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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.

34 comments to The World in 1913 – Part I

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    As an example of part of the “routine of life” that you will not see when looking at 1913 through the pinhole of the Times (actually, I liked your previous metaphor of looking through a letterbox better – the Times gives a bigger view than a pinhole, but it is limited) is the steeply falling rates of infant mortality. The drop started as if by a signal in 1900.

    Since the Times of that period, from what I’ve read of it, stuck firmly to news events and did not do “backgrounders”, that huge change is not seen. But the adults reading the paper grew up in a time when to have at least one of your siblings die in childhood was routine. They don’t seem to have quite noticed until several decades later that this would not be true of their children. Or did they notice, but their discussions took place in magazines or books that are not neatly collated in one website for us in 2013 to read?

    Sometimes one gets a better idea about the assumptions of a past age from novels than newspapers, but in my case the hundred year old novels I read are hotter on spies than infant mortality. I do observe there is a distinct drop-off of maternal or child deathbed scenes since Dickens’ time.

    Cheered you up, I hope?

    I do think it was a vigorous, optimistic era.


  • I didn’t realise I’d ever published the “letterbox” analogy. It was there in the first draft but I took it out when I couldn’t decide which way I would be looking through the letterbox – outside in or inside out. It seemed that outside in was more likely but seemed a bit creepy so I dropped it.

    Extraordinary graph. I must admit I’d thought that the decline in infant mortality had begun a lot earlier. No mention of it in the Times that I am aware of.

  • Paul Marks

    I am told that one of the big differences between the press then and the press (and the electronic media) now is that they gave the full text of proposed treaties, and proposed domestic and foreign laws. Is this true Patrick?

    I have always found the modern style of coverage almost useless – as it is basically “this is good” or “this is bad” without giving an full description of what “this” actually is.

    The reply that is sometimes given “well modern treaties and proposed legislation are too long to give you the full text” invites the answer “then they are too long – and should be rejected for that reason alone”.

    If something is too long to read – it is too long to agree to.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Modern people suffer from pretty severe myopia regarding “The Way Things Were”™. Usually they will swing wildly from hopeless idealism to hyperbolic caricatures of evil.

    My wife just finished reading AJ Cronin’s “The Citadel” – the novel which was apparently instrumental in the creation of the NHS. One of Cronin’s gripes with the pre-NHS healthcare system was that poor women were compelled to give birth in crowded, dirty and inadequate labour wards while the rich were whisked away to the little piece of paradise that is private maternity care.

    Funny how no one seems to have commented on the fact that after 50 years, the NHS seems to have singularly failed to change that one little bit. After reading about the Duchess of Cambridge’s birth in the £10,000 for one birth Lindo Wing, my wife decided that one of her ambitions was if we ever have any more kids, that they would be born in a place like that. Her experiences of giving bith in an NHS labour suite for the last few kids have not been pleasant. Indeed, her life has been put in danger by incompetence on more than one occasion.

  • Tedd

    The reply that is sometimes given “well modern treaties and proposed legislation are too long to give you the full text” invites the answer “then they are too long – and should be rejected for that reason alone”.

    I was managing a military newspaper when the Charlottetown Accord referendum was held, here in Canada. Political news is normally not covered in a military newspaper, because of the need for neutrality. (As we all know, even the choice of which events to cover is non-neutral). But certain things, such as encouraging people to vote or information on voting procedures, are viewed as acceptably neutral. I decided that publishing the full text of the Charlottetown Accord fell into the acceptably-neutral category, and that decision was never challenged. But I had an ulterior motive: I believed the accord was so extensive, and contained so many provisions targeted at specific groups, that almost anyone who actually read it would see that it was a bad idea.

  • Fascinating – looking forward to the next installment.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Paul, sad to say I have never seen a bill or treaty published verbatim in the Times.

    Quite agree on the “chuck it out on length grounds alone” argument.

  • terence patrick hewett

    To quote the first page of the Oxford History of England 1914-1939 by A J P Taylor:

    “Until August 1914 a sensible law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly know the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel aboard or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since the 1st January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1909. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.”

