English society immediately after the Armistice and the Paris Peace Conference was not exactly as it was before, but it was not yet what we know it became (all that jazz). On a whole, the English were rather subdued and befuddled, with some making an attempt to turn the clocks backward to August 3, 1914, while others marched hastily forward, determined to escape the bonds of Edwardian manners and mores. Still others adopted a wait and see mind-set, suspicious of the possible changes in the world and the chance it might be snatched back. For those at the very top, the Great War had ravaged them most ferociously, not simply due to the high casualty rates for officers, but the combination of death duties and high taxation.
In some cases, the ownership of the country estate passed through multiple hands before 1918 (for example, George Wyndham inherited Clouds, his father’s Wiltshire estate in 1911, George died in 1913 aged 49, his son Percy “Perf” Wyndham died in September 1914, and Clouds was passed to his cousin, Richard Wyndham, who fortunately survived the war), or passed from grandfather to grandson. In both instances, death duties were enormous and crippling, and many great manor houses were shut up, converted into schools or hotels, sold to the nouveau riche (denounced as “war profiteers”), or razed to the ground, the land sold to developers.
For the middle and working classes, life after the war was that of economy, economy, economy. Their way of life was not hit as hard as that of the aristocracy, but by the demobilization of troops by January 1919, the return to civilian life “produced a demand for food and clothing which sent prices soaring higher than ever, since production had still to re-adjust itself from war to peace conditions.” The fact that so many ex-soldiers and soldiers’ widows were provided with pensions and allowances, the law of supply and demand prevailed, and inflation rose to an alarming level in November 1920: 176% higher than the cost of living in July 1914.
There was also an acute shortage of housing, since before the war, young men and women could not afford to set up their own home, and so delayed marriage, but now the combination of wartime marriages and the halting of building between 1914 and 1918 created another high demand, and the cost of building materials soared like prices for food and clothing. And so the irony of war was that for the first time, middle and working class men and women had substantial income in their pockets, but the prices for basic necessities continued to rise and rise because they had money!
However, unemployment went hand in hand with this inflation, and though the numbers grew relatively stable between March 1919 and November 1920, it shot back up to a million in January 1921 and over two and a half million by June of that year. These unemployed were at first fiery and bombastic about demands for jobs (as well as Lloyd George’s promise of making England “a land fit for heroes”), and solutions ranged from tariffs against imports to quota systems in a effort to stimulate home trade. The railways were also hit hard immediately after the war, and they experimented with cheap rail fare—some as low as that seen twenty years before.
Nevertheless, all was not doom and gloom! Women, though they were considered “surplus” due to the large number of deaths and maiming of the men of their generation, made significant strides in this short period of time. Oxford admitted women in full membership in 1919, with Cambridge following in 1921 (women’s colleges only), the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women admission to the legal profession, the Higher Civil Service opened to them, and let us not forget the Representation of the People Act of February 1918, which gave suffrage to all men and to women over 30, with another bill following that November, which made women over twenty-one elgible to stand for Parliament. Society and fashion also bounced back.
The Social Calendar—the London Season—came to a halt during the war years, though country sports remained vital, but once the aristocracy and the upper classes threw off their gloom, they plunged back into events with alacrity. And this was in spite of their being hard-up. This time, however, there was a new Prince of Wales to follow: the slender, dashing, and fashionable Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, who adored all things modern and especially American, and partied even harder than his grandfather.
In a way, society in the early 1920s was almost—if you squinted—a replica of the lavish Edwardian society, except for one inescapable fact: it was now all about the young, and young ladies just out and young men ran wild through country house parties, Ascot, dances, night clubs where you could hear the latest jazz, and sporting events, finally free of chaperones and their parents. The subtle shift away from the middle-aged to the young that was apparent around 1913 had now reached fruition, and the latest fashions—slim silhouette, filmy fabrics, light corsetry—reflected this.
The fashion world was truly revitalized by the introduction of artificial silk. Now every woman could wear “silk” stockings and delicious, shimmering underwear, as well as frocks that looked just as expensive as the Paris models (or copies) worn by the Duchess of Blank and the Countess of X. Life in general went at a breakneck pace, with aeroplane races, motor races, and anything else that went fast, wildly popular with crowds. In August 1919, three aeroplanes started from Hounslow to inaugurate a regular daily passenger service from London to Paris, and in November, an air mail service between London and Paris began. By October 1922, air travel between London, Brussels, Paris, and Cologne was possible, and many daring aeronauts tested the limits of the “heavier-than-air” machine with transatlantic flights.
The despair of inflation, unemployment, and poverty was also lifted somewhat by royal weddings in 1922: the Princess Royal and Lord Lascelles in February, and Lord Louis Mountbatten to Edwina Ashley (granddaughter and heiress of Sir Ernest Cassel, the private financier to Edward VII) in July. In large, the early twenties were mostly a time of great transition, where the vestiges of pre-war society remained, even as the changes brought by the war loomed closer and closer.
