Great British Railway Journeys, Series 9 – BBC 2


I really, really want Michael Portillo’s job 🙂 .  In one of this week’s episodes, he got to have afternoon tea at Bettys in Harrogate, on the BBC!  (Note to self – go over to Bettys in Ilkley in March, to see the Easter eggs and simnel cake.)  In the forthcoming series of Great American Railroad Journeys, he gets to visit the historical sites of Massachusetts.   Later this year, we’re getting something new  – Great Indian Railway Journeys.  And presumably Great Continental Railway Journeys will be back at some point, as well.

Anyway, back to the recent series of Great British Railway Journeys.   This one was a bit different, with a theme of social change.  The Edwardian period (strictly speaking, January 1901 to May 1910, but the term “Edwardian” is generally used to cover the period from January 1901 right up until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914) does tend to be viewed as one long, golden summer idyll, because the Great War was just so horrific that what went before it has become a “misty water-coloured memory of the way we were”.  Whilst I’m doing song lyrics, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” is another one that’s quite appropriate.  There is quite a romantic view of it.  Cricket on the lawn, ladies on bicycles, all that sort of thing – whereas, of course, it was a period of great inequality and great change and unrest, as was frequently pointed out during this very interesting series.  On the face of it, this programme involves a former politician, with terrible dress sense, riding around on trains … but it was actually an excellent historical documentary series.

The last two episodes saw Michael in North Wales, where much of the talk was about Lloyd George.  There’s so much talk about the establishment of the welfare state after the Second World War that the very important reforms passed by the Liberal governments of 1906 to 1914 – including the introduction of both national insurance and old age pensions – are not always given the attention that they deserve.   The (long saga over the) passing of the People’s Budget of 1909 was one of the most important events in modern British history.   It had important constitutional ramifications as well.   One of the main factors in the introduction of social reform – although I think that the nasty shock that the Establishment received when so many of those volunteering to fight in the Boer War were found to be malnourished may have been a bigger one – was the research done into poverty by Charles Booth in London and Seebohm Rowntree in York, and this was discussed in another episode of the series, in which Michael visited York.

In that same episode, he went to a tailor’s in Leeds, and talked about the large-scale immigration into Britain – which had a huge impact on the clothing industry in both Manchester and Leeds – as a result of the very bloody wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire in the years just before and after the 1905 Revolution, something that he’d also talked about whilst visiting Hull.   On the subject of port cities, architecture got a mention too, whilst he was in Liverpool.  Oh, and so did toy railway sets!  I had never, ever realised that Meccano and Hornby railway sets originally came from Maghull.  I’m afraid I didn’t do a great deal for gender equality where toys were concerned when I was a little kid: I played with Sindy dolls and read boarding school stories, pony books and ballet books, and never owned any Meccano or toy trains.  Oh, I did have Lego, though.

But gender equality in politics – now that is another thing.  Votes For Women!  That subject was mentioned several times during the series, including the horrific treatment of suffragettes – force-feeding, and the Cat and Mouse Act – by the authorities.  I’m hoping that we’re going to get a good few programmes commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act – which gave the vote to all men, at last, and some women … although it was 1928 before the franchise was finally extended to include all women.

Trade unionism and the Labour movement were something else very much to the fore in Edwardian times, with all the rows over whether or not strikers should be forced to pay for loss of owners’ profits, and whether or not unions were allowed to collect levies to support the new Labour Party.  The Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900, but the name Labour Party was only used from 1914. The railway workers’ unions and coal miners’ unions usually led the way where any developments involving unions were concerned, and Michael visited more than one mining area during his railway journeys.

And it’s easy to forget that, in the summer of 1914, Ireland was close to civil war. Michael didn’t visit Ireland in this series, but he did visit Wales, and talk about the growth of nationalism there.  If only the House of Lords hadn’t blocked Gladstone’s Home Rule bills in the 1880s and 1890s.  It had its wings clipped after refusing to pass the People’s Budget, but, by then, it was too late to grasp the opportunity that had been missed over Ireland.  But at least it wasn’t allowed to block the welfare reforms.  They were one of the main achievements of the Edwardian period.

So, not such an idyll after all.  There was a hell of a lot going on.  I was very, very impressed with the way in which all this was woven into Michael Portillo’s journeys with his Bradshaw’s (George Bradshaw was, of course, from Pendleton – somewhere just off Broughton Road, as far as I can gather, so about three miles from chez moi!) Guide.  Great series.  All Michael Portillo’s railway journeys series are great!




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