  • terence patrick hewett

    When L P Hartley said “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” he was dead right. I was brought up in my grandparents East End house: complete with gas lamps and a wood burning stove. They were Victorians: granddad fought in the South African War and the Great War. When the word Victorian is used today it comes with all sorts of baggage; the assumption is that we all know what Victorian means: hypocritical, preachy, introverted, un-enlightened and sexually repressed. This is erroneous: in reality the world in which we live is still fundamentally the world which the Victorians and Edwardians reformed from the horrors of the 18th century; and into which the forces of delusion are trying, with great success to drag us back. The myth of alleged Victorian prudery is no better described than in the myth of the piano legs draped to prevent the male of the species going mad from sexual lust. The legs of the furniture at the time were gussied up for good practical reasons. Since they had no refrigerators they had many larders, so they kept cats to control the mice: ipso facto they covered the furniture to stop the cats from sharpening their claws on the legs. Additionally, since they had large families it was a protection against damage to the legs of the furniture by all those wheeled wooden toys. The myth actually arose from Captain Frederick Marryat’s 1839 book, Diary in America, as a satirical comment on prissiness. No-one took this seriously at the time so they must be laughing their heads off at us from above (or below). Most of our views of the Victorians are now obtained from contemporary text; what they really thought was never committed to paper, although some idea may be got from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith and the pronouncements of Miss Marie Lloyd. The works of Mr Peter Ackroyd of East Acton also come highly recommended.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Let us hope that the people of 100 years forward are not looking back at our age as a beacon of freedom and liberty! Maybe space travel will mean that states can’t stop people leaving, so their reach withdraws, and their ambitions die, and the states wither away. Well, we can hope!

  • William O. B'Livion

    I can only imagine that our ancestors had a lot of leisure time.

    No Internet, no television, no radio.

    No wonder it as so much more violent back then. You had to interact with real people in real time.

  • Pat McCann

    About 10 years ago,my neighbor was renovating the upstairs apartment of his house. When took off the plaster from the wall, the laths were covered with newspaper. I found an article about Col. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippians in 1925. Should have kept the paper.

  • Veryretired

    It was the end of an historical era, and over the next several decades the world’s political, cultural, and social parameters underwent enormous changes. In it’s own way, it was another instance of an entire way of life being “gone with the wind”.

    After millenia of kings, emperors, caliphs, and ruling nobilities from Europe to Asia, the aristocratic model collapsed, and the world spent the rest of the century searching for viable alternatives.

    We still seem to be searching, even as we are well into a period of transition every bit as wide and deep as that was, including the nature and structure of the media.

    I would recommend “The Proud Tower”, among others, for a closer examination of this period. It is not as f ar away as it seems—my grandfather was born in 1896 and lived until 1981.

    I sometimes wonder if I will see as much change in my life time as he did, and if it will be for the better or worse.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)


    While I agree with your point about the end of kings, I am always pointing out (having had it pointed out to me) that the nineteenth century contained bigger changes than even the twentieth. Consider communications – there will never again be such a big jump in the speed that a message can be passed as there was when the telegraph was invented.

    For all ages past the fastest way to travel had been a galloping horse. Then from 1804 to 1850 the railways went from the an experimental kettle on wheels to a state where most villages and towns in Britain had a station. The difference wasn’t so much speed as range. London to Edinburgh in days rather than weeks.

  • Veryretired

    NS—Yes the 19th century was a time of great innovation and advancement, but the results of this intellectual and other turmoils, including several social movements, played themselves out in the 20th.

    The most significant lesson that I have learned from studying history is how slowly ideas and their permutations move through the culture. That is one of the main reasons I favor being realistic about the long and difficult task that confronts us in reducing and delegitimizing the leviathan state, instead of hoping for some sudden catastrophic collapse that will, mirabile dictu, usher in a golden age when everyone will accept classically liberal values.

    Ephemeral enthusiasms are all well and good, but building the future requires a cast iron determination to win at all costs, and to never accept defeat no matter how dire the situation may present itself.

