Edwardian Britain

203 TUTOR: Cynthia Brown

The years between the death of Queen Victoria and the First World War, loosely defined as the Edwardian period, were some of the most eventful and formative in the history of modern Britain. On this course, you will explore issues such as unemployment and its relief, the Liberal response to the challenge of the Labour Party, militant suffragette campaigns for votes for women and increasing tension in Anglo-Irish relations. All issues that were taking place against a backdrop of growing militarism among the European 'Great Powers'. You will also look at the lighter side of Edwardian life, including its music halls, cinemas and the 1908 Olympics in London.

4 PM
PM course

Course Notes

Britain in 1901 - Introduction

You will begin with a 'snapshot' of Britain in 1901, as the long reign of Queen Victoria reached its end. You will consider the response to her death, and the nation's expectations of the new monarch Edward VII. You will also get a sense of its main industries and occupations, and identify some of the political and social issues that the Edwardians faced in the new century.

No end of a lesson - the Boer War (1899-1902) and its legacies

'Napoleon and all his veterans… never treated us so roughly as these hard-bitten farmers with their ancient theology and their inconveniently modern rifles', wrote Arthur Conan Doyle of the war in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 - one of the most unpopular in the history of modern Britain. It called into question not only the competence of the British military, but the morality of imperial rule and the extent to which the state should take responsibility for the health and welfare of its citizens at home. You will look briefly at the conduct of the war before considering its legacies for Edwardian Britain.

The union makes us strong - industrial unrest in the early 20th century

The period up to the First World War was one of widespread local and national strikes, particularly in the mining and transport sectors. You will identify some of the issues underlying these, and the extent to which they secured their objectives. You will also examine attempts on the part of government and employers to restrict the power of trade unions, looking in particular at the judgement in 1901 that made the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants responsible for damages against the Taff Vale railway company - and its implications for the trade union movement more widely.

The tail on the Liberal dog? - the challenge of the Labour Party

From the later 19th century the Liberals were increasingly challenged by socialist organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party, in the belief that working men and women would make no real progress until they had a political party of their own to represent their interests. The first step towards this was the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, followed by the election of 29 Labour MPs in the 1906 General Election. You will consider the nature of this challenge at both local and national level, and the Liberal response.

'Through fields of waving corn' - Liberal social policy 1906 - 14

'It is rather hard', the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George said of the 'People's Budget' of 1909, 'that an old workman should have to find his way to the gates of the tomb, bleeding and footsore, through the brambles and thorns of poverty. We cut a new path for him, an easier one, a pleasanter one, through fields of waving corn'. Old age, unemployment and sickness were foremost among those 'accidents of life' that the Liberal government sought to address after winning a large majority in the 1906 general election - along with the health of future generations through school meals and medical services. You will consider the nature of these reforms, the constitutional crises that they provoked - and the argument that they laid the foundations for the modern welfare state.

Edwardians at play - sporting pursuits and the 1908 London Olympics

Both as participants and spectators, the Edwardians continued to enjoy the sporting pursuits of the Victorians. These often operated on a more organised and commercial basis, amid concerns about the fitness of the nation's youth in the event of war and the higher real incomes enjoyed by some sections of the population - but distinctions between 'gentlemen' and 'players' continued, and ideas of sports 'suitable for ladies' were slow to change. You will also revisit the 1908 Olympics - originally intended for Rome but hosted at short notice in London - including the tug-of-war contest that provoked one of the greatest controversies of the games.

Votes for women - suffragists and suffragettes

Campaigns to secure the parliamentary vote for women intensified in the later 19thcentury, conducted on a peaceful and constitutional basis but without achieving their objectives. They continued into the Edwardian period, but a more militant approach was seen from 1903 with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), commonly known as the suffragettes and typified by its motto 'Deeds not Words'. After a brief review of its predecessors, you will consider its tactics, how and why these changed over time, and how successful they proved. In particular, you will examine the considerable contribution of working class members of the WSPU, particularly in the North of England and the Midlands - and ask why some women were strongly opposed to female suffrage.

'A prime issue' - Anglo-Irish relations during the Edwardian period

The 'Irish question' was said to have absorbed more time and energy than any other issue in Britain from the 1860s to the First World War. The formation in 1905 of the republican party Sinn Fein - translated as 'We ourselves' - was one aspect of a new chapter in this uneasy relationship between the Irish people and the British government, characterised by a heightened sense of nationalism derived from literary and cultural influences, as well as long-standing political grievances. You will analyse the nature of this relationship and consider its implications, both during the Edwardian period itself and in the longer-term.

Willingly into war? - the Great Powers and the rise of militarism

Often known as the 'Uncle of Europe' due to his many connections with other royal families, Edward VII died in 1910 and was succeeded by his son George V. Arguably however, it was the First World War that marked the real break with the Edwardian era. Rather than defusing tensions between them in the early 20thcentury, defensive alliances between the major European powers - Britain, France and Russia, and Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy - intensified nationalistic feeling and encouraged a build-up of military strength, culminating in the outbreak of war in 1914. In analysing these tensions, you will look in particular at A.J.P. Taylor's argument that 'the people of Europe leapt willingly into war', and ask how well prepared Britain was for the conflict.

Edwardians at play - leisure and entertainment

Developments in transport and technology, shorter working hours, rising real incomes, and municipal provision for 'rational recreations' opened up new worlds of leisure and entertainment for the Victorians - and for the Edwardians in turn. Among them were motor cars for the rich, foreign travel for the middle classes, cinema and music hall for the masses, and new public libraries for the 'education and inspiration' of working men and women and their children. You will conclude the course by looking at a variety of leisure pursuits in the early 20thcentury, with a particular focus on the music hall, its star performers, the working conditions of its artistes, and some of its most popular songs.

Background reading

More detailed suggestions for further reading will be provided during the course itself, but if you would like to do some general reading in advance, you could look at the following:

Max Arthur, Lost Voices of the Edwardians: 1901-1910 in their own words (Harper Perennial, 2007)

Hattersley R., The Edwardians: biography of the Edwardian age (Abacus, 2006)

Thompson P., The Edwardians: the remaking of British society (Routledge, 1992)


None required

Course Tutor

Cynthia Brown

About Cynthia

Cynthia Brown graduated from the University of Leicester as a mature student in 1988, with a degree in Economic and Social History. Now semi-retired, she has worked for a variety of heritage and history organisations, including Leicester City Museums Service. In 2001 she helped to establish the East Midlands Oral History Archive at the University of Leicester, and remains active in the field of oral history as a trustee of the Oral History Society. She also taught adult students for many years in the Institute of Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester, and continues to teach for the Workers' Educational Association. She has written a number of books and articles on the history of Leicester, and has also contributed to volumes of the Victoria County History of Northamptonshire.

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All courses run for 5 days

WK 1 11 Jul - 15 Jul

WK 2 18 Jul - 22 Jul

WK 3 25 Jul - 29 Jul

WK 4 1 Aug - 5 Aug

Morning Courses

9.15AM to 12.15PM

Afternoon Courses

1.45PM to 4.30PM

All Day Courses

9.15AM to 4.30PM