By the eve of the 20th century, Britain was at its height of world power, a vast empire with trade links stretching across the globe. Britain’s industrial legacy as the ‘workshop of the world’ had fuelled an wave of urban growth. The flourishing of the railways meant that major cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol were now interconnected, allowing fresh produce to be rushed from rural producers to a growing mass market of urban consumers. Rising domestic demand for foodstuffs and luxury goods ushered in a golden age for the traditional family business.
A century ago, the high street was a world away from ours. No chain stores, no supermarkets. Small family-owned businesses dominated the neighbourhood and were the lifeblood of the local economy. Shopkeepers took on almost-mythic status as all-knowing custodians of local information, offering a community meeting place for exchanging everyone’s business. Families often lived right above the shops they ran, with two, three, or sometimes even four generations living and working under the same roof.
So how did a nation of shopkeepers maintain its commercial power? Well…
The Royal Navy
Being an island nation allowed Britain’s governments to concentrate virtually all their military resources into their Navy, rather than having to spend vast sums on massive standing armies and coastal fortresses, as their European rivals were compelled to. This allowed them to establish the most extensive global empire in history and naval supremacy of the seas for nearly two centuries.
Britain was at the centre of a globalised maritime trade network, a colonial empire that spanned a quarter of the globe. Her blue-water navy was the largest in the world, unmatched in strength and global reach. It dominated the world’s oceans, allowing overseas trade to pour into the country; by the start of the 20th century, 25% of all world trade flowed through British ports including London, Bristol, Portsmouth and Liverpool. Australian wool, Chinese spices, Indian tea, Caribbean cotton and sugar all flowed back into Britain – and to the nation of shopkeepers that needed it.
Maintaining such vital and far-flung shipping networks was no easy task, but the ‘Senior Service’ pulled it off with flying colours. This was an era where the Royal Navy could anchor over 170 warships (including 21 battleships and 56 cruisers) just off Portsmouth for Queen Victorian’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee, stretching seven miles out to sea and still have backup fleets stationed in the Mediterranean and the China seas.
15,000 tons of diplomacy
There’s no mistaking the imposing silhouette of a battleship, and just what that silhouette means: lots of big guns, and a crew willing to use them if you don’t take the hint. Whenever local rebellions flared up in British colonial territories, often a squadron of warships would heave into view off the coast and loiter threateningly until the unrest died down. The message was clear: ‘We are a maritime superpower, this is our time, and this is our sea.’ This gunboat diplomacy helped establish new trade links, safeguard shipping lanes, and ensure Britain’s control of the world’s oceans.
Not the best way to win friends – but it certainly influenced people.