Way of life in Britain before the Great War

Regent Street, London

Regent Street, London

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The First World War (as we prefer to call it after a second) had a profound and permanent effect on the British people and the British state; but a romanticised popular view of Edwardian society, reinforced by television series such as Lark Rise to Candleford and Downton Abbey, has exaggerated the contrasts between pre- and post-war. So to estimate and appreciate the impact of the Great War it is first necessary to examine what living in Britain was like in peacetime 1914.

The citizens of pre-war Britain were largely unaware of or controlled by the state. Forty-six million subjects of King George V enjoyed (or suffered from) a freedom which today we might envy or deplore. Children were allowed to leave school at the age of 13 and in the industrial towns of Lancashire and the West Riding boys and girls of 12 were permitted legally to work up to 33 hours a week and attend classes as “half timers”. Only one in ten were still in education at 14. Only one in a hundred were in higher education.

Working conditions in factories, on farms, in shops and offices would horrify today’s health and safety inspectors. When expectation of life for those born in 1900 was 50 for females and 46 for males, since 1909 to qualify for a non-contributory old age pension of 5p to 25p a week you had to be at least 70-years-old with an income of less than £31 a year!

There was no National Health Service: only as recently as 1911, a restricted insurance scheme, which excluded working tax-payers, provided minimal financial safeguards against sickness and unemployment at the weekly rate of 50p for men and 37p for women. The word “benefit” was now being used favourably to welcome such payments. For most people, however, old age, illness, injury and unemployment were constant, life-long nightmares.

Not surprisingly, given the extent and depth of poverty in the country, standards of physical health and hygiene were appalling. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and measles took a heavy toll, especially of the young. Almost two thirds of First World War army recruits were found to be less than perfectly fit for active service. Defective vision and hearing, bad teeth, rickets, shortness of stature and chronic infections were the results of poor diet and insanitary, overcrowded homes. In York, for instance, the Rowntree survey of 1901 discovered that only 19 per cent of working class houses had their own water supply. In Scarborough, ten thousand in the lower and middle town lived in homes without indoor toilets, hot water or even private taps.

Bad housing came second only to malnutrition as one of Britain’s worst social evils. Owner-occupation was the privilege of the few, rented accommodation the condition of the overwhelming majority. Rents paid to private owners varied from 20p to 35p a week and were invariably the heaviest burden on working-class incomes. Those who lived on estates belonging to enlightened employers, such as Cadbury’s Bournville or Lever’s Port Sunlight, were especially fortunate.

Another major cause of working-class poverty, poor health and family breakdown was heavy drinking. Public houses were principal sanctuaries and beer one of the few solaces. Many well-intentional attempts had been made in the previous century, both by voluntary groups and governments, to control and restrict what was considered a habit unique to the British public, but in the main they had had little effect. Cocoa was no substitute for alcohol.

By 1914 there were as many as 200,000 active members of temperance societies, a million adults who had taken the abstinence pledge and many thousands of children who belonged to the Band of Hope and chapel Sunday schools. But since the 1870s beer-drinking had become a chief party political issue. Most Conservatives, the established Anglican church and the Roman Catholics stood by the brewers, publicans and consumers, while the Liberals and Nonconformists favoured temperance reform. Teetotalism was particularly strong in Wales, Cornwall and Lancashire, centres of chapel Nonconformity.

Nevertheless, to serve the early morning trade for workers, public houses were still open from 5am until midnight and even on Sundays they were closed only in the afternoon. Beer cost 3d (1p) a pint and there were no limits to its strength or that of spirits. Convictions for public drunkenness exceeded 300,000 a year.

Though their numbers were gradually falling (except during the recession years of 1909-12), by 1914 there were still nearly three quarters of a million adults classed as destitute paupers, that is those in receipt of poor law assistance. Outdoor relief in times of particular hardship was in decline, especially after the introduction of old age pensions, but indoor relief in workhouses was still all too common. In 1913, the term “workhouse” was officially replaced by “Poor Law Institution”, but the traditional stigma remained.

As Seebohm Rowntree’s survey of York in 1901 emphasised, the primary underlying cause of much poverty and distress was low wages. To stay above the minimum line for subsistence, the poorest families could not spend money on gambling, holidays, transport fares, tobacco, alcohol, new clothes, or doctors’ fees; they had nothing spare for savings or entertainment such as cinema or music hall. They existed on bread, potatoes, tea, tinned milk and the cheapest cuts of meat. Debt was a constant threat and weekly resort to the pawnshop a regular necessity. The birth of a third child might push them over the edge.

The dramatic increase in trade union membership and militancy during the years from 1900 to 1914 was therefore the direct result of static or irregular wages, rising living costs and unemployment. By the beginning of the century, trade union numbers had passed the two million mark, but by 1914 they had doubled and the total working days lost by strikes reached a peak of over 40 million in 1912. The textile, engineering, iron and steel trades suffered no major stoppages, but the coalminers, railwaymen and dockers waged industrial warfare on a massive scale. In nearly every dispute the issue was minimum wage rates.

Another reason for trade union militancy prior to 1914 was disappointment with the infant Labour party, which they had done most to establish in 1900. An Independent Labour Party had been formed in 1893, but it was little more than a socialist propaganda society and failed to win many seats in the Commons. Not until the major unions were threatened by employers with ruinous legal damages did they begin to place their hopes for redress in parliamentary representation and put up candidates in the 1906 general election. However, though the party had 51 candidates and won 30 seats and the law was changed to give striking unions immunity from damages, the tiny number of Labour MPs was unable to give their paymasters the other reforms they demanded. Indeed, in the second election of 1910 the Labour party actually lost ground, winning only 42 places and just over 7 per cent of the vote. British politics and parliament in 1914 were still dominated by the Liberals and Conservatives. At the outbreak of war, led by Prime Minister Asquith and Chancellor Lloyd George, the Liberals were still clinging to office, but since 1910 their majority depended on 84 Irish Nationalists.

In fact, in electoral terms, the trade unions were handicapped by the disenfranchisement of 40 per cent of working class men and all women. Of a population of more than 26 million over 21, only 7½ million had the right to vote as household occupants. Also, the electoral register was biased against working-class representation because a million landowners, business men and university graduates had two or more votes each in different constituencies.

But by 1914 the campaign for women’s suffrage was reaching a climax. Though the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed in 1898, its exclusively upper-class membership was too polite and patient for some females. Five years later, with the slogan “Deeds not Words”, the Women’s Social and Political Union began a much more aggressive and eventually violent movement. The Daily Mail called its activists Suffragettes. After Emily Davison’s tragic death at the 1911 Derby, they began to attack policemen, paintings, public buildings, and even politicians. Lloyd George feared for his life. In prison they went on hunger strike and had to be fed forcibly.

If the British state of 1914 did little, by today’s standards, for and to its citizens, in return it expected even less. Only the well-to-do were required to pay income tax and only at a low rate. Incomes of over £160 a year incurred a tax of a mere 14d in a 240d pound. Even the very rich had to hand over only a small fraction of their accumulated inheritances. There were passionate protests when Chancellor Lloyd George raised estate duties from 8 to 9 per cent and placed a death duty of 15 per cent on inheritances in excess of one million pounds. The average annual wage for industrial workers in 1914 was £75 and that for agricultural labourers much less.

British subjects were not even required to fight for their country. There was no military conscription in the United Kingdom and no prospect, even in wartime, of it being ever imposed. France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all had millions of peacetime conscripts and could call on millions more of reservists in wartime. In contrast, in 1910, British army professional regulars and part-time volunteers numbered only half a million and there were 128,000 volunteer seaman serving in the Royal Navy. Of the regulars, at least half were scattered overseas throughout the world-wide British empire. Only a maximum of 150,000 soldiers were available in the event of a European war. As Chancellor Bismarck once joked, if the British army ever invaded Prussia, he would send out the police to arrest it. The United Kingdom was the world’s most formidable imperial and naval and not a military power.

By 1914, Ireland, Wales and Scotland were still mainly rural and agricultural, but England was now the most densely populated, industrialised and urbanised country in the world. Of a total of fewer than 36 million, 7.2 lived in Greater London, 2.3 in south east Lancashire, 1.6 in the west Midlands, 1.5 in west Yorkshire, 1.1 in Merseyside and 761,000 on Tyneside, six conurbations when no other European country had more than two. According to the census of 1911, 78 percent of the people of England and Wales were classed as town-dwellers. In little more than a century, there had been a revolutionary movement from rural to urban comparable only to that from hunter-gathering to farming that turned the Old into the New Stone Age.

Another revolution from horse and cart to motorised vehicle was just beginning. The Act of 1903 had raised the road speed limit from four to 20 miles an hour. Then there were only 8,000 cars on the road, but a decade later there were 132,000 and another quarter of a million cycles, buses, coaches and taxis. By then most towns had replaced their horse-drawn buses with electric tramcars and they had forced local authorities to “tarmac” their roads; but most country lanes were still unsurfaced and poorly maintained. Lloyd George’s new road fund tax in his budget of 1909 did little to improve the surfaces of even major routes. In 1914 the private motor car was a rich man’s luxury toy. There were no tests and anyone over 
17 was allowed to drive a vehicle.

The same technology that was developing wireless, cinemas and gramophones was also transforming the printing of newspapers. Taking advantage of extended literacy and the new electric presses, newspapers first began to number their circulations in hundreds of thousands. By 1910, the Daily Mail (1896) led the list of half-penny dailies with more than a million readers, followed by the Daily Sketch (1908), the illustrated Daily Mirror (1903), the Daily Express (1900) and the Daily News (1901). Financed by advertising, the key feature of this new press was commercialism: its owners, such as Harmsworth, Hulton and Pearson, became multi-millionaires. Even bigger sales were won by the Sunday sensationalists – Reynolds News, the News of the World and Lloyd’s Weekly – each printing more than a million copies. The “quality” journalists poured scorn on these cheap, undemanding papers, “for those who cannot think” (The Mail), or “those who cannot read” (The Mirror), but their power to shape popular prejudice had become hugely important.

A century ago the influence of the country’s Christian churches and chapels was beginning to fade. As one commentator at the time observed, the schoolteacher was supplanting the priest and the clergy seemed to be more concerned with social than with spiritual welfare. The Anglican rites of passage – baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial - were still favoured by the majority, but the Nonconformists and the Roman Catholics had been more successful than the establishment in responding positively to the enormous increase in urban working-class populations. The United Kingdom could still be accurately described as Christian, but the Christianity followed was more habitual, communal and traditional than deeply convinced. The events of the next four years were to test the faith of millions to and beyond the limit of endurance.