Friday, 24 February 2017

How was British society structured?

All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common 'values', have a common 'national identity' or they may form part of a society in which different 'values' coexist with varying degrees of success or conflict. What was British society like in 1780?
 
The working population
 
The labouring population made up the bulk of society consisting of those who earned their wages largely through manual work. There were, however, important differences within the working population. People worked in rural or urban environments. Their employment was agricultural, manufacturing or in the growing service sector. Some were skilled, others semi-skilled or unskilled. They were male or female. Agricultural labourers formed a major part of the workforce in rural Britain. There was, however, a distinction between the low waged southern English counties where little alternative employment was available and the higher waged northern counties where farmers had to compete for labour with expanding urban manufacturing industries. Within rural communities there was an important hierarchy based upon levels of skills that paralleled levels of income. Bird-scarers, generally children, were at the base of the hierarchy while ploughmen were at the top. Only the better-educated shepherds had greater status.
 
The same hierarchy of skill existed in industrial Britain and the distinction between skilled and unskilled or general labourers was one of enduring importance. Artisans formed the 'aristocracy of labour', highly paid and relatively secure in traditional trades largely unchanged by the industrial revolution. They guarded their skills, developed through the process of apprenticeship, against 'dilution' by semi-skilled workers who were paid less. Skilled factory workers, like the fine-cotton spinners and weavers of Lancashire, benefited from new technology. Others like handloom weavers and framework knitters became redundant. The creation of new skills during the industrial revolution led to the gradual creation of new skilled elites: foremen, overseers, mechanics and technicians as well as managers. Semi-skilled and unskilled manual labour was more vulnerable to economic fluctuations and to unemployment or under-employment. Men were generally able to push women to the lower-paid margins of manufacturing. In the textile industries, for example, men dominated new technology like the self-acting spinning 'mule' perfected in the early 1820s. The 'sweated trades' or the growing demands for domestic servants, low skill, low pay, long hours, was the destination for many women.
 
The diversity of experience is at its starkest in the debate over whether working class standards of living rose or fell between the 1780s and 1840s. Some workers, like navvies, experienced rising wages while others, for example handloom weavers, saw their income decline. This should not be surprising. There were always winners and losers of economic change especially when new technology made particular skills redundant. Even within the same occupation wages varied. In the 1810s printers earned 12-19 shillings in Scotland, 18-22 shillings in northern England, 18-24 shillings in the south east and as much as 25 shillings in London. The difference between the skilled London artisan and a Scottish crofter was, in many respects, as great as that between a member of the aristocracy and a prosperous shopkeeper. Yet, both often shared a common sense of resentment and disillusion at the inequalities in society.
 
The middle classes
 
The middle classes were increasingly defined as a 'class' in the late eighteenth century. They were distinguished from the aristocratic elite by the need to earn a living and from the labouring population by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by educational investment in skills or expertise. As a class, they benefited from the changes in the economy and, though not exclusively urban, were increasingly found in the growing towns of the provinces. Their homogeneity as a class came from their growing acceptance of a common social and political ideology. This had three strands. First, evangelicalism, whether Anglican or Nonconformist, provided a firm religious foundation grounded in a 'call to seriousness'. This contrasted with the immoral behaviour of the aristocracy. It emphasised the virtues of hard work, plain and moral living, respectable family life and above all conscience. This converted middle class occupations like the law, medicine, the Church and the armed forces into 'callings' or vocations. Secondly, the ideas of Jeremy Bentham allowed attacks on the inefficiency of the aristocratic conception of society. Tradition, restriction and 'influence', the values particular to landed society, were compared, generally unfavourably, with middle class virtues of order, discipline, merit and application. Finally, Political Economy provided an economic justification for their growing power with its focus on the freedom of the market and the virtue of enterprise. The middle classes promoted their ideology with missionary zeal.
 

In the 1780s the middle classes embraced at one end city bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £500 per year and at the other extreme small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of only £50. The provincial elites were a small group of men and families who controlled growing industrial complexes. In London, there were the merchant bankers. This elite, on familiar and sometimes marrying terms with the aristocracy, was not representative of the middle class as a whole. The lower middle class was composed of smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, milliners, tailors, local brewers as well as the rapidly growing number of clerks in both business and government, schoolteachers, an emerging managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. Aware of their status they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers.
 
The landed classes
 
In the 1780s, power, economic and political, still lay in the possession and exploitation of land. Landowners did not simply farm their own land or rent it out to tenant farmers. They exploited mineral deposits on their estates providing stone, slate, sand, brick-clay, timber and coal for growing industries. They rented their urban properties in response to a growing housing shortage. They invested in government stocks, the Bank of England, in industry and transport. The Duke of Bridgewater funded the first canal in the 1760s. Landowners benefited from the profits of political office since they monopolised the offices of state, their patronage and revenues. They were adaptable, if conservative, in outlook. A peerage of three hundred wealthy families dominated the landed classes. The estate and the country house were at the heart of their power providing authority and status. They controlled patronage rewarding the loyalty of friends, family and clients openly and without moral scruple to maintain their political power. Beneath of great landowners were the gentry who dominated the counties as squires, Justices of the Peace, poor law officials, churchwardens and backbench MPs. Below the gentry, landed society forked. There was a hierarchy of owner-occupiers or freeholders with incomes ranging from £700 down to as little as £30 per year; and tenant farmers who found their profits threatened by falling food prices and were the most vocal proponents of the Corn Laws.
 
The basis of landed society was mutual obligations within a hierarchical framework. Deferential attitudes were due to those above and paternalistic attitudes to those below. This was acceptable to most people in rural England and Scotland where the landlord was normally of the same nationality and culture. This was less the case in Wales and Ireland where landlords were often both from an alien culture and religion. However, the 'bond of dependency' between landlord, tenant farmer and labourer was beginning to break down by the 1780s. There had always be popular disturbances like food riots when people reminded those with power of their responsibilities and of the need for 'just wages' and 'just prices'. Food riots in the 1790s, the rural slump after 1815, the riots in the Fens in 1816, in Norfolk and Suffolk in 1822, and particularly the 'Captain Swing' riots across southern England in 1830 challenged established values. Each was largely unsuccessful and harshly repressed. This indicated of a breakdown in the dependency system, what Carlyle called "the abdication on the part of the governors". The market, not appeals to custom and established practice, increasingly determined the social behaviour of the landed classes.
 
A diverse society
 
Society in the 1780s was multifaceted. Attitudes were a result of particular circumstances, opportunities and fears created by an economy in which there were elements of continuity as well as change. Social attitudes, behaviour and work patterns were closely linked to support for the social hierarchy. Power was converted into moral authority and ensured the stability of a social hierarchy threatened by change. Deference, whether in urban or rural settings, remained strong because family, work patterns and communities did much to promote it. No one criterion, whether class or paternalism or dependency, can explain the complexities of society in the 1780s.
 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

An ‘Industrial Revolution’

Between 1750 and 1850 the British economy experienced a very rapid and, by international standards, pronounced growth in manufacturing. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors increased, and the proportion employed in farming fell. The textile, iron and coal industries underwent dramatic change as new technologies and new markets stimulated growth on an unprecedented scale. This traditional view of an 'industrial revolution' provides only part of the picture. The experience of cotton textiles was not typical of manufacturing industries. There was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system by 1850. Growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experience of cotton production. Change took place on a far broader canvas. There was growth of a far less dynamic nature in a whole range of traditional industries. Most employment in manufacturing industries remained small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets. These trades were hardly affected by new technology. It was the wider use and division of labour that allowed output to grow. Economic transition was the result of the combination of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation was varied and factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal producing industries. Change varied across industries and regions. Lancashire may have seen vigorous industrial development but in Norfolk and Suffolk, the woollen textile industry declined in the face of competition from the more advanced and mechanised production of Yorkshire.
 
 
The industrial landscape changed under the impact of the 'industrial revolution'. Industrialisation in the eighteenth century occurred largely in the countryside and rural industry was domestic often in conjunction with farming. This industry was capable of mass production and of supplying regional, national and international markets. The move of some industries to factories did not lead to the emergence of the modern industrial landscape. Waterpower did not create smoke or dirt. Only when coal and steam were used directly did towns become blackened and their air and water polluted. Steam power led to larger concentrations of industries, often near canals or navigable rivers, and of the labourers needed to work in them. The move from the rural cottage industry to the urban factory is over-exaggerated. As late as 1851, the majority of people employed in Britain worked in the unmechanised sectors of the economy.
 
The market, local, regional, national or international, was at the heart of the economy in the 1780s. The transport of bulky good, and a reduction in the cost of carriage, was made easier by the development of the canal network in the second half of the eighteenth century and by railways after 1830. Coastal and river transport became increasingly important but Britain remained predominantly a horse-drawn society until the late nineteenth century. The last half of the eighteenth century saw growing demands for consumer goods. London, for example, used over three million tons of coal each year and thousands of cattle, sheep and fowl were driven to the London food markets from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The experience of London was paralleled in the growing cities of the Midlands and the North. Population growth stimulated home demand for cloth, leather for shoes, bricks, pottery, iron pots and pans. Growing consumption influenced, and was in turn influenced by, trade and economic growth.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

In what ways was Britain a country of economic diversity?

