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The World in 1913 – Part IV: Regulation

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, V & VI.

Drugs. When I was preparing this piece I was under the illusion that drugs were legal. That’s not quite the case. Since as long ago as 1868, only pharmacists could sell opium. In 1908 cocaine was put onto a similar footing. As far as I am aware there are no restrictions on cannabis. At the 1912 International Opium Convention most European states agreed to end the trade although Germany, Austria and Turkey dissented. The Convention was eventually incorporated into the Versailles Treaty.

When I started delving into the pages of the Times my assumption was that there was very little regulation. The more I read the more I realise this isn’t really true. Every train crash prompts a government-led investigation. Companies must submit returns on how many accidents there have been on their premises. Back-to-back housing has been banned. In 2000, the Telegraph reprinted and edition from 1 January 1900. Sure enough, there was a little article reminding readers that a regulation had come into force on the availability of stools for female shop workers. Having said that a few years ago I was reading up on the Regulation of the Railways Act from the 1880s. This made various demands on companies but it turned out that most companies had put these measures into place well before the law was even thought of. In other words regulation was following existing practice. It would be interesting to know if this was still a common feature in the 1910s.

In an editorial in part on the topic of drug regulation the Times of March 18 1913 had this to say. Some of the sentiments may seem familiar:

There is an increasing body of nursery legislation which treats us all as if we were little boys to whom the contents of the cupboard must be doled out by the governess. However deplorable it may be, we are driven to confess from time to time that a strong case has been made out for some additional restriction. The thing has gone so far that there is a section of the public in love with restriction for its own sake. They are always looking for an excuse to forbid something or other, and naturally take the most sensational view of any evil that can be discovered. They would be unhappy in the perfect world which they think they desire, because they would have nothing to forbid. They would rather leave a man with a depraved appetite and forbid him to indulge it, than educate the man out of the appetite altogether. That is diametrically opposed to all that makes for true freedom and progressive citizenship. But, if men and women will not master and obey the laws of life, no political arrangements can make them free, and there is nothing for it but the locked cupboard and the policeman.

Mind you they’re not always banning things. In 1910, an explosion at the Pretoria Pit near Bolton killed over 300 miners. While there was a great deal of sympathy expressed there was very little suggestion that this was a problem to which the solution was more state regulation.

There is an organisation called the Liberty and Property Defence League – incidentally, based just around the corner from the current-day Adam Smith Institute – which occasionally gets letters into the papers and another called the Cobden Club which mainly aims at preserving peace.

It is legal to own a gun so long as you have a licence to do so. The licences themselves cost 10 shillings. And guns get used. Ex-lovers, ex-wives, scab labourers and people hanging around having a quiet drink in a hotel bar have all become victims of 1910s gun crime. In another incident, an actor managed to get himself killed while on stage when a fellow actor, as part of the play, fired on him with blanks. Incidents like this would be shocking today and yet the murder rate was about half what it is now.

In December 1910, the police were called to a burglary in progress in Houndsditch. The burglars opened fire killing three policemen and sparking a manhunt. In what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street some of the perpetrators, believed to be East European anarchists, were tracked down. The army were called in and in an exchange of fire a bullet narrowly missed the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

What, exactly, the policemen think they are going to achieve with those shotguns is anyone's guess. From here.

What, exactly, the policemen think they are going to achieve with those shotguns is anyone’s guess. From here.

He’s not the only person to have had shots aimed at him. Edward Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was shot by a man he’d turned down for a taxi licence. Leopold de Rothschild had shots fired at him. But the real fun is abroad. In the years leading up to the First World War, the King of Serbia, the King of Greece, the Russian Prime Minister, the Grand Vizier of Turkey, a French President, an American President and (famously) the heir presumptive to the Austrian throne will all be assassinated. On the eve of the First World War the wife of an ex-French Prime Minister will be on trial for the shooting of a newspaper editor.

In the years following the 1905 Russian Revolution something like 2000 Tsarist officials were assassinated.

Mind you, the great and the good were just as susceptible to natural causes. In the years leading up to the First World War a US ambassador to London, a German Foreign Minister and an Austrian Foreign Minister will all die in office. The Russian ambassador to Serbia will die during the July Crisis and a British general, Grierson, will die on his way to the front. A Fortnum’s hamper was found by his side.

