placed in the First Division as opposed to the Second or Third Division of the prison system, and as a political prisoner would be granted certain freedoms and liberties not allotted to other prison divisions, such as being allowed frequent visits and writing books or articles. However, due to a lack of continuity between the different courts, suffragettes would not necessarily be placed in the First Division and could be placed in Second or Third Division, which enjoyed fewer liberties and were for non-political prisoners.
This cause was taken up by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a large organisation in Britain, that lobbied for women’s suffrage led by militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU campaigned to get imprisoned suffragettes recognised as political prisoners. However, this campaign was largely unsuccessful. Citing a fear that the suffragettes becoming political prisoners would make for easy martyrdom, and with thoughts from the courts and the Home Office that they were abusing the freedoms of First Division to further the agenda of the WSPU, suffragettes were placed in Second Division, and in some cases the Third Division, in prisons with no special privileges granted to them as a result.
Following the refusal for suffragettes to be recognised as political prisoners, many suffragettes began to stage hunger strikes while they were imprisoned. The first woman to refuse food was Marion Wallace Dunlop, a militant suffragette who was sentenced to be imprisoned for a month in Holloway for vandalism in July 1909. Without the consultation of suffragette leaders such as Pankhurst, Dunlop refused food as a protest for being denied political prisoner status; following a 91-hour hunger strike, and for fear of her becoming a martyr for the suffragette cause, the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone made the decision to release her early on medical grounds. Dunlop’s strategy was adopted by other suffragettes who were incarcerated. Soon, it became a common practice for suffragettes to refuse food in protest of not being designated as political prisoners, and as a result they would be released after a few days and return to the “fighting line.”
After a public backlash regarding the prison status of suffragettes, the rules of the divisions were amended. In March 1910, Rule 243A was introduced by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and this allowed for prisoners in Second and Third Division to be allowed certain privileges of the First Division, provided they were not convicted of a serious offence, effectively ending hunger strikes for two years. Hunger strikes began again when Pankhurst was transferred from the Second Division to the First Division, inciting the other suffragettes to demonstrate regarding their prison status.
Militant suffragette demonstrations subsequently became more aggressive, and the British Government took action. Unwilling to release all the suffragettes refusing food in prison, in the autumn of 1909, the authorities began to adopt more drastic measures to manage the hunger-striking suffragettes.
In September 1909, the Home Office became unwilling to release the hunger-striking suffragettes before their sentence was served. Suffragettes became a liability because if they were to die in the prison’s custody, the prison would be responsible for their death. Therefore, prisons began the practice of force feeding the suffragettes through a tube, most commonly a nostril or stomach tube or a stomach pump. The use of force feeding had previously been practised in Britain, however, its use had been exclusively for patients in hospitals who were too unwell to eat or swallow food properly. Despite that this practice had been deemed safe by medical practitioners for sick patients, it posed health issues for the healthy suffragettes.
The process of tube feeding was strenuous; without the consent of the hunger strikers, they were typically strapped down and force fed via stomach or nostril tube, often with a considerable amount of force. Many women found the process painful, and after the practice was observed and studied by several physicians, it was deemed to have both short-term damage to the circulatory system, digestive system and nervous system and long term damage to the physical and mental health of the suffragettes. Suffragettes who were force fed were also known to develop pleurisy or pneumonia as a result of a misplaced tube.
In April 1913, Reginald McKenna of the Home Office passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, or the Cat and Mouse Act as it was commonly known. This act made the hunger strikes legal, in that a suffragette would be temporarily released from prison when their health began to diminish, only to be readmitted to prison when she regained her health to finish her sentence. This enabled the British Government to be absolved of any blame resulting from death or harm due to the self-starvation of the striker, in addition to ensuring that the suffragettes would be too ill and too weak to participate in demonstrative activities while not in custody. However, most women continued with their hunger strikes when they were readmitted to the prison following their leave. After the Act was introduced, force feeding on a large scale was stopped and only women convicted of more serious crimes and considered likely to repeat these offences if released were force fed.
