What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, III, IV, V & VI.
Little is said about the economy – not that that was a term in common use at the time. Unemployment – known as idleness – seems non-existent but there is some inflation – referred to as an “advance in prices” or “an increase in living costs”. Seeing as the pound was tied to gold at a rate of about £4 per troy ounce this seems surprising although the enormous gold finds in South Africa may have had something to do with it. Inflation may have been the cause of the many strikes at the time and it may have been the effect. The tax take is about 10%. Today it is over 40%. Northerners are better off than Southerners.
In 1912 the Titanic, the largest moving object in the world, set sail on its maiden voyage. Most people are aware that it sank, which is notable enough. But the really amazing part is that it got out of port at all. There had been a month-long national coal strike immediately beforehand and supplies were extremely low. Strikes are extremely common. In addition to the national coal strike, recent years have seen a national rail strike, a London dock strike and a Hull dock strike. London is currently undergoing a painters and decorators’ strike and Dublin a tramworkers’ strike.
In a previous coal strike, in 1910 in South Wales, troops had been used to put down a riot. At about the same time troops were also used to put down a riot in Liverpool.
The state is starting to nationalise things. In 1911 it nationalised the National Telephone Company. I should explain that this isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds. The state already owned the trunk lines. The National Telephone Company owned everything else and operated them under licence. In 1911 the licence simply wasn’t renewed. In London, the County Council, late in the day, built an electric tram network. It was completed just in time for motor buses to take their market away from them.
It is difficult to detect any class, race or sex prejudice in the pages of the Times.
In 1913, the world is undergoing a transportational revolution. The horse is being swept from the streets of London to be replaced by electric trams, motor buses, motor lorries and motor cars. Below the streets, the deep-level, electrified tube lines are being built while steam trains are being replaced by electric ones on the older cut and cover lines. We are seeing the beginnings of surburban electrification.
Buses, in particular, are allowing people to travel much further to work and to shop. The only downside is that a lot of people are getting killed on the road.
Talking of buses, this is still a time when entrepreneurs are able to think big. Flushed from their success in London, the London General Ominbus Company, which incidentally bought up most of the Underground in 1911, is selling shares in a planned national bus company.
What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts II, III, IV, V & VI.
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.
Don’t hold the front page. The Times 4 September 1913.
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.
The year being 1913, of course.
The Times, 21 August 1913 p4
The whole business seems to be a bit stylised although still dangerous.
Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 to 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognised words such as ‘yes’. He firmly believed – like many members of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
- Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers p193. While Sleepwalkers is clearly well-researched I am far from sure the research supports the conclusions i.e. that the First World War was all one big accident. I may blog more on this sometime but equally I may not.
The Times 24 July 1913 page 5
I see that the Church of England is about to go into the moneylending business. They appear to think that it is easy. If so, they might like to consider this moneylender’s words:
The Times, 11 July 1913 page 3.
Or this one. (I liked the bit about even the Church having to lend out its money.)
The Liberty and Property Defence League also has a few things to say.
Here’s the situation. It’s 1913 and the owners of the Crystal Palace need to sell it. Lord Plymouth has agreed to temporarily save it for the nation by ponying up the asking price (£230,000 in 1913 money – £46m in today’s if you convert to and from gold.) The deal is that if a fund can pay him back then the Palace will be “saved for the nation” and if not it will be saved for the builders.
The City of London and the nearest councils to the Palace have agreed to pay for half of it. Now, it is up to the general public and The Times. And this is how they are going to get people to cough up: the subscription list.
The Times, 2 July 1913 page9
It’s rather clever. Whether you think preserving the Crystal Palace is a good idea or not, if your peers do, you’d better pay something. And it had better be a reasonable amount or else they’ll think you’re a skinflint. This is a very common way of raising money. My mother tells me that this is how they used to raise money for her local church. One wonders why the technique fell into disuse.
The necessary funds were secured in slightly less than a fortnight and the Crystal Palace continued to stand in Crystal Palace until it was wrecked by fire in 1936.
I do not claim to be an expert on the Balkan Wars which were fought in 1912 and 1913. If I understand correctly, in the First Balkan War Turkey was almost completely thrown out of Europe while in the second Bulgaria embarked upon a war of conquest and ended up with rather less than she’d started with.
The Times 23 July 1913 p8
The significance of all this, as Eric Sass points out, lay in how it altered Russia’s relationship with Serbia. Russia, Serbia and Bulgaria were Slavic states. Russia, being the biggest, wanted to be the leader. Serbia and Bulgaria, being small wanted Russian protection. So, when a dispute rose over the borders between them the two small states submitted their dispute to the big one. When Bulgaria failed to get what she wanted she went to war.
Defeat led to Bulgaria allying herself with Austria-Hungary while Russia responded by allying herself ever more closely with Serbia. Hence, perhaps, the robustness of Russia’s response to Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia in 1914.