Court cases of all kinds tend to be over quickly and juries usually make up their minds within the hour. I suspect the fact that they aren’t paid for their time plays a large part in this. Punishments include hanging and flogging. Flogging takes two forms: the cat if they’re up to it and the birch if they are not.

One thing that still surprises me is access to these courts. Ordinary people, for instance, can and do bring libel cases.

Homosexuality is illegal but it appears to be rarely prosecuted. The word “homosexual” appears once in ten years and that is in relation to a libel case in Germany. I recently read about a blackmail case. A mother accused a merchant of “ruining” her son. I assume this is a euphemism for buggery. The merchant paid her £150 which in those days would buy you 40 ounces of gold – about £35,000 at today’s prices. A few months later the mother made further demands at which point the merchant went to the police and the mother and son were prosecuted for blackmail. At no point is there any question of the merchant being prosecuted for a criminal offence despite the fact that by his actions he’s effectively admitted to it. Could it be, that so long as you were discreet the state wasn’t that bothered?

The World in 1913 – Part III: Politics

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, IV, V & VI.

Politically, these are radical times. In 1906 a Liberal government was returned by a landslide.

Elections in those days were very different from the way they are today. For starters, the electorate was much smaller. Women couldn’t vote at all and men had to be over 21 and pass a not particularly onerous property qualification. General elections themselves, took place over the course of a couple of weeks. In each constituency the voting would take place over a number of days and it would not be the same days in each constituency. As a consequence the results would filter in over the course of a week.

Up until 1910, MPs weren’t paid at all. If they wanted to become a minister they would have to resign their seat and fight a by-election.

The Liberal government introduced the Workmen’s Compensation Act, old-age pensions, sick pay, unemployment benefit for certain trades, maternity benefit, nationalised GPs, allowed Trade Unions to pay strike pay and, as I mentioned earlier, nationalised the telephones. To pay for it all they upped taxes. At this point the Unionist-dominated House of Lords objected causing a constitutional crisis. After two general elections in 1910 and a threat to create 1000 new peers the Lords’ backed down and their power to block money bills was removed for good.


Sick pay is not working particularly well. In the days when sick pay was entirely in the hands of friendly societies they had powerful incentives to make sure that people claiming sick pay were indeed sick as indeed did the doctors in their pay. Now that the state bears the costs you will be shocked to hear that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people claiming sickness benefit. Malingerers, as they are known can get away with it because doctors are signing them off as sick without making a proper examination.

In 1910 the Liberals lost their majority and went into coalition with Labour and the Irish Nationalists (one of whom, incidentally, represents a constituency in Liverpool). The price of Nationalist support is Home Rule and the obstacle to that, as always, is Ulster. In the North, men are drilling and guns are being run. The Unionists are in the process of setting up a provisional government. The penny is beginning to drop that this could end in Civil War.

The suffragettes are causing chaos. They are breaking windows, destroying mail, disrupting political meetings, and burning down country houses. When jailed they go on hunger strike. Initially, the state force fed them. When this proved unpopular it started releasing them when they became weak and re-imprisoning them when they’d become stronger. Known as the Cat and Mouse Act it simply proves that the state has no idea what to do.

It could of course give women the vote. A bill was introduced in May 1913 but mysteriously failed to pass. While arguing against it, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith amid much tedious inconsequential waffle argued that the bill would enlarge the franchise both too much and too little and therefore, it should be rejected.

The World in 1913 – Part II: The Economy

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.

The World in 1913 – Part I

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.

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.

Hungarian Prime Minister fights third duel this year

The year being 1913, of course.

The Times, 21 August 1913 p4

The Times, 21 August 1913 p4

The whole business seems to be a bit stylised although still dangerous.

Samizdata quote of the day

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.

It may be true, but why take the risk?


The Times 24 July 1913 page 5

The Times 24 July 1913 page 5

Moneylending: not as easy as you might think

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.

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.

How charities used to raise money

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

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.

Bulgaria loses the Second Balkan War

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 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.

Martyrdom: an Oxford don writes

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)

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.

The revolution on London’s streets

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

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

The Times 20 June 1913 page 4