In early 1913 and in direct response to the “Cat and Mouse Act” the WSPU instituted a society of women known as “The Bodyguard” whose role was to physically protect Emmeline Pankhurst and other prominent suffragettes from arrest and assault. Known Bodyguard members included Katherine Willoughby Marshall andGertrude Harding; Edith Margaret Garrud served as their jujutsu trainer. Members of the Bodyguard participated in several violent actions against the police in defence of their leaders.
With the commencement of the First World War, the suffragette movement in Britain moved away from suffrage activities and focused the efforts of their organisations on the war effort, and as a result, hunger strikes largely stopped. In August 1914, the British Government released all prisoners who had been incarcerated for suffrage activities on an amnesty, with Pankhurst ending all militant suffrage activities soon after. The suffragettes’ focus on war work turned public opinion in favour of their eventual partial enfranchisement in 1918.
Women eagerly volunteered take on many of the traditional male roles – this led to a new view of what a woman was capable of doing. The war also caused a split in the British suffragette movement, with the mainstream, represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst‘s WSPU calling a ‘ceasefire’ in their campaign for the duration of the war, while more radical suffragettes, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst‘s Women’s Suffrage Federation continued the struggle.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which had always employed “constitutional” methods, continued to lobby during the war years, and compromises were worked out between the NUWSS and the coalition government. On 6 February, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, enfranchising women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications (as well as men over 21 – prior to this not all British men were enfranchised). About 8.4 million women gained the vote. In November 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms that men had gained ten years earlier.
Historians generally argue that the first stage of the militant suffragette movement under the Pankhursts in 1906 had a dramatic mobilising effect on the suffrage movement. Women were thrilled and supportive of an actual revolt in the streets; the membership of the militant WSPU and the older NUWSS overlapped and was mutually supportive. However a system of publicity, Ensor argues, had to continue to escalate to maintain its high visibility in the media. The hunger strikes and force-feeding did that. However the Pankhursts refused any advice and escalated their tactics. They turned to systematic disruption of Liberal Party meetings as well as physical violence in terms of damaging public buildings and arson. Searle says the methods of the suffragettes did succeed in damaging the Liberal party but failed to advance the cause of woman suffrage. When the Pankhursts decided to stop the militancy at the start of the war, and enthusiastically support the war effort, the movement split and their leadership role ended. Suffrage did come four years later, but the feminist movement in Britain permanently abandoned the militant tactics that had made the suffragettes famous.
Whitfield concludes that the militant campaign had some positive effects in terms of attracting enormous publicity, and forcing the moderates to better organise themselves, while also stimulating the organisation of the antis. He concludes:
- The overall effect of the suffragette militancy, however, was to set back the cause of women’s suffrage. For women to gain the right to vote it was necessary to demonstrate that they had public opinion on their side, to build and consolidate a parliamentary majority in favour of women’s suffrage and to persuade or pressure the government to introduce its own franchise reform. None of these objectives was achieved.
World War II Society and Culture
Britain’s total mobilization during this period proved to be successful in winning the war, by maintaining strong support from public opinion. The war was a “people’s war” that enlarged democratic aspirations and produced promises of a postwar welfare state.
Mobilization of women
Historians credit Britain with a highly successful record of mobilizing the home front for the war effort, in terms of mobilizing the greatest proportion of potential workers, maximizing output, assigning the right skills to the right task, and maintaining the morale and spirit of the people. Much of this success was due to the systematic planned mobilization of women, as workers, soldiers and housewives, enforced after December 1941 by conscription. The women supported the war effort, and made the rationing of consumer goods a success. In some ways, the government over planned, evacuating too many children in the first days of the war, closing cinemas as frivolous then reopening them when the need for cheap entertainment was clear, sacrificing cats and dogs to save a little space on shipping pet food, only to discover an urgent need to keep the rats and mice under control. In the balance between compulsion and voluntarism, the British relied successfully on voluntarism. The success of the government in providing new services, such as hospitals, and school lunches, as well as the equalitarian spirit of the People’s war, contributed to widespread support for an enlarged welfare state. Munitions production rose dramatically, and the quality remained high. Food production was emphasized, in large part to open up shipping for munitions. Farmers increased the number of acres under cultivation from 12,000,000 to 18,000,000, and the farm labor force was expanded by a fifth, thanks especially to the Women’s Land Army.
