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.
There was a growing political awareness of the working class, leading to a rise in trade unions, the Labour movement and demands for better working conditions. The aristocracy remained in control of top government offices.
The Conservatives – at the time called "Unionists" – were dominant from the 1890s to 1906. The party had many strengths, appealing to voters supportive of imperialism, tariffs, the Church of England, a powerful Royal Navy, and traditional hierarchical society. There was a powerful leadership base in the landed aristocracy and landed gentry in rural England, plus strong support from the Church of England and military interests. Historians have used election returns to demonstrate that Conservatives did surprisingly well in working-class districts. They had an appeal as well to the better-off element of traditional working class Britons in the larger cities. In rural areas, the national headquarters made highly effective use of paid traveling lecturers, with pamphlets, posters, and especially lantern slides, who were able to communicate effectively with rural voters – particularly the newly enfranchised agricultural workers. In the first years of the 20th century, the Conservative government, with Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister, had numerous successes in foreign policy, defence, and education, as well as solutions for the issues of liquor licensing and land ownership for the peasants of Ireland.
Nevertheless, the weaknesses were accumulating, and proved so overwhelming in 1906 that they did not return to complete power until 1922. The Conservative Party was losing its drive and enthusiasm, especially after the retirement of the charismatic Joseph Chamberlain. There was a bitter split on "tariff reform" (that is, imposing tariffs or taxes on all imports), that drove many of the free traders over to the Liberal camp. Tariff reform was a losing issue that the Conservative leadership inexplicably clung to. Support among the top tier of the working class, and in lower middle class weakened, and there was dissatisfaction among the intellectuals. The 1906 election was a landslide for the opposition, which saw its total vote jump 25 percent, while the Conservative total vote held steady.
The Liberal Party lacked a unified ideological base in 1906. It contained numerous contradictory and hostile factions, such as imperialists and supporters of the Boers; near-socialists and laissez-faire classical liberals; suffragettes and opponents of women's suffrage; antiwar elements and supporters of the military alliance with France. Non-Conformist Dissenters – Protestants outside the Anglican fold – were a powerful element, dedicated to opposing the established church in terms of education and taxation. However, the Dissenters were losing support and society at large and played a lesser and lesser role in party affairs after 1900. The Party, furthermore, also included Irish Catholics, and secularists from the labour movement. The middle-class business, professional and intellectual communities where generally strongholds, although some old aristocratic families played important roles as well. The working class element was moving rapidly toward the newly emerging Labour Party. One uniting element was widespread agreement on the use of politics and Parliament as a device to upgrade and improve society and to reform politics.
The Labour Party was emerging from the rapidly growing union movement after 1890. In 1906 it formed an alliance with the Liberals that allowed for cross support in elections, and permitted the emergence of a small Labour contingent in Parliament. It was a temporary arrangement until the 1920s, when the Labour Party was strong enough to act on its own, and the Liberals were in an irreversible. Subtle social changes in the working class were producing a younger generation that wanted to act independently. Michael Childs argues that the younger generation had reason to prefer Labour over Liberal political styles. Social factors included secularized elementary education (with a lesser role for Dissenting Protestantism); the "New Unionism" after 1890 brought unskilled workers into a movement previously dominated by the skilled workers; and new leisure-time activities, especially the music hall and sports, involved youth while repelling the older generation of Liberal voters.
The government entered the Second Boer War with great confidence, little expecting that the two small rural Boer republics in southern Africa with a combined white population less than London would hold off the concentrated power of the British Empire for two and half years, and take 400,000 Imperial troops to secure victory.
At first the war 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. Nevertheless pro-war politicians, such as Unionist Joseph Chamberlain, maintained their hold on power. When Kitchener took command in 1900, he initiated a scorched earth policy in order to interdict Boer guerilla tactics. This resulted in the relocation of thousands of Boer families to internment camps. As prisoners of war were transported overseas to other British possessions, the majority of internees were women and children. Conditions in the camps were poor, due to overcrowding and bad sanitation. Supplies were unreliable, partly because of the constant disruption of communication lines by the Boers. The food rations were meagre and there was inadequate shelter, contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery were endemic. Many of the internees died. Emily Hobhouse visited the camps and brought the conditions to the attention of the British public. Public outcry resulted in the Fawcett Commission which corroborated Hobhouses's report and eventually led to improved conditions.
In 1901 the six British self-governing colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia united to form the Commonwealth of Australia, with almost complete control of its internal affairs, but with foreign policy and defence handled by London.
The Liberal Party under Henry Campbell-Bannerman rallied Liberals around the traditional platform of free trade and land reform and led them to the greatest election victory in Party history. The Prime Minister was overshadowed by his front bench, most notably H. H. Asquith at the Exchequer, Edward Grey at the Foreign Office, Richard Burdon Haldane at the War Office and David Lloyd George at the Board of Trade. Campbell-Bannerman retired in 1908 and was succeeded by Asquith. He stepped up the government's radicalism, especially in the "People's Budget" of 1909 that proposed to fund expanded welfare programs with new taxes on land and high incomes. It was blocked by the House of Lords, but eventually became law in April 1910.
