A Flight of Fancy

One of the most iconic events of the Edwardian period was Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909.  Piloting a craft of his own design, the Frenchman took off from near Calais early on the morning of 25th July, and landed half an hour later near Dover Castle.  Praising Blériot’s achievement, the Daily Mail heralded the event as “the dawn of a new age for man”.  There was also a sense that the flight would have profound consequences for Britain.  The “immense sacrifices” the country had suffered in order to achieve naval supremacy suddenly appeared anachronistic.  Britain, it seemed, was no longer an island.[1]

In the varied responses to this momentous occasion, a sense emerged that Blériot’s flight threw worrying light on British attitudes towards scientific and technological innovation.  The fact that a Frenchman, of all people, had succeeded in this endeavour was particularly galling.  Numerous newspapers, though heartfelt in their congratulations of Monsieur Blériot, expressed the wish that “an Englishman had secured this record”.[2]    For H. G. Wells, himself a pioneer of fictional aviation, this failure was representative of Britain’s disregard for the nuts and bolts of scientific progress:

“…the world cannot wait for the English…In the men of means and leisure in this island there was neither enterprise enough, imagination enough, knowledge nor skill enough to lead in this matter…The French and Americans can laugh at our aeroplanes, the Germans are ten years ahead of our poor navigables.  We are displayed a soft, rather backward people.”[3]

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Blériot in the cockpit prior to take-off

Such pessimism does a slight disservice to Edwardian aviators.  Though undoubtedly trailing the pack in terms of military aviation, Britain was hardly a backwater for aerial technology.[4]  Yet there were certainly people in Edwardian Britain who approached scientific progress with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.  Such attitudes, moreover, are surprisingly common in contemporary invasion and future-war literature.  Despite warning as a genre of the need for constant vigilance and greater military preparation, some authors were equally fearful of how ‘science’ might detrimentally change British society.  In C. A. Clarke’s novel Starved into Surrender (1904), one character mulls over the impact of widespread tramlines in ever-expanding Manchester, expressing a fear of “going along so fast that we can’t see where we’re going”.[5]  Highlighting the fine line between worthwhile innovation and reckless excess, ‘science’ here possesses no social conscience, having “prostituted itself to Mammon instead of working only to advance knowledge in order to perfect life.”[6]  For Gordon Stables, writing in the preface to The Meteor Flag of England (1905), scientific advance equated to “a real Tower of Babel” that “in the arts of peace, as in the arts of war…is ever, ever rising”.[7]

One writer who might have excited the ire of Wells was James Blyth.  An author of four invasion narratives over the course of the Edwardian period, Blyth’s treatment of ‘science’ was not especially advanced.  This is well-demonstrated in his changing attitude towards the prospect of flight.  Like many contemporaries, Blyth initially saw the pioneers of aviation as misguided fantasists.  In his novel Ichabod (1910), his protagonist Noel Pettigrew, himself a scientific prodigy, argues that “Whether for warfare or peace…the air is no place for man”.  Yet by 1912, perhaps unsurprisingly, Blyth seems to have had a change of heart.  In The Peril of Pines Place, a story that imagines enemy agents stirring up social unrest in Britain, the narrative is based around the success of the Gerfalcon, a prototype aeroplane designed and flown by one of the lead characters.  “Two years ago”, the pilot tells an assembled crowd, “you would have thought that I was talking nonsense in saying I’m going to fly from Essex here tonight”.  Blyth’s lack of foresight is thus explained away as the product of a wider (and perfectly natural) national cynicism.[8]

Louis Blériot’s channel crossing, then, was far more than a moment of aviation history.  It was also a moment for national reflection, and in some quarters, recrimination.  And though the aircraft came from across the channel, it was to the North Sea skies that nervous commentators turned their gaze.  For if Britain had become blinded to science, Germany was, in the words of the novelist Napier Hawke, “the one progressive and scientific country in the world”.[9]

This post was inspired by research on display at ‘When the Lamps Went Out: H. G. Wells and His World on the Eve of War’, the annual conference of the H. G. Wells Society.


[1] ‘The Meaning of the Marvel’, Daily Mail (26th July 1909), p. 6.  See also B. A. Elliot, Blériot: Herald of an Age (Stroud: Tempus, 2000).

[2] ‘Round the City’, Sheffield Evening Telegraph (26th July 1909), p. 4.