Parents had much less time for supervision of their children, and the fear of juvenile delinquency was upon the land, especially as older teenagers took jobs and emulated their older siblings in the service. The government responded by requiring all youth over 16 to register, and expanded the number of clubs and organizations available to them.
In mid-1940, the RAF (Royal Air Force) was called on to fight the Battle of Britain but it had suffered serious losses. It lost 458 aircraft—more than current production—in France and was hard pressed. The government decided to concentrate on only five types of aircraft in order to optimize output. They were: Wellingtons, Whitley Vs, Blenheims, Hurricanes and Spitfires. These aircraft received extraordinary priority. Covering the supply of materials and equipment and even made it possible to divert from other types the necessary parts, equipment, materials and manufacturing resources. Labor was moved from other aircraft work to factories engaged on the specified types. Cost was not an object. The delivery of new fighters rose from 256 in April to 467 in September—more than enough to cover the losses—and Fighter Command emerged triumphantly from the Battle of Britain in October with more aircraft than it had possessed at the beginning. Starting in 1941, the US provided munitions through Lend lease that totaled $15.5 billion.
Food, clothing, petrol, leather and other such items were rationed. However, items such as sweets and fruits were not rationed, as they would spoil. Access to luxuries was severely restricted, although there was also a significant black market. Families also grew victory gardens, and small home vegetable gardens, to supply themselves with food. Many things were conserved to turn into weapons later, such as fat for nitroglycerin production. People in the countryside were less affected by rationing as they had greater access to locally sourced unrationed products than people in metropolitan areas and were more able to grow their own.
The rationing system, which had been originally based on a specific basket of goods for each consumer, was much improved by switching to a points system which allowed the housewives to make choices based on their own priorities. Food rationing also permitted the upgrading of the quality of the food available, and housewives approved—except for the absence of white bread and the government’s imposition of an unpalatable wheat meal “national loaf.” People were especially pleased that rationing brought equality and a guarantee of a decent meal at an affordable cost.
From very early in the war, it was thought that the major industrial cities of Britain, especially London in the southeast, would come under Luftwaffe air attack, which did happen with The Blitz. Some children were sent to Canada, the USA and Australia and millions of children and some mothers were evacuated from London and other major cities when the war began under government plans for the evacuation of civilians, but they often filtered back. When the Blitz bombing began on September 6, 1940, they evacuated again. The discovery of the poor health and hygiene of evacuees was a shock to many Britons, and helped prepare the way for the Beveridge Report. Children were evacuated if their parents agreed but in some cases they did not have a choice. The children were only allowed to take a few things with them, including a gas mask, books, money, clothes, ration book and some small toys.
Belfast during the war
Belfast in Northern Ireland was a representative British city that has been well studied by historians. It was a key industrial city producing ships, tanks, aircraft, engineering works, arms, uniforms, parachutes and a host of other industrial goods. The unemployment that had been so persistent in the 1930s disappeared, and labour shortages appeared. There was a major munitions strike in 1944. As a key industrial city, Belfast became a target for German bombing missions, but it was thinly defended; there were only 24 anti-aircraft guns in the city for example. The Northern Ireland government under Richard Dawson Bates (Minister for Home Affairs) had prepared too late, assuming that Belfast was too distant. When Germany conquered France in spring 1940 it gained closer airfields. The city’s fire brigade was inadequate, there were no public air raid shelters as the Northern Ireland government was reluctant to spend money on them and there were no searchlights in the city, which made shooting down enemy bombers all the more difficult. After seeing the Blitz in London in the autumn of 1940, the government began the construction of air raid shelters. The Luftwaffe in early 1941, flew reconnaissance missions that identified the docks and industrial areas to be targeted. Especially hard hit were the working class areas in the north and east of the city where over a thousand were killed and hundreds were seriously injured. Many people left the city afraid of future attacks. The bombing revealed the terrible slum conditions. In May 1941, the Luftwaffe hit the docks and the Harland and Wolff shipyard, closing it for six months. Apart from the numbers of dead, the Belfast blitz saw half of the city’s houses destroyed. Approximately twenty million pounds worth of damage was caused. The Northern Ireland government was criticized heavily for its lack of preparation. The criticism forced the resignation of Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister J. M. Andrews. The bombing raids continued until the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941. The American army arrived in 1942–44, setting up bases around Northern Ireland, and spending freely.
An Emergency Hospital Service was established at the beginning of the war, in the expectation that it would be required to deal with large numbers of casualties.
A common theme called for an expansion of the welfare state as a reward to the people for their wartime sacrifices The goal was operationalized in a famous report by William Beveridge It recommended that the various income maintenance services that a grown-up piecemeal since 1911 be systematized and made universal. Unemployment benefits and sickness benefits were to be universal. There would be new benefits for maternity. The old-age pension system would be revised and expanded, and require that a person retired. A full-scale National Health Service would provide free medical care for everyone. All the major parties endorsed the principles and they were largely put into effect when peace returned.
The themes of equality and sacrifice were dominant during the war, and in the memory of the war. Harris points out that the war was seen at the time and by a generation of writers as a period of outstanding national unity and social solidarity. There was little antiwar sentiment during or after the war. Furthermore, Britain turned more toward the collective welfare state during the war, expanding it in the late 1940s and reaching a broad consensus supporting it across party lines. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, historians were exploring the subtle elements of continuing diversity and conflict in society during the war period. For example, at first historians emphasized that strikes became illegal in July 1940, and no trade union called one during the war. Later historians pointed to the many localized unofficial strikes, especially in coal mining, shipbuilding, the metal trades, and engineering, with as many as 3.7 million man days lost in 1944.
The BBC collected 47,000 wartime recollections and 15,000 images in 2003-6 and put them online. The CD audiobook Home Front 1939–45 also contains a selection of period interviews and actuality recordings.
BBC and music during WWII
Before the war, BBC radio had had quite an elitist approach to popular music. Jazz, swing or big band music for dancing was relegated to a few late night spots. During the war, the BBC was obliged to adapt, if only because British soldiers were listening to German radio stations to hear their dance music favourites.
This adaptation was not without conflict. The BBC establishment reluctantly increased the amount of dance music played, but censorship was severe. The American hit “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” for example was censored because of its almost blasphemous mix of religious words and a foxtrot melody. BBC heads were also worried about American-style crooners undermining the virility of British men.
The BBC establishment tried hard to stick to the jaunty tone which they felt had helped to win the first world war – so George Formby and Gracie Fields were very much played on the radio. Indeed, these two stars were undoubtedly more heroes to working-class people in Britain than was Winston Churchill, since they were seen to “come from the ordinary people.”
The United States did not need a forward Propaganda Minister; they could count on big bands producing music that reflected the governments primary interest because they were the interests of the population.
Britain did have a mass media which played popular music, much enjoyed by the Germans stationed in France and the Low Countries or flying over Britain. The most famous single performer was Vera Lynn who became known as “the forces’ sweetheart”.
Popular concert songs in Britain during the war included:
- Run Rabbit Run – Sung by Flanagan and Allen (1939) Words by Noel Gay & Ralph Butler. Music by Noel Gay.
- There’ll Always Be An England (1939–40) Words by Hughie Charles. Music by Ross Parker. Sung by Vera Lynn.
- We’ll Meet Again Words and Music by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles (1939)
- This is perhaps the most famous war time song with the lines:
- We’ll meet again
- Don’t know where
- Don’t know when
- But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
- This is perhaps the most famous war time song with the lines:
- (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover Words by Nat Burton and Music by Walter Kent (1941–42)
- When the Lights Go on Again Written by Eddie Seller, Sol Marcus, and Bennie Benjamin
The theme tune of the TV series Dad’s Army, “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?” does not date from the war, although it was intended as a gentle pastiche of wartime songs. With lyrics by Jimmy Perry and music by Perry and Derek Taverner, it was sung by one of Perry’s childhood idols, wartime entertainer Bud Flanagan who died in 1968, soon after the first episode played.