By the late 1920s, and after six decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth at around seven to eight per cent per year, Argentine per-capita GDP had reached 80% of US levels. It had surpassed per-capita GDP in Italy and Spain, the two major origins of Argentine immigration in the 19th century, and was on a par with that of France. It wasn’t faring much worse than Britain neither.
Buenos Aires prided itself of having built the first underground network of the Southern Hemisphere. Its fledgling middle classes lived in – what were then – leafy neighbourhoods along the Rio de la Plata (Palermo, Belgrano, Nuñez). If they liked a bit more affordability, they moved to the equally leafy suburbs in the North, West and South, which were connected by railroad to Retiro, Once, and Constitución, respectively.
From here, a well organised tram network would transport them to their destinations: the shops, cafes and offices in the Microcentro, particularly in the City Porteña, those six or seven blocks where the national and international finance industry was concentrated. Buenos Aires looked, worked and felt much like any European metropolis of its time and was in so far quite unremarkable – except for the fact that most of the ground on which it stood had been virgin South American grasslands not even two generations ago.
The benign forces of capitalism had resulted in a sudden, almost instant success that still felt a bit too good to be true. To a visitor approaching it by ship, Buenos Aires appeared on the muddy banks of the Rio de la Plata almost like a mirage or a day-dream. Much of the heightened state of awareness it could bring about in a visitor, an almost REM-like quality of consciousness while nominally awake, somehow found its way into the Argentine literature of the first part of the 20th century. But let’s not get ahead of things.
As could be expected, there were not only winners. While the Argentine oligarchy, la Generación del ’80, had held the reins of power and enjoyed the good life for as long as it lasted, socialism had travelled to the Rio de la Plata along with the migrants from Europe. This German ideology had entrenched itself in the lower classes who were politically disenfranchised, to be fair, but also felt unfairly treated by their employers and demanded their share of the Argentinian economic miracle, at times violently. The ideology of envy reared its ugly head.
To please the socialists, the oligarchy changed voting laws so that by 1916, universal and obligatory male suffrage became the norm. From then on, men not only could but had to vote. Then, the first (more or less) democratically elected administration assumed office when Hipólito Yrigoyen became President, and his Unión Cívica Radical the governing party; then on a classically liberal economic, but socially progressive ticket.
The good life lasted yet another decade. It was as if the last glow of the incredibly successful and innovative 19th century slowly faded away like the last days of summer. While the living conditions of the lower half of the population left much to be desired, the Argentinian middle and upper classes enjoyed roughly the same lifestyle as their counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere. They would commute to generally well-paying jobs that left them with plenty of money to spare and a lot of time on their hands – both of which could also be invested in more fulfilling pursuits than the daily grind.
Housing was cheap, because labour was cheap, and food was even cheaper. Beef was dirt cheap because it grew on the Pampas, and not all of it could be exported. Provisions for social security were nonexistent, and personal taxation was practically unheard of. Not much thought went into saving for the dotage because nobody reasonably expected to get very much older than 60 or maybe 65, and the last few years would be spent with someone from the family anyway. In rare instances, the church could also provide.
This meant that a huge chunk of a typical mid-class income was disposable. But more importantly, there was also disposable time (for what good is money if you don’t have the time to enjoy the fruits of your labour). It typically went for socialising and entertainment, shopping, fashion and imported luxuries.
Among its many attractions, the capital provided its upper and middle classes with amenities that were topped by the Jockey Club, funded by Argentine President Carlos Pellegrini in 1882 as a gentlemen’s club where the country’s economic and political elite could meet. Mr Pellegrini was the son of Maria Evans, born in England, and a Savoyan named Carlos Enrique Pellegrini.
The Argentine taste for things English made tea rooms like the Café Richmond spring up in the wealthier neighbourhoods like mushrooms after the rain. And if that wasn’t enough to spend some time and money, there would always be a trip to Harrods of Buenos Aires in Calle Florida (the only Harrods to have ever existed outside the UK) or its equally upmarket local competitor, the other darling of the Argentinian aspirational and/or sophisticated classes, Gath y Chaves (pronounced guttychaves) on the Avenida de Mayo. The latter was worth £1.5million in 1908 and had, by 1945, grown to 19 branches across the country.
Most of the Argentine wealth was created with agricultural produce, and its export relied on a modern, well working transport infrastructure. Not only did the railroad companies constitute the technologically most advanced (and complex) industry of their era, they also required the most advanced business organisation to work as intended.
Much of the organisational models and operational procedures (i.e. the way things are done) that we can now take for granted in big corporations made their commercial debut in the railroad industry. But these modern management techniques didn’t originate there. The railway companies inherited their command and control structure from the military, along with most of their core values – punctuality, precision and absolute reliability.
This had the effect that economic progress and social mobility could be made available to the nation at ever decreasing cost and to an ever increasing extent. Export products would reach global markets speedily and at very low fares. For the first time in human history it was possible for a cow to witness the sun rise over the Pampas only to be butchered, packed, frozen and on a steamer to Liverpool by midnight. It only took a day longer to turn it into Corned Beef.
The stunning wealth the country created was spent in department stores, tea rooms, rugby and polo clubs across the Buenos Aires suburbs. The names on any map of Greater Buenos Aires are testament to the British influence during the growth period of the nation. The town of Hurlingham (pronounced Oorlyn Am) today has 60,000 residents, was founded in 1888 by Anglo-Argentines and got its name from the homonymous London sports club.
It has three rugby clubs: Curupaytí, Hurling and Retiro. Curupaytí plays in the national “A” league, Hurling in “B” league. The local Hurlingham Club offers cricket, golf and lawn tennis (grass courts are a rarity in South America). It is also one of the foremost polo clubs in the World.
Banfield (population: 223,898), about eight miles south of the capital, was named after Edward Banfield, the first general manager of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway which would – at its apogee – serve 504 stations along 5,000 miles of track. Banfield, founded in 1871, is mostly known for its football club, which won its first “B” league title in 1899 and so far has played 44 seasons in the first division. Their biggest success is winning the Argentine championship in 2009, though somehow by default as both their closest rivals (Boca Juniors and Newell’s Old Boys, the latter from Rosario) each lost their last game of the season quite unexpectedly.
Temperley, also located in the south of Buenos Aires, has a premier league football team too, but is only half the size of Banfield. It is named after George Alison Temperley, born 1823 in Newcastle upon Tyne. He emigrated in his early twenties, got married to Charlotte Knight (whose parents were from London) and started out with a blacksmithing business. Mr Temperley later founded the Argentine Rural Society (aka la Rural) in 1888, together with Richard Blake Newton, born in Surrey. The latter was a cattle farmer who introduced the haciendas to wiring. Mr Newton’s son Ricardo served as president of the nation’s most prestigious agronomic institution, the aforementioned Rural.
Finally, the town of Wilde traces its origins back to ca. 1600, when Luis Gaitán established an estancia and the first salthouse in what would later become a small town. In 1888, Eduardo Wilde, a physician by trade, named the town after his uncle, Dr José Antonio Wilde, who had been a great promoter of public health, sanitation and the municipal sewer system (after the Buenos Aires had just seen off its last yellow fever epidemic, in 1871).
Eduardo Wilde’s father, Colonel Diego Wilde, was a distant relative of Oscar Wilde; he had fled to Bolivia during Juan Manuel de Rosas’s reign of terror. As a member of the Argentine oligarchy, la Generación del ’80, Eduardo Wilde served ambassadorial posts to the USA, Mexico, Spain, The Netherlands and Belgium, from 1900 to 1913, when he died unexpectedly in Brussels.
In the remaining chapter we shall look at the about 100,000 Anglo-Argentines’ involvement in the Second World War, HMG’s efforts to honour the memory of the 4,000 Anglo-Argentines that served in the three branches and the current situation in matters related to los ingleses.
© Guardian Council 2018