No longer an island? — II

In my previous post I looked at the phrase 'England is no longer an island' in the British press as an indication of anxiety about the implications of technological progress -- first steam in the 1840s, then the Channel tunnel in the 1880s, and finally aviation in the late 1900s -- for the defence of the nation. Surprisingly, in the 1890s, especially, through to the early 1900s the phrase was also used in a more positive and optimistic way, to suggest that England was now more than an island.

Firstly, though I'll deal with a few transitional uses. The first, in Reynold's Paper in 1868, apparently refers offhandedly to earlier Channel tunnel schemes (and Channel bridge schemes -- though I don't know of any), but only to deny that these now arouse any fears of invasion (emphasis added throughout):

There was a time, and it is not so long past, when all of us thought the Channel too narrow to screen us from the aggression of our uneasy neighbour. Yet we hear now without misgiving of those schemes of bridges and tunnels which are to enable us at some future day to announce that England is no longer an island; that the Channel has ceased to exist.1

During the 1881 tunnel controversy, the Shrewsbury Chronicle's leader-writer was more impressed by the potential advantages of the scheme than its disadvantages:

What a happy moment it will be for tourists and in the commercial world when England is no longer an island divided by 20 miles of chopping seas, which to nine out of ten travellers has more disagreeable associations than ten thousand miles of railway travelling, and what a glorious moment of triumph it will be, too, when the French and English engineers can shake hands in mid channel and nearly 150 feet under water. All this is, of course, looking at the matter through the rosiest of tints, but this gigantic project, no doubt, has is drawbacks, and the Times assumes the character of an alarmist when it draws attention to a somewhat bilious view of the undertaking.2

Both of these uses acknowledge the fears of those who fear increased connections to the Continent, but nevetheless look forward to the prospect of England no longer being an island.

In the following case, a letter by Edward Clayton to the editor of the Morning Post in 1886, there is a reversion to the anxiety of the 1840s due to the coming of steam. But now the concern is not that technology has made Britain itself harder to defend, it's that it has made Britain's trade harder to defend:

It has long been clear to all Englishmen with brains and courage to think that nothing can save us but Protection. All classes -- landlords and tenants, masters and servants, labourers in the country, artisans in our cities, high and low, rich and poor -- are all alike being ruined by competition from abroad and robbed by the retailers of food at home. Years ago, when the Reform Bill became law, England was an island difficult of access, with the only mercantile service, so to speak, in the world; mistress of the seas, and far in advance in skilled labour and manufactures of any other nation. England is no longer an island. The wonderful development of steam, electricity, and means of transport has thrown a bridge across the Atlantic, bringing the merchandise of the world with safety and dispatch to our very doors. "Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illia!" In self-defence we must move with the times and protect ourselves.3

So the argument here is that free trade may have made sense when transportation was difficult, but in a global economy it's madness -- and note that it's now the Atlantic which has been bridged by steam, not the Channel.

A completely different interpretation appeared in an Irish Times leader, in 1892, on the occasion of the death of Queen Victoria's grandson, Albert Victor. It quoted the condolences of a number of European newspapers, including the Vienna Neue Freie Presse:

The sympathy is all the more keen as it is the English Royal House that is plunged into mourning. England is no longer the isolated island-kingdom without any link connecting it with the rest of Europe which it was ten years ago. England has ceased to be indifferent to events on the Continent. It is tired of playing the part of a passive spectator, and is now in lively communication with the Powers that have united in the defence of European peace.4

This is not about a technological connection with Europe, though that no doubt was part of it. It's a political, diplomatic and emotional engagement, and a reciprocated one at that.

That's nice, but the rest of the uses of 'England is no longer an island' I've found in the British press take a decidedly more triumphalist turn. Here is the West Cumberland Times in 1893, reporting a speech made by Eli Waddington at the Workington Primrose League:

Mr Waddington then dealt at length with the career of Lord Beaconsfield in building up the power of England; how he created the Queen Empress of India; how he bought the Suez Canal shares for three millions and which were now worth twenty millions -- (applause)? --; how he despatched the fleet to the Dardanelles and saved Constantinople without a blow being struck; and how he brought Indian troops to Europe and showed that England was no longer a little island, but


which would unite in its defence.5

Far from being a defensive attitude, here England no longer being an island is unequivocally a good thing. But it's not because English has been joined to Europe -- it's not the Channel which has been erased -- it's because it's now joined to an empire.

Britain again lost its island status in 1900, in a speech made by a French parliamentary deputy, Flaminius Raiberti, as reported by the Globe:

England was no longer an island, but, like France, a Continental Power in Asia and in Africa, and many instances the frontiers of France and England marched. Let the French make it possible for them to menace those frontiers, and the sayings of their diplomatists would have far greater weight than they had to-day.6

Again, after Fashoda it's not to Europe that Britain's new connections are linking; it's to its empire in Africa and Asia.

A couple of months later, the Taunton Courier recorded a toast made to 'The Army, Navy and Reserve Forces' at the Churchstanton Unity Friendly Society's annual dinner.7 As with the Primrose League speech in 1893, the argument here is that Britain is not just an island, now that it has an empire -- but it's much more pointed, now that there's an actual war on, with actual colonial troops taking part:

There were two great sources of satisfaction about this war. One was the steady bravery, courage, and endurance shown by Tommy Atkins, as he was fondly called, under all kinds of hardships and difficulties; and the other was the manner in which the Colonies had come forward. The full effect of the latter had hardly yet been realised; neither could they fully understand what might grow out of it. (Applause.) England was no longer a little island by itself, but the head of a world-wide Empire, which he hoped would continue to be wisely ruled, and thereby tend to the good of mankind wherever its influence was felt. (Applause.)8

For the benefit of anyone who might have nodded through the toast, Mr Ewins then 'sang a patriotic song, entitled "The Colonies will fight by England's side"'.8

The last pre-Blériot instances of England not being an island I've found are from 1907, so still in a non-aviation context. Here's Sir James Siveright speaking at the Imperial Industries' Club, as reported in the Morning Post:

He had spent third of a century in the service of the Empire, and had been in its outlying parts, and he was struck by the growth of the Imperial sentiment in recent years. It was recognised that England was no longer an island, her flag of freedom was flying every sea, and the hardy pioneers of industry had gone forth, unaided by the Government, and had built the magnificent structure known as the British Empire. They did not think of it as they thought of the Empires of the past, which had crumbled, for it consisted of self-governing States, which were all proud of the parent from which they had sprung, and were bound together by the flag and by the need of common defence.((Morning Post (London), 15 February 1907, 8.))

And from the Bedford Record, in a report of a speech given at Blunham by C. B. Halliley, chairman of the Bedford and District Junior Unionist Association:

England was no longer an island, she had exceeded her geographical position until she was only part of the British Empire. What was grown in the colonies was grown by British capital, and the Empire was self-contained; so that anything we could produce in our Empire should be as good to us. Therefore goods produced in the Empire ought to be disposed of by means of some Mutual Preference.9

Geography is not destiny!

So, if you squint at the uses of 'England is no longer an island' in this post and the previous one, and look at them sideways, a few almost-common issues stand out: tariff reform (whether repealing free trade or setting up imperial preference), the British Empire (meaning either the mere possession of it, or the support of the white settler colonies in time of need), conservative politics (the Primrose League, the Young Unionists), and defence. The last is the issue the phrase has long been associated with, in the technological form of aviation; but it is hard to find for a quarter of a century from the early 1880s to the late 1900s. Perhaps that could be put down to late-Victorian confidence, though I do need to stress that these are ALL the examples of 'England is no longer an island' I could find in the British Newspaper Archive/Gale Newsvault/Daily Mail/ukpressonline up to 1909 -- less than 20 over all those newspapers in a 70 year period is not very many. Still, it's striking that when it was used, it was almost always used in relation to what were what we might call Daily Mail issues, Northcliffe issues. There may be no one source for 'England is no longer an island', but it seems that it was a sentiment running through the right side of politics to which Northcliffe leant, and I would guess that it was here that he picked it up, before Blériot or even Santos-Dumont.

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  1. Reynold's Newspaper (London), 14 June 1868, 1. []
  2. Shrewsbury Chronicle, 24 June 1881, 5. []
  3. Morning Post (London), 23 January 1886, 3. []
  4. Irish Times (Dublin), 18 January 1892, 4. []
  5. West Cumberland Times (Cockermouth), 2 December 1893, 3. []
  6. Globe (London), 31 March 1900, 5. []
  7. Courier (Taunton), 6 June 1900, 6. []
  8. Ibid. [] []
  9. Bedford Record, 13 August 1907, 3. []

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