[3] H. G. Wells, An Englishman Looks at the World (London: Cassell and Company, 1914), p. 3.

[4] For a good account of early aerial technology and its relationship with military strategy see T. Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[5] C. A. Clarke, Starved into Surrender (London: C. W. Daniel, 1904), p. 39.

[6] Ibid., p. 199.

[7] G. Stables, The Meteor Flag of England (London: Nisbet, 1908), vii-viii.

[8] J. Blyth, The Peril of Pines Place (London: F. V. White and Co., 1912) , p. 57.

[9] N. Hawke, The Invasion That Did Not Come Off (London: Henry J. Drane, 1909), p. 78.

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Comic Relief

The prospect of invasion in Edwardian Britain, imagined so regularly and vividly in contemporary invasion literature, is generally considered to have been no laughing matter.  In his entertaining book Don’t Mention the War, John Ramsden suggests that the invasion genre was “beyond parody”.  With ostensibly ‘serious’ books having “already hi-jacked the improbable”, no room was left, in Ramsden view, for authors who wished to satirise the fear of invasion.[1]  Yet a detailed look at Edwardian invasion literature highlights that satirical works were far more common than once thought.  Examples include Allen Upward’s The Fourth Conquest of England (1904), a vision “of the re-union of the Churches of England and Rome” in which C. B. Fry is appointed Secretary for Sport, and the Vatican declares the non-existence of the Antipodes.[2]  A similarly absurd work is The North Sea Bubble (1906) by E. J. Oldmeadow.  Described by the Manchester Courier as “a good wholesome mixture of rollicking farce, gallant deeds, and a capital love story”, the work imagines an army of German immigrants fighting for the British, hoping to avoid court marshal by the invading forces for evading conscription in Germany.[3]  The satirical magazine Punch also took aim at the invasion genre.  In a 1909 column entitled ‘The Invaders’, the prolific author William Le Queux and the editor of the National Review Leo Maxse were depicted as British agents, ‘invading’ Germany to deliver some much-needed retaliation.[4]  Evidently, then, some authors and publishers believed that a market for invasion satire existed in one form or another.

Fritz Fleischmann of 'The North Sea Bubble': waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German fifth column fighting against the German invaders.

Fritz Fleischmann of The North Sea Bubble.  Waiter-turned-General, and leader of a German vigilante force fighting against the German invaders, Fleischmann is a parody of the pronounced British fear of immigrant fifth columns.

By far the most famous of these satirical narratives is The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England, written in 1909 by a young P. G. Wodehouse. The Swoop! sees Britain simultaneously invaded by nine separate aggressors, including Germany, Russia, the Swiss Navy and “a boisterous band of Young Turks”.  This situation is “rendered still more disquieting” by the fact that “England’s military strength at this time was practically nil”.  With the Army undermined by egalitarian socialist reforms (whereby every man in the Army has been promoted to the rank of General), and the recently-established Territorial Force finding “the strain of being referred to on the music-hall stage as Teddy-boys was too much for them”, Britain is left defenceless, save for Clarence and his indomitable Boy Scouts.[5]  The British population, largely unconcerned by the unfolding invasion disaster, appear far more interested in the county cricket scores.  Orchestrating a covert campaign of resistance (which includes persuading Grand Duke Vodkakoff of Russia and Prince Otto Saxe-Pfennig of Germany to produce rival music-hall shows), Clarence, “the Boy of Destiny”, emerges as the saviour of England.[6]

C. Harrison's much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

C. Harrison’s much-reproduced illustration from The Swoop!, where country cricket scores appear more important than news of the German invasion.

Despite being considered in detail by most analyses of British invasion literature, The Swoop! was not a major success.  Selling relatively few copies (certainly in comparison to William Le Queux’s Spies of the Kaiser, published in the same year), the work remained out of print until 1979.  In a critical analysis of Wodehouse and his “conspicuously unpatriotic life”, Norman Longmate highlights that The Swoop! was a commercial and literary flop. [7]  This lack of success has been interpreted as further evidence that the invasion genre was not a suitable subject for parody.  The literary historian I. F. Clarke, for example, has argued that this indifferent reception was hardly surprising.  “After such a heavy diet of war stories and appeals to join the Territorials”, the Edwardian reading public, in Clarke’s words, “was not likely to be amused by such frivolity”.[8]

