Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5 (second episode)


Whilst the first episode focused on daily life, the second episode was more about big events – starting with tramway inaugurations and football matches (and I am so put out that, when I was expecting the Burnley v Newton Heath match, they showed Burnley v Spurs instead!), and then moving on through crime scenes and protest marches to the harrowing film of Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal injury at the 1913 Derby, and finishing with poignant scenes of young men waving cheerfully as they went off to fight in the Great War, probably thinking that they’d be home by Christmas. There was far more chat than in the first episode, which was annoying – I’m sure we all know what the First World War, the suffragette movement, the police force and the FA Cup are, without needing to have them explained to us! – but the films themselves were absolutely fascinating.

It started with the opening of the tram system in Wigan, and it was interesting to see the huge crowds there. These days, we only get excited about historic public transport, but you could see what a big thing it was for the people of the town.  It must have made such a big difference, to be able to get about your town/city without having to walk everywhere.  I remember my grandad telling me stories about him and his friend getting the tram to work, which must have been in the early 1930s: only 35 years earlier, that wouldn’t have been possible.  Changing times.

Then we got the Burnley v Spurs match, in the Cup. As I said, I am extremely put out that they didn’t show the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match, even though I’ve seen it before!   But it was still exciting to see the players and the crowds, and to think about how incredibly important football had already become to people … and to heave a little sigh of nostalgia for simpler times, before money played such a big part in the sport.  Next up, an open water swimming gala in Tynemouth, with the commentators apparently very amused by the Edwardian swimming costumes.  Did we really need quite so much talking, though?  I wanted to see the films, not modern day presenters chatting away in a studio!

This was followed by film of the police – here in Manchester, hooray! Just like you imagine Edwardian policemen, with truncheons, notebooks, whistles and handcuffs.  It was interesting to hear that policemen had to be of a minimum height, so that they’d look imposing, and that they weren’t supposed to have more than two children and, as late as the 1980s, had to get the police force’s permission to marry – but, again, more film and less talking would have been nice!

From then on, it was mainly coverage of big news events. The Siege of Sidney Street – with Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, turning up in the middle of it all, instead of leaving it to the police to deal with.  We think of today as being the age when everything’s captured on camera or film, but would anyone be allowed to film that sort of situation these days? The presenters focused on the presence of Churchill, possibly not wanting to go too much into the difficult subject of East End gangs and some of the more extreme press reaction at the time.

Another subject which is difficult to talk about, because you don’t want to risk saying anything that might be open to misinterpretation or misuse, is that of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. We saw coverage of Unionist marches in Belfast.  I still think that, if Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1893 hadn’t been scuppered by the House of Lords, things could have turned out differently in Ireland.  By the end of the Edwardian period, it was probably too late.  And, by then, there was so much uncertainty, especially for Unionists in Northern Ireland.  Uncertainty is a bad thing.

Easier to discuss were the protests and demonstrations by striking workers calling for better wages and better working conditions, some of them holding placards demanding a reduction in working hours from their present fourteen hour day.  They were brave enough to strike even though they could well have been sacked for doing so.  This was the age of the Taff Vale case, and then the 1906 Trade Disputes Act.  It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since then.  Trade unions and the Labour Party stood for something important and inspiring in those days.  Sorry, I seem to be in a ranty mood today!

Another area in which we’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go, is that of women’s rights. It’s always inspiring to see film coverage of the WSPU marches.  Nice banners, like I was going on about last week.  And the hats!  I know it sounds silly, but the hats really grabbed my attention.  We also saw film of NUWSS marches, with men (nice to see that some of them were local, from Radcliffe!) as well as women holding banners in support of women’s suffrage.  And some shocking film coverage of police attacking WSPU protesters – nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it was still shocking to see it again.

Too much talk, though!   I didn’t need to hear a load of different presenters going on about women “reclaiming” things and using “PR” and a load of other modern-day terms.  The pictures spoke quite well for themselves.  Especially the very powerful film of Emily Wilding Davison being struck by the king’s horse as she tried to attach two suffragette flags – it was made clear that, contrary to what’s often said, she probably didn’t intend to die – to his bridle.  The presenters, including Dr Helen Pankhurst, did a lot of talking about “bravery” and “sacrifice”.

I’m a great admirer of the suffragettes, and always going on about how proud I am of the connections of my old school and the city of Manchester in general with the suffragette cause, but I found what the programme said about Emily Wilding Davison all rather one-sided. It was tragic that she lost her life, but she could easily have caused the death of the jockey, who had nothing to do with politics, as well.  Not to mention the horse – they were all very scathing about the fact that the press seemed so concerned about the horse, but it was hardly the poor horse’s fault that the government wouldn’t give women the vote, and why should he have been put in danger?   It also showed the coverage of her funeral.   It was very impressive that 5,000 suffragettes walked behind her coffin and another 50,000 lined the streets of London to watch the funeral procession pass, but there was something uncomfortable about how stage-managed it all was.  Emily Wilding Davison was a very brave woman who played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent time in Strangeways and was one of those subjected to the horrific process of force-feeding, but I would like to have seen more balanced discussion about the events surrounding her death.

That was in 1913. I forget the exact wording he uses, but I think RL Delderfield says something about the summer of 1914 being the end of the old world.  The outbreak of the Great War seems to have taken most people completely by surprise.  Its causes have been debated long and hard, and will carry on being debated long and hard, but there’s no way that most people could have seen it coming.  The focus switched back to Lancashire for this, and we saw happy, cheerful pictures of a sports event at a Southport college in the July, no-one dreaming of what was to come all too soon.  How many of the lads taking part in the events were to be killed or injured over the next four years?  Then we saw, in Morecambe, men marching off to war, crowds cheering them as they went, and then men on trains, excited looks on their faces, waving handkerchiefs out of the windows.  And then film of people working for the war effort, pulling together.

It can’t all have been like that, even in the early days. It wasn’t all wild enthusiasm.  Plenty of people must have realised that, as Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.  For all the talk in this episode, they didn’t really have any proper discussions/debates about any of the issues raised.  But, certainly, all the accounts at the time talk about there being a great deal of enthusiasm, and of most people genuinely believing that the war would be over, with victory gained, in a matter of months.

The first episode and the early part of this episode focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, so often neglected. And it wasn’t so long ago, was it?  I’m actually getting a bit upset, thinking that it is actually over 100 years ago.  Those lives, everyone’s lives, were turned upside down by the outbreak of war.  The war to end all wars – if only it had been.  A very interesting point was made at the end – that the Edwardians are sometimes remembered as a lost generation, because of the war (slightly muddled theory, because more than one generation lived through the Edwardian era and the Great War, but you get the idea), and that, instead, we should remember everything that they fought for – women’s rights, and workers’ rights.   Very good point.  And two very interesting hours of TV.

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