Late Nineteenth Century Invasion Panics and the problem of ‘Public Opinion’

This post by Peter Keeling (University of Kent) is adapted from a paper delivered at the recent Social History Society Conference in Lancaster, as part of the ‘Popular Invasion Scares’ panel.


In 1883 the Liberal journalist Sir Francis Lawley penned an essay reflecting upon the contemporary invasion ‘scare’ aroused by a project to construct a Channel Tunnel to France.[i] If recent public pronouncements were any indication, he wrote, of all the people in the world the British must be regarded as the ‘scariest’. He continued:

‘We are so fond of believing that some other nation is preparing to invade us—that gun for gun we are no match at sea for France—that something has happened, or is about to happen, which fundamentally alters our position, and leaves us comparatively at the mercy of some hypothetical foe, that panic-mongers have always had, and always will have, a glorious time of it in our midst.’[ii]

This perception of popular anxiety regarding invasion was not uncommon among Britain’s intellectual and political elites during the nineteenth century. Taking a more hyperbolic and right-wing perspective in 1888, the Earl of Carnarvon declared the country to be ‘unanimously anxious, without distinction of party or political creed’ in its attitude toward the national defences.[iii] As evidence, men like Lawley and Carnarvon pointed to the defence ‘panics’ which cropped up in the British press on a regular basis, and their assessment of the state of British opinion has been adopted by a significant number of cultural and military historians.[iv]

A panic was a short period of high-profile public, political and media interest and anxiety in the state of the national defences, usually sparked by a particularly influential, convincing, and pessimistic article or speech, condemning some deficiency, real or perceived, in the Army or Navy. By the 1880s Britain already had a long tradition of such events; the 1840s and 1850s saw three major ‘panics’ resulting from fears of French expansionism, the last and most severe of which in 1859 resulted in the construction of a large number of expensive fortifications along the South Coast and the formation of a nationwide Rifle Volunteer movement. During the last two decades of the century, historians identify significant panics or scares in 1882, 1884, 1885, 1888, 1893 and 1900.


‘A Scare’, Judy (May 1888)


During a ‘panic’, or so the narrative had it, the usually apathetic public would ‘wake up’ to its defenceless condition, demand, with ill-thought out haste, the laying down of some new ironclads or the erection of fortifications, and, after a few weeks, retire back into its indifferent state, having added only inefficiencies to the defences and fresh burdens on the exchequer. ‘Panics’, continued Carnarvon ‘produce bad work and expensive work.’ The very use of the word itself is significant: in the wider political, sociological and economic discourse ‘panic’ was closely related to the two contemporary bugbears of the governing class: riot and financial collapse.

Yet historians who take contemporary statements of widespread fear at face value neglect the vagaries and nuances of nineteenth century ideas of ‘public opinion’. While it is true that after 1884 the electorate had expanded to include large sections of the male working class, political rhetoric had not necessarily expanded to match. As recent work by James Thompson and Simon Potter has argued, when later nineteenth century politicians spoke of ‘public opinion’ they were generally referring to an ill-defined group of London newspapers, journals and political commentators, through which they received their information about the mood in the country as a whole. As such, any claim these men made about working class or even provincial opinion was necessarily an appropriation of voices they could never meaningfully consult themselves.[v]

Naturally this was not a state of affairs which many politicians were willing or able to admit, for to have done so would have been to risk serious questions as to their right to speak ‘for the people’.  One man not afraid of such a result was the Liberal leader William Gladstone, who dismissed the Channel Tunnel panic and the invasion scare of 1888 in the following terms:

‘The subject of this panic never touched the mind of the nation. These things are not accessible to the mind of the nation. They are accessible to what is called the public opinion of the day—that is to say, public opinion manufactured in London by great editors and clubs, who are at all times formidable, and a great power for the purposes of the moment, but who are a greater power and become an overwhelming power, when they are backed by the threefold forces of the military and literary authorities and the social circles of London.’[vi]

Gladstone’s perspective suggests an explanation not only for Lawley and Carnarvon’s assumptions of widespread anxiety, but also those of historians. By focusing on the easily accessible fears of selected political, military, literary and social circles – fears which emphasised the domestic ‘mob’ as much as foreign invaders – historians have at times failed to recognise the fact that defence remained a subject of little concern to the nineteenth century electorate.[vii] In doing so, they have risked inflating a minority interest into a ‘national obsession’.

This is not to dismiss the subject of late nineteenth century invasion fears out of hand, however. Regardless of the facts, many elites continued to believe that the British were a people uniquely susceptible to defence panics or scares. This was especially true of those on the political right who would go on to form the backbone of twentieth century organisations such as the Navy League or the National Service League. For these people the narrative of panic formed an important part of their propaganda, which regularly argued that only naval supremacy or conscription could prevent not only invasion, but also the disorder consequent of scares and panics. In this way, the misremembered scares of the nineteenth century served to encourage the alarmist agitators of the twentieth.


[i] For more on the Channel Tunnel attempt of the 1880s see Thomas Whiteside, The Tunnel under the Channel (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962) and Keith Wilson, Channel Tunnel Visions, 1850-1945 (London: Hambledon Press, 1994), pp.22-49

[ii] Francis Lawley, preface to John Bright, Suez Canal & Channel Tunnel: Peace or War with France? (London: C.F. Roworth, 1883), p.9

[iii] The Times, 29 May 1888, p.11

[iv] For examples see Howard Roy Moon, The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning, 1888-1918, (Unpublished PhD thesis: University of London, 1968), p.657; Cecil D. Eby, The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914 (USA: Duke University Press, 1987), p.11

[v] Simon J. Potter, ‘Jingoism, Public Opinion, and the New Imperialism’ in Media History, Vol.20:No.1 (2014), p.40. See also James Thompson, British Political Culture and the Idea of Public Opinion, 1867-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[vi] W.E. Gladstone, HC Deb., 27 June 1888, col.1459

[vii] Rhodri Williams, Defending the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp.77-78; H.C.G. Matthew, The Liberal Imperialists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p.215; W.S. Hamer, The British Army Civil-Military Relations, 1885-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p.81, p.102

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