The Edwardian era: a history guide and timeline of Britain in the reign of Edward VII
Dr John Jacob Woolf answers key questions about a brief but momentous ‘gilded age’ for Britain, plus we chart the political, economic and social milestones that defined the Edwardian age...
Q: When was the Edwardian era and how long did it last?
A: Technically, it was the period when Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, ruled as king of Great Britain and Ireland, from January 1901 to May 1910. Most historians, however, talk of the Edwardian era as extending to the years until World War I broke out in 1914. That is because once the nation had entered the war, the whole tenor of British life fundamentally changed and a new country, both domestically and internationally, emerged.
Q: What was it known for?
A: Coming as it does after Victoria’s long and epochal reign and before the destruction and horror of the world war, it was a liminal time for Britain, commonly imagined to this day as a ‘gilded age’ all about tea on the lawns and lazy, sunlit afternoons. But once you penetrate the Edwardian era, you see a different side to the myths that have long been perpetuated.
It was a period that saw the spread of the labour movement, an intensification of the fight for women’s suffrage, and the rise of Pan-Africanism; a key trademark of the decade was the assertion of such marginalised groups. There were plenty of other changes, too: the growth of the middle classes, greater urbanisation and electrification, and so on. It was an era of swagger, opulence, self-belief and a bit of arrogance. But underneath this was a fear of imperial decline – a decline in the British ‘stock’, if you like – and the birth of the eugenics movement in Britain. So the era was a paradoxical age as well.
Q: How did the Edwardian era differ from its predecessor, the Victorian period?
A: Well, at a basic level, the fact that there was a different person on the throne, Edward VII, set a different tone, one that was less conservative in outlook and a bit more morally lax. Women’s clothing was less restrictive, for example. I think it’s fair to say that the world became a smaller place and more interconnected during the Edwardian era too. Victorian inventions started to become more widespread, such as electricity in homes and the first local telephone systems.
I think the Edwardians saw themselves as distinctly modern and more global. They even talked about how old-fashioned the Victorian speech patterns and culture seemed to them, so there was an awareness that with the passing of Victoria, a new age was beckoning, and that they were living in a modern, exciting, self-confident time.
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Q: What would you say are some of the era’s defining moments?
A: For such a short period, so much happened. Looming large is the promise and tragedy of RMS Titanic: seen at its launch as a symbol of modernity and progress, but the news of its sinking in April 1912 was met with widespread grief and anger. Another big moment for the Edwardians was the People’s Budget of 1909–10, a proposal by the Liberal government that created the foundations of the modern welfare state. Then, of course, there was the build up and declaration of World War I. But the first decade of the 20th century also witnessed great technological leaps, notably Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first heavier-than-air flight in 1903.
Q: What did the Edwardians like to do for fun?
A: Oh, the Edwardians were great fun! They loved international sports: in 1908, London hosted the Olympics for the first time with more than 2,000 athletes taking part, including 37 women.Cinema and theatre were on the rise, with many people flocking to see the cultural phenomenon, JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, which hit the stage in 1904. Another feature of the Edwardians was their fascination with weird crazes. They loved dressing up, rollerblading and skating, writing and sending postcards, and the tango became hugely popular. So, as well as the garden parties of their historical reputation, the era had lots of dancing, music, fashions, theatre visits and sport.
Q: What about the significant technological developments?
A: The development and expansion of electrical systems that took place under the Victorians really picked up speed, with electricity lighting up more and more houses as well as streets. Outside the home, the first electric tram line in London began operation in 1903. Technological innovations continued under Edwardian inventors and scientists, from the car starting to become widely available, to the invention of devices like the vacuum cleaner (introduced in 1901) revolutionising everyday life.
During the Edwardian era, there were broad advances in the understanding of physics and the material world as well. The theory of relativity, quantum theory, and the theory of radioactive disintegration were just some of the discoveries that had their roots in the period.
Q: What would it have been like to grow up at this time?