A trawl through contemporary newspapers, however, suggests that such satire was welcome in some quarters.  The Dundee Courier praised the work as “a clever and amusing skit on the invasion stories which are the vogue just now.”[9]  Going into more detail, the Aberdeen Journal described The Swoop! as “a combination of burlesques”:

‘An Englishman’s Home,’ [Guy du Maurier’s highly-successful invasion-scare play, first produced in 1909] the apprehensions of a German invasion, the zeal of the Boy Scouts, the English absorption in games, the music-hall craze, the heroics of the ‘Daily Mail,’…all being satirised in turn.[10]

The most outspoken voice of approval came from the Manchester Guardian.  In an article entitled ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, the reviewer condemned a recent and controversial case of theatrical censorship.  Praising The Swoop! as excellent satire, the review concluded that “sincere movements or respectable institutions have not much to fear from good-natured parody.”[11]

Critical and popular reception, of course, are quite different beasts.  This collection of positive reviews does not change the fact that The Swoop! failed to achieve the level of success many ‘serious’ invasion narratives enjoyed.  Yet perhaps, after all, humour did have a place (however small) in the Edwardian invasion-scare.

[1] J. Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War: the British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Little, Brown, 2006), p. 73.

[2] A. Upward, The Fourth Conquest of England (London: Tyndale Press, 1904)

[3] Manchester Courier (16th November 1906), p. 9, E. J. Oldmeadow, The North Sea Bubble (London: E. Grant Richards, 1906), p. 92.

[4] ‘The Invaders’, Punch (17th March 1909)

[5] P. G. Wodehouse, The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008),pp. 18-19.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] N. Longmate, Island Fortress: The Defence of Great Britain 1603-1945 (London: Hutchinson, 1991),p. 420.

[8] I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 127.

[9] ‘An Amusing Skit’, Dundee Courier (28th April 1909), p. 7.

[10] ‘Miscellaneous’, Aberdeen Journal (26th April 1909), p. 3.

[11] ‘A Breath of Sane Humour’, Manchester Guardian (21st April 1909), p. 6.   The censorship case in question was over a skit on An Englishman’s Home by Harry Pelissier, which was refused licence by the Lord Chamberlain.  See N. Hiley, ‘The Play, the Parody, the Censor and the Film’, Intelligence & National Security, 6.1 (1991), pp. 218-228.

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Literary cousins – comparing alternate histories and invasion narratives

“Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk.  As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule.”[1]

This intriguing passage is taken from the synopsis of the 2012 novel Dominion.  Written by C. J. Sansom (author of the excellent Spanish Civil War novel Winter in Madrid), Dominion is the latest in a long line of post-war alternate histories.  Famous examples have included The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, where the US has been divided between Japanese and German spheres of interest, and the best-selling Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, in which Greater Nazi Germany spans much of the European continent.  Set in 1952, the year of the author’s birth, the Britain of Dominion is governed by a coalition of political opportunists and fascist sympathisers.  While an aging Winston Churchill leads the Resistance in hiding, the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook is Prime Minister, Oswald Mosely is Home Secretary, and Erwin Rommel commands mixed levels of respect as German Ambassador.  Gripped by suffocating smog, repressive measures against British Jews and growing political violence, Sansom’s vision of London is a chilling reminder of what might have been.

Having thoroughly enjoyed reading this compelling book, I was struck by its similarity to a much earlier vision of German occupation, H. H. Munro’s short story When William Came (1913).  Written under his literary pseudonym Saki, the plot is centred on Murrey Yeovil, a typically Edwardian traveller and sportsman, returning from Siberia to Britain after a lengthy period of illness.  This convalescence was not helped by ominous reports of war, and ultimately, of spectacular British defeat.  By the time Yeovil arrives home, he emerges from Victoria Station into a post-war, German-occupied London. His detached disbelief quickly turns to disgust on gauging the submissive behaviour of his social circle; as his wife muses to a friend prior to his arrival, “he’ll think we are a set of callous revellers, fiddling while Rome is burning.”[2] Those who could not suffer a Germanised capital had followed the King in his flight to Delhi, or else had retreated to country estates.  As Yeovil attempts to adjust to his new circumstances, the narrative follows a series of events confirming the new order of things, including being fined by a bilingual policeman for walking on the grass at Hyde Park, and inadvertently accepting a lift from the establishment figure Herr Von Kwarl.  Struggling to accept what has begun to be referred to as the “fait accompli”, Yeovil oscillates between anger and bemusement, horrified by his personal and national circumstances yet incapable of mounting effective resistance.[3]


