The legacy of the Edwardian era: why the period remains relevant today
"It can appear as a ‘golden age’ – and one subject to much mythology," says John Jacob Woolf
The Edwardian era evokes images of country houses, garden parties and croquet on the lawn; an era where the sun shone brightly as gentlemen and ladies in decorated picture hats sipped tea and nibbled on sandwiches. It is an era that has cascaded into our own through popular cultural productions such as My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and Downton Abbey. It can appear as a ‘golden age’; an age of warmth and cosiness – and one subject to much mythology.
The era, which takes its name from the corpulent King Edward VII, was sandwiched between the Victorian age (1837–1901) and World War I (1914–18), emerging as a seemingly quieter period compared to the momentous industrialisation of the 19th century and the global slaughter that followed. It was also a relatively short era, giving the period a pithiness that has contributed to its relative historical neglect.
But there is much to be gleaned from the period, which both discredits the myths and recentres the age in our own understanding of today. For starters, the Edwardian era – like the epochs before and after – was not mono-ethnically white. At the apex of the imperial age, and at a time when racism was rife, black Edwardians were intimately part of British life. At the same time, large-scale Jewish migration to Britain led to greater levels of anti-Semitism and the advent of the explicitly anti-immigration Aliens Act in 1905. Famously, the Edwardian era also saw the campaign for women’s suffrage gather violent momentum, while the labour movement became increasingly more vocal and active.
It was, therefore, an era of radicalism. Socialism, anarchism, republicanism and syndicalism sought to disrupt the order of things, while the state recognised, however conservatively, that interventionist welfare policies were necessary to address the vast levels of inequality.
This sense of change and disruption permeated all areas of society – whether through momentous technological advancements, the rise of eugenics, new understandings about sex and gender, or the increasingly precarious position of the landed gentry – leading many people to long for the past or fret about the future.
There was, of course, some sunniness amid the tumult: fresh opportunities for women, the creation of the world’s first-ever garden city [Letchworth in Hertfordshire], a new focus on childhood, rising literacy levels and growing forms of fun in sports and cinema. Yet there were also dark clouds forming on the international horizon, which brought the stormy Edwardian era to a tragic close.
Stripped of the mythology, then, the Edwardian era echoes into our own – in politics, culture, international struggles and the fight for equality – with a legacy that still defines the struggles of today.
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This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed