TIME OF PLENTY
The Edwardian era was a time of derring-do and big mistakes, writes Adrian Murdoch
EDWARDIAN England – and it always seems to be England – has had a long-lasting effect on the British consciousness. Officially stretching from the death of Queen Victoria until the death of her son Edward VII in 1910, more commonly the Edwardian tea party ran from the jubilee of Victoria in 1897 until it was rudely broken up by the machine guns of the First World War.
Described by Graham Greene as a period of “bicycles and German bands and golden chamber ware, of Norfolk jackets and the deerstalker cap”, this moment in time stretching barely a decade and a half exists in perennial aquatint. It was a time of Bertie Wooster and Richard Hannay. For many, like Rupert Brooke, arguably the last Edwardian poet, the church clock did stand at 2.50 and there was limitless honey.
It was also a time of jingoistic pride in British world power. For business it was a time of enterprise and derring-do. It was the height of empire. It was also a time, though, of questions. The social and political bases that had provided the Victorian age were gradually eroded. As HG Wells described in Kipps, new opportunities for social mobility began to emerge. It was the great era of the inventor in the garage, all of which provides useful lessons for modern business.
1) Listen to your accountant
Britain proved resistant to the invention of the motor car. In 1905, for example, the Marquis of Queensberry applied for a gun licence, saying that he needed something with which to shoot people who drove across his land (it was granted). That changed when Charles Rolls and Henry Royce went into business together. But it was Ernest Claremont, the forgotten third partner, who kept the business together. While the other two dreamt of world domination, it was Claremont who focused on the business model and on trying to turn a profit. It worked and R-R became the most famous marque in the world.
2) You can win if you come second
Forget Nikola Tesla; it was Guglielmo Marconi who changed the face of telecommunication when he tested the transmission and reception of Morse Code on Salisbury Plain in England in 1896. The following year, the Italian born inventor formed the London-based Wireless Telegraph Trading Signal Company and by 1898 his factory in Chelmsford was employing 50 people. While Tesla died, forgotten and in penury, Marconi’s place in history has been assured as he developed uses for wireless technology: on ships, transatlantic communication and building the first radio stations.
3) Don’t rely on untested technology
Robert Falcon Scott was the poster boy for the Edwardian era and the personification of the great British failure. If you are going to fail, then do so in style. His ill-fated trips to the Antarctic have passed into legend. But what has proved remarkably resilient is the legend surrounding his ship, the Dundee-built Discovery. In fact, to jam, jute and journalism should be added jerrybuilt. It was the Wang Computer of its day.
Although the Discovery’s wooden hull was called cutting edge, it leaked so badly on the 1901 trip that the term “Dundee hull” became commonplace in naval circles… and not in a good way. The crew complained about the design, the workmanship and the fact that it leaked so much that food and equipment were ruined. Scott didn’t use it for his second trip.
4) New communications bring new problems
Much like the current challenges posed by the internet and blogging, Edwardian society had to cope with mass communication. It was the golden era of the newspaper, helped by the use of the telegraph. The Star, for example, founded in 1896, managed to sell 142,000 copies of its launch issue. It was also the birth of tabloid journalism and an interest in celebrity for celebrity’s sake. The Daily Mail, which also launched that year, was dismissed by the prime minister as “by office boys for office boys”. It needs no further comment than that the first issue carried a feature on the rise in crime. But with greater literacy and demand for news, the issue of public accountability began to grow.
5) Don’t ignore the competition
While Britain basked in the sunshine, the US was quietly working away. In 1900 American steel production was twice that of Britain. Even as those like Andrew Carnegie were giving money away as quietly as a man falling down a flight of stairs holding a silver tray of champagne glasses, the US was pulling ahead. The world’s first management consultant, Frederick Winslow Taylor, and his theories of scientific management had a huge impact on making industry in the US more efficient. Britain resisted his ideas of a partnership between a trained and qualified management and a cooperative and innovative workforce. The rest, as they say, is history.
Time for tiffin: the early 1900s are often portrayed as one big jolly tea party presided over by Edward VII (top right)