Senate House, location of the German Embassy in Dominion

One of the key similarities between the two works is the way in which they utilise familiar buildings and locations for dramatic effect.  In Dominion, for example, a huge portrait of Hitler hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, while Senate House has been transformed into the German Embassy, complete with a network of interrogation rooms in the building’s basement.  In When William Came, the eagle standard of Prussia flies above Buckingham Palace, while in Kensington Gardens “the drinkers of larger beer” are served “sausages and potato salad”.[4]  These jarring description of occupied London are often delivered with Saki’s trademark dark humour, such as the following argument between Yeovil and an uncooperative taxi driver:

“‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street.’

‘Berkschirestrasse, acht-und-zwanzig,’ echoed the man, a bulky spectacled individual of unmistakable Teuton type.

‘Twenty-eight, Berkshire Street,’ repeated Yeovil, and got into the cab, leaving the driver to re-translate the direction into his own language.”[5]


‘Wilhelm the Conqueror in German eyes’, Kladderadatsch, 1910

Both works also include glimmers of hope for a return to British independence.  The plot of Dominion centres on David Fitzgerald, a civil servant masking his Jewish family roots, who joins a Resistance cell.  Involved in a mission to stop an old university friend falling into the hands of the SS, and thus revealing highly significant military intelligence, David’s companions include the Slovakian émigré Natalia, and the indomitable Glaswegian communist Ben Hall.  Attempting to remain one step ahead of both the British and German authorities, large sections of the narrative are reminiscent of John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The hope in When William Came is rather less concrete, but is effective nonetheless. The work’s final scene sees the great and the good of London’s Anglo-German social elite gathered at Hyde Park to observe a symbolic Boy Scouts march, with Kaiser Wilhelm as the guest of honour. Hoping for a moment of significant reconciliation between victor and vanquished, the tale ends with the young Scouts having failed to appear, leaving the waiting Germans on increasingly frustrated tenterhooks.  As Yeovil recognises, while he himself had reluctantly laid down his arms, “there were others who had never hoisted the flag of surrender…young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.  The younger generation had barred the door.”[6]

These similarities are all the more interesting when one considers the different literary forms of the two works.  As an alternate history, Dominion engages its readers through a sort of abysmal fascination, describing a world that is both familiar and foreign, helping us to imagine how Nazi-collaboration might have affected British society.  When William Came is, by contrast, a warning of imminent danger.  Published in 1913, Saki used his narrative to criticise contemporary Edwardian society, emphasising that German occupation was not as far-fetched a scenario as it might appear.  While one work reflects on the past, then, the other speculates on the future; one offers historical council, the other contemporary critique.

[1] C. J. Sansom, Dominion, (London, 2012).

[2] Saki, When William Came, p56.

[3] Ibid., p74.

[4] Ibid., p81.

[5] Ibid., p61.

[6] Ibid., p182.


Apologies for a certain amount of repetition here, see ‘Be Prepared’, (July 2012).

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Military reform and Lord Roberts’s longevity

One of the major enjoyments I have had as an historian is the uncovering of lost conversations or exchanges of correspondence.  Such exchanges are rarely groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting in their historical significance, but they are nonetheless fascinating in nature.  Indeed, it is probably this banal quality that makes these sorts of conversations so remarkable.  Whether taking the form of angry interactions between book authors and newspaper reviewers or cordial communiqués between political associates, these are communications that have slipped out of major historical narratives and into archival obscurity.  In discovering such exchanges one cannot help but feel both excited and privileged, however mundane they may prove to be.  This post will explore the ‘invasion-scare’ implications of one such example, a 1908 conversation between the social investigator, journalist and editor W T Stead and the Victorian military hero and retired Field Marshal Lord Roberts.        

These prominent Edwardians stood on either side of a fierce contemporary debate, concerning the best method of defending Britain against the threat of invasion.  Unlike major continental powers, Britain did not have a system of compulsory military service.  Relying on the Royal Navy to protect Britain’s global commercial dominance, the British Army was a small and professional force, unlike the vast conscript armies of France and Germany.  Though in part the product of circumstance (for an island power has much greater need of a powerful navy than a large standing army), this arrangement equally reflected something of Victorian cultural attitudes. The near-universal commitment to military volunteerism was at its heart a laissez faire opposition to state intervention.  Just as the prospect of tariff reform seemed to represent an attack on the individual freedom to trade, for men such as Stead compulsory military service appeared a gross violation of liberty, an imposition that would fundamentally question the social and cultural status quo.[1]  Yet by the mid-Edwardian period a significant and vocal minority had begun to question this established principle.  Led by Lord Roberts as head of the pro-compulsion National Service League, such commentators warned the nation of the danger of over-reliance on the Royal Navy, fearing that a ‘Bolt from the Blue’ invasion could wrong-foot the fleet and leave Britain entirely undefended.[2]


W T Stead

The exchange under examination thus engaged in this military reform debate, though as we shall see, in a rather peripheral manner.  It began in the February 1908 edition of The Review of Reviews, a periodical then edited by Stead, with an article entitled ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid: the experience of experts in the art of living’.  Responding to a similar piece in the French magazine La Revue, letters had been sent to a number of eminent and aged Britons asking for “a few jottings as to what life has taught you as to the best regimen as to food and drink and tobacco”, believing such experiences “may be very useful for the younger generation”.[3]  One of the ‘elders’ consulted was the septuagenarian Lord Roberts.  While appearing to preach respect for one’s elders, as those “who have lived longest have the right to speak first”, it appears Stead could not resist poking fun at the stalwart of the campaign for military compulsion.  Roberts, who elaborated no further than advising “little or no smoking, and moderation in food and drink”, was speculated to enjoy “a very tough constitution”, and described as “hale…hearty, and a holy terror to the opponents of universal military service in this country.”[4]   


Lord Roberts

Much to my delight, a recent research trip to see Stead’s papers at Churchill College, Cambridge unearthed a response from Lord Roberts to this article.  Writing in early March, Roberts informed Stead that he was “quite right in thinking that I must have a very tough constitution”.  Having suffered “a very severe attack of brain fever” at an early age, he had suffered ill-health throughout his service in India.  However, as Roberts further explained, “by taking care and being moderate in all things, I found myself able to do what most men could do, even when I was much older, in age, than they were.”  Yet just as Stead’s article included a veiled criticism of calls for compulsory military service, Roberts’s reply was largely an effort to defend the value of his campaign.  Arguing that the Royal Navy “could not possibly ensure this country from invasion”, however powerful it was and may become in future, Roberts asserted that many naval experts agreed with him, pointing to the fact that “upwards of thirty Admirals of the Fleet and Admirals have joined the Service League”.  Imploring Stead to revise his views on the matter, Roberts also requested that his letter remain off the record, as he would prefer to state such opinions “in the House of Lords, than to let them appear in the public press.”[5]  And with a friendly apology for writing such a long letter, the conversation drew to a close.

A critical reading might consider this exchange a peripheral and irrelevant conversation, in which two commentators of entrenched opinions traded a combination of niceties and minor criticisms.  Yet I would defend it as a fascinating microcosm of a much larger debate, and one of countless lost conversations taking place over the course of the Edwardian period.  Finally, the episode offers tentative proof that unfaltering support for compulsory military service is key to enjoying a long and healthy life.    

[1] G. Q. Flynn, Conscription and Democracy: the draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States, (Westport, Conn., 2002), pp1-21.

[2] H. Moon, ‘The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning’, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of London  1968).  For the National Service League see R. J. Q. Adams, ‘The National Service League and mandatory service in Edwardian Britain’, Armed Forces and Society, 12/53, (1985) and M. Hendley, Organised patriotism and the crucible of war: popular imperialism in Britain, 1914-1932, (Montreal, 2012). 

[3] ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid’, The Review of Reviews, (February 1908), p136. 

[4] Ibid., pp136-140.

[5] STED 1/60, Letter from Lord Roberts to Stead, (2nd March 1908), W T Stead Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge.   

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Must I paint you a picture?

As a trail through Island Mentalities hopefully shows, the illustrations of invasion-scare fiction offer extremely fertile grounds for research.  Contributing to what has been called the ‘golden age’ of book illustration, such images provided an evocative and highly effective means of communication and representation.[1]  Ranging in form from crude maps and military diagrams through to vivid depictions of battle, these visuals added to the abysmal fascination of this already popular literature.  Put simply, illustrations such as the common scene of a crumbling St. Stephen’s Tower narrowed the gap between literary speculation and reality, horrifying and delighting the fiction’s readership in equal measure.  To explore further I will focus on one particularly significant invasion-scare narrative, namely A. J. Dawson’s The Message, illustrated by H M Brock.