Ourselves, 1900-1930 by Irene Clephane
Scrapbook for the Twenties by Leslie Baily
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson
The Long Week End; a social history of Great Britain, 1918-1939, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England After 1918 by Martin B. Green
Polo at Ranelagh
The Ranelagh Club has been a great factor in the expansion of polo. It is not too much to say that when Ranelagh was reopened in 1894, the future of polo hung in the balance. When therefore the two grounds at Ranelagh were opened the opportunity was eagerly seized on. Many of the members of Hurlingham joined the Club, and in a very short time there were plenty of players at both.
The grounds were improved. The old ground was relaid, the new one enlarged, stabling was built, and the boxes engaged before the paint was dry on the doors. Then came the building of the pavilion, which has twice been enlarged and improved since. This pavilion was not, however, a mere luxury—it has had a great effect on the popularity of polo in London.
A game is indeed first of all for the players, but spectators too count for much in the prosperity of cricket, football, and polo. The taste for looking on at polo had to be created, and the Ranelagh pavilion, with its tea-rooms and its comforts, owes its success not so much to these luxurious additions as to the fact that it is by far the best place in London to see a match from. Firstclass polo, if it is a genuine contest and not a mere exhibition game, is most attractive as a spectacle.
~ Polo, Past and Present, 1905
Nile Steamer, 1914 (London Illustrated News)
The British title and its order of precedence is the most baffling, yet simple concept on the planet. Children of nobility and those who wished to become a part of it had the following concepts drilled into their heads from birth. Since neither of us are lords or ladies, we generally have to muddle along in hope of getting it right. Below you’ll find the order of precedence directly from a book of heraldry published in 1910. Things have obviously changed since then, but this was the rule of thumb for harried hostesses throughout the 19th century.
Duke: The highest rank and title in the British peerage, first introduced by Edward III in 1337 when he created the Black Prince the first English duke. A Duke is “Most Noble”; he is styled “My Lord Duke” and “Your Grace” and all his younger sons are “Lords” and all his daughters “Ladies” with the prefix “Right Honorable”. The coronet of a duke is a circlet, heightened with eight conventional strawberry leaves, and encloses a velvet cap.
Marquess/Marquis: The second order of the British peerage, in rank next to that of the Duke. Introduced in 1387 by Richard II. A Marquess is “Most Honorable”; he is styled “My Lord Marquess” all his younger sons are “Lords” and his daughters “Ladies”; his eldest sons bears his father’s “second title”. The coronet is a golden circlet heightened by four strawberry leaves and as many pearls, arranged alternately.
Earl: In Latin, “Comes” in French “Comte” or “Count.” Before 1337, the highest, and now the third degree of rank and dignity in the British peerage. An earl is “Right Honorable”; he is styled “My Lord”, the eldest son bears his father’s “second title,” generally that of Viscount; his other sons are “Honorable” but all his daughters are “Ladies.” The circlet of an Earl’s coronet has eight lofty rays of gold rising from the circlet, each of which supports a large pearl, while between each pair of these rays is a golden strawberry leaf.
Viscount: The fourth degree of rank and dignity in the British peerage. Introduced by Henry VI in 1440. A Viscount is a “Right Honorable” and is styled “My Lord.” All his sons and daughters are “Honorable.” The coronet has a row of sixteen small pearls set on the circlet.
Baron: The lowest rank in the British peerage. A Baron is “Right Honorable” and is styled “My Lord”. The coronet is a golden circlet topped by six large pearls. An Irish baron has no coronet. All children of a Baron are “Honorable.”
Baronet: A hereditary rank, lower than the peerage, instituted in 1612 by James I, who fixed the precedence of baronets before all Knights, those of the Order of the Garter alone excepted.
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The Country House and its society was taken very seriously by the British. Unlike their Continental counterparts, whose society adhered closely to the movements of the court, the British long acknowledged the countryside as the backbone of the country. The Englishman actually preferred to live in the country, finding on his land a range of sporting activities and like-minded tenants and neighbors; his home was his country seat no matter how much time he spent in London or abroad. According to T.H.S. Escott, the country house as a social entity first appeared during the time of Chaucer, and cemented its purpose as a center of social and political life by the time of the Tudors. Though by the Edwardian era, the country and the country house had begun to lose a bit of its importance, anyone and everyone within “society” knew the quickest way to establish roots and display one’s wealth was to buy a country estate and a few acres, and regularly host house parties.
The years between 1861 and 1914 were considered the “golden age” of country house entertaining. Yes, country house parties existed prior to this time, as seen in Lord Byron’s poem “A Country House Party,” where he indeed described “[t]he politicians, in a nook apart, Discuss’d the world, and settled all the spheres;” but never before was it undertaken in such militaristic order, was it considered a vital part of the year-long social season, and more important—was extremely expensive.