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Of all the centuries, perhaps the 18th was most pivotal for the development of Great Britain, as it sought to bridge the gap into modernity and lay the groundwork for it’s imperial hegemony that would come to fruition during the Victorian era.

Britain in the 1700s was a nation in flux, as economic influences started to re-orientate vast swathes of society. In particular, industrialization began shaping the nation and started to center economic activity in urban areas, where before Britain had drawn her strength from the countryside. For those industrialists quick to take a chance on the emergence of factory labor, there were fortunes to be made, even if this new entrepreneurial class struggled to win the establishment’s recognition, is that they lacked the perceived breeding of the landed gentry. However, for the vast majority of Great Britain’s population living around or below the poverty line, life in 18th Century Britain was a much more grueling affair.

 

Gin Lane

For the poor (working or otherwise) life was difficult, beset by poverty and poor sanitation. Gin became a tremendously popular drink for people in such circumstance, who used it to anesthetize themselves from the horrors of daily life. The artist William Hogarth (1697 - 1764) memorably rendered the grim excesses of 18th Century life in works such as Gin Lane and A Rake’s Progress. As economic activity migrated from the countryside to the city, urban populations began to swell, bringing with them their own attendant miseries: people were living cheek by jowl in cramped conditions where diseases such as dysentery and smallpox struck often. Although medical breakthroughs such as Edward Jenner’s pioneering work in the field of vaccination took place in this period, overall public hygiene was still woeful for the most part. Crime took place with alarming alacrity, especially in the growing cities, which only began receiving street lighting at night towards the end of the century. It was easy (albeit unremarkable) to fall victim to a cutpurse in the evenings.

 

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Town and Country

Although the seeds of the industrial revolution were arguably sowed towards the end of the 1600s, it was not till the 18th Century that it’s changes to society and the economy began to truly manifest themselves. The textile industry typified the changes industrialization wrought, as the power loom and cotton gin boosted productivity dozens of times over. Other innovations in transport infrastructure (such as roads and canals, ironmongery and steam power all contributed to make Britain the world’s biggest commercial economy by the middle of the century. This led to an appreciable gain in per capita earning for the British population that had hitherto remained largely stagnant. A new generation of mill and factory owners were the driving force of this development and lead to the emergence of a prosperous new urbane middle class, shaking up the social order where before the population had been largely split between the monied landed gentry and the working poor. However, whilst the century’s various economic booms generated spikes in the job market, further innovations in industrial machinery soon began leaving great swathes of the workforce unemployed as roles previously requiring human labor became increasingly mechanized.

 

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A Nation Divided

The 18th Century was a time of great upheaval, that saw Great Britain become a world-class economic powerhouse under the influences of the industrial revolution. However, the rewards were anything but equally divided. The poor remained poor for the most part, swapping agrarian penury for urban blight in the burgeoning slums of industrial heartland cities like Manchester and Birmingham. The nation’s population almost doubled over the course of the century, which brought its own problems regarding sanitation and public welfare. Arguably, the gains made in this period only started to trickle down into wider society during the 1800s and early 1900s. The British population nonetheless provided the economic muscle for the expansion of the British into India and Africa that would come later and result in one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. For the average Briton, however, life in the 18th Century was very much a case of swapping one economically iniquitous social role over for another.

 

Bibliography:

Hobsbawm, Eric John. The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848. Reprint. London: Abacus, 1995.

Feinstein, Charles H. “Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution.” The Journal of Economic History 58, no. 03 (September 1998): 625–58. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700021100.

Szreter, Simon, and Graham Mooney. 1998. “Urbanization, Mortality, and the Standard of Living Debate: New Estimates of the Expectation of Life at Birth in Nineteenth-Century British Cities.” The Economic History Review 51 (1): 84–112. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0289.00084.

Hoppit, Julian, E. A. Wrigley, and Economic History Society, eds. The Industrial Revolution in Britain. The Industrial Revolutions, v. 2-3. Oxford ; Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1994.

Crafts, N. “Explaining the First Industrial Revolution: Two Views.” European Review of Economic History 15, no. 1 (April 1, 2011): 153–68. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1361491610000201.