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Changing Britain and the Heroic Age

Britain During the Heroic Age

The heroic age of Antarctic Exploration is usually said to begin in the reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910); its end point is debated. It is argued that the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed Britain dramatically and brought the Heroic Age to a close; others stretch the period to 1922, concluding with the last expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton (one of the great explorers of the heroic age).

Britain at the start of the twentieth century was drastically different from Britain today; for example, even though Britain was engaged in the Second Boer War from 1899-1902, horrors on the scale of the First World War were as yet unimaginable; Britain ruled a large empire; women did not have the right to vote and discrimination in the workplace was common; institutions such as the National Health Service did not exist and the health of the nation was generally poor. The Edwardian era was a time when Britain and British attitudes began to shift.

The heroic age is embodied by an outlook on life characterised by ‘muscular Christianity’ which emphasised daring and chivalry, as well as being prepared to make sacrifices for one’s country in undertaking heroic deeds. Men who met these ideals were lionised and others strove to emulate them. It was possible to be heroic by going off to war and ‘doing one’s bit’, but with the conclusion of the Second Boer War in 1902, this avenue was closed off. Another option was to work to expand the British Empire, which at this time stretched far across the globe. Britain was powerful in the known world, but in the late Victorian and Edwardian era it also had desires to become powerful in the few areas as yet unexplored. At the start of the 1900s the Arctic and the Antarctic were still unknown areas. Whilst there had been a number of expeditions into the polar regions, what lay at the poles was a mystery. Setting off to discover the poles was another way men could ‘do their bit’ for Britain in the spirit of what was heroic and daring.
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