The Britain of the ‘noughties’ was one unimaginable in 1901. Two world wars had catalysed enormous social change across the country, including dramatic enhancements in health and education. The motor car stormed through town and country, transforming both. Britain no longer ruled a third of the planet, though its multi-racial population reflected old imperial connections.

The telephone exchange in Dover Castle’s Wartime Tunnels

The telephone exchange in Dover Castle’s Wartime Tunnels


The brief but unexpectedly successful reign of the flamboyantly enthusiastic Edward VII (r.1901–10) is sometimes seen as an untroubled ‘Indian Summer’, an appendix to the Victorian age, with great country houses at their apogee and an ever-growing middle class.

Living conditions for the urban and rural poor, however, were often squalid and forces of radical change were already at work. The social reforms of the Liberal government of 1906–14 laid the foundations of what would become known as ‘the welfare state’.

The library at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, in use as a military hospital during the First World War.

The library at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, in use as a military hospital during the First World War.
© Timothy Palmer


The First World War brought the front line to the civilian population. Zeppelin and aircraft raids targeted London and other towns on the east coast. Both Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle in North Yorkshire were hit.

The wartime state extended its control over peoples’ lives in an unprecedented way, with conscription, increased taxation and censorship. Over 1.6 million women replaced conscripted men in the workplace. Country houses such as Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, and Osborne on the Isle of Wight were used as hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded soldiers.

While the old order was changing and monarchies toppled throughout Europe, the deeply conservative and determinedly middlebrow George V (r.1910–36) proved remarkably adept, bolstering the royal family’s popularity in war and peacetime.



War ended on the Continent but broke out in Ireland, with the Anglo-Irish Wars (1919–21). Recession followed a brief post-war economic recovery. Troubled industrial relations led to the only general strike in British history in 1926. From the early 1920s the Labour Party, founded in 1900, overtook the Liberal Party in general elections.

The ‘slump’ following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 hamstrung economic reconstruction and meant continuing hardship, particularly in industrial areas. Although some people managed to maintain lavish lifestyles, such as the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace, South London, many country house owners adjusted to reduced circumstances, as at Belsay Hall, Northumberland, and Brodsworth, South Yorkshire.

In the post-war territorial carve-up Britain gained mandates over a number of former German and Ottoman territories. British control now extended over more of the globe than ever before – but closer to home, Ireland was partitioned and the Irish Free State became independent in 1922.

As the 1930s progressed, so did fears of a new European war. Debate about the British government’s attempts to appease Hitler dominated the late 1930s. Long torn between decadence and duty, Edward VIII (r.1936) relinquished the throne for a divorcee, provoking a constitutional crisis and propelling his younger brother to the throne, as George VI.


In 1939, Britain found itself at war with Germany for the second time in a generation. After the defeat-turned-propaganda-triumph ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ (planned in Dover Castle's Secret Wartime Tunnels) in 1940 Britain stood alone, unified behind Churchill. Victory in the Battle of Britain greatly raised morale, and subsequent ‘blitz’ air raids on London, Coventry and many other towns failed to significantly lower it.

By 1943, Britain had become a junior partner in an alliance dominated by the USA and the Soviet Union. Allied bombing from British bases and the 1944 D-Day landings hastened Germany’s drawn-out defeat. The bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war in the Far East, and ushered in the atomic age.



The Home Front’s levelling tendencies translated into an unexpected Labour landslide in the 1945 election, bringing with it nationalisation and ‘Welfare State’ legislation which included the creation of the National Health Service.

The Royal Festival Hall (Grade I listed) on London’s South Bank, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain, stands as a symbol of 1950s optimism. Post-war architects and planners were confident they could raise standards of living with housing projects in Britain’s cities and in new towns. Meanwhile the coronation of a beautiful, dutiful Queen Elizabeth II (r.1952–present), the first to be televised, prompted talk of a new Elizabethan age.

During the later 1950s and the 1960s, cars, washing machines, fridges, telephones and holidays all became increasingly affordable elements of everyday life. In 1957 Harold Macmillan could proclaim ‘prosperity such as we have never had … in the history of this country’.

The coronation procession of Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953

This photograph of Elizabeth II’s coronation shows the coronation procession on the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was watched live on television by millions around the world, in what was the largest outside broadcast the BBC had ever undertaken.
© Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy


Yet war was constantly in the background. Almost before the Second World War ended, Britain’s erstwhile ally the Soviet Union had become a potential enemy: in March 1946 Churchill described an ‘Iron Curtain’ descending across Europe.

British troops fought in proxy wars against communism, successfully in Malaya (1948–55), less so in Korea (1950–53), as well as in postcolonial ‘emergencies’ in Kenya (1952–60), Cyprus (1955–60) and Suez (1956).

Britain became the third nation to become an atomic power in 1952 and had already deployed ‘Civil Defence’ measures and installations in this era of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD). York Cold War Bunker was part of a later generation of these, built in 1961 just before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The wartime tunnels at Dover were consequently renovated and equipped to serve as a regional seat of government in the event of such a war.


By the 1960s, Commonwealth immigration from the West Indies, India and Pakistan had begun to change the racial mix, although nothing like as much as its opponents believed. Heavy industry was in decline. University education expanded significantly, and new institutions such as the University of East Anglia flourished (founded in 1963; the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was Grade II* listed in 2012).

The post-war consensus by which both parties broadly accepted the role of the state in the economy and the centrality of the Welfare State was broken by Margaret Thatcher, a new kind of Conservative. After the ‘Falklands Factor’ gave her a second term in office in 1983–7, her Conservatives began to privatise national industries, starting with British Telecom.

The miners’ strike was suppressed in 1984–5, breaking the power of the unions. And though she was overthrown by her own party in 1990, the pronounced rightward swing she initiated still holds.


Tony Blair led a significantly re-modelled Labour Party back into power in 1997 – the first of an unprecedented three terms in office.

His post-9/11 alignment with the USA and subsequent ‘War on Terror’ defined perceptions of his administration, but Labour also presided over devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland, and oversaw an uneasy peace in Northern Ireland after 30 years of violence. Like Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, with St Paul’s Cathedral at one end and Tate Modern at the other, Britain had entered a new millennium looking forward as well as back.

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