Late Victorian & Edwardian Hey-day

Late Victorian & Edwardian Hey-day

The England of the past has been an England of reserved, silent men, dispersed in small towns, villages, and country homes. The England of the future is an England packed tightly in such gigantic aggregations of population as the world has never before seen.

So C.F.G. Masterman described London in The Condition of England in 1902, but the problems of urbanization were equally pressing in Lancashire, whose population had topped four million in 1901,  with a density of 2,000 per square mile.

Most of these four million people lived south of the Ribble. Even in south Lancashire the problem was not that of a single huge conur­bation, but that of a plurality of towns of all sizes. Over a third of Lancastrians now lived in three cities – Liverpool, Manchester or Salford. By 1911 there were 17 county boroughs with populations of over 50,000 and 18 municipal boroughs with populations over 10,000, as well as a number of urban districts. Only one in 24 of the population lived in areas designated ‘rural’. New towns continued to spring up, especially along the coast. Heysham and St Annes were the Edwardian mushroom towns, while between 1871 and 1911 Blackpool grew sixfold.

In spite of continued growth, Lancashire towns retained their individuality. Dialect and accent differed – as they still do – from one place to another, with mysterious linguistic frontiers like the one which separated Liverpool from other parts of south Lancashire. Immigration from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and other parts of England – not to mention the arrival of Russian, Italian and German immigrants – gave each town a distinct ethnic composition. Religious and racial divisions led to much communal stress, but in the long term they found comparatively peaceful expression in sporting rivalry especially on the football field.

Individuality frequently derived from history, but rarely from the distant past. Liverpool and Manchester took pride in their mediaeval origins, but Barrow was proud to be the creation of Victorian business acumen and imagination. Lancashire towns, with exceptions in the north, such as Garstang and Hawkshead, had a predominantly Victorian look, however ancient their charters. They were wealthier than they had ever been and they expressed their individuality in the different architectural styles of their public buildings. Liverpool showed a preference for classical styles, Manchester for Gothic. Rochdale’s Town Hall was Gothic, Bolton’s was classical. Lancashire towns had political characters too. On the Tory side were ranged Liverpool, Preston, Blackburn and the seaside towns. Among the Liberal towns were Oldham, Rochdale and Lancaster.

Lastly, and most importantly, was the character derived from local industry. ‘Manchester man, Liverpool gentleman’ was a quip which had once distinguished between the ‘putter-out’ and the import merchant, but came to imply much more. The inner ring of towns round Manchester, comprising Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury and a number of smaller centres, were all predominantly concerned with cotton-spinning. The outer ring of Burnley, Accrington, Black­burn and Preston constituted the weaving belt. The chief centres for bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing were Bolton and Manch­ester. Manchester had lived down the quip, and had acquired direct access to its foreign markets by the building of the Manchester Ship Canal (completed in 1896). Smaller places had their own distinctive economic character. In the south, Wigan and Leigh, although both engaged in cotton, were more important as the centres of coal production. Warrington was renowned for leather, beer and soap, while the new towns of St Helens and Widnes were making fortunes for manufacturers of glass and chemicals. Further north, Horwich had become identified with railway workshops and Darwen for its bricks and tiles. North of the Ribble, Lancaster had become a trade name for oilcloth and linoleum, while Barrow, already famous for its haematite iron and steel works, was hitting Edwardian news­paper headlines with the regular launchings of ‘dreadnoughts’ from the Vickers shipyards.

Transport developments gave all the towns a ring of new suburbs. Migration to the countryside was first made possible by suburban fail services. Some lines became electrified. The Mersey Railway was converted in 1903, and the important Liverpool-Southport link was electrified in the following year. Tramway services were developed – horse-drawn from the 1870s (Liverpool’s dated from 1868) and electric from 1900-05 (although Blackpool had been operating an electric service from 1885, and Burnley had steam trams from 1881). A vast network of lines made it possible to travel by tram all over south Lancashire. The journey from Liverpool to Colne could be made in 18 hours. Trams were better for shorter distances and they were cheap enough to be a boon to all classes of the com­munity. Ribbon development along main roads was no longer limited to big, detached villas. Builders now built terrace-housing for clerks and office workers on the outskirts of the big towns and even gave birth to new working-class suburbs such as Halliwell near Bolton.

In spite of these developments the bulk of the population still lived either in the town centres, in overcrowded courts and narrow dirty side streets or, a little further out, in long rows of uniform, red-brick cottages, separated by the wider, windier streets, laid out by builders in compliance with the bye-laws of the 1850s and 1860s. Town centres changed, with increasing shop and office develop­ment and street-widening. Local authorities sometimes took a lead in demolition, but were reluctant to supply housing for those made homeless by ‘improvements’. Liverpool led the way in municipal housing developments in 1869, with its four-storey flats euphemisti­cally christened ‘St Martin’s Cottages’. Manchester’s scheme in Ancoats did not follow until 1889, and most town councils went no further than consultation and discussion. Without government aid, such schemes seemed economically prohibitive.

There were a number of ‘slum’ areas, especially in the big cities, where islands of poverty were formed by barriers such as railway embankments and canals. Yet, on the whole, the towns were remark­ably well integrated communities, consisting mainly of mill-workers, craftsmen, corner shopkeepers, labourers and casual workers. To describe the industrialized urban environment simply as a ‘slum’ world is to recognize its dreary poverty and dirt, but to ignore its enormous variety and vitality.

Seebohm Rowntree calculated that about one third of the popula­tion of Edwardian York lived in poverty, and the situation in Lan­cashire towns was probably similar. Skilled men took home about 35s or 40s a week, but labourers received only half this amount. In the cotton industry women were paid about two thirds the men’s rates. Real wages rose steadily from 1870 to 1900, declined somewhat between 1900 and 1910 and then rose once more as wages were increased in the boom of 1911-13.

Poverty was most frequent among the casual workers, dock labourers and street hawkers who congregated in the big cities, had no steady source of income, and lived on the edge of a world of crime, prison and the workhouse. Jerome Caminada, a Manchester police officer writing in the 1890s, described the inhabitants of the Manchester street world as ‘curious, crawling, creeping figures … slinking away in their rags’, condemned to the rough life of sweat shop and gin palace. Police supervision was much more thorough and extensive by the late nineteenth century, but when the police went on strike in Liverpool in 1919, all hell was let loose and the troops had to be called in.

Families with more than one member on a steady wage could usually expect to live respectably, if they were careful. The fact that by pooling their wages families could usually keep their members from the disgrace of the workhouse or crime, put a premium on family discipline. Father had a paramount position as the principal breadwinner, and he was treated with appropriate respect within the home, occupying the best chair and receiving priority at mealtimes. Mother was the lynch-pin of the family and the main source of comfort and advice to the children. If she went out to work she entrusted her youngest children to a childminder, perhaps an older relative or an elder daughter.

The daily routine for the millworker’s family had not greatly changed since the middle of the nineteenth century. It began with the rattle on the bedroom window made by the long pole of the knocker-up at about 5 am. With only a drink of tea inside him and his breakfast in a square tin, the factory hand set off to arrive at his work by 6 am. After two hours there was a breakfast break of half an hour’s duration, followed by another for dinner at 12.30 pm. If his wife worked too, a pie was fetched from a confectioner’s or sent from home by one of the children. The hot potato pie (hot-pot) and pickled cabbage were washed down either with tea brewed at the mill canteen or with a jug of ale fetched, again by one of the children, from the local public house. At home after 5 pm tea – perhaps tripe and onions – soon followed. Then there was shopping to be done at the corner shop or at the increasingly popular ‘Co-op’ (originating in Toad Lane, Rochdale in 1844), where housewives could be sure of unadulterated goods, reliable services, and a chance of a dividend. Later, father met his friends at the ‘local’, although mother still had plenty of chores to do. The rapid growth of fried-fish shops in the late nineteenth century meant the occasional treat of a bought supper before going to bed. This was the routine brought by industrialism, and some of its features are still familiar today.

The side streets were full of the noise of children who played there for want of anywhere better. Back yards were too small, while parks were often distant and were sometimes for ornamental purposes only. As late as 1900 there were still many schools without playgrounds. All sorts of games were played, including singing-games such as ‘There came three dukes a-riding’. There were fewer pets in 1900 than today, although canaries were popular and some children kept rabbits or white mice. Most families had a cat, and men kept ferrets for rabbiting and ratting, or whippets and pigeons for racing. Outbreaks of rabies, as in 1889, obliged the government to issue periodic orders for all dogs to be muzzled.

School attendance had been compulsory since 1876 and local officials did their best to enforce it. The school-leaving age was 10 from 1876  to 1899,  and 12 from then until 1918  when it was raised to 14. State elementary schools, or ‘Board Schools’, were free to any child up to his fourteenth birthday. Many children were sent to school without footwear, and private funds were set up to provide them with clogs. Free school meals were provided by the local education committees after 1906, although voluntary funds had already started dinner schemes in some places. In hard times children might receive free breakfasts at school as well.

Elementary schools were characterized by huge classes (often of 60), deplorable sanitary arrangements and constant disruption. Town schools did not suffer the disruptions caused by haymaking, harvesting and potato planting and getting, but they were frequently decimated by epidemics of scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. The health of village schools was not much better: that at Caton was closed no less than eight times because of epidemics between 1893 and 1907.

This was not an educational environment conducive to success. As Robert Roberts, a former pupil in Salford, wrote: ‘With a deep consciousness of global possession, a grasp of the decalogue and modicum of knowledge we left in droves at the very first hour the law would allow and sought any job at all in factory, mill and shop’ (R. Roberts, The Classic Slum, 1971). A very few, like Ernest Barker, obtained free places in the old grammar schools which had been revivified for the sons of shopkeepers and professional men in the course of the nineteenth century, with the curriculum still heavily biased towards the classics. In this way Barker, the son of a quarryman and a mill-girl, became, via Manchester Grammar School and Balliol, one of the great classical scholars of the twentieth century. Meanwhile girls’ secondary education was even more neg­lected, and technical schools only began to make an impact after the Technical Instruction Act of 1889.

Middle-class pressure had led to the provision of colleges, like Owens at Manchester (1851) and Queen’s at Liverpool (1857) to teach traditional university subjects. In 1 880 Owens College became the nucleus of the federal Victoria University, and in 1903 the colleges at Manchester and Liverpool both acquired independent university status, with large financial assistance from local merchants and manufacturers. The first women students were admitted at Manchester in 1883, but it was not till 1899 that every department of the college became open to them. Although no longer male preserves, such institutions were of necessity very middle-class, and it was not until 1903, with the founding of the Workers’ Education Association, that university teaching was at last brought to working people.

Meanwhile free libraries were set up with the help of benefactors like E.R. Harris, a solicitor, at Preston and the American steel baron, Andrew Carnegie, at Blackpool, Nelson and elsewhere. By 1901 an estimated 3,000 people were using the Harris reading-room at Preston. Membership was restricted to those over 14 until 1906, but many children, like Ernest Barker, had access to Sunday school libraries and such cheap popular series as the Cassells 3d National Library.

Death rates fell dramatically in the closing decades of the nine­teenth century, although the dangers to life during infancy resisted all efforts of the medical officers of health (appointed to every Board of Health after 1875). It was still not unknown for babies to be suffocated in their mothers’ beds. In a ‘two-up and two-downer’, families still shared beds, and a number of the poorest families lived in one room. Navvies away on a job- had to share with work‑mates or strangers. As one navvy mildly complained of a Lancaster lodging-house, ‘with four in a bed (and two of them drunk) it isn’t very comfortable’

Recruiting offices during the Boer War revealed startling facts about Lancashire schoolchildren, such as ‘hair and body lice, decay­ing teeth, suppurating ears and deafness, ringworm and tuberculosis’. Fevers carried off many, in spite of heroic attempts by housewives, who wore themselves out in the battle against grime and bugs, aided by corporation whitewash and lime and advice from Ladies’ Health Societies. There was, however, little that could be done to offset the effects of smoke pollution, heavy fogs and long hours in the damp hot atmosphere of a cotton mill or, indeed, the effect of over­work in any job.

Malnutrition remained a major problem, although more often from ignorance of the essentials of a nutritious diet than from bare want. Bread and potatoes still formed the major ingredients of most meals. Food had to be tasty. Children were kept going between inadequate meals with treacle butties, and adults liked large quanti­ties of sauce and pickles with their food. Boiled ham was highly regarded, but was reserved for weekends, special occasions and, of course, funerals. Cooked meat was still a rarity, although roast Argentinian beef was beginning to appear on Sunday dinner tables. Fresh fish – particularly Icelandic cod – was also becoming popular, and most street-corners had a chip shop by 1900. Little fruit was consumed: bananas and tomatoes were thought to be positively harmful. Milk was obtainable quite cheaply from roundsmen with their huge cans or ‘kitters’, but was often dirty or adulterated. The first dispensary to make clean milk available for nursing mothers was opened in St Helens in 1899. Tap water was still not entirely trusted, and tea was undoubtedly the favourite drink. Housewives kept the tea-kettle boiling at all hours, and tea-poisoning was a genuine hazard.

