In many ways, the 20th Century was an incredibly transformative period of British history. Each decade had moments that would shape not only the years to come but still influence us today. As we go forward in this new series of ten momentous events for every decade, we kick off the inaugural article with a bonus year of 1900, which is both the last year of the 19th Century and the first year of the 1900s. Join us below as we look at what were arguably the ten most important moments of this eleven-year period. If you think there was something significant that we left out, let us know in the comments.
1900 – Labour Party Forms
Once upon a time, the two major parties in the United Kingdom were the Conservative Party…and the Liberal Party. 1900 saw the formation of a new party, Labour, then known as the Labour Representation Committee, a political group of aligned workers, progressives, socialists, and trade unions. Within ten years, they would become a significant force in Parliament and eventually one of Britain’s largest.
1901 – Queen Victoria Dies and King Edward VII Ascends the Throne
It was truly the end of an age with the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901. Edward’s reign would not prove to be a long one, but it produced several successes. He worked to keep peace in Europe between his various nephews (his nickname was “Europe’s Uncle”) and, as he was over the average life expectancy already, helped to prepare his son for the role that was coming sooner than later.
1902 – Second Boer War Ends
Without getting too deep into what Britain was doing in the future South Africa, the Second Boer War started in 1899 and came to its conclusion in 1902. The devastation wrought during the war by British forces severely damaged the Boers’ agrarian society, and the British Empire restructured the economy into one based on gold mining. Eventually, the lasting effects of the war would lead to the creation of the Union of South Africa, the prior name of the today’s Republic of South Africa. Read more about the Boer wars here.
1903 – Women’s Social & Political Union Forms
Women’s suffrage had long been a movement in the UK, but the negotiation style of prior years was arguably hampered by the formation of the Women’s Social & Political Union by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Its members, known as suffragettes, were known for acts of civil disobedience and even violence in their efforts to persuade Parliament to give women the right to vote. The later arrest and force-feeding of their members helped to swing more of the public to their cause, with the first steps towards suffrage taken after World War I.
1904 – Signing of the Entente Cordiale
English and French relations had been testy at best since the early 13th Century, with wars raging from the Norman Campaigns in 1202 through the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th Century. The two countries finally decided to bury the hatchet for good with the Entente Cordiale. While not so much a treaty as a policy mindset, it improved relations enough that Britain and France became allies and would be one of the causes of Britain entering WWI.
1906 – HMS Dreadnought Launched
Britain’s first modern battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, helped bring the United Kingdom into modern naval warfare. Such was the technological advancement she represented that Dreadnought became the term synonymous with similar ships of the period. It was the first to have a main battery of guns as well as steam turbines that made it the fastest ship in the world. Further advancements in naval technology made her obsolete by WWI, but she helped kick off a global arms race in the years leading up to the conflict.
1907 – Anglo-Russian Convention
Another important pre-WWI factor, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, was a treaty between the United Kingdom and Russia that set aside their differences in Central Asia to prevent Germany from strengthening its alliance with the Ottoman Empire. In addition to strengthening the ties between Britain and Russia that endured until the Bolshevik Revolution, it had an unintended consequence of bolstering anti-Western sentiment in Iran, which was affected by the agreement but not consulted.
1908 – Olympic Games, London
The fourth Olympic Games of the modern era and the first hosted in the United Kingdom, the 1908 Olympic Games hosted 22 nations. It was the first time that New Zealand, Turkey, and Finland participated. Great Britain ended up with a total of 56 gold medals, 51 silver medals, and 39 bronze medals.
1908 – Parliament Approves Old-Age Pensions
The foundation of modern social welfare began with the Old-Age Pensions Act of 1908, in which Parliament agreed to provide single claimants over the age of 70 five shillings a week and couples in which the husband was over 70 seven shillings and sixpence. If that sounds low, it’s because it was by even the standards of the day. The idea was to encourage people to still save for their retirement, though eventually, the pension amount would be raised to something more reasonable.
1910 – King Edward VII Dies and King George V Ascends the Throne
As mentioned, King Edward VII was already over the average life expectancy when he became king and early 20th Century medical breakthroughs helped him make it nearly a decade. However, in the Spring of 1910, he suffered a series of medical problems culminating in several heart attacks on May 6, after which he fell unconscious and later died. His son, the Prince of Wales, then ascended the throne to become King George V, who would rule for the next 26 years and a particularly turbulent period in Britain’s history.