Update For a while now I’ve been in the habit of linking to the whole page rather than just the article. This has been to give readers the chance to see what else was making the news at the time and, perhaps, to find something just as bloggable. Well, it appears Simon Gibbs has done just that.
George Bernard Shaw was a playwright. He was also a supporter of Stalin. Therefore, it’s always amusing to see people poking fun at him. Here is one Charles Mercier responding to Shaw shortly after Emily Davison was trampled to death at the Derby:
The Times, 4 July 1913 p4 (right click to see original)
If I understand Mr Bernard Shaw aright, his contentions are two – first, that a martyr is a person who seals his belief with his blood; and, second, that if a person seals his belief in his blood, we ought at once to adopt that belief, or at least act as if it were true. “Sealing one’s belief with one’s blood” is a picturesque expression which has always hitherto been understood to mean choosing the alternative of death when we are compelled to choose between death and abandoning, or pretending to abandon, a belief. No one offered this choice to Miss Davison, and in this sense she certainly did not seal her belief with her blood, and was not a martyr. Mr Shaw would extend the expression to the act of committing suicide in order to demonstrate the truth of a belief; and his opinion seems to be that, if a person offers this proof of the truth of any belief, we ought to act as if the belief were true. There seems to me to be a flaw in his reasoning, and the practice would be inconvenient.
I, for instance, have a settled and profound conviction that Aristotle’s logic is utterly erroneous, and that my own system is immeasurably superior to it, but if I cut my throat in order to seal this belief with my blood, and thereby compel the University of Oxford to supersede Aristotelian logic with my own, what is to prevent the eminent Waynflete Professor of Logic from blowing out his brains, and demonstrating that Aristotle is right, and I am wrong? In such a case ought the University to revert to Aristotelian logic, or ought it to suspend its judgement until Professor Schiller, who agrees with me, drowns himself in the Cherwell? It seems to me that if Mr Bernard Shaw’s doctrines are carried into practice they will lead to the sacrifice of many useful lives with but little compensating advantage. If, however, he really holds these opinions with the fervour that his expression of them seems to indicate, he has himself shown the proper way to impress them on the community, a way that I hesitate to commend to him, lest I should find myself in the unpleasant position of an accessory before the fact to a felony.
In those days suicide was a crime.
Much as this is amusing there is a flaw: George Bernard Shaw didn’t actually say it.
A hundred years ago, London was undergoing a transport revolution. Electric trams, electric underground trains, motor cars and motor buses had all entered the market while horse-drawn buses, trams and cabs were leaving it. I’m guessing here, but it seems to me that for centuries the big class distinction was whether you owned a horse or not. Now that horses were becoming uninimportant, class barriers were starting to come down.
But that’s by the by. In a revolution there are winners and losers. And here, in the London County Council’s accounts, we see a loser, horse-drawn trams:
The Times 16 June 1913 page 3
But read a bit further and you see it’s not just horse-drawn trams that are losing out:
The most striking feature of the accounts is the falling off in gross traffic receipt, as well as in the receipts a car-mile compared with previous years. The average passenger receipts a car-mile have gradually fallen from 11.95d. in 1907 to 9.73d. this year. A new factor which has arisen during the last year or two which the Council has seriously to reckon, in its efforts to maintain the tramway undertaking on a sound financial basis, is the great increase in the competition which the tramways have to meet from the motor-omnibus undertakings.
In other words buses are taking their market. I must admit I’m in two minds on this. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the government losing money. On the other, trams are nicer than buses: smoother, quieter, cleaner. And commercial tram operators (they do exist) will not find bus competition any easier to deal with. You have to feel some sympathy with operators that have, at great expense, set up electric tram systems only to find them superseded by the internally combusted upstart within a few years.
But buses are where the action is. Still. In 1911, they bought up the lion’s share of London’s tube network. [Yes, private enterprise integrated transport.] They may be dirty, noisy and uncomfortable but they are cheap and flexible and go where people want them to go. Oh, and dangerous. Did I mention dangerous:
The Times 20 June 1913 page 4
Back in 1913, the Times has just published a supplement on the textile industry. Just about every company that has advertised has included a picture of its factory.
I think they look fantastic: big, modern, solid, clean even. But why are they used in adverts? Perhaps the question should be why companies don’t use them any more? What it does suggest is that at the time they were regarded as far from the dark, satanic mills of modern-day folklore.
Take this letter to the Times from 2 June 1913:
I submit that the only effective way of dealing with these habitual and professional criminals is to expel them from the community against which they wager incessant war. A third conviction at assizes, or at quarter sessions, should entail the offender’s loss of personal liberty for the rest of his life. He should be deported to some island and reduced to a state of industrial serfdom…
To view the whole page it seems you have to click on the image, right click and select “Open image in new tab” and then zoom in. This is for Google Chrome. Other browsers may be different.