Buxton’s heyday in the Edwardian era was a prime example of how Britain’s Age of Decadence changed our country, controversial author and newspaper columnist Simon Heffer will demonstrate at the town’s International Festival Book Weekend in November.
Simon, famous for his political commentary in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, has lifted the lid on the poverty and suffering during the period before the First World War which is usually remembered as a time when Britain was a powerful, contented, orderly and thriving country.
Her citizens were living longer, profiting from civil liberties their grandparents only dreamt of, and enjoying an expanding range of comforts and pastimes – including new theatres for the middle classes such as the London Palladium, The Blackpool Tower Ballroom and Shepherd’s Bush Empire, all designed by Frank Matcham, who also built Buxton Opera House.
But in an echo of today’s world, the Edwardians were also dealing with a mismanaged war against the Boers, acts bordering on terrorism by the Suffragettes caused by the desperate injustice faced by women, and grave doubts over the country’s place in the world.
“We see newsreels of people strolling in parks in their finery, but it was also a time of tremendous social and political conflict,” said Simon, whose book The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 covers the turn of a century which echoes many of the changes the country saw as the 21st Century began.
“One thing which might surprise people was how women were treated,” he added.
They had only just been allowed to own property, and Simon explains: “If a woman had a white-collar job she was often forced to resign if she got married.”
Buxton, however, benefitted from the Age of Decadence. The Pavilion Gardens, the Opera House and the big hotels like The Palace, and the now demolished Empire and Spa, made the town a big draw for people who for the first time had money and leisure.
“The whole question of entertainment for the working and lower middle classes transformed Britain and was a huge driver of the economy,” said Simon. “That entertainment culture became enormously important to the country and individual people.
“The Edwardians loved going to spas, and if you didn’t have the money to go abroad, you went to somewhere like Buxton, Bath or Harrogate.”
The Book Weekend, which runs from November 24 to 26, includes talks by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, Time Team’s Tony Robinson and The Archers Timothy Bentinck. Go to http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/whats-on/books
for more details.