Who Was Who: the history of an era

Who's Who in its present biographical form was first published in 1897. After it had been published for several years it was realised that the entries removed from Who's Who on account of death provided a wealth of material for researchers who would not necessarily have easy access to the earlier individual volumes. So in 1920 the first volume of Who Was Who was published, composed of the entries of those who had died between 1897 and 1915, the date of death being added to each entry. Subsequent volumes of Who Was Who cover the years from 1916 onwards. Who Was Who has proved invaluable in identifying not only those who shaped the events of their time but others, now forgotten, who were familiar names to the journalists and diarists who recorded the events of the day.

With the publication of new editions of the first three volumes of Who Was Who, covering the years between 1897 and 1940, we have a unique snapshot of that era. The biographies reflect the vigour of a great commercial and industrial nation. There are businessmen who gave their names to household products well-known today: George Cadbury, Sir James Horlick, Sir Henry Tate and Sir Robert Lyle. We continue to benefit from the achievements of inventors and engineers Rudolf Diesel, Alexander Graham Bell and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, and we still applaud scientific and medical pioneers Pierre and Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Joseph (1st Baron) Lister and Sir Henry Wellcome.

Those who rose to prominence in the arts are represented too. From the music world we have Elgar, Verdi and Debussy, along with opera singers Blanche Marchesi and Dame Nellie Melba. Writers include the highly influential H. G. Wells, Count Leo Tolstoy, Bram Stoker, Jules Verne, Friedrich Nietzche, Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats.

Meanwhile, less fortunate people of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, suffering destitution and poverty, drew the attention of social reformers Octavia Hill, Rev. William Booth and Thomas Barnardo. Campaigning for women's suffrage through hunger-strikes, marches and pamphlet-writing were Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst.

The British Empire was at its peak in the 1920s with territory covering one quarter of the earth's land mass. Who Was Who biographies of Indian Maharajas sit alongside British Prime Ministers Rt Hon. William Gladstone, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and H. H. Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. The leaders of emerging powers, US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, take their place alongside Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first President of Turkey. The early twentieth century saw the rise of the Labour Party, with Rt Hon. Ramsay MacDonald becoming Britain's first Labour Prime Minister in 1924, and it was Rt Hon. Neville Chamberlain who took Britain into a Second World War in 1939.

The event which has the largest impact on the early volumes of Who Was Who is the World War of 1914-18. Led by 1st Earl Haig, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and 1st Earl Jellicoe, the huge increase in the Army and the Royal Navy at that time resulted in a consequent increase in their representation in Who's Who. Alongside them appeared the pioneers of the Royal Flying Corps. But a dreadful number of those entrants were killed, reflecting the appalling slaughter of the war. Other entries tell the stories of families devastated by war, with one or more sons 'killed in action'. Leonard Goodhart Sutton, senior partner of Sutton & Sons, seedsmen, suffered the loss of four sons. The titles of many hereditary families were passed down to heirs at this time or became extinct.

New editions of Who Was Who provide an opportunity for revision and, where necessary, correction, using many sources of reference. The availability of online resources in recent years, such as census, probate and military records, has made the entries more accurate than ever. Many dates of death not previously known have been added, and women's forenames, where previously only shown under a married name, have more often than not been elucidated. Original material, given by each individual at the time of his or her inclusion, is retained. Thus the entries which appear in these new editions of Who Was Who are rendered more accurate and more accessible, whilst remaining true to the autobiographical nature of Who's Who.

Explore more Who Was Who content with the latest quiz...

1. Which writer, commencing in 1878, faced "the same old story - everything back at first - slow climb" and only saw success in the (18)90s?

2. Which prince of the empire owned nine cars and over a hundred elephants?

3. Which daughter of a Scottish clergyman disguised herself as a factory girl and visited theatres, music halls and penny gaffs of the West End slums?

4. Which baronet was killed in action in July 1918, causing the extinction of his baronetcy?

5. Which electrical engineer and inventor of the Anti-Gas Fan, of which 100,000 were used during the First World War, was prevented from becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society due to gender?

6. Which American entrepreneur, from humble beginnings, ran for President of the USA as an independent candidate in 1872 and claimed to be the inspiration for Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days?

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