A: In contrast to the Victorian period and the Industrial Revolution, this was an era where childhood became more cherished, and young boys and girls came to be seen as agents in their own right. Aided by a government crackdown on child labour, they were given greater freedom to have fun, to play games and make friends. At the same time, the education system was being revamped: more children attended school and learned to read, write and do arithmetic.
While there was still an entrenched gendered division, with girls more likely to be taught how to cook and sew, children were at least encouraged in their schooling. It obviously depended a lot on the class they were born in to, as the life of a child from a working-class family would certainly have been more restricted and they would likely have ended up working from a young age. Yet the Edwardian era took childhood as a concept more seriously, and generally speaking there were more opportunities for the young, the majority of whom would have previously ended up in the factories and mills.
Q: Who were some of the main celebrities of Edwardian Britain?
A: Aside from the king who gave his name to the era, there were politicians like David Lloyd George, who proposed the People’s Budget in 1909 and went on to be elected the wartime prime minister, and activists, including suffragists and suffragettes like Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. Sophia Duleep Singh is one of my personal favourites. Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, she lived in Hampton Court, but her militant campaigning for women’s rights made her something of a thorn in the royal side.
This was the time of heroic Antarctic exploration, so some of the biggest celebrities were men like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. But there were artists too: Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing Sherlock Holmes stories while Beatrix Potter published her first Peter Rabbit tale in 1902. While Edward Elgar is perhaps the best-known of the era’s composers, on a par with him at the time was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The black composer’s Song of Hiawatha was massively popular, to the point that he was received by US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
Finally, there were other personalities of the day, although they were not exactly celebrities. Dr Crippen is among this list. Hanged in 1910 for murdering his wife, he was one of the first criminals to be caught with the aid of wireless telegraphy after he tried to flee abroad. His story, trial and execution was splashed across the press and he became a notorious name to the Edwardians.
Q: What impact did the era have on the British empire?
A: While the empire remained a key part of life and the Union flag was still spread across the globe, there were concerns about the extent to which Britain could maintain control. The Second Boer War was raging and nationalist movements were on the rise in different parts of the world. The empire was still an important part of Britain’s sense of self and its moralising mission. But it had also become dangerously competitive, particularly with Germany.
Q: What were the political and diplomatic circumstances of this?
A: While Edward VII showed a real interest in foreign affairs, and went on numerous state visits, international tensions were a trademark of the period. The Second Boer War was dividing opinion in Britain, and such was the fear about German imperial ambitions that, in 1909, the Secret Service was established (later MI5 and then MI6). But there were tensions closer to home as well, especially in Ireland. The Irish home rule movement [which campaigned for self-government] was a dominating force, and a destabilising one at that.
This was a period of social and political agitation across Britain, culminating in the ‘Great Unrest’ from 1911 to 1914 and more than 3,000 labour strikes. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, was knocking around Britain, while anarchists and syndicalists [those in worker-based groups seeking to advance their rights through strike action] caused as much trouble as possible. And in 1911, a gunfight broke out between Latvian revolutionaries and police in London, dubbed the siege of Sidney Street.
Amidst the unstable activity, the working classes were finding their voice and demanding better wages and protections at work. They asserted their rights through the growing trade union movement, which led to the formation, in 1900, of the Labour Party. Six years later, 29 Labour MPs had been elected.
In Europe, there were many divisions and power struggles, with the German kaiser expanding his navy to threaten British naval superiority, and Russian aggression in the east. The situation remained incredibly tense after Edward’s death, and ultimately resulted in the outbreak of World War I and the symbolic end of the Edwardian era.
Timeline: The Edwardian era
22 Jan 1901
After 63 years and seven months as monarch, Queen Victoria dies at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Her 59-year-old son Albert Edward takes the throne as Edward VII.
24 May 1902
The first Empire Day is held on the late queen’s birthday. Shops and schools close and celebrations take place across the empire.
