The Story of 25 Eventful Years in Pictures
One of the books that has been sitting in our porch waiting for the charity shops to re-open is a picture book published by Odhams Press to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. It contains some 400 pages of sepia photographs from the period 1910-1935. For each of those years there is a one page summary of Principal Events followed by a dozen or so pages of photographs, and the last 40 pages are given to ‘Style and Speed through 25 years’. It is a fascinating collection, both for the photos it contains and for what is omitted.
The book was given to me by some 60 years ago by Uncle Bill and Auntie Se, who died within a few months of each other in the very early 1960s. In retirement they shared a large house in Bradford-on-Avon with my maternal grandparents. It was a highly unsuitable house for old people, and not a very happy arrangement. Se, short for Selina, after whom my mother was named [to her great chagrin], was one of my grandmother’s three sisters, who all grew up at Fownhope outside Hereford. She married Bill Hucker, a railway guard from Shropshire. Uncle Bill fought through the whole First War on the western front, and lived to tell the tale. Except of course that he never spoke about it. The silk postcards which he sent home were made into a rather crude fireguard, and now hang on our sitting room wall. I keep promising myself that I’ll sign up to an ancestry website and see if I can learn something of his military record.
History in the making
There’s not a lot of text. But what is there seems to have been written largely in capital letters:
“Never since the world began has so much been achieved, such an abundance destroyed, so many hopes denied, as in the fleeting span of the last quarter-of-a-century. Each year in the reign of King George V has been an act in a drama almost incredible in its speed, intensity, and incident. They have been tremendous times … Progress has bounded ahead with awesome purpose, smashing ruthlessly the conventions of centuries”.
The royal family
As this is a Silver Jubilee souvenir book, pictures of the royal family are prominent. The first double-page spread is of George V and Queen Mary surrounded by their five, almost grown-up, children. This is followed by a double-page spread of Edward VII’s funeral procession; Edward’s favourite charger is led at a walking pace with boots reversed in the stirrups, and George V rides by the side of the Kaiser, who is carrying a Field-Marshal’s baton. George V’s coronation in 1911 looks to me not unlike Queen Elizabeth’s coronation not quite fifty years later. In July 1918 a royal group celebrate ‘Their Majesties’ Silver Wedding’.
The Whitehall Cenotaph is unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day 1920; followed by the state burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Princess Mary marries Viscount Lascelles in Westminster Abbey in February 1922. The Duke of York married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at the Abbey the following year. The Prince of Wales tours India and Japan. And on his return is pictured lighting the Toc H Lamp of Maintenance at a rally at Albert Hall.
Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, died at Sandringham in November 1925. In April 1926 the Duchess of York gave birth to a daughter, Princess Elizabeth. In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York open the new Parliament Buildings in Canberra, “the magnificent new capital of the Commonwealth”.
In February 1929 the King is pictured recuperating at Bognor [Regis] after a serious illness. Later that year the Prince of Wales is pictured visiting miners and their families in the depressed areas.
In November 1934 Prince George, the King’s youngest son, marries Princess Marina of Greece.
War and politics
In January 1911 there are photos of the Siege of Sidney Street, in East London, with the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, taking command of a detachment of Scots Guards. June 1914 has photos of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, and of Prinkip, his Serbian assassin. Some predictable Great War photos follow: Sir John French arriving in boots and British army warm at Boulogne; an extraordinary photo of the German infantry sweeping across open fields in Belgium; Scottish troops being rushed forward on London buses to the Marne; Kitchener’s iconic poster, ‘Your country needs you’. [Who was it said ‘An undistinguished general, but a great poster’ ?
Later war photos are more sober: early gas masks at Ypres in April 1915; digging trenches on an exposed hillside at Gallipoli; Kitchener on the deck of HMS Iron Duke in June 1916, a few hours before his death; stretcher bearers at the Battle of the Somme; horses knee-deep in mud on the Western Front; merchant vessels torpedoed by German submarines; wounded British troops on the Menin Road; a field of casualties blinded by poison gas; a biplane being launched at sea for the first time. And finally German officers carrying a white flag approaching the Allied lines, and huge crowds celebrating the end of the Great War on London streets.
Away from the war there is a dramatic photo of crowds fleeing from a hail of bullets in Petrograd at the start of the Russian Revolution. Photos of a studious Trotsky and a hard-eyed Lenin sit next to a group photo of the Russian royal family, assassinated at Ekaterinberg in July 1918.
De Valera is pictured taking the salute of the Sinn Feiners. The Irish Free State comes into existence in December 1922. In January 1924 Ramsay MacDonald becomes Prime Minister, and there is a photo of Britain’s first Labour cabinet. Needless to say they are all men. And not young.
In April 1926 the miners go on strike. There are empty railway trucks and striking miners playing cards. In London volunteers drive trams and buses, and Special Constables are enrolled.
When the Labour Party takes office for the second time, in 1929, there is a photo of Miss Margaret Bondfield, Minister of Labour, the first woman to hold a cabinet position. In August 1931 there is a great financial crisis, and a run on sterling and British funds. King George returns from Balmoral. Ramsay MacDonald forms a new National Government.
The new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre is opened at Stratford in Aril 1923. Broadcasting House, Portland Place, opens the same year. The huge Masonic Hall in Great Queen Street, London, is opened in July 1933 by the Duke of Connaught. In the same month the King and Queen open the King George V graving dock in Southampton, the largest dry dock in the world.
