The laborious and intricate city of the fin-de-siècle seems to have vanished… it is as if the city had come alive with the new century.
Peter Ackroyd, London, The Biography
After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, London cast off its mourning clothes and emerged into the new century with a new sense of energy and joie de vivre. Leisure and pleasure began to play an increasingly important role in the lives of Londoners. And there was certainly plenty to be had in one of the world's most important cities.
Sitting of the hub of the vast British Empire, London had never had a more important place on the world political and economic stage. The Empire brought money flooding in which, in turn, fuelled the success of the City. London's working population began to boom: from 200,000 in 1871 to 364,000 in 1911, according to estimates. Many of these workers were professionals such as lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants and financiers, giving rise to a new breed of affluent consumer.
It wasn't just the burgeoning professional classes who had money to spend. The aristocracy took their lead from the new king, Edward VII, who belonged to an elite heavily influenced by the fashions, art and entertainment of Belle Epoque Europe. Entertainment became the order of the day and London was only too willing to oblige. Grand hotels, theatres, music halls, department stores and restaurants sprang up all over the city. And the capital's delights became more accessible than ever before, thanks a comprehensive tram network, the underground system (which was fully electrified in 1902) and the arrival of the first motor omnibuses (also in 1902).
Perhaps the grandest hotel was The Ritz, which opened its doors on Piccadilly in 1906. Its ground-breaking features - including en-suite bathrooms, double glazing, walk-in wardrobes and brass, rather than wooden, beds – redefined hotel luxury. The Palm Court soon became the place for elegant tea dances. But if the Ritz was out of your reach, Edwardian Londoners could 'take tea' at one of the many corner houses or 'maisons'.
A night at the theatre was the entertainment of choice for the fashionable Edwardian Londoner, and the West End enjoyed a golden age. There were 12 music halls and 23 theatres in central London, with another 47 just outside. At the heart of Theatreland was Shaftesbury Avenue, built in the 1880s to ease the passage of traffic through Soho. By the turn of the century it was already home to the Lyric and Palace theatres. These were soon joined by the Apollo (1901), the Gielgud (1906), the Queen's (1907) and the Shaftesbury Theatre (1911).
Less cultured Londoners could immerse themselves in the exciting new technology of moving pictures. In 1909, The Electric Cinema opened on Wilton Rd, Victoria. It was Britain's first – but by no means its last – picture house.
Shopping also entered a new age with the arrival of the department store. Harrods, already a London institution, unveiled its grand new flagship store in Knightsbridge in 1905. In 1907 this was joined by Selfridges, the brainchild of American Gordon Selfridge, who made it his mission to make shopping an adventure rather than a chore.
By the end of the century's first decade, London had truly earned its reputation as a 'fast' city. And even the looming prospect of war didn't slow it down…
Did you know?
In 1909, after the first cross-Channel flight, Louis Blériot's monoplane went on display at Selfridges. Twelve thousand people came to see it.