Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5


How good was this 🙂 ?  Working-class life in Edwardian Lancashire (and a bit of Cheshire and Yorkshire!), captured on film and enhanced by colour.  Cotton mills in Hollinwood, coal mines in Golborne, Wakes Weeks in Blackpool, brass bands in Accrington, the 1902 Preston Guild, hat-making in Stockport, pleasure gardens in Halifax and day trips to Mobberley.  Images of Edwardian Britain are usually of the great and the not-necessarily-good, on grand occasions; but this was all about ordinary life.  The presenters were all so cheerful and so clearly genuinely interested, as well, with no lecturing or moralising or pontificating.  And there’ll be more next week, when we’re getting trade union and suffragette marches.

I’m not sure whether these were the famous Mitchell and Kenyon films or not. I’d assume so, given that most of them were of Lancashire.  If so, where was the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match?!  Oh well!

The colour was nice, but I think the films would have worked fine in black and white as well – the important thing was what the films were telling us about Edwardian life, and seeing the faces of the men, women and children in them and knowing that these were all real people, living real lives. Sad, too, seeing young lads and knowing that many of them must have lost their lives in the Great War.  There are a lot of paintings, and, for more recent times, photos, of royalty, and politicians, and other well-known people; but there aren’t many of ordinary people, and there certainly aren’t many of daily life.  By Edwardian times, plenty of ordinary people did have their photos taken, and a lot of us will have family photos from that time, but it was generally a case of going to a photographer’s studio for a special occasion such as a wedding, with everyone in their best clothes and formal poses, not photos of everyday life.  Even now, when everyone’s posting photos on Facebook and Instagram all the time, you don’t see many photos of people at work.  Not that anyone desperately wants to see photos of people at work 🙂 , but, for social history purposes, those sorts of images are incredibly important and informative.

The programme actually started with shots of Queen Victoria’s funeral, but soon moved on to a parade in Accrington, to mark Edward VII’s coronation. Led by a brass band!  As the programme said, there were so many parades in those days – political, religious, pro-temperance, etc.  We still have parades, and a lot of them are very lavish, but I don’t think there’s that community feel to them any more, because the days when everyone socialised with their neighbours, and often worked with them as well, have gone.  It was also interesting to hear a black historian speak about the fact that some of the people in the parade were wearing “blackface”, and, rather than doing the PC thing of yelling about racism, explaining that this was meant in an inclusive way, to show that people of all races were included in the British Empire and were a part of the celebration.

And those lovely banners!   There are quite a few of them at the People’s History Museum.  That idea goes way back, certainly to Peterloo and before.  Really beautiful, embroidered banners that a lot of work must have gone into – not like now, when people carry scruffy placards with slogans written on them in felt tip pen.

After that, we did get some shots of That London – the docks and the markets. So busy!   You don’t see that often, now – everyone hard at work, in the great outdoors, all those people and all those goods. Women working in the markets, all sat together, shelling vegetables.  Men carrying huge crates around.  Everyone busy busy busy, such a hive of activity.

Then back to Lancashire, with film of the collieries in Golborne – one of the Wigan pit villages, just off the East Lancs Road. I used to have a very nice client based there.  The boss once bought me a chocolate ice cream 🙂 .  And my dad used to have a pharmacy in another of the Wigan pit villages.  We actually saw shots of men working in the mines, in horrible conditions, and of the pit brow lasses working at the coal face; and it was brought to life even further with interviews with people whose relatives had worked there.  Fascinating stuff.

As was explained, in Lancashire it was the norm for women and older children to work, as well as men. I remember one of my old university lecturers once talking about the cultural differences between places where the traditional industries provided work for both men and women, and places where they didn’t.  Then he got off the point and started going on about how Middlesbrough was a real “man’s town” and that that explained a lot about Brian Clough; but never mind!  Anyway, in the Lancashire textile and coal towns, it was the norm for women to work.  And, without wishing to perpetuate stereotypes, those women were generally pretty tough cookies.  We saw shots of people coming out of the Alfred Butterworth Mill in Hollinwood, between Manchester city centre and Oldham – thousands of people, all employed at the same place.

It was interesting to see that the women all had their hair covered. The presenter compared that to wearing a hijab.  I think it was as much about keeping warm, and protecting the hair from dirt, as about it not being respectable for a woman to show her hair, but head coverings were certainly the norm for everyone then.  It’s something you really notice on photos from those times – everyone’s wearing some sort of hat/other head covering, whether it’s flat caps at football matches or top hats at Ascot (men’s hats/caps were a real sign of social class, as the presenter said).  Clogs and shawls … those days are gone.  Most people wear the same stuff all over the Western world these days!

It was also pointed out how highly-skilled a lot of the work done by women was, although they certainly wouldn’t have been paid in accordance with that. Whilst it would have been difficult to film inside a mill, with all the machines going, there were shots of a woman sewing, and you could see how intricate the work was – and also that she was nicely-dressed, and wearing a necklace, and certainly not some sort of downtrodden, dehumanised factory worker stereotype like the people Dickens wrote about in Hard Times (how I hate that book … although admittedly it was set far earlier than this).

Next up, hatters in Stockport, complete with an interview with a man who’d worked as a Stockport hatter. Stockport County, like Luton Town, are still known as “the Hatters” … as Northampton Town are known as “the Cobblers,” Stoke City as “the Potters”, Sheffield United as “the Blades” and so on.  Those nicknames aren’t used as much as they used to be, but they’re a reminder of the traditional industries of certain areas.  Again, it’s very skilled work.  And work associated with entire communities.