31 May 1902
The Peace of Vereeniging brings the Boer War to an official end. The British victory comes at a great cost to both sides.
Conservative statesman and philosopher Arthur Balfour becomes prime minister following the retirement of his uncle and mentor Lord Salisbury.
9 Aug 1902
Several weeks later than planned – to allow the king to recover from a serious bout of appendicitis and peritonitis – Edward VII and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, are crowned at Westminster Abbey.
The first meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) is held at the Manchester home of Emmeline Pankhurst. For the next 15 years the movement will campaign tirelessly for women’s suffrage.
Britain and France sign a declaration, later known as the Entente Cordiale, establishing the beginnings of a formal alliance and bringing colonial disputes in north Africa to an end, among other things.
The Aliens Act denies ‘undesirable immigrants’ entry to Britain. Although not specifying Jews by name, the Act is predominantly targeted at the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing religious persecution in eastern Europe.
Boer War hero Robert Baden-Powell invites 20 boys to take part in an experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset, where they are taught some of the military and scouting skills he has previously observed in southern Africa. The Scout Movement is born.
Fearing the growing strength of Germany and its alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy, Russia (already formally allied with France since 1894) enters into a pact with Britain. The new Triple Entente will later become the nucleus of the Allied powers in WWI.
Liberal politician Herbert Henry Asquith, the son of a Yorkshire clothing manufacturer, becomes prime minister.
27 Apr–31 Oct 1908
More than 2,000 athletes from 22 nations take part in the fourth modern Olympiad, held in London. Among the competitors are 37 women, including Britain’s Queenie Newall, who wins the gold medal in women’s archery.
Edward VII becomes the first reigning British monarch to visit Russia, meeting his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, on board the yacht Standart.
1 Jan 1909
The Old Age Pensions Act comes into effect, providing a non-contributory weekly pension of 5s a week (7s, 6d for married couples) to people over the age of 70. Claimants need to have an income of less than 10s a year and pass a ‘character test’ in order to be eligible.
15 Mar 1909
American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge opens his first department store on Oxford Street, London.
Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, announces his People’s Budget, paving the way for social reform.
Britain’s first 62 government-funded labour exchange offices open for business, tasked with helping unemployed people find work. The Shoreditch office in east London, for example, lists vacancies for jobs such as ‘picture frame gilder’ and ‘piano regulator’.
6 May 1910
Edward VII dies of pneumonia, aged 68. His body lies in state at Westminster Hall for three days prior to his funeral so people can pay their respects. The king’s eldest surviving son takes the throne as George V.
Tens of thousands of Liverpool transport workers go on strike, demanding, among other things, an increase in wages, union recognition and an end to medical inspections. In August the tensions explode into full-blown riots, which see two men shot dead by soldiers from the 18th Hussars.
The Parliament Act sees the power to veto a bill (except one to extend the lifetime of a parliament) removed from the House of Lords, and reduces the maximum lifespan of a parliament from seven to five years.
The National Insurance Act receives royal assent. A compulsory payment of 4d a week by regularly employed men (plus 3d from his employer and 2d from the state) entitles him to free medical care and sick pay for up to 26 weeks.
Robert Falcon Scott reaches the South Pole five weeks after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Scott and his team later perish on the return journey.
Britain’s first national miners’ strike sees miners achieve their aim of a guaranteed minimum wage.
RMS Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks on its maiden voyage with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.
Herbert Henry Asquith proposes a third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, provoking a political clash between Ulster Unionists determined to prevent home rule and Irish nationalists keen to see Irish independence.
John Archer is elected mayor of Battersea, becoming London’s first black mayor in the process.
4 Jun 1913
Militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison throws herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She dies four days later from her injuries.
28 Jun 1914
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie are assassinated during a visit to Sarajevo. The archduke’s death will later come to be regarded as the spark that ignited WWI.
4 Aug 1914
The British empire declares war on Germany; the Edwardian gilded age comes to an abrupt end.
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast