The tendency for studies of nineteenth century Britain to concentrate on urban life and neglect the countryside reflects a time of unparalleled industrialisation, urbanisation and unprecedented urban problems. Yet in 1851, nearly half the population of Britain lived in rural areas and many more had been born in the countryside or had experienced a rural life. Indeed, it can be argued that for most of the nineteenth century a rural view of the world continued to exert a significant influence in Britain. The successive Reform Acts may have redistributed power after 1832 but much political power and personal wealth remained in the countryside until the late nineteenth century. Two further myths about rural life should also be dispelled:
- That rural life was in some way separate and distinct from that of the towns. Rural life had never been separate from the towns and, as nineteenth century urbanisation developed, the interconnectedness of countryside and towns became stronger and more obvious. Connections took many forms: most obviously expanding transport networks, initially by turnpike roads and then by railways, had by 1890 linked most villages into a complex and comprehensive communication system; through rural to urban migration that could lead to family links between countryside and town and in some cases through the rural-based but urban-financed putting out industries; and through social interaction at fairs, markets and other meeting places.
- That life in the countryside was easier than that of urban dwellers. Many contemporary commentators misleadingly contrasted the images of an idyllic rural life with the horrors of urban living. Engels, for example, wrote in 1845 'They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which in itself was recreation for them and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbours....They were, for the most part, strong, well-built people....Their children grew up in the fresh country air....while of eight or twelve hours work for them was no question.'
Life in the country was every bit as harsh as that in towns: a combination of poor housing, lack of employment and poor social prospects frequently led to townward migration rather than any specific urban attraction. Undoubtedly built to lower densities, ameliorating the consequences of poor sanitation and associated disease, the density of occupation of rural housing was often as high or higher than that in towns. High natural increases in rural areas mostly offset migration losses up to the 1840s and rural population densities continued to increase. In many rural areas the housing supply expanded more slowly than population: indeed some large landowners demolished cottages and took less responsibility for housing their labour force.
Although the quality of rural housing varied greatly, for the very poor it was often worse than its urban counterpart. Slums were not simply found in urban Britain. Increasingly urban housing had proper foundations, solid walls and slate roofs. By contrast much rural housing was severely substandard when first built. Most landowners accepted little responsibility for the provision of decent housing and cottages were often small, cold and wet. Such conditions persisted until at least the 1850s but, during the later nineteenth century, housing gradually improved as out-migration lessened population pressure on the countryside and sanitary and housing reforms began to percolate into rural areas.
For many rural families poor housing was combined with acute poverty. By the early 1830s many rural areas were beginning to emerge from the worst rural distress of the agricultural depression and direct rural protest, such as the Captain Swing riots in 1830 in southern England, were not repeated, rural wages remained low and highly variable from one area to another. James Caird surveyed wages in England in 1851 and found variations from 13-14s per week in the West Riding, Lancashire and Cumberland to only 7-8s per week in southern counties like Berkshire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Northern wages were higher because of
- The greater prosperity of mixed and pastoral areas compared to the wheat-growing counties of southern England
- Competition for labour from industrial towns where wages were generally higher.
In southern England counties close to London [Sussex, Essex and Hertfordshire] also had higher rural wages of 9-10s per week. In the second half of the century farming round London became more varied and prosperous because of the growth of market gardening, cash cropping and milk production for the urban market.
Rural industrial workers were usually rather better off. In areas like the south Pennines survival of a dual farming-weaving economy gave some protection against poverty though, as the textile industry became more mechanised and factory-based, the distress of rural textile workers became acute and well documented. The effects of rural poverty can be seen in malnutrition and associated ill health. A survey of 1863 showed that most English rural labourers relied heavily on a diet of bread and potatoes, with meat consumption varying from season to season and area to area. Men were generally better fed than the rest of the family. Even so, the food supply in the countryside was rather better than that available to the urban poor: it was fresher and there were more opportunities to supplement it informally or illegally from gleaning, fishing or poaching or from the cottage garden.