Almost half of the Liberal MPs elected in 1906 were supportive of the 'New Liberalism', which advocated government action to improve people's lives.
Liberals in 1906–1910 passed major legislation designed to reform politics and society, such as the regulation of working hours, National Insurance and the beginnings of the welfare state, as well as curtailing the power of the House of Lords. Woman suffrage was not on the Liberal agenda. There were numerous major reforms helping labour, typified by the Trade Boards Act 1909 that set minimum wages in certain trades with the history of "sweated" or "sweatshop" rates of especially low wages, because of surplus of available workers, the presence of women workers, or the lack of skills. At first it applied to four industries: chain-making, ready-made tailoring, paper-box making, and the machine-made lace and finishing trade. It was later expanded to coal mining and then to other industries with preponderance of unskilled manual labour by the Trade Boards Act 1918. Under the leadership of David Lloyd George Liberals extended minimum wages to farm workers.
Conservatives based in the House of Lords tried to kill the People's Budget. The Liberals passed the Parliament Act 1911 to sharply reduce the power of the House of Lords to block legislation. The cost was high, however, as the government was required by the king to call two general elections in 1910 to validate its position and ended up frittering away most of its large majority, with the balance of power held by Labour and Irish Parliamentary Party members.
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, but 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.
By the late 1880s, the Industrial Revolution had created new technologies that changed the way people lived. The growth of industry shifts in manufacturing factories, special-purpose machinery and technological innovations, which led to increased productivity. Gender roles shifted as women made use of the new technology to upgrade their lifestyle and their career opportunities.
Mortality declined steadily in urban England and Wales 1870–1917. Robert Millward and Frances N. Bell looked statistically at those factors in the physical environment (especially population density and overcrowding) that raised death rates directly, as well as indirect factors such as price and income movements that affected expenditures on sewers, water supplies, food, and medical staff. The statistical data show that increases in the incomes of households and increases in town tax revenues helped cause the decline of mortality. The new money permitted higher spending on food, and also on a wide range of health-enhancing goods and services such as medical care. The major improvement in the physical environment was the quality of the housing stock, which rose faster than the population; its quality was increasingly regulated by central and local government. Infant mortality fell faster in England and Wales than in Scotland. Clive Lee argues that one factor was the continued overcrowding in Scotland's housing. During the First World War, infant mortality fell sharply across the country. J.M. Winter attributes this to the full employment and higher wages paid to war workers.
For housewives, sewing machines enabled the production of ready made clothing and made it easier for women to sew their own clothes; more generally, argues Barbara Burman, "home dressmaking was sustained as an important aid for women negotiating wider social shifts and tensions in their lives." Increased literacy in the middle class gave women wider access to information and ideas. Numerous new magazines appealed to her tastes and help define femininity.
The inventions of the typewriter, telephone, and new filing systems offered middle class women increased employment opportunities. So too did the rapid expansion of the school system, and the emergence of the new profession of nursing. Education and status led to demands for female roles in the rapidly expanding world of sports.
As middle class women rose in status they increasingly supported demands for a political voice.
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage advocacy organization. 1907 saw the Mud March, the first large procession organised by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). More than 3,000 women trudged through the wet, cold and muddy streets of London from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall to advocate for women's suffrage.
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. Those who transported contraceptives could be legally punished. 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. 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.
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. Middle and upper class women relied on servants to run their homes smoothly. 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 era due to a declining number of young people willing to be employed in this area.
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 Edwardians developed new styles in clothing design. The bustle and heavy fabrics of the previous century disappeared. A new concept of tight fitting skirts and dresses made of lightweight fabrics were introduced for a more active lifestyle.The 2 pieces dress came into vogue. Skirts hung tight at the hips and flared at the hem, creating a trupet of lily-like shape.
Skirts in 1901 had decorated hems with ruffles of fabric and lace.
Some dresses and skirts featured trains.
Tailored jackets, first introduced in 1880, increased in popularity and by 1900, tailored suits became popular.
By 1904, skirts became fuller and less clingy.
In 1905, skirts fell in soft folds that curved in, then flared out near the hemlines.
From 1905 – 1907, waistlines rose.
In 1901, the hobble skirt was introduced; a tight fitting skirt that restricted a woman's stride.
Lingerie dresses, or tea gowns made of soft fabrics, festooned with ruffles and lace were worn indoors.
The Edwardian era 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 November 1910, Roger Fry organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries, London. This exhibition was the first to prominently feature Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh in England and brought their art to the public. He followed it up with the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912.
George Frampton’s statue of Peter Pan, "erected in Hyde Park in 1912 ... immediately became a source of contention, sparking debate about the role of public statuary and its role in spaces of recreation."
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, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Saki, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, 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 by Henrik 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.
White City Stadium for the 1908 Summer Olympics was the first Olympic Stadium in the UK. Built on the site of the Franco-British Exhibition, it had a seating capacity of 68,000 was opened by King Edward VII on 27 April 1908. It was the largest structure of its type in the world, and was designed to be awesome and enhance the love of large-scale spectacle that characterised Edwardian London.
Filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon documented many scenes from Britain and Ireland 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.
The period featured many innovations. Ernest Rutherford published his studies 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 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.