    If the calamitous 20th century has taught us anything, it is that even the most ferocious and pathological tyrannies can be defeated by an unrelenting effort coupled with an inexhaustible will.

    That is the spirit that must be rekindled for the task ahead.

  • Ernie G

    The part about reading old newspapers to get the sense of the times surrounding an historic event reminded me of a paper I did while in high school. I reported on the Spanish American War as seen from Tampa. I went to the library and used the microfilm files of the Tampa Tribune. I don’t remember what I wrote about the war, but I recall a front page report of a public hanging in the courthouse square, in which the condemned man preached a “Come to Jesus” sermon to the crowd before his execution.

  • Steven R

    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?

    It’s no more or less true than other idealized versions of the past. There was little regulation, but it was also the time when miners were being killed by strikebreakers for daring to ask to be paid cash instead of script, a time when the J.P. Morgans and John D. Rockafellers of the world had no legal limitations whatsoever and so could establish monopolies, a time when factories were deliberately kept unsafe for employees in the name of costcutting, a time when the mountabanks might just be selling snake oil or poison as medicine, a time when a bank failure would wipe out every dime a family had because Wall Street never quite got around to setting up something like the FDIC, a time when 1700 people could die in a shipwreck because the shipping line just didn’t want to put in the necessary number of lifeboats. It was a great time to be an entrepreneur, provided you were at the top, but it wasn’t guite as good for everyone else.

    It’s easy to cherry pick history to provide evidence for whatever viewpoint one already has. The leftist is going to point to the harsh living conditions while the robber barons lived the highlife while ignoring the vast technological changes entrepreneurs were making and the economic opportunities that arose from them. The libertarian will point out how great it was to be free of regulation while ignoring all the abuses and problems a lack of government enforcement allows. It’s the flip side of the same ideological coin. They’re both right and they’re both wrong.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Steven R: It’s easy to cherry pick history to provide evidence for whatever viewpoint one already has.

    As you have here. And not even honestly.

    Titanic had the full legal requirement of lifeboats, and in fact some extra. At that time there was no expectation that lifeboats must accommodate everyone on board; they were expected to ferry survivors to land or a rescue ship.

    “Wall Street” had no power to establish national deposit insurance. Incidentally, one reason the FDIC had not yet been created in 1911 was that J.P. Morgan himself regularly intervened to prevent bank collapses.

    It’s also funny that you should say Rockefeller could set up monopolies at will, when in fact Northern Securities Co. v. United States in 1904 confirmed the “trust-busting” power of the U.S., which was applied to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1911.

  • Steven R

    White Star Lines decided to deliberately not stock enough lifeboats for everyone because it would look ugly. Regardless of what regulations are the time existed and how they were exceeded, that corporate decision killed a whole bunch of people on that ship. They aren’t getting any points for saying they did more than they had to but didn’t want to do more because of aesthetics.

    Wall Street could have developed a voluntary banking insurance plan of some sorts to protect the private savings accounts of normal people. Instead, bank runs and collapsing banks wiped out savings of ordinary people while bankers just shrugged their shoulders. It was too much effort to set up insurance until the banks were forced to do so. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that normal everyday little people got sick of losing everything every decade and demanded government do something. It was great that Morgan did what he did, expect when he didn’t and the Panic of 1907 happened.

    And the whole list of sordid affairs that led to the trust-busting shows why that was necessary in the first place.

    The libertarian ideal of a regulation-free anything-goes-economy works great on paper, as does the Marxist government-is-mother, government-is-father approach, but both suck in reality. There might be a happy medium between the fictional utopias of Libertopia and Marxville, and there might not be, but history has shown time and again that no regulation is just as dirty and nasty and horrid as top down micromanaging.

  • Laird

    I don’t know enough about the Titanic to express an opinion on that, but it is clear to me that Steven R understands neither banking nor deposit insurance. Prior to the Great Depression (and to some extent even today) most banks were purely local; Wall Street had nothing to do with them or their occasional failures. The great commercial banks in New York were private investment banking houses, which didn’t take ordinary consumer deposits. Local banks, which did take such deposits, failed when they got overextended and lost the confidence of their depositors. There is no Wall Street connection there, and hence no reason for Wall Street to develop some sort of “voluntary insurance plan” for them. And it’s funny that you should mention the Panic of 1907: that was specifically one in which JP Morgan personally intervened to prevent the spread of panic beyond the collapse of the Knickerbocker Trust. Look it up.

