The Eighteenth Century

 

 

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In the 18th century Britain was free from the revolutionary atmosphere that prevailed in the 17th century. The country became more and more wealthy through trade; the middle-class and landowners lived in a mood of complacency. The power of the king continued to decline. For the first time the king's ministers became real policy-makers. In 1707 the Act of Union formally united England and Scotland. In 1714, when Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts died, Parliament chose the German-speaking elector of Hanover who was crowned as George I. He was succeeded by his son, George II, who, like his father, had little interest in British internal affairs.

New map of England from 1733.

The most outstanding political leader of this time was Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), the first 'Prime Minister', who developed the idea of the Cabinet, i.e. a group of ministers who took the actual control of administration from the Crown. In Parliament a two-party system began to evolve. Those who chiefly represented the financial and mercantile interests of the cities and towns, and the progressive element in the aristocracy opposed to any interference in politics by the monarchy, were called Whigs. Those who were strongly attached to tradition and the monarchy were called Tories. The Tories were supported by the gentry, the landed aristocracy, and the Anglican Church.

The port in Bristol in 18th century.

At the end of the 18th century Britain entered the period known as the Industrial Revolution, brought about by the use of machinery and steam power for the manufacture of goods as a result of the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1769. The Industrial Revolution led to a rapid increase in national prosperity. At the beginning of the 18th century the population of England and Wales reached five and a half million. A third of the total population lived in south-eastern England. The birth-rate rose slowly because killer diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, consumption, and typhus were widespread. Shortage of food, inadequate housing conditions and also excessive drinking of cheap gin had disastrous effects on the poorer classes. The rich were hardly less exposed to disease due to a general disregard of hygiene. However, throughout the 18th century important improvements in living conditions were made, and by the early 19th century the population of England and Wales had almost doubled. This was mainly due to increased production of food, including potatoes, cheese, and fresh meat. Thanks to the availability of coal, homes could be warmer in winter. In general clothing and soap were cheaper than previously. Nevertheless, about 80 per cent of the population remained poor.

An early coal mine in the Midlands.

The majority of people still lived in the countryside and their main occupations were agriculture and rural crafts. Most farmers were smallholders renting up to 8 hectares of land. Freeholders owned their land and were socially superior to smallholders. At the bottom of the social structure were the landless labourers who worked on large farms, especially in summer; in winter they were often out of work. At the top of the social hierarchy were the nobility, who held the highest offices and accumulated the greatest wealth, and the gentry, who included the major landowners in a county but were not necessarily of noble birth. The chief landowner in a village was called the squire. He was usually the local Justice ofMap of England and Wales 1761. the Peace. Another important person in the district was the parson who looked after the religious needs of his parishioners. In the late 18th century there were the beginnings of a movement of population away from the countryside into the towns, partly as a result of enclosures. This meant that the old common land used by peasants for grazing was taken over by private landowners for more intensive agriculture and enclosed by hedgerows.

The conditions of women were difficult. They did not have many rights and were financially dependent on their husbands or families. An average wife spent some 15 years either in a state of pregnancy or in nursing a child for the first year of its life.

 
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