Suffrage, Empire, and Strikes

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Sunday, January 6, 2013 – London

Why must all experience be systematized? A museum is not a first-hand contact: it is an illustrated lecture. And what one wants is the actual vital touch.

I guess it’s a good thing you’re not going on this particular trip, D.H. Lawrence! Sounds like you’d be grumbling throughout our first three intensive days in London, as we visit four very different museums. “Actual vital touch” will have to wait for the end of this week, when we take a day trip to Oxford and then set students loose on a variety of projects back in London.

But this first full week abroad will begin (after worship at St Paul’s, and a visit to the T.E. Lawrence — “of Arabia” — memorial in the cathedral’s crypt) with the Museum of London, located in the square mile technically known as the “City of London” (the financial center, akin to Wall Street).

The Museum of London
Licensed by Creative Commons (cogdogblog)

Why start here? (There’s a much better known museum across the Thames that has more substantial WWI holdings. Don’t worry, we’ll get there tomorrow.)

First, there’s probably not a best or a worst place to start. As a historian, I struggle with the question of how to take a course that has a built-in chronological logic and reconfigure it for a trip organized geographically. We could fly to Berlin first, or Paris, or St. Petersburg, or Sarajevo. No matter where we go, we’ll simultaneously encounter multiple moments in the history of WWI. There’s not a place where all you’d study are origins, or another where you’d only consider the legacy of the war.

I picked London partly because of convenience (there’s a direct flight from MSP), partly because students can ease into European travel without any language barrier. But mostly because it has historical resources that permit me to situate the specific events of WWI in a broader context than if we went straight to the battlefields. We’re not just starting in the capital of one of the warring powers; we’ll find ourselves in the self-proclaimed center of Western civilization ca. 1914, a civilization that was being turned upside down.

So I’d at least like the first day primarily to set up the context for the war. What were the stakes for Britain? What were the challenges that complicated its participation in the war?

Having done my major field in grad school on “The Strategy and Diplomacy of the European Great Powers, 1870-1940,” I’d be most at home focusing on the brewing conflict between Britain and Germany that most historians now regard as central to the war. In some sense, WWI was a collision between the great power of the 19th century (Britain) and its rising challenger (Germany).

Boy Selling Souvenir Blowers at the Coronation of King Edward VII
Boy Selling Souvenir Noisemakers at the Coronation of King Edward VII (1902) - Museum of London

But Edwardian Britain also faced numerous socio-political problems, perhaps as many as Wilhelmine Germany or France after the Dreyfus Affair. None were sufficient to trump the need (in the minds of British elites) to take on the German challenge on the Continent, at sea, and in Africa and the Pacific, and the British never ran the kind of risks that the tsarist government of Russia recklessly ran.

But my friend Rachel Neiwert would point out that Britain in 1914 was dealing with several honest-to-goodness crises that could easily have been exacerbated by participation in a total war. The Museum of London will introduce several of these, particularly in its permanent “People’s City” gallery.

Women’s Rights

Even as a wave of democratization that culminated in the Liberal reforms of 1910-1911 (virtually neutering the obstructionist House of Lords) brought about universal male suffrage and more popular governance, women remained disenfranchised. Already, Emmeline Pankhurst had led other radical “Suffragists” into the Women’s Social and Political Union (est. 1903), which rejected the quiet, polite protests of the earlier suffrage activists in favor of more drastic steps: first organizing loud demonstrations, later embracing window-breaking and even arson, and then engaging in attention-getting hunger strikes when imprisoned by the authorities.

Slingshot used by suffragists to break windows
Slingshot used by suffragists to break windows - Museum of London

When her tactics were questioned by a clergyman friend, Pankhurst replied (in her retelling of the conversation):

If we women are wrong in destroying private property in order that human values may be restored, then I say, in all reverence, that it was wrong for the Founder of Christianity to destroy private property, as He did when He lashed the money changers out of the Temple and when He drove the Gaderene swine into the sea.

In summary, the Suffragist movement created a crisis of citizenship on the eve of war: Without the right of voting or holding national office, could women be full participants in a democratic society? And, without these rights, would they support a war effort that (once it became clear it wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”) would require women to take on new roles?

As it turned out, Pankhurst convinced WPSU members to temporarily suspend pro-suffrage agitation and do their bit for King and country. While this has been viewed as a calculation designed to elicit post-war support for suffrage (which is precisely what happened), it’s worth noting that Pankhurst herself was moving away from an earlier dalliance with socialism and emerged from the war staunchly pro-empire, anti-Communist, and (by the late 1920s) Conservative.


While WWI would also coincide with the emergence of Mohandas Gandhi as the charismatic genius at the head of the Congress Party, the more vexing imperial problem for His Majesty’s Government was nearer to home.

The movement for a self-governed Ireland that remained within the British Empire (somewhat akin to the status of the Dominions like Canada and Australia) finally broke through in 1914. Pushed by their Irish Nationalist allies, the Liberals passed a Home Rule Act for a third consecutive year in May, meaning that they could bypass the House of Lords. While the Act became law in September, by then the war overwhelmed all such debates, and Irish autonomy would have to wait until after the war.

So it was unclear whether military-aged Irishmen would volunteer to fight for an English cause, and Irish republicans, who wanted no part at all of the Empire, received some German support to mount an armed insurrection in 1916. (The same issues echoed in non-European parts of the Empire, where the British government sought soldiers to fill out their army’s depleted ranks and radical nationalists were tempted to use the distraction of war to force decolonization, and in the multi-national empires of the German kaiser, Russian tsar, and Habsburg monarch).

Plaque from 1924 Empire Exhibition
Plaque from the 1924 Empire Exhibition ("Scattereth and Increaseth") - Museum of London

As with Pankhurst and the suffragist movement, and (later) W.E.B. DuBois and the civil rights movement in the US, anti-colonial leaders generally found it more prudent to support the war, in the hopes that by demonstrating patriotism, they would earn respect and greater autonomy in peacetime. Gandhi supported British recruiting in India, and hundreds of thousands of Irish volunteers (many Catholic, drawn by the cause of “poor little [Catholic] Belgium”) went off to the Western Front to take orders from English generals. After the war, Northern Ireland remained part of Great Britain, separate from the new “Irish Free State.” India would not receive independence for another three decades.

Labor (sorry, Labour)

Catalogue from the "Sweated Industries Exhibition" of 1906
Catalogue from the "Sweated Industries Exhibition" (1906) - Museum of London

As the twentieth century entered a second decade, British workers seemed to have made important gains. Many of the political reforms called for by the Chartist movement of the 1830s/40s had been achieved. Growing outrage at the persistence of sweatshops (or, in late Victorian vernacular, “sweated industries” or “the sweating system”) led to the formation of “trade boards” that would negotiate living wages. And the Labour Party started to win parliamentary elections, though it wouldn’t actually supplant the Liberal party as the chief party of the political left until after WWI.

Yet grievances about hours, wages, and working conditions grew to the point that Britain endured an unprecedented wave of strikes starting in 1910. By the next year, almost 10% of the entire British workforce was on strike at some point (three times the average for the previous decade). As the July Crisis deepened in 1914, trade union leaders tried to assert their power, calling on the government to stay out of the war and even planned for a devastating general strike that fall.

Here again, however, the beginning of war caused a wave of patriotism that temporarily quieted labor tensions. While there were occasional strikes during the war, for the most part unions were satisfied to get higher wages for those workers not called into military service.

Next up: we finally get into military history, plus one more famous film about (and, in this case, from the time of) World War I.

<<Day 3               >>Day 5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.