I am delighted to report that three members of the network will be speaking at the Social History Society annual conference at Lancaster University next week (21-23 March). The panel details and abstracts are included below. Please make an effort to come if you are attending the event.
Popular Invasion Scares: The Creation, Manipulation, and Understanding of a Social Anxiety, 1882-1918
Chair: Professor Michael Hughes, Professor of History and Head of Department, Lancaster University.
Peter Keeling, University of Kent. Peter is a PhD student working on British fears and anticipations of invasion between 1880 and 1904.
Dr Harry Wood. Harry is a postdoctoral researcher looking at the cultural history of British invasion anxieties, with a particular interest in invasion-scare fiction, and authors including William Le Queux, James Blyth, George Griffith, and H. G. Wells.
Harry Richards, Keele University. Harry is a PhD student analysing the extent of spy fever during the First World War and its influence on the regulation and policing of British society.
This panel challenges the assumption that British society was widely included within the observable ‘invasion scares’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and instead seeks to analyse how individuals perceived the threat of invasion. While invasion panics have often been linked to late Victorian and Edwardian attitudes towards security and immigration, the popular acceptance of such concerns has only received superficial treatment by historians. Harry Wood asks whether Edwardian invasion panics were genuinely ‘popular’ in nature. Examining the political and cultural roots of pre-1914 invasion scares, Wood cautions against assuming that such anxieties were widespread, and suggests avenues by which the social history of invasion panics can begin to be explored. Peter Keeling discusses the reaction to panic, and how controlling forces attempted to limit the negative influences of newspaper-driven alarm. Keeling contends that regardless of the actual extent of these scares they significantly influenced contemporary views of popular opinion, conditioning politicians to fear popular anticipations of war almost as much as they feared war itself. Harry Richards concludes the assessment of invasion scares by turning to the First World War to analyse the role of local authorities in provoking spy fever, along with the competing mechanisms of criticism and protest that questioned the prevalence of the German spy in Britain during the First World War. In spite of attempts to instruct society to remain cautious and vigilant in the response to the spy danger, Richards argues that many individuals remained indifferent to such rhetoric and viewed the rumours with steadfast derision.
By re-evaluating the degree of invasion obsessions, the nature of press-led panics, and the impact of local reactions to ‘spies’, this panel will reflect on the varied emotions and attitudes experienced by the British public over the period 1882-1918. It will examine the construction of ideas attempting to promote anxiety and fear by building on nationalistic sentiment. The chronological analysis will demonstrate the development and manipulation of an idea in a range of different contexts, and challenge the dominant view of Britons as a typically insular race.
‘Chronic Alarmists’: Defence Panics in Britain, 1882-1900′ – Peter Keeling
Public discourse relating to national defence in fin de siècle Britain was conducted within a context of widespread pessimism, with the state of the Army and Navy regularly condemned by ‘experts’ whose words were eagerly disseminated and dissected by the press. On occasion a particularly influential article, speech or international event would whip up a ‘panic’, a period of high-profile public and political interest and anxiety. By the end of the century official attempts to respond to defence panics were considered by many to have destabilised government policy, damaged national finances and spawned an international arms race, without seriously improving either the position of the armed forces or public confidence.
This paper examines the ‘newspaper panic’ phenomenon of later nineteenth century Britain as a case study in press power. It argues that, despite the top-down and relatively limited nature of these scares, their prevalence within the press left many contemporaries with the impression that the British were a people unusually susceptible to ‘contagion’ by panic, a weakness which some anticipated would severely hamstring the nation during wartime. As a result, fear of panic became an important motif within both public and official anticipations of ‘the next Great War’, while the prevention of popular panic became increasingly regarded as an important facet of defence preparation, encouraging an anxiety about public hysteria which was carried over fully formed into the twentieth century.
A National Obsession? The Pervasiveness of Edwardian Invasion Anxieties – Harry Wood
Writing in 1968, the historian Howard Moon described the fear of invasion in Edwardian Britain as ‘nothing less than a national obsession’. Pointing to the periodic invasion panics of the pre-war years, the numerous inquiries held by the Committee of Imperial Defence, and the great popularity of invasion-scare fiction, Moon argued that invasion enjoyed a dominant position in Edwardian social and political discourse. This position has remained largely unchallenged in the intervening years, not least within the debate surrounding the outbreak of war in Europe. In Britain and the Origins of the First World War, Zara Steiner and Keith Neilson argue that the same pressure ‘which led men to read invasion stories in the press and to welcome the fictional accounts of war to come’ prepared the way for conflict in 1914.
Yet the idea that invasion was a ‘national obsession’ is difficult to justify on the available evidence and research. Based largely on high political crises, newspaper-led panics, and popular invasion novels, historians have rarely attempted to gauge whether these events and cultural products translated into widespread invasion anxiety. In short, the popular reception of invasion fears remains underexplored. This paper aims to offer some thoughts as to how analysts might begin to address this gap in understanding. Examining the value of autobiographical works, newspaper coverage, oral interviews, and a range of circumstantial accounts and stories, it will be argued that the pervasiveness of invasion fears cannot be assumed, and should be critically engaged with.
Spontaneous Eruptions of Fear? The Spy Threat in Britain during the First World War – Harry Richards
During the First World War, British society supposedly became consumed by a fear of German spies seeking to subvert the war effort. Espionage literature and exaggerated press reports reflected and seemingly confirmed the paranoia. David French has described the panic as a spontaneous eruption of fear caused by the gullibility of the British public, who believed the German spy menace to be a very real and immediate danger. By analysing the distinctions between concern, anxiety, and fear this paper aims to give greater agency to the individual citizen in order to ascertain how people actually responded to the depiction of the spy threat.
This paper examines evidence that suggests life continued as normal for many across the British home front during the First World War. Notwithstanding the concern and anxiety that war naturally caused, the public did not spontaneously generate a hysterical fear of German spies hidden throughout Britain. Research into local newspapers suggests that relatively few individuals experienced such fear, despite the prominence the threat received. This paper seeks to readdress the nature of this so called hysteria and analyse how far the appearance of spy fever was an attempt to manipulate a tradition of xenophobia already apparent throughout certain sections of British society. By comparing police precautions with cases reported across Britain, this paper aims to establish where and how the fear of German spies manifested itself, but also, why people appeared to be unaffected by the contagion of ‘spy fever’.