In 1934 the Labour Party take control of the London County Council for the first time. They inaugurate a number of progressive measures, including healthcare in elementary schools. Later that year free milk is provided daily for school-children.
In September 1934 occurred one of the worst disasters in mining history; nearly 300 miners lost their lives at Gresford Colliery in Wales. There is a photo of a volunteer who risked his life to recover the 234 bodies that had been sealed into the pit.
In March 1935 Sir John Simon and a youthful Anthony Eden are photographed at a meeting in Berlin with Herr Hitler, as they begin discussions on the European situation.
Exploration and shrinking world
Early in the book, in 1910 is a photo of the Wright brothers with Mr Horace Short, taken at Eastlands Flying Ground, England’s first aerodrome. Captain Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole features in 1912. Later the same year the Titanic strikes an iceberg on her maiden voyage. [Katharine Minchin whom I used to visit at Cruxfield in Berwickshire in the 1990s remembered seeing the Titanic on her maiden voyage off the coast of southern Ireland.]
In July 1919 Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown made the first Atlantic crossing by aeroplane, from Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland; in the same month the airship R.34 flew from East Fortune airfield, Edinburgh, to Long Island, and then back to Norfolk; and later the same year Captain Ross Smith and his brother, and two companions, won £10,000 by making the first flights from England to Australia. They left England on November 12th and arrived in Darwin on December 10th. The first London-Paris air service was inaugurated in July 1919. The world’s largest airship, the R.38, broke up in flames over the Humber in August 1921, with the loss of 44 passengers.
In February 1928 Mr Bert Hinkler made a record flight from England to Australia, arriving in Port Darwin after 15 days. [He disappeared 5 years later trying to improve on his record.] Also in 1928 the Italian General Nobile flew over the North Pole in an airship. It crashed the following day. London’s first airport, at Croydon, was opened in May 1928.
The tragic disaster of the airship R.101, which crashed and caught fire at Beauvais, France, in October 1930 with the loss of 48 crew and passengers, led to the abandonment of all airship construction by Great Britain.
In 1932 there is an aerial photo of the Sydney Harbour bridge, the new wonder of the world. “It is the largest single span bridge in the world … made entirely of British workmanship and materials”.
In April 1933 two British aeroplanes overfly and photograph Mount Everest. In October 1934 there is an England-Australia race with a prize of £10,000 and a gold cup. It is won by a British pair who complete the flight in 2 days and 22 hours.
The place of women
The first prominent woman is Edith Cavell, pictured with her two setters, shot in Brussels in October 1915. On the Home Front women assume new roles: land-girls working in the fields; a milk-woman with her cart; a woman bill-poster, exhorting men to ‘Do it now’; women driving ambulances, attending to factory furnaces, and heaving sacks of coal. Captioned: “Doing Men’s Jobs and Doing Them Very Well !” Viscountess Astor takes her seat in the Commons as the first woman MP in December 1919. In April 1926 a young American, Gertrude Eberle, is the first woman to swim the Channel. She breaks the existing record by about two hours. In May 1930 Amy Johnson flies solo to Australia in just under three weeks.
Sport and leisure
There is steady advance in motoring and motor transport; in 1920 the first filling station opens at Aldermaston in Berkshire. In April 1923 Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United 2-0 in the first Wembley FA Cup Final. Later the same year [Sir] Jack Hobbs makes his hundredth hundred in first class cricket. During the summer of 1926 England finally regain the Ashes from Australia. Jean Borotra, the bouncing Basque, wins Wimbledon wearing a beret. In the summer of 1930, a young Don Bradman, scores 334 at Lord’s; following his record score of 452 not out the previous year.
In 1934, unprecedentedly, Great Britain wins both the man’s and women’s single titles at Wimbledon; Dorothy Round is the women’s winner, Fred Perry the men’s champion.
Now that I’ve looked at the book again, I may save it for one of the grand-children rather than let it go to the charity shop. Three things strike me after looking through the book.
First, I am a bit shocked by the time perspective; to realise that as I was growing up I was quite close in time to some of these events. When I started at secondary school in 1956, that was only thirty years on from the General Strike, forty years on from the Battle of the Somme. But now the First World War is over a century ago. And the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street is already more than forty years ago. As remote now, as the Great War was when I was younger. And for our grandson, aged six, the First World War is now as remote as the Crimean War was when I was his age.
Secondly, I realise that this book covers the first twenty-plus years of my father’s life; he was born in London in 1909. But I have no idea how he experienced or responded to any of these events. I don’t know whether he attended the Wembley Exhibition of 1924. I don’t know whether he was a schoolboy supporter of a football team. Or whether he ever watched first-class cricket. I don’t know whether he had any vestigial recollection of the reporting of, say, the Russian Revolution. Or of the first Labour Government. I don’t know whether he had any interest in these air pioneers as they set records for flying across the Atlantic or to Australis. And it is certainly much too late to ask him. Do we talk to our children and grand-children enough ? And what about ?
Thirdly, I think about Uncle Bill, dead for the past sixty years. And I wonder how he survived life in the trenches. I’m going to start by looking for his army record on one of those ancestry websites. I think I at least owe him that.