Then we moved on to film of children – all rather formally dressed, and many of them with jobs, some attending school in the mornings and working in the afternoons, and few staying on at school after the age of twelve. There was such a big class divide in children’s lives in Edwardian times: you think of the Mary Poppins books, for example, and contrast the lives of children like Jane and Michael Banks (yes, all right, I know they weren’t real!) with those of working-class children.  But, again, there wasn’t a sense of being oppressed, for lack of a better word – more of trying to get out there and earn money.  Obviously I’m not saying that that was a good thing, just that it was how it was.  As the presenter said, there wasn’t that sense then, at least not for the working classes, of adult responsibility not starting until at least the age of eighteen.

It has to be said that these films didn’t show the workhouses, or the worst inner-city “slum” areas, but the programme could only show what there was.

Everyone looked quite cheerful, really. The Edwardian era does have a very jolly image – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”! – the Golden Age between the repressive Victorian era (which actually wasn’t that repressive) and the horrors of the Great War.  But, as we keep being reminded in Great British Railway Journeys 🙂 , it was an era of social flux; and, as we know from the reports which brought about the welfare reforms of 1908-1911, it was also a time of severe poverty.  Yet everyone looked so full of life.  All these individual people, in all these communities.  Unless you live in a soap opera, very few of us now live in a world where we work with our friends and neighbours, and our friends and neighbours are the same people, and where everyone in the area works in the same industry, and goes on holiday to the same place, at the same time.  Times move on, and I can’t say I particularly want to work in a cotton mill, or see a load of people I know whilst I’m walking along Blackpool Prom; but seeing it all on film was fascinating.

I’m not trying to do a “They woz poor but they woz happy” thing, but some books do have such patronising passages about (depending on the time and place) “the peasants” or “the serfs” or “the industrial proletariat”, and lose sight of the fact that these were all individual human beings, living their lives.

And, by Edwardian times, those lives generally included time for leisure. The rest of the programme concentrated on leisure, rather than work.   Young children from Altrincham going on a day out to Mobberley, for a taste of country life.  I used to know someone who lived in a farm in Mobberley: I wonder what happened to her!   Altrincham’s quite a well-heeled area, and would have been so even then, but the idea seemed to be to get kids away from urban/suburban areas and into the countryside: we saw them running around in the fields, and having races.   You don’t really get that now.  School trips are all about being educational!

Then the next part … well, it wasn’t leisure as such, more of a celebration, and a tradition that goes back to the 12th century AD – the Preston Guild, held every twenty years.  Does the expression “once every Preston Guild” exist in the rest of the country, or is it something that people only say in Lancashire?!  Like we raise our glasses to “the Queen, Duke of Lancaster” whereas the rest of the country just says “the Queen”?!  Lovely pictures of the parade, and all the people, and the formal ceremonials as well.  This was in 1902.  The Guild’s meant to be held every 20 years, but, because of the Second World War, there was a 30 year gap after 1922, with the next one being held in 1952 … so the most recent was in 2012, and I actually went to that, because it does only take place … well, once every Preston Guild!

We also got some film coverage of people enjoying themselves at pleasure gardens. The ones on the film were, ahem, over the border in the West Riding, near Halifax.  They’ve gone now.  So many of the pleasure gardens have.  There’s a Metrolink stop called “Pomona”, and the name caused all sorts of confusion when the stop first opened, because most people had never heard of the Pomona Gardens, which closed back in the 1880s.  It’s a shame, because they were a great idea, and you could see how much people were enjoying themselves there.

Finally, the greatest seaside resort of them all – Blackpool!   If anything symbolises the growth of leisure in the later Victorian and Edwardian eras, it’s Blackpool Tower, built in 1891.  I still get excited when I get to the part of the M55 where you get your first glimpse of the Tower.  I actually get excited well before that, when I come off the M61 on to the M6, and know that I’m not that far from the junction with the M55.  I’m so used to the fact that Blackpool’s got three piers – I think the North Pier’s my favourite, but they’re all special – that I never really think about how unusual it is to have three piers in one resort, or even about the fact that seaside piers must have been a huge novelty when they were first built.  Times have changed, and we no longer have the great Wakes Weeks exoduses to Blackpool, with everyone from one town heading off their at once.  We don’t really even have Wakes Weeks any more: we still had “local holidays” in the ‘80s, when I was a kid, but deindustrialisation and the standardisation of school holidays have put paid to that.  But we still have Blackpool!

We take having a certain amount off work for granted now, but how exciting must it have been when people first started being given time off work, even though it was unpaid, and even more so when more and more people became able to go on trips to the seaside. We saw film coverage of the Winter Gardens, and the Blackpool Tower circus.  I’ve never seen elephants in the sea at Blackpool: that certainly doesn’t happen now!   And everyone was dressed up.  Even in the 1950s, on the photos of my mum and dad’s childhood holidays in Blackpool, everyone’s in their best clothes, because you made an effort when you were going to the seaside – it was a big thing.  So many people!  I always moan about there being too many people anywhere where I am, unless it’s a sporting event or a concert, but it looks exciting on film!

It was all exciting, in its way. The colour was great, but, as I’ve already said, it would have been fascinating in black and white too.  Films definitely capture something that the written word, however eloquent, can’t, and even paintings and photographs can’t – and these are some of the earliest films of ordinary life in our region, in our country.   I really did enjoy this programme.


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