The social composition of rural areas also changed after 1830: selective rural out-migration removed many younger and more active members of the community, but areas near towns began to experience urban-rural movement as rich families sought houses in the countryside. Commuter villages grew around such cities as Leeds, Manchester and especially London in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly where there were good rail connections. Rural resort areas also began to be exploited. While the reality of rural life was, for many, harsh and unpleasant, the image of rural idyll had, by the 1890s, become firmly implanted as a middle class vision of the countryside that was increasingly imprinted on rural areas through residence, landownership and conservation movements.
There was no 'one' rural England any more than there was 'one' urban England in the nineteenth century. England, and more broadly Britain, was an amalgam of regional economies each with its own often distinctive social, economic and cultural structures. Change and continuity in rural England occurred unevenly and certainly did not follow a 'national' timetable. However, within this framework of uneven development, Alun Howkins has suggested that it is possible to divide the period into four main 'sub-periods':
- Between the 1790s and approximately 1850 rural England was dominated by endemic unrest and economic uncertainty.
- Between 1850 and 1875 rural society and its productive system entered a state of calm in which the rural order functioned by and large successfully. A mixture of 'carrot and stick' was at the heart of the new paternalism of this period.
- Between c1872 and 1895 the established and apparently 'permanent' society of the years after 1850 entered a series of crises. These came partly from contradictions within the system itself, for example the growth of education or rural depopulation, and partly from factors outside the system and over which it had no control, particularly the import of foodstuffs. The outcome of these problems was a period of flux and readjustment in which some long-term factors, the growth of nonconformity for instance, came together with the problems caused by economic depression to present a challenge to the models of paternalism whose economic base had anyway been weakened.
- From 1895 to 1925 a 'new' farming system emerged based on a much more diverse cropping combined with the undermining of some of the traditional regional farming patterns as transport improved and urban incomes, especially among the working classes, rose. The problems of control and order that emerged again in the 1870s and 1880s in the new form of trade unionism and even radical politics continued to develop, bringing country districts more 'in line' with an overwhelmingly urban society.
By 1900 only just over 6 per cent of national income came from farming that employed about 6 per cent of the population. 'Urbanity', it seemed, had been triumphant. Yet this was precisely the moment when growing numbers of people believed that the town had 'failed' and that only in the countryside was truth and beauty and 'real Englishness' to be found. The flight from the cities by the affluent had begun.
 The most useful general works on rural society are P. Horn The Rural World 1780-1850, Hutchinson, 1980 for the early period and G.E. Mingay The Social History of the English Countryside, Routledge, 1990 throughout. See also the collection edited by Brian Short The English Rural Community, CUP, 1992. F.L.M. Thompson English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1963 is the basic work. J.C. Beckett The Aristocracy in England 1660-1914, Basil Blackwell, 1986, 2nd. ed., 1989 cover broader periods. These should now be supplemented by D. Carradine The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Yale, 1990. M. Reed and R. Wells (eds.) Class, Conflict and Protest in the English Countryside 1700-1850, Frank Cass, 1991 is a revisionist collection of papers attacking the approach of Horn, Mingay and Armstrong. A. Howkins Reshaping Rural England, Harper Collins, 1991 deals with the post-1850 period. W.A. Armstrong Agricultural Workers 1770-1970, Batsford, 1988. H.Newby Country Life, Weidenfeld, 1987 is a major and readable study. K. Snell Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900, CUP, 1984 is a mine of information and recent interpretation. P. Horn Life and Labour in Rural England 1780-1850, Macmillan, 1987 is a useful collection of sources.
 There is a useful discussion of Ashwell in Hertfordshire, Cardington and Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire in Richard Brown Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge, 1991, pp.369-386.
 On this see G.E. Mingay 'The rural slum', in Martin Gaskell (ed.) Slums, Leicester University Press, 1990, pp.92-143.