By the end of the nineteenth century the range of patent and quack remedies available for various ailments was wider than ever. Medical advertisers had access to an enormous market through the popular press and provided an important part of newspaper revenue. The classic success story was that of ‘Doctor’ Thomas Beecham of St Helens who, thanks to the successful national advertising of his pills, was producing nine million pills a day by 1890.

Meanwhile late Victorian Lancashire saw the proliferation of hospitals with operating theatres, special children’s wings and dental sections. Isolation hospitals for the treatment of victims of infec­tious diseases were also established. In addition, from the late 1880s, district nursing associations were set up to take hospital hygiene and care into private homes. Following Liverpool’s example of 1897, many towns began to employ professional female health visitors. By such means some of the worst killers, such as cholera and small­pox were eliminated, and the standards of child care slowly improved. At the same time, MOHs campaigned for more sanitary housing and more water closets.

The struggle against drink provoked far more contemporary interest and controversy than that against disease. Heavy drinking was a major social problem, and restrictions on licensing hours were light. Apart from the Act of 1872 which closed public houses for six hours a day at the discretion of the magistrates, no further progress was made in the imposition of closer control before the First World War, except in the case of juvenile drinking. In 1908 it became illegal for children under 14 to enter a bar, and therefore ‘taking out’ was restricted to special ‘jug and bottle’ departments.

Clearance of town-centre slums considerably reduced the number of licensed premises. The new suburban pubs were more spacious and, with their billiard tables and bowling greens, aimed at destroy­ing the temperance image of public houses as dens of vice. Yet the bald facts of the situation may be illustrated from Preston, the birth­place of teetotalism. Although 14 inns had been demolished there in the 1890s, in 1901 there were still 13 breweries and one licensed house to every 250 inhabitants.

The physical presence of church and chapel was as imposing as that of the public house in Lancashire towns. Many of the buildings had been put up or enlarged between 1850 and 1914, as part of an enormous effort to catch up with the growth of the population. In spite of this, a large proportion of the people, especially in the cities, did not attend any place of worship. Nevertheless, the various aspects of church life, from Sunday Schools to Pleasant Sunday Afternoons – where working men could enjoy a reading or recital and a cup of tea – flourished as never before. In smaller places such activities dominated the life of the community. In the large towns a strong sense of competition was engendered between Anglicans, Nonconformists (by 1900 known as Free Churchmen) and Roman Catholics. Denominations showed their political muscle at election times, but interest also focused on the turn-out for processions of witness – through the streets with banners and bands – held on May Day or at Whitsuntide. Roman Catholic processions were swelled by the Irish after the Potato Famine and by Italian immi­grants at the turn of the century. Violence continued to be a feature of sectarian feelings, sometimes sparked off by travelling lecturers, but increasingly institutionalized in the kind of rivalry that has existed between the football clubs of Liverpool and Everton. There was a strong Mormon presence in Liverpool in the 1840s, but many emigrated to the United States. The growing Jewish population in Manchester added a new dimension to the religious scene.

Families imposed strong moral constraints on their members. High moral standards were a defence against economic disaster and guarantee of social respectability. On the one hand they produced strong sense of honesty and neighbourliness, on the other they gave rise to an over-developed censoriousness towards sex. Funerals were among the most important of family occasions. The family went into mourning and brought out the deceased’s savings from the burial club or friendly society to pay for the expenses. A pauper’s burial was a great disgrace but, for the provident, funerals meant new clothes for the children, a ham tea for all, and something stronger afterwards for the adults. The funerals of the great were witnessed with awe. Queen Victoria’s was marked by the shutting of shops and hundreds of memorial services. For Lancastrians she had held a special place, toasted as ‘the Queen, Duke of Lancaster’, even though she disliked this odd amalgamation of titles.

Many Lancashire working-class householders received the vote in 1867; householders in rural and suburban areas were enfranchised in 1884. Great excitement was aroused by general elections, partly because the results were often close, and partly because candidates were more genuinely local than today. Political clubs abounded, and public meetings were well attended. Conservative or Unionist strength in Lancashire in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was due to the reforming tradition of families like the Crosses and Asshetons – who had an important influence on the social reforms of Disraeli’s government of 1874-80 – combined with strong racial and religious hostility towards the Roman Catholic Irish. Brewers and publicans backed Tory candidates, while the temperance men and Nonconformists came out for the Liberals. In 1906 the latter triumphed because of their identification with Free Trade, which was regarded as vital to the health of the cotton industry. Labour made its first major impact in the 1906 election. Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden breached the Tory strongholds of Preston and Blackburn, and the earl of Derby’s heir was defeated at Westhoughton. Labour benefited from its close association with the trade unions, particularly the weavers and miners. The cotton industry as a whole was highly unionized, and, after the employers, led by Charles Macara, and the spinners, led by James Maudsley, had accepted a three-tier system of arbitration in the Brooklands Agree­ment of 1893,  there were only two major stoppages before the First World War.

Women as well as unions were now taking a more active part in politics. It was in Manchester in 1903 that Emmeline Pankhurst, the widow of a radical barrister, and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, together founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Open-air meetings were held during wakes weeks in the towns around Manchester, and it was after interrupting Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1906 that Christabel served her first prison sentence. Soon after this the focus of suffragette activities shifted to London.

Late Victorian prosperity brought the seaside within reach of most Lancashire families. Wakes or holiday weeks had become established practice in the mill towns, and part of the week was usually spent by the sea. Blackpool was the most popular of the resort, with up to 20,000 visitors on any day in the season. Excur­sion trains brought people in groups from mill or chapel for day trips, although increasing numbers of the better-off could afford to stay the night. Cut-throat competition among boarding-house keepers meant that a bed could be obtained for as little as a shilling a night.

Blackpool boomed in the 1890s. A ‘tripper’ who saw the third pier opened in 1893, would have seen the completed Blackpool Tower (all 518 ft (158m) of it) the next year. In 1895 the Empire Theatre was opened, followed a year later by the Big Wheel and Empress Ballroom, and the Alhambra in 1899. Also that year, the North Shore promenade was completed and that on the South Shore was widened and rebuilt in 1905. Apart from all the tradi­tional forms of seaside entertainment – Punch and Judy shows, fortune tellers and donkey rides – Blackpool specialized in providing the best artists and the latest inventions of the day. Sousa, Caruso and Houdini all performed in Edwardian Blackpool; and there were special trials for both motor cars and aeroplanes. The resort’s first cinema, the Colosseum, was opened in 1905, although music hall variety was still the most popular evening entertainment. So far did this transcend class barriers that when King George V and Queen Mary visited the Earl of Derby at Knowsley in July 1913,  they were entertained by 20 vaudeville artistes, including George Formby senior who sang ‘quaint Lancashire dialect songs’.

Enthusiasm for football seemed equally classless. Lancashire teams emerged from a mixed background of old boys’, Sunday school and works teams. When the professional Football League was founded in 1888, six of the twelve founding members were local clubs: Accrington Stanley, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Everton and Preston North End. With admission charges as low as 3d or 4d (2p) in the late 1880s, and with Saturday afternoons free, thousands turned out to watch. Star status was already being accorded to individual players, but wages were limited by the ceiling of £4 aweek basic pay, imposed by the Football Association in 1900.

Cricket, too, developed as a spectator sport in the last years of the nineteenth century. The first day of the Roses match (first held in 1867) in August 1895 was watched by 25,000 people. By 1914 Lancashire had been county champions five times, and the county captain, Archie Maclaren, still held the record for the highest score in first-class cricket – his 424 runs at Taunton in 1895. Horse-racing also caught the popular imagination, and thousands followed the turf successes of Edward VII and Lord Derby in the sports pages of the new halfpenny press. Meanwhile cycling clubs were opening urban eyes to that world of rural north Lancashire so vividly por­trayed in the writings of Beatrix Potter.

The leaders of county society were still the earls of Derby, Sefton and Crawford and Balcarres. The Derby inheritance of 70,000 acres brought in a gross rental of £300,000 a year. Death duties had not yet made major inroads into such fortunes, although Lloyd George’s budget of 1909 was an omen of things to come. In 1910 the staff at Knowsley included 38 domestic servants and 39 gardeners, and, with royal visits and huge shooting parties, household expenditure amounted to nearly £50,000 a year. Bearing in mind the spread of the Derby estates, it was hardly surprising that the earl was referred to as ‘King of Lancashire’.