Decadence and death

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The Edwardian era has held a unique fascination for subsequent generations.

But it wasn't all croquet and tea on the lawn. Gerald Haigh reads a new take on the golden age from those who were there

Lost Voices of the Edwardians

By Max Arthur

HarperCollins pound;20

There's a photograph in this book - a still from the treasure trove of Mitchell and Kenyon films of Edwardian life in northern towns - which shows children waiting to deliver lunches to their parents in a factory. Aware of being filmed, the children laugh and point, and we're conscious of missing the sound of their laughter and chatter. This book was inspired, the author tells us, by a desire of the publisher to give a voice to the people in those Edwardian films, restored by the British Film Institute and broadcast by the BBC last year as The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon.

The book consists of first-hand accounts, mostly brief, painstakingly gathered by Max Arthur from oral archives and published autobiographies.

Edward VII, 60 when he inherited Victoria's throne in 1901, reigned for only nine years, and yet we're fascinated by a time that seems to us populated by raffish youths, elegant ladies, urchins, mill girls, bowing butlers and bobbing housemaids.

Part of the attraction, surely, lies in our perception of the King himself, who was so different from his mother, Victoria. Edward was a gambling womaniser who enjoyed the music hall and the belle epoque scene in Paris.

He seemed to symbolise a society fizzing under a pressurised lid that was gradually loosening as technology, travel, politics and education fed into a growing awareness of the unfairness of the way the nation was organised.

This was the time of the suffragettes, the birth of the Labour Party and the Liberal government of 1906 that laid the foundations of the welfare state. Underneath that rattling lid, divisions of class and wealth were at their widest in those years, so although there's a section on politics and the women's suffrage movement, it's the extraordinary differences in people's lives that hit you when you dip into this collection. Who, for example, could endure a childhood like that of Bob Rogers?

"My mother had 16 children. She had diseased kidneys from too many births.

My oldest brother died at 12 months. My second eldest died at 10 months.

Only me and one sister grew up. My mother had so many miscarriages. In the end it killed her. She died at the age of 46."

Sonia Keppel, by contrast, had quite a different childhood. The daughter of Alice Keppel, mistress to the King, Sonia, who lived on into the 1980s (and was grandmother to Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall), remembers playing an absurd game with the jolly man she knew as "Kingy", in which he indulgently allowed her to place two slices of buttered bread, butter side down, on his leg. Bets were then placed on which piece slid down the royal leg the more quickly. "Sometimes he won, sometimes I did. Although the owner of a Derby winner, Kingy's enthusiasm seemed delightfully unaffected by the quality of his bets."

It's hardly necessary to mention that while Sonia and Kingy were spoiling good bread and butter and hand-tailored trousers, others were having a harder time of it. Jack Brahms, for example, 12 years old, his mother dead and his father uninterested, was fending for himself in east London. "Most of my meals were a ha'p'orth of chips from Phillips, the fish and chip shop in Brick Lane... Or else, I'd go to the soup kitchen to get a can of soup and a loaf of bread."

There are plenty more stories like this: heartbreaking accounts of sickness, bereavement and working conditions akin to slavery, contrasted with the lives of wealth and pleasure that the upper classes assumed to be theirs by right. Amid the squalor and the arrogance, though, there was kindness and generosity. Freda Ruben, at 14 earning a shilling a week in a tailor's, for which her mother waited on the doorstep, would be given a secret, comparatively huge, bonus from time to time. "I'd take my coat off and find the half-a-crown sewn into it. They knew I was poor."

Several teachers are quoted, trying everything they knew to care for their charges and encourage them to learn. Elizabeth Lee, teaching in a residential home for children with advanced tuberculosis, threw away the boring syllabus and engaged her seriously ill girls in cooking birthday treats and making dolls' clothes. Until, that is, the authorities got wind of what she was doing. "The next thing I knew, there was a letter handed to me the following morning. 'We no longer need your services'. So that was the end of that... it was very saddening."

Most startling of all is the realisation that many people of the Edwardian age, including children, had a kind of freedom that we have lost. This was a world where boys went rabbiting with nets, or bathed in the hot water coming out of the gasworks; where Norman Halkett walked the fields alongside the ploughman, "listening to his songs and watching his work with the horses"; or, like Rose Bishop, simply roamed the countryside for miles.

"The cry of the peewits and never-ending song of the larks, the beautiful little harebells, the rabbit warrens, the sudden start of a hare, and, above all the short, springy turf that was so pleasant to walk on. This is what Salisbury Plain means to me," she says.

All of that's gone now, and it's difficult to believe that the price has been unequivocally worth paying. We still have grinding childhood poverty, if we bother to look for it, and we can't forget that the developed world hasn't so much abolished the industrial exploitation of children as push it out of sight and mind, to countries far away.

This is a beautiful, elegiac book, full of laughter and tears. As you read it, though, you're always aware that looming over it is the biggest shadow of all. Teacher Ernest Hugh Haire spells it out, as he tells of the feisty working-class boys of St Anne's School, Birkenhead, for whom he clearly had great affection. "All of those boys were marvellous," he recalls. "And by 1916, most of them were dead."

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