Monday, 25 July 2016


While researching my latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, I read and very much enjoyed Robert Cecil's Life in Edwardian England.

Cecil writes of Queen Victoria's reign as being a time of stability. Even if the 'widow' was often dour, she ruled over an era of great transformation with new inventions and discoveries. A time of great social movement too, with the building of the railroads and the rise in industrialisation. And when she finally came to die Great Britain was in a state of shock, with Henry James and Marie Correlli both quoted as saying the very same words: 'We all feel motherless today.'

King Edward's reign did not start well. On the original Coronation day, 26 June 1902, the king was not in the best of health, later being diagnosed as suffering from appendicitis. The event was postponed until August, by which time everyone in the country was in the mood to celebrate, with the wealthy hosting dinners, and with commoners in the streets and pubs singing songs like 'Dolly Gray', or 'The Honeysuckle and the Bee.'

Edward VII in coronation robes 

Edward's reign was anything but dour. Generous and politically tolerant (if privately known to be prone to foul language and frequent explosions of a bad temper), the king performed well as a diplomat who represented his country abroad. He was not much interested in the worlds of literature or art, but he loved many other pleasures in life. There was hunting and horse racing. There were weekends at country house parties, where his many lovers could be met - with scandals then reported on in the Monday morning newspapers. 

For some this was all too shocking, but the common people loved their king - perhaps because he sometimes strove to live his life as 'one of them'. In the final February of his life he was recognised on Worthing Pier - having dozed off while sitting there, wrapped in a fur coat to keep out the chill. Perhaps it was due to such outdoor pursuits that the king then contracted Bronchitis and died at the age of sixty-eight.

When we look back on Edward's reign it conjures a glamorous picture in which the 'white collar' middle class (who often considered themselves to be above the artisans and craftsmen) lived in airy new-built houses in leafy garden suburbs; where the streets and pavements were well exposed by electric, rather than gas lit lamps. If peeping through windows with lace and plush curtains, their dining tables would be laid with the dishes that wives and servants concocted - with the preparation of recipes sometimes even taking days. There were the fancy restaurants where gourmand dishes were prepared, like The Trocadero, or The Ritz. And then, there was Romano's, where a gentleman might not take his wife...

At Romano's ... Italiano's
It's a Paradise in the Strand
At Romano's - as Papa knows -
Where the wines and the women are grand!

For the poorer folk there was beer, not wine. There were also packs of cigarettes - with women often becoming addicted, though few of them smoked in public. But still, so many people lived in dreary states of penury, with very few luxuries at all. 

                                         Edwardian harvest, from the Heritage Explorer site.

At least, in the countryside, there would be certain times of the year when food was in abundance, with vegetables being freshly grown, and animals reared on nearby farms. But city life was very hard, not to mention the long and arduous hours that many spent in factories. And then there were the mines. The production of coal might well have been the source of vital energy, and the backbone of the economy, but the miners' wages were in decline between 1900 and 1911. 

All across the industrial board wages were stagnating while the cost of living continued to rise. Those who owned their own houses were forced to take in lodgers; who could not afford more than a room, and often had to share that too. It was not at all unusual for every member of a family who happened to be old enough to hold down a job of one type or another; therefore providing a financial buffer against the others falling ill.

There was no social security. Not until 1906 was it a legal necessity for the Workmen's Compensation Act to result in injured employees being supported by their firms. It is also no coincidence that in 1906 there were 692 pawnshops within a radius of ten miles around the London Royal Exchange. 

In 1902, Jack London described the East End as being -

'...the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum. The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of ... squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of brick and misery.'

Jack London spoke of viewing the city from the back of a hansom cab, but the Edwardian era also saw the combustion engine, with horse-drawn vehicles travelling alongside brand new motor cars. It wasn't just cars - the earliest of which still had the look of cabs, with chauffeurs sitting high on top. The invention of the pneumatic tire meant that bicycles and tricycles were also very widely used - and by women as well as the gentlemen. This in turn led to changes in fashion, and the introduction of knickbockers: the frilly knee length pairs of drawers that were worn underneath long frocks and skirts.

The use of cars also went on to influence fashions of the times. The large hats that women often wore were replaced by motor bonnets, to protect their hair from gusts of wind. The first vehicles were not enclosed. Often there was no windscreen. So veils or goggles protected the eyes from any grit that was thrown up. Long dust coats in the summer, and leather capes in winter months.

Another form of transport - though more definitely of the leisure type - were the popular hot air balloons, not to mention the airships that then had the additions of propellers and engines. It wasn't very long before aeroplanes were in the skies - with the Wright brothers creating a machine that then 'took off' in every way. In 1909, Louis Bleriot flew a monoplane to make the first Channel crossing - after which the military began to take an interest, with substantial investment funds then being secured in a parliament debate.

And planes would be used in warfare, not that long after Edward's death, when the long 'Edwardian summer' would come to a sudden tragic end and descend into the chaos that we now recall as the First World War.

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