Coming after the inherent social conservatism of the long Victorian age, the Edwardian era offered something of a breath of fresh air – from a rollerskating craze that swept the nation to the invention of ping-pong. However, it wasn’t all fun and games: society still conformed to a strict class system, and people were governed by an exhaustingly long list of dos and don’ts – from not shaking anyone’s hand to having all of your dinner conversation topics dictated by your hostess.
The tone of upper-class society was set by King Edward VII himself, a man who loved to live life to the full – he smoked huge numbers of cigarettes and cigars, had a string of mistresses, and enjoyed a diet stuffed with rich foods and alcohol. The families who made up the British aristocracy took their lead from him, eating sumptuous dinners, gambling into the early hours and often engaging in extra-marital affairs.
To live such a life of luxury required a small army of domestic servants. Working-class Edwardians could find employment as humble maids or kitchen assistants, or else take on the grander positions of housekeepers or butlers, who managed the great houses and made sure life ran smoothly. Or, if they were a particularly attractive or tall man, they might seek employment as a footman – those who were blessed with good looks and a lofty stature often received higher wages, as they were the public face of the house to visitors.
Doing the hard graft
Although it was a gruelling job, working in service was seen as a prestigious occupation, providing accommodation (although it might be a tiny attic room), food (which might be leftovers from the family’s table) and job security. In 1911, more than 1.3 million people in Britain were working as domestic servants – more than the 1.2 million who toiled the land, or the 971,000 who worked down the coal mines.
For those workers whose jobs didn’t offer board, housing could range from a filthy inner-city slum to a country cottage. Reformers were particularly concerned with the dank conditions of tenement housing in cities, which were notoriously overcrowded and crawling with disease.
Between 1886 and 1903, social reformer Charles Booth studied the lives of London’s poorest residents and found that 1 million out of 4.5 million were living in homes that were unfit for human habitation.
More like this
Although the authorities embarked on an ambitious programme to raze these dilapidated buildings to the ground, this approach often made things worse. As the journalist George Sims pointed out in 1902: “Up to the present they have hardly succeeded in solving the great problem, because the evicted or displaced tenants, practically left without any superior accommodation, are driven in to worse.” He also described the harrowing scenes where some tenants wouldn’t leave until “the point of the pickaxe came through the wall against which [they] were leaning.”
While many had to find alternative lodging themselves, some city councils did build housing to help the poor: Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford and Manchester all provided municipal flats. These buildings often boasted a range of mod-cons, such as wired electricity – a Victorian-era invention that took off in the Edwardian period.
Building a new Britain
Fresh technological innovations were transforming Edwardian life, from housing to travel and leisure. The middle classes in particular embraced gadgets like electric stoves, as they typically wouldn’t have a host of servants to help cook and clean but wanted to emulate the lifestyles of the aristocracy. They had the means to splash out on these luxuries, too: the middle classes’ ranks were swelling, and they had more money in their pockets than ever before.
- On the podcast | The Edwardians: everything you wanted to know
Many bought houses in the suburbs, so they could easily travel to their work – be it in banking or manufacturing – in the city. This triggered a huge housing boom, with builders tripping over themselves to match the demand for homes on the outskirts of Britain’s cities and towns.
The world was also becoming smaller than ever before. Telephone lines were enabling global communication, with a wireless signal transmitted across the Atlantic in 1901 for the first time ever. Motor cars were becoming more mainstream, and the reasonably priced Ford Model T first rolled off the production line in 1908; by 1914 there were approximately 400,000 licensed road vehicles in Britain. Air travel was another exciting new possibility, with the Wright Brothers making history with their first powered flight in 1903.
Technology also gave rise to one of Edwardian Britain’s most treasured leisure activities: a trip to the cinema. The first film showing technically took place at the tail end of the Victorian era, in 1896, when the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe device was debuted to fascinated onlookers at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic. By 1914, approximately 500 cinemas had cropped up in London alone.
Theatre was also popular: JM Barrie’s play Peter Pan (later transformed into a novel) took to the stage in 1904 and proved a smash hit. The Edwardians also loved outdoor pursuits, with hunting, horse racing and lawn tennis being particular favourites among the upper classes. The working classes also found time for fun, using their Sundays to wander around museums and galleries, or to enjoy a bracing stroll at the park.
There were more bizarre crazes, too, such as a vogue for dressing up, and – perhaps most unexpected of all – rollerskating, which gripped the nation from 1908 to 1912. At its height, there were at least 500 rinks in operation across Britain.
The age of celebrity
For those who wanted to keep up with the latest gossip of the day, the popular press was booming. Celebrities, such as the entertainer-turned-countess Belle Bilton and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, were often splashed across the papers. Fans could also purchase postcards printed with celebrities’ portraits, so they could bring their favourite stars’ likenesses into their homes.
The newspapers and magazines also kept fashion-forward Edwardians up to date with the latest trends. Women tended to adopt a slightly less restrictive dress code in the period, as flouncy blouses became popular – but corsets were still widely worn. And working-class women could dress in the newest styles, too, as the mass-production methods that were pioneered during the Industrial Revolution had slashed the prices of clothing.
Men, meanwhile, were dressing to the nines in flashy three-piece suits. However, there was one key fashion cue they took from King Edward VII himself: he apparently always left the bottom button of his waistcoat undone. His decadent diet and habit of taking a roast chicken to bed every night as a midnight snack had expanded his waistline, and he apparently couldn’t secure the final fastening.
- Read more | Could you survive an Edwardian dinner party?
According to the American author Samuel Hynes, the Edwardian period was a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun never really set on the British flag”. Although this sentiment can be jarring for a modern audience, life in the Edwardian era was typically looked back on as a golden era, filled with garden parties and pleasant summer afternoons. Much of this is coloured with nostalgia, but it was certainly a time of prosperity and peace – the final stretch of calm before the horrors of World War I, which would rupture British society.
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed