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London: The City that Shaped the World

February 9, 2015

III. Progress and Turmoil

Social Change and the First World War 1900-1939


This is part three of a four part series on London's turbulent history up to 1945. The Then pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia, the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of London, while I took the Now photos in January 2015.

The first half of the Twentieth Century was the stormiest era in human history. Unprecedented social turmoil and global industrialized warfare shook civilization to its very foundations. Indeed, the Europe to emerge from this period bore little resemblance to the comparatively tranquil continent of the 19th Century. London, as the world's most populous city and capital of its largest empire, was at the epicentre of these birth pangs of a new world.

Within, Britain's women aggressively fought for their right to participate in democracy while anarchists, fascists and communists struggled for control of the future. London was the scene of bitter political debate and tense street battles between these various factions. Through these trials British liberty and democracy bent, but did not break, much to its credit.

Without, the First World War rent the fabric of British society like no disaster since the 14th Century Black Death. In addition to the tens of thousands of Londoners who fought and died in the trenches, the city found itself the target of German zeppelins and bombers, a first in history. These attacks, though causing only slight damage, were unsettling precursors of events to come.

Then and Now Mouse

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Protest and Social Reform

Police guarding the prime minister's office on Downing Street during women's suffrage protests in 1908. The fight for a women's right to vote in Britain began as early as 1865, when John Stuart Mill was elected on a platform of women's suffrage. The debate was bitter and divisive and the wheels of history turned slowly. In Britain the struggle continued long after women in some of the dominions, including New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902), had won their right to vote.

One of the many arrests of leading suffragette activist Emmeline Pankhurst, this one outside Buckingham Palace. After the government backed down from extending the franchise to women at the last minute in 1912, the suffragettes adopted more aggressive tactics. They chained themselves to railings, vandalized government buildings and even committed acts of arson at night. Many imprisoned activists went on hunger strikes, to which the government responded with brutal force-feeding. During the First World War suffragette organizations rallied behind the war effort and in 1918 women over 30 meeting certain property qualifications were given the vote. Finally in 1928 the franchise was extended to all women over 21.

Animal rights activists gather at Nelson's Column during the Brown Dog Affair. In 1903 Doctor William Bayliss of University College London vivisected—that is dissected alive and (allegedly) without anaesthesia—a small brown terrier in front of his class. The resulting debate over vivisection led to a series of riots and street battles between medical students defending vivisection on the one hand and feminists and animal rights advocates on the other. If the treatment of animals in classrooms has since improved, the treatment of those in pharmaceutical laboratories has not.

In Memory of the Brown Terrier
Dog Done to Death in the Laboratories
of University College in February
1903 after having endured Vivisection
extending over more than Two Months
and having been handed over from
one Vivisector to Another
Till Death came to his Release.

Also in Memory of the 232 dogs Vivisected
at the same place during the year 1902.
Men and Women of England
how long shall these Things be?

— Inscription on the Brown Dog memorial

Detectives cautiously approach the burning building at the centre of the Siege of Sidney Street in London's East End. The Siege began after an anarchist, anti-capitalist gang led by the notorious (and mysterious) "Peter the Painter" murdered several police constables during an attempted robbery. They were tracked back to this house in Stepney and surrounded by constables and the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who came to supervise. The well-armed anarchists pinned down dozens of police officers until the building was set alight. Churchill refused to allow the fire brigade to douse the fire until all resistance had ceased. When the fire brigade finally entered the building all they found were the charred remains of two anarchists. "Peter the Painter" was never found.


The Great War

BEF Troops leave Westminster Polytechnic with a carriage mounted machine gun in the first days of the First World War. You can see on the left one of the soldiers is holding a puppy. It looks like a happy occasion. Mountings for machine guns like this were useful for pitched battles of the sort fought in the colonial era, but they were absolutely useless for the trench warfare the Great War would shortly degenerate into.

The houses of Parliament are lit up by a huge array of searchlights during the German zeppelin raids on London in 1915. I wasn't able to get the perspective just right but it is still a fascinating look into history's first attempt at organized air defense.

