Cannons and Colour Codes: The Violence and Visuals of Long Edwardian Elections

In this guest blog post, Chris Shoop-Worrall explores how the ‘new dailies’ Mail, Express, and Mirror reported electoral news in the early-twentieth-century Britain, making them mass spectator events:

As Thompson (2018) notes, political campaigns in early-twentieth-century Britain were awash with vibrant forms of mass political communication. The four general elections which preceded the outbreak of the First World War were no exception. This blogpost explores the prominent role of the emergent daily mass press – the ‘new dailies’ Mail, Express, and Mirror – in the creation of election communication as spectacle: fireworks, explosives, and interactive experiences all played a part in making the dissemination of election news, particularly in London, into mass spectator events. Within this election-news spectacle was a curious reality, where often-violent spectacles (and direct allusions to war) were used as part of a form of mass political communication that – at its heart – channelled ideas of socially-conservative, consumer-based election conduct framed around an idealised ‘man in the street’.

It took until 1918 for general election voting to occur on a single day, and so a great deal of news coverage of elections pre-1918 covered the gradual return of results from constituencies across the country. In print, the new dailies increasingly used visuals to depict the daily changes in party results as races to a finish line: the Express used climbers on greased circus poles in 1900; the Mirror carried front-page banners of the parties as runners scrambling to be the first to reach Westminster. What was more striking however were the efforts made by all three newspapers to contribute to a wider, multimedia culture during which election news became a staple of the massified consumer culture of the period.

Take, for example, the Daily Mail during the 1906 general election. The newspaper sponsored the erection (according to pages seven and nine of its 13th January edition) of ‘monster searchlights’ across various locations in central London. Said searchlights were used to illuminate the night sky with messages of recent constituency results, so that people on the streets could look up and never miss a return: readers of the Mail were provided basic Morse code, so that the meaning of the lightshows would not be lost on them. The Mirror, meanwhile, highlighted the use of colour-coded rockets across the capital’s skyline: red for a Liberal victory, and blue for a Conservative Unionist. Election news, thanks in significant part to these newspapers, was a mass event. Thousands of people wandering London’s streets – flitting between shops, cafes, pubs, restaurants, and the ‘populist palatial’ (McWilliam, 2020: 200) of the West End’s various music halls – were spectators of a show where elections announcements were the headline act.

Election news was not just communicated across London’s night sky; thanks in-significant part to the Express, the 1906 general election was communicated across the capital’s entertainment districts. They too sponsored lightshows and provided readers on 15th January with a reference table explaining which colour represented a particular party. In addition to this, however, they helped make election news a dominant part of central London’s nightlife during the weeks of the election results. Show finales at the London Hippodrome featured on-stage motor cars with the election results on the sides, so audiences left knowing the latest tallies. A collection of London’s Empire Theatres incorporated election news announcements into their nightly productions. The Coliseum, meanwhile, would interrupt performances with a paid-for actor (playing a messenger boy) running into the stage to announce the latest results. Further news, or for anyone who had not attended one of the many shows in which these announcements were placed, was coordinated with a variety of hotels and restaurants: paid announcers in hotel lobbies for guests and patrons; window signage for the passers-by.

It was not that election news was some inescapable reality that clashed with the consumer industries of Edwardian London: election news had, with the help of the new dailies, become a huge part of its nightly success. Political communication and popular consumerism were intertwined, with explosions and entertainers serving a key role in spreading news of the election to large, urban-based audiences of interested people.

Interestingly, this massified election experience was often articulated using the language of war and violence. The lightshows, for example, were using technologies promoted through their past use in ‘the South African war’: the Second Boer War which, among other things, had helped boost the readership of the Mail (and other pro-war publications) thanks in-part to its populist and supportive coverage of the conflict (Potter, 2014; Wilkinson, 1998). Indeed, said paper’s coverage of that war had overlapped with its coverage of the 1900 election, and the language used in dozens of articles to cover both stories (often in side-by-side columns) was often interchangeable: fights taking place between rival forces, advancing and retreating across battlegrounds (Shoop-Worrall, 2019: 100-102). Much like with their staging of explosive and eye-catching events during 1906, the use of violent language within the new dailies’ coverage of 1900 helped represent election politics as exciting and entertaining news content.

For all the significant use of action to help articulate elections as mass-appealing news content, the new dailies were far from politically radical. Their lightshows, stage events, and exciting news content did make political news accessible and enjoyable, but within restrictive and broadly-conservative ideals of their shared imagined reader and voter: the ‘man in the street’ profiled explicitly by the Express on the opening day of the 1906 polls;

(I am) generally not a politician… a teetotaller, anti-vaccinationist, or a vegetarian, or any sort of crank… industrious… casual and intermittent interest in football matches and race meetings… I like the theatre and the music hall – the latter, perhaps the more… sympathetic, but not sentimental… England for the English, a happy England populated by prosperous Englishman…’

This man in the street did represent a significant portion of the British electorate from whom political parties of the period increasingly sought support, particular in the continuing aftermath of the Reform Acts of the 1880s. However, it was far from a complete picture; it was the ideal of a pro-imperial, masculine and largely-urban mass electorate that existed comfortably within the still largely-middle-class consumer culture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Violence and allusions to war were ways, in essence, to sell elections to the public. They were not, in any way, calls for violent or radical political causes.

1910 Daily Mail Election Chart (Courtesy of the  British Library Board: Maps 1092 (9))

The political stance of this hugely-significant mass press – both in terms of its ideology and its articulation of politics as mass, human-interest entertainment – was perhaps best crystallised by the Mail’s initiative, during the elections both in 1906 and 1910, to sell election wall charts. These charts allowed readers to follow along with the results at home, adding colour-coded tabs onto a map of the nation by-constituencies whenever new (or returning) MPs were confirmed. These charts, like the lightshows and the war-like comparisons, helped the new dailies articulate the general elections of the Long Edwardian period as accessible and entertaining aspects of their readers’ lived experiences. These charts also spoke of the ways in which these same newspapers’ shared representations of mass democracy placed politics firmly within a consumerist mass culture of spectacle and sensation. Violence – long a part of British political life – was very much present within these representations, but it was far from radical. Instead, it was part of its marketable appeal.

Christopher Shoop-Worall is Lecturer in Media and Journalism at UCFB. He researches the intersections between politics, the press, and mass-popular culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, and completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield’s Centre for the Study of Journalism and History in 2019. His latest article, from which this blog particularly draws, is:

Christopher Shoop-Worrall (2021) ‘Leaps and Light Shows: Visual Politics in the Edwardian Mass Press, 1900–10’, Parliamentary History 40.2, pp. 362-377:


Rohan McWilliam 2020. London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simon J. Potter 2014. ‘Jingoism, Public Opinion, And The New Imperialism’, Media History 20(1), 34–50.

Christopher Shoop-Worrall 2019. Politics and the Mass Press in Long Edwardian Britain: 1896-1914, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

James Thompson 2018. ‘“The Lights of the Electric Octopus Have Been Switched Off”: Visual and Political Culture in Edwardian London’, Twentieth Century British History, xxix, 331–56.

Gavin Wilkinson 1998. ‘“The Blessings of War”: The Depiction of Military Force in Edwardian Newspapers’, Journal of Contemporary History 33(1), 97-115.

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