If Edwardian Britain was slowly emerging from Victoria’s long reign and unsure of its new, developing identity, the writer HG Wells was already gazing far into the future. For while his non-fiction output was impressively prolific, it was his science fiction novels that made Wells his name, foretelling of future 20th-century developments such as space travel and nuclear bombs.
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In both his fiction and non-fiction, Wells investigated contemporary social problems and ills, deliberating on the means with which to cure them. A futurist and utopian, novels like 1905’s A Modern Utopia attempted to provide a framework for a new way of living. Other works speculated on notions such as time travel (The Time Machine) and alien invasions (The War of the Worlds).
After the gritty social realism of Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens, such flights of fantasy, conceived in the safety of suburbia, offered Edwardian readers a sense of escapism; a portal into other ways of being.
Although his greatest achievements would come with World War II, Winston Churchill was already a notable public figure by the time of Edward VII’s coronation, as both a celebrated war correspondent and Conservative MP. He defected to the Liberals in 1904 and subsequently held a number of cabinet posts, including first lord of the Admiralty, a role he was holding when World War I broke out.
Born to a Barbadian carpenter father and an English mother, Walter Tull became one of the very first mixed-race footballers to play in English football’s top tier. He also became a soldier in the British Army who saw action at the battle of the Somme.
Tull’s parents had both passed away before his 10th birthday and he was placed in an orphanage in east London. There he developed a love for football and went on to play for local non-league side Clapton, before being headhunted by Tottenham Hotspur in the First Division of the Football League.
But following sustained racial abuse from opposition fans (at Bristol City, the vernacular used by the locals was described as being “lower than Billingsgate”), Tull dropped down the leagues to sign for Northampton Town in 1911. Three years later, he enlisted in the army, rising through the ranks before being killed in the final year of World War I.
If a new century and a new monarch heralded a bright, reshaped future, Emmeline Pankhurst had a strong idea of what that shape should be. In Manchester in 1903 she and her daughter Christabel established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to further the cause of women in society, most conspicuously by attempting to secure their right to vote.
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The WSPU’s tactics appeared out of step with genteel, polite Edwardian society. Pankhurst and the union advocated the deployment of militant, direct action to force the issue onto the political agenda of the day. Focusing on “deeds, not words”, the suffragettes often operated beyond the law, undertaking acts of arson and violence to get noticed.
Some might say that Pankhurst’s tactics were extreme, but they led, in 1918, to the first British women (those 30 or older who met certain property qualifications) being finally able to go the polls.
Born in New Zealand, Ernest Rutherford became chair of physics at the Victoria University of Manchester in 1907. The following year he won the Nobel Prize (for chemistry), and would later come to be regarded as the godfather of nuclear physics, creating the first artificial nuclear reaction in 1917.
After a childhood spent largely separate from other children, in adulthood Beatrix Potter became a painter of flora and fauna before publishing her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in 1901. The first of a series of 23 children’s books, it established Potter as one of the bestselling authors of the age and would go on to sell 45 million copies.
An army officer who gained nationwide fame for his heroics during the Boer War, Robert Baden-Powell’s books on military reconnaissance proved popular with boys, prompting him to host a scout camp in Dorset in 1907. The following year, he wrote Scouting for Boys; its enthusiastic reception saw Baden-Powell leave the army in 1910 and launch the Scout Association.
Not only was Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse the creator of dim aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his pin-sharp valet Jeeves, but the humourist was also extraordinarily prolific, writing countless plays and short stories alongside more than 90 novels, the first of which was 1902’s The Pothunters.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
An architect, designer and painter, Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh is best known – during the years of Edward VII’s reign, at least – for his buildings, particularly those in and around his native Glasgow. His work, the most famous of which is probably the Glasgow School of Art, ushered in a thoroughly 20th-century style, moving British architecture out of the Victorian era.
Taking office in 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith was the fourth – and last – prime minister of Edward VII’s nine-year reign. An influential barrister who had served as home secretary under William Gladstone and chancellor under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, he embarked on a series of reforms aimed at modernising both the workings of government and the way of life for wider society.
But parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, was an obstacle to the Liberal Party’s reform programme, and it wasn’t until three years into his premiership that Asquith was able to get the Parliament Act of 1911 passed, which allowed the sidestepping of the House of Lords when it came to enacting legislation, as long as the bill in question had been passed three times in the Commons.
This was crucial as Asquith fought to continue his reforms, namely the establishment of a modern welfare state after the laissez-faire approach during the 19th century.
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Dying in (the) office
Asquith’s predecessor, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, resigned as prime minister on 3 April 1908 due to failing health. He passed away at 10 Downing Street 19 days later, becoming the first and only former prime minister to die at the residence.
Captain Robert F Scott
Edward VII strongly approved of the endeavours of Britain’s polar adventurers, especially Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose Discovery expedition set sail just a few months after Edward became king. With a bright new century opening up, Scott was the embodiment of a new era of discovery, even if he prematurely met his demise in 1912 on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition.
The older sister of novelist Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell was a key member of the artistic and literary Bloomsbury Group that divided itself between London and the Sussex countryside. Her paintings drew from post-Impressionism, playing with form and colour, and very much providing a counterpoint to the rather more dour realism of Victorian narrative painting.
The future Lord Kitchener played a significant role in ensuring that the Sun never set on the British empire during Edwardian times. A key figure in the Boer War, he served as commander-in-chief of the British Army in India for seven years, before becoming proconsul of Egypt. Kitchener then became the poster boy for a mass campaign to assemble an army of volunteers in the early days of World War I.
Despite a comparatively humble background and being raised, to the Establishment’s consternation, as a Roman Catholic, Edward Elgar rose to become the preeminent English composer of the Edwardian era. His Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the majority of which were written in the first few years of the new century, became the soundtrack of the immediate post-Victorian age, while his Symphony No 2 in E flat major was dedicated to Edward VII shortly after the king’s death.
So quintessentially English-sounding was Elgar’s work, and so bound to Edwardian times, that the personal aspect of his composing is often neglected. Indeed, as his biographer Michael Kennedy observed, his music “can be described accurately as not ‘Edwardian’ but only as ‘Elgarian’”. Another critic, Andrew Farach-Colton, declared that “the composer’s Edwardian image has blinded generations to the loneliness and beauty in his music”.
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed