In modern popular culture there seem to be two distinct images of the period immediately before the First World War. The first, exemplified by Upstairs, Downstairs [I believe Downton Abbey is the modern-day equivalent] is of well-dressed people being nice to one another; and the second, one of a rigid class system with the ruling class fighting a desperate rearguard action to preserve the vast differences in wealth and privilege between them and the poorest.
Libertarians have a rather different image of the period before the First World War. They tend to think of as a Golden Age of freedom, low taxation and low regulation; an age of constant improvement, where entrepreneurs could do their thing with the minimum of interference. A time when the pound was linked to gold and people didn’t have to worry about inflation or asset bubbles; a world that was swept away by war, never to return. The question is, is this true?
One of the ways I try to answer the question is to read the Times from 100 years ago. I can do this because a company called Gale Group scanned in just about every copy there has ever been and indexed them. They then made these digitised copies available online to subscribers. I am lucky in that my local library is one of those subscribers.
When I started doing this I think the reason was partly because I thought it was a great age to be alive and partly because I wanted to see if there were things that modern historians weren’t picking up on – parts of the story that would have been familiar to people living at the time but have long since been forgotten.
Trying to make sense of the world via the pages of the Times is a little like trying to look at the world through a pinhole. Perhaps another way of looking at it would be to imagine trying to understand the modern world with the BBC as your only source of information. You’re going to miss a lot of the routine of life, a lot of the unspoken assumptions and receive a biased viewpoint into the bargain. At the time, the Times, along with the Daily Mail and (would you believe it) the Daily Mirror was part of the Northcliffe Press and as such a Conservative-supporting paper. [I say Conservative but at the time they called themselves Unionists.] The Times tends to favour trade protection and spending on the armed forces while being opposed to Irish Home Rule. It is generally sceptical of state intervention.
The Times itself is, as you would expect, very different from its modern counterpart – at least I assume so – it is a few years since I last read the print version. For starters it is very big. It is a proper broadsheet being slightly bigger than even the modern-day Daily Telegraph. It has no photographs and precious few diagrams. The front page is a bit of a shock. It is entirely filled with classified adverts. This seems a rather odd arrangement until you realise that the idea is that you open the paper in the middle where there is an index (as well as the editorials) and you work out where you want to go from there. Classified adverts remained on the front page until May 1966. The paper is usually about 24 pages long. There are no colour supplements although occasionally you will get the odd special and there is an engineering supplement every week. At this time, The Sunday Times is an entirely separate publication not becoming part of the same stable until the 1960s and is not available online.
There are some display adverts for many of the things you would expect: fashion, railways, buses, some cars, books and magazines. Any manufacturer of any product that you might put in your mouth: drinks, foods, compounds, medicines etc will make an outrageous claim for its disease-preventing and health-inducing abilities. For example an ad for Allinson wholemeal bread claims that:
it is a cure for constipation and its attendant evils and will do more to maintain health than all the medicines ever sold.
About the only people who don’t claim that their product will make you live forever are the tobacco manufacturers who simply claim that their product is less bad. One even sells his product on the basis that it produces less nicotine which I thought was the whole point. In the classifieds you will often find adverts for hospitals along with the rather depressing line: “Funds urgently needed.”
The writing is turgid. Writers can take an age to get to their point. And scanning doesn’t help. With a modern newspaper article you can usually extract the useful information without going to the hassle of reading the whole article. In the case of the Times from 1913 you have to read the whole bloody thing and even then you may find yourself none the wiser. I can only imagine that our ancestors had a lot of leisure time.
And they must have paid attention at school. Every so often you will find a quotation in French, Latin or Greek without translation. And, less commonly, German.
The city pages are every bit as boring as you might imagine. Much of it is given over to government debt which given the size of that market seems reasonable. There is comparatively little space given over to quoted companies largely because there are so few of them. The majority of those that do exist are in the railway, oil, rubber or tea industries. I can’t remember many of the others although the Aerated Bread Company does stick in the mind.
One curiosity is that in those days, every week, the train companies would report their receipts. The Times then faithfully reports these receipts along with those for the previous week and the equivalent week in the previous year. Incidentally, the size of the British rail network peaked in 1912.
The hardest section to read is the page and a half given over to Parliamentary proceedings. I like to think Parliament gets this much attention because this is where all the great debates of the day are taking place. And I have found the odd nugget. Samizdata readers may remember me blogging about the debate on the Lee Enfield rifle and how contemporary opinion regarded it as grossly inadequate. It went on to see service as the British Army’s principal infantry weapon in two world wars. But for the most part Parliamentary debates of 1913 are every bit as dull as they are nowadays.
A surprising amount of space is given over to sport. All the important games: cricket, racing, golf, tennis, sailing, shooting and polo are covered. Football is not entirely ignored. The Times faithfully reports the results from the league championship – a competition dominated by northern teams. The printing of league tables is a somewhat haphazard affair. At the end of the 1913 season they printed the 2nd Division table but not the First. Sunderland won in case you were wondering.
The Times also supplies match reports on the important fixtures. If you want to know what happened in the big game between Eton and Charterhouse or Harrow and Westminster there’s no better place to go.
A lot of the place names have changed since then. Üskub became Skopje, Servia: Serbia, Adrianople: Edirne, Salonika: Thessaloniki, St Petersburg is St Petersburg but for most of the last 100 years it wasn’t. Singapore is part of the Straits Settlements and there is something known as the Shanghai International Settlement.