Damage from a zeppelin raid to Moorgate Hall. Though these raids caused comparatitvely few casualties and slight damage compared to the Second World War Blitz, the psychological effect was immense. For the first time in history a civilian population far from the front line became a viable target in warfare.

Then we saw the Zeppelin above us, just ahead, amid a gleaming of clouds: high up, like a bright golden finger, quite small (...) Then there was flashes near the ground — and the shaking noise. It was like Milton — then there was war in heaven. (...) I cannot get over it, that the moon is not Queen of the sky by night, and the stars the lesser lights. It seems the Zeppelin is in the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights.

- D.H. Lawrence

More zeppelin damage to the Minories after the raid of October 13 . The zeppelin raids occurred at night, adding to the terror they caused. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, as accurate aiming was impossible, led to the zeppelins being dubbed "baby-killers" in the British press.

Men work to repair bomb damage to Liverpool Street, just outside Liverpool Station. Throughout 1915 there were 20 zeppelin raids that dropped 37 tons of bombs killing 181 people, mostly in London.

More bomb damage to the Minories. The zeppelin raids continued in 1916 and 1917, but the introduction of incendiary and explosive bullets in 1916 finally allowed British fighters to shoot down zeppelins. The huge expense of zeppelins, and their sudden vulnerability to British air defenses, made these raids incredibly hazardous for the zeppelin crews. From 1917 the zeppelin raids were phased out, replaced with faster Gotha bombers, ominous precursors to the fleets of Heinkels and Dorniers that would ravage British cities 25 years later.

A rather quiet and subdued Picadilly Circus in the Summer of 1918. Even at this point the outcome of the war was far from certain. The sudden change in fortunes on August 8, 1918, that led to the Hundred Days and the collapse of the Central Powers, came as a shock to many. Even the generals were busy planning the spring campaigns of 1919 when Germany surrendered on November 11.


The Inter-war Period

The Apollo Theatre. After the appalling national trauma that was the First World War, the Roaring Twenties came. People flocked to the theatres to forget the horror and dislocation of the previous decade.

People queue at His Majesty's Theatre near Leicester Square.

A busy West Aldwych on the Strand. You can see there are still horse-drawn carts on the road.

The headquarters of the British Union of Fascists, right behind Buckingham Palace. BUF leadership appear to be inspecting the loudspeaker truck drivers. After the Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Depression people around the world became disillusioned with democracy. Millions flocked to extremist ideologies, both left and right. In Great Britain there were many fascists and communists. The pro-Nazi BUF at one point claimed 50,000 members and influential backers like the Daily Mail.

We know that England is crying for a leader, and that leader has emerged in the person of the greatest Englishman I have ever known, Sir Oswald Mosley... When the history of EUrope comes to be written I can assure you that his name will not be second to either Mussolini or Hitler

-William Joyce, AKA Lord Haw Haw

Police dismantle a barricade set up by anti-Fascist protesters during the Battle of Cable Street, right at the intersection of Christian Street. Around 2,500 Fascist demonstrators from Mosley's BUF sought to march through the East End's Jewish Quarter. 100,000 anti-fascist protesters turned out, largely organized by the Communist Party. They set up barricades to block the marchers. 6,000 police officers were sent in to dismantle the barricades and allow the march to go ahead. A street battle ensued where protesters hurled stones, furniture and rotten food at the police and fascists. Those in upper windows emptied the contents of their chamber pots on the fascists' heads.

An anti-Fascist protester is arrested during the Battle of Cable Street. The march ended quickly and the Fascists dispersed, while a number of protesters were arrested and received harsh treatment at the hands of the police. The frequently violent and thuggish tactics of the BUF, and virulent anti-Semitism of many of its members, turned many people off of Fascism and the movement was reduced to irrelevance by 1939. When World War II broke out the BUF was banned and its leadership interned.

The royal family walks down a collonade towards the National Maritime Museum on the day of its grand opening. The future Queen Elizabeth II is at centre. The royal family would remain in London throughout the Second World War and become symbols of the staunch British determination to resist Nazi Germany.


London: The City that Shaped the World

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