    And the great industrial trusts of the late 19th century did commit wrongs, but the anti-trust era which followed (and which we are still in) has its own problems, too, notably that antitrust regulation is remarkably political and mostly unpredictable, and certainly doesn’t benefit the ordinary consumer or investor.

    No one here argues that a libertarian society would be perfect, merely that it would be immensely better than a government-dominated one. For every regulatory “success” you can point to, I can point to a hundred failures (and probably note some significant “warts” on that putative success as well).

  • Regardless of what regulations are the time existed and how they were exceeded, that corporate decision killed a whole bunch of people on that ship.

    So you are arguing for regulation regardless of how ineffective it is in practice?

  • terence patrick hewett

    Curiouser and Curiouser said Alice or rather Alisa. I clicked on yr link and, yes it is basically correct. But there was an awful lot of tarting up of the furniture. I was intrigued by yr use of texting code. My generation would have their hands cut off rather even to start a sentence with an “and” or a “but” until reading Fowler’s Modern English Usage Circa 1926, I found that it was fully sanctioned. But I still hear Mrs Atack saying “don’t you dare! Stand in the corner!” Sorry miss. But I digress. Have you read the Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith: I think you will bust yr corsets. By the way, you should see Tenniel’s original colour illustrations of Alice: they are magnificent.

  • Being based in Britain it is difficult for me to comment on the American experience. It is difficult to find a monopoly in the relatively free-market conditions prevailing in Britain in 1913 and harder to find one that does any great harm. There is no great demand for competition regulation.

    My understanding is that Rockefeller has been hard done by. I went along to a talk on the very subject a couple of months ago. Listening to the speaker – who was far from an S.O. fan – it became clear that if Rockefeller was attempting to eliminate the competition in order to put up his prices, he failed on both counts. Not only that, but the U.S. got better railways into the bargain.

    While it is true that banks did go bust from time to time: the Birkbeck and Charing Cross banks are examples, I am not sure regulation is the answer. After all, regulation designed to prevent precisely this played a large part in the crash of 2008 and is playing a similar role in the current bubble.

    Of course, most of this is moot. Regulation involves state violence. And violence is wrong.

  • But…but…but I did not start a sentence with a ‘but’!

    Thanks for the pointer, Terence – I was looking for something humorous to read, and this looks just perfect:-)

  • Laird

    I plead guilty to beginning the occasional sentence with “but” or “and”. But when I do so it is consciously, for effect. And I make no apologies for it.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    The great”Lee-Enfield” debate was caused by the development of the “Pattern 1913 Enfield” in the new .276″ calibre, which would have been a major change from the .303″ Rifle No 1 Mk II SMLE in service at the time.
    P13 Enfield


  • Schrodinger's Dog


    An interesting pair of articles. Thanks.

    Reading them you can see where our modern, regulatory, welfare state came from: inter alia the hospitals were short of money and businesses were making quite outrageous claims for the products they sold.

    VeryRetired, I think you’re quite right: anyone who is a serious libertarian is in it for the long haul. It took the progressives and their ilk a century to create the leviathan state – and that was with the lure of “free stuff” for the masses. Dismantling it is likely going to take another century.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, thanks for the link–Delightful and interesting, and I liked the picture. I can remember houses furnished in that style–in fact I grew up in one that had stuff like that, for instance the sideboard on the right.

    Laird, and Rich, good points. (And I begin sentences with a conjunction at times also, for the same reason. In fact — I have taken to using comma splices every so often. Quelle horreur! But at least I know I’m committing a sin against the language.)

    Very, you are right about the long haul. The danger is that the locomotive is out of control and is pulling the train (carrying all sorts of toxic chemicals and disease germs) along where it will, instead of keeping to the tracks.

    Patrick: Thanks very much for the interesting and informative posting. :>)