Dawson himself was a Wandsworth-born journalist, author, and imperial enthusiast.  An extensively travelled man, notably in North Africa and Australasia, Dawson served a short term as Director of Information for the Government of Bombay that was curtailed by ill-health, having suffered significant injury in a 1916 gas attack during the First World War.[2]  A staunch advocate of military compulsion, his pre-war work for the pressure group the National Service League included responsibility, so reported The Times, for “the enlistment of thousands of recruits in and around London”.[3]  He also enjoyed a period as editor of The Standard of Empire, an offshoot of The Standard that encouraged closer imperial ties through British emigration to the dominions.[4]


The Message is a highly polemical tale of German invasion that inspires a national and religious revival.  Its lead protagonist Dick Mordan is an ambitious young journalist with socialist sympathies, who takes a job at a maligned radical journal named The Mass.   As the international situation darkens and Germany inevitably invades, Dick interprets his socialism as symptomatic of his country’s decline. While Germany successfully defeats and occupies Britain, Dick joins a resistance group, led by various figures of colonial repute and religious fervour.  Rising in revolt, ‘The Citizens’ cause the Kaiser to abandon his expeditionary force, help forge a new peace with Germany, and set about the reconstruction of Britain and her Empire.  Under the motto of, “For God, our Race, and Duty!”, Britain emerges from invasion with a federated Empire, a system of compulsory military service, and a commitment to the revivalist gospel of “New Century Puritanism”.[5]  Concluding with a lengthy passage from Kipling’s poem Recessional, ‘the message’ to which the title alludes is a shot across the national bows; Britain is not simply ill-prepared, she is deficient in almost every sense.  

The often vitriolic content of Dawson’s work might allow us to dismiss it as the haranguing of a political extremist rather than a legitimate assessment of the national climate.  Indeed, much of the contemporary reaction did just that.  One review in The Bookman praised the literary quality of Dawson’s writing, yet compared the novel to “the fair woman tailing off into a fish – for the Jingo conclusions of ‘The Message’ are fishy to the last degree.”[6] Even the National Service League attempted to distance itself from this unchecked rhetoric, believing Dawson’s rabid attacks on the Liberal government would badly damage an already shaky reputation as a non-partisan organisation. The science fiction scholar Everett Bleiler has described The Message as “imbedded in a full Edwardian Bildungsroman, told from a religious, ultraconservative, jingoistic point of view”.[7]  In concluding this rather negative summary, Bleiler notes that “the illustrations are better than the text.[8]


While this could be seen as a rather backhanded compliment, the illustrations were of unusually high quality.  They were drawn by Henry Matthew Brock, a well-established book illustrator, whose brother Charles Edward Brock was an equally successful artist.  In a glowing biography of the Brock family, Clifford Kelly suggest the brothers “ranked with the very best” of late-Victorian and Edwardian illustrators.  Henry Brock certainly contributed to some noteworthy works, including amongst others various works by Dickens and Arthur Conan-Doyle, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper, as well as providing over 400 sketches for Punch magazine.  Moreover, his watercolour paintings were exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.  In 1907, the same year The Message was published, Brock became a full member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.[9]

The illustration entitled ‘The Roaring City’ marks Dick Mordan’s move to London, described by him as “a very gloomy place”.  Though as yet unaware of the hardships of city life, Dawson’s protagonist was soon to learn “that hundreds of men of far wider experience and greater ability than mine were wearily tramping London’s pavements at that moment, longing, questing bitterly for work”.[10]  Such urban struggle is well captured by Brock, with ashen-faced pedestrians jostling for space alongside horse-drawn carriages and buses, newspaper hawkers and couriers.  Indeed, ‘London’s pavements’ are invisible, entirely obscured by this mass of human and vehicular traffic.  Silhouetted against the bleak, hazy sky are the outlines of “the cat-infested chimney pots of Bloomsbury”, criss-crossed by telegraph wires and dominated by a blurry, half-forgotten church.  This scene and its figures seem to represent what Dawson describes as “the rural exodus”, in which healthy country folk were drawn to the city and its opportunities, only to be trapped by “the hiving streets, with their chances, their flaunting vice, their incessant bustle, and their innumerable drinking bars”.[11]


If this image of ‘The Roaring City’ is one of morose pessimism, Brock’s image of rural England is undoubtedly one of optimistic revival.  It depicts Mordan during a life-changing vision in the Dorset hills.  Having returned to his native village following the successful German invasion of Britain, he experiences a moment of clarity in which images of antiquity and anti-Roman resistance appear across the sky;

“I saw shaggy warriors with huge pointless swords, their hilts decorated with the teeth of wild beasts…I saw rude chariots of war, with murderous scythe-blades on their wheels – and, in a flash then, the figure of Boadicea: that valiant mother of our race, erect and fearless in her chariot…”[12]

This rural scene serves as the genesis of Mordan’s resistance to foreign occupation, and by extension, Britain’s fight-back against German domination.  For unlike the modern and essentially foreign city, “this ancient land was British in every blade of its grass…root and crop, hill and dale, above and beneath”.[13]  Brock’s accompanying illustration of rolling fields with a village nestled in the valley certainly seems typical of the Edwardian rural idyll, an image, as Roy Strong has described it, that “draws it strength from tradition and heritage”, and from a longing for the “pre-industrial world”.[14]  The cloud of mist sitting over the houses draws the village into the spectacular cloud scene unfolding above, as if linking the present to the linear, unbreakable past.  And distinct among her legions with her arms outstretched, Boadicea faces away from this rural scene, as if rousing the nation at large to follow her lead and resist.


The use of illustration within invasion-scare fiction, though varied, I think offers important insight on the thematic complexity of these narratives.  As seen in the case of The Message, such illustrations regularly captured the introspective quality of this fiction, not simply scenes of foreign occupation or invasion.  Whether stressing the dangers of political unrest, the degenerative influence of the urban condition, or the cathartic image of rural, pastoral England, such images emphasise the vehicular nature of the Edwardian invasion narrative.  Clearly not confined to warning against the threat of foreign invasion, such fictions were part of a wider culture of pre-war anxiety.

[1] For a good summary of this era in book illustration see S. Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1978).

[2] S. Kemp, C. Mitchell, and D. Trotter, Edwardian Fiction: An Oxford Companion, (Oxford, 1997) p91, N. Robson, ‘A. J. Dawson, Novelist from Wandsworth’, Wandsworth Historian, No. 91, (2011),  p3.

[3] A. J Dawson Obituary, The Times, (Feb 7th, 1951), p8. 

[4] Edwardian Fiction, p91.

[5] A. J. Dawson, The Message, (London, 1907)p393.

[6] THE MESSAGE, The Bookman (Aug 1907), p179.

[7] E. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, (Kent, Ohio, 1990), p185.


[9] Houfe, The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914, p245, C. M. Kelly, The Brocks: a family of Cambridge artists and illustrators, (London, 1975), p10.

[10] The Message, p40.

[11] Ibid., p55.

[12] Ibid., p233.

[13] Ibid., p236.

[14] R. Strong, Visions of England, (London, 2011),  p147-152.

Images: E. D. Fawcett, ‘Hartmann the anarchist’ in A. Butterworth, The World that Never Was, (London, 2010).

H. M. Brock illustrations taken from Dawson, The Message, available at the Haithi Trust Digital Library.

This post was based largely on a paper I recently gave at the graduate student symposium Art, Anxiety, and Protest in the Edwardian Belle Epoque, held on March 1st at the Yale Center for British Art.   I am very grateful to Neil Robson for sharing his biographical research on  A J Dawson.  

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Duty and Disloyalty

Despite seemingly clear-cut, the fear of invasion throughout British history has rarely existed in total isolation from other anxieties.  This is reflected by the porous nature of Edwardian fiction of invasion and future war.  Sitting on the boundary of early science-fiction, of ‘Boy’s Own’ adventures and spy-scare espionage tales, thematically separating such narratives is often difficult.  The process is also arguably unnecessary, or at least not essential, as these varying subgenres enjoy such commonality of themes that they are better assessed together than apart.

This caveat provides researchers of invasion-scare fiction (such as myself) justification for straying slightly from their remit.  One case in point is the short story The North Afire, a picture of what may be by W D Newton.  A journalist and editor who additionally wrote the pacifistic invasion narrative War, Newton penned this short story in 1914 in response to the growing political impasse over Ulster’s position in the movement for Irish Home Rule.  In the context of the recent Ulster Covenant and the ever-improving military effectiveness of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, Newton feared the prospect of British soldiers having to paradoxically coerce Ulster into an independent Ireland.  The North Afire plays out his nightmare scenario, in which British troops are forced to intervene after the UVF attempt to form a provisional provincial government.  Capturing the unhappy futility of such a conflict, the UVF officer Stackpoole’s stoicism is suitably ‘British’ in its understatement, “What a damned ironic tangle we are all in”.[1]

Ulster Volunteers gather at Craigavon, March 1914

Though relatively well-written and executed, the real significance of The North Afire is not its literary quality, but its relation to the ‘Curragh mutiny’ in March of the same year.  In the wake of governmental orders to increase troop numbers in Belfast, widespread officer discontent at the prospect of coercion led the Commander in Chief in Ireland Sir Arthur Paget to secure verbal concession from the War Office that, should officers feel unable to obey orders but unwilling to accept dismissal, they could “disappear” for the duration of such operations.[2]  In the event, sixty officers of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade then at the Curragh army base resigned their commissions rather than face the possibility of leading operations in Ulster. Initially refusing to accept these resignations, the War Secretary Jack Seely further erred by promising in writing that the army would never be harnessed to force through Home Rule in Ulster, a concession the Cabinet quickly cancelled, leading to numerous ministerial resignations.  [3]

1st Dorsets en route to Holywood Barracks, Belfast, March 1914

Rightly dismissing the ‘erroneous’ title of mutiny, Ian Beckett describes the Curragh incident as “one of the very few occasions in modern times when the British army could be said openly to be challenging civil supremacy over the military in peacetime”.[4]  The events highlighted that any future operation in Ulster might threaten the unity of the army’s officer corps.  In The North Afire, Newton forecasts such a split upon outbreak of rebellion, where half of the army refuse to follow orders and join the ranks of the paramilitaries.  This schism is represented through two officers and friends, Loudoun and Stackpoole.  For the former, who has not resigned his commission, orders, however unpalatable, must be obeyed, “To me a soldier is a soldier…not a politician.”[5]  By contrast, the Ulsterman Stackpoole interprets his orders as fundamentally disloyal.  As his sister April appeals to Loudon, “for us duty means the Union”.[6]  While a compromise is eventually reached between Belfast and Westminster, it comes too late for the two officers in question, as Loudoun shoots Stackpoole as he attempts to trigger a bomb.

As one review in The Athenaeum asserts, the most concerted criticism in Newton’s tragedy is directed at “parliamentary loquacity”, or governmental incompetence.[7]  Rather than effectively managing the crisis, “the Government had started weathercock whirlings, as is the way with governments with whom the whole essence of existence is the expending of wind”.[8]  In his last speech in the Lords, Lord Roberts decried the dilemma facing soldiers between enforcing legal authority and fulfilling their sense of duty, and stressed the importance of conscience, “an innate sense of right and wrong, which neither reason nor man-made laws can affect.”[9] For Roberts, as for Newton, poor governance had forced officers to make extremely difficult judgement calls.  This dynamic highlights not only the often complex relationship between civil and military authority, but the importance of the abstract ‘duty’ for Edwardian Unionists in the debate over Irish Home Rule.

[1] W. Newton, The North Afire: a picture of what may be, (London, 1914), p86.

[2] D. Powell, The Edwardian Crisis, Britain 1901-1914, (London, 1996), p150.

[3] G. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (Oxford, 2004), p431-432.

[4] I. Beckett, ed, The Army and the Curragh Incident 1914, (London, 1986), p1.  This edited collection of primary sources is the best account of the incident.

[5] The North Afire, p9.

[6] The North Afire, p10.

[7] ‘The North Afire’, The Athenaeum, (May, 1914), p740.

[8] The North Afire, p142.

[9] Lord Roberts, in R. J. Q. Adams, Field Marshal Earl Roberts: Army and Empire, in J. A. Thompson and A. Mejia, eds, Edwardian Conservatism: Five Studies in Adaptation, (London, 1988), p71.

Images: ‘Ulster Calm in Crisis’, Daily Mirror, (March 23rd 1914), p10-11.

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