Population had been growing since the first half of the eighteenth century. By the first national census in 1801 it had reached 15.7 million and by 1831 some 24.1 millions. The reasons for this were straightforward. The birth rate increased and the death rate fell after the 1750s. Women married younger at just below twenty-five years so increasing childbearing years. Historians disagree about the reasons behind these trends. Decline in 'killer' diseases like smallpox, improving living conditions, economic prosperity encouraging early marriage, higher life expectancy are suggested causes of growth. Whether there was a single cause or whether as is more likely there were several, growth was far from even. In England and Wales between 1750 and 1800, the annual average population increase was 0.7 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent for the following fifty years. For Scotland and Ireland the figure respectively were 0.5 and 1.6 per cent and 1.1 and 0.6 per cent.
 
 
Population growth stimulated demand for raw materials, manufactured goods, food and services that could be produced by the growing reservoir of available labour. Manufacturing industries, whether in the areas of dynamic growth like cotton textiles or in traditional artisan-based trades, expanded. The service sector saw particular growth with increased demand for domestic, medical and legal services and the creation of new professions to support expanding industries, towns and agriculture. Population growth stimulated urban growth with internal migration especially to the newer urban centres of production and to London. Urban growth too was far from even. Urban growth had its costs as well as benefits. It heightened squalor with many migrants finding they had exchanged rural for urban slums. There were higher levels of mortality especially among the labouring population, increasing exploitation in the workplace and a growing gulf between rich and poor.
 
The sweeping changes that took place in British agriculture—its agricultural revolution--over the period 1750-1850 in response to the increased demand for food from a rapidly expanding population. Recent research has shown these changes to be only part of a much larger, ongoing process of development. Changes of the latter half of the 18th century included the enclosure of open fields, the introduction of four-course rotation together with new fodder crops such as turnip, and the development of improved breeds of livestock. Many of the changes were in fact underway before 1750 and other breakthroughs, such as farm mechanisation, did not occur until after 1850. Farming dominated the British economy in the 1780s. The previous century had seen major changes particularly in the use of arable land. Turnips and crops like clover ended the need for fallow land. Cheaper iron making led to major developments in ploughs though it was not until after 1850 that machines were widely used. Selective breeding increased the quality and quantity of meat and dairy produce. Enclosure of the lighter arable land led to better use of land. This transformed the rural landscape. A pattern of field, stonewall and hedgerow already existed in northern and western England and in Wales and in much of eastern England which had already been enclosed. For central England, the open fields remained. Here the modern chequer-board pattern of small fields replaced the open landscape in a generation. Enclosure may have led to the dominance of large farms in southern England but most farming was on a much smaller scale. In Yorkshire, for example, seventy per cent of farms were less than one hundred acres and across the Pennines in Lancashire and Cheshire the figure was ninety per cent.
 
 
The growing needs of population, as well as the increased profitability of farming during the French Wars, pushed back the margins of arable land as never before. By 1820, twenty-five million quarters of corn were produced annually compared to fifteen million in 1760. This was not enough. From the 1760s, Britain relied on foreign imports of wheat to feed its growing population. Urban growth could not have been sustained without this. The French Wars marked a high point in British farming. Farmers invested heavily in improving their land, borrowing funded from high grain prices. Falling prices, a collapse from 127 shillings a quarter in 1812 to 74 shillings within two years, and cheaper continental imports after 1815 brought problems for arable farmers. It led to successful demands for protection. The Corn Laws were passed in 1815. Urban and industrial Britain saw the Corn Laws as a means of keeping food prices artificially high and of supporting farming at the expense of manufacturing industry. The advantage farmers thought they would gain was far outweighed by the propaganda advantage gained by its opponents. High costs certainly made wheat farming difficult when prices were low. Many farmers complained of 'depression' after 1815 through to the mid-1830s. Those who survived did so by reducing labour costs significantly. This was paid for through the 'distress' of agricultural labourers especially in southern England where little alternative employment was available.
 
The role of agriculture in the English economy was showing signs of declining national importance by the 1820s. This was less so in Wales, Scotland and Ireland where farming remained important. In Wales in the 1780s around seventy per cent of the working population worked in self-contained farming communities. Demand for farm tenancies remained high but land hunger and the ignorance of new techniques limited improvement. Similar problems existed in Ireland where sub-division of land meant that almost two-thirds of all holdings were below fifteen acres. Ireland was also an important exporter of grain and livestock to England. There was, however, a trend away from arable to pasture and livestock prices fell less dramatically than grain. Perceptive landlords soon recognised that urban growth meant markets for Irish meat. In 1825 47,000 Irish cattle were exported rising to 98,000 ten years later. In Scotland there was a clear difference between the improving farming of the Lowlands and the more traditional methods used in the Highlands. Scottish pioneers developed the threshing machine in 1786 and the horse-drawn reaper in 1826 and, more importantly, new methods of field drainage that allowed a revolution on Britain's heavy clay soils after 1840.
 
 
Between 1750 and 1850 the British economy experienced a very rapid and, by international standards, pronounced growth in manufacturing, an ‘industrial revolution’. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors increased, and the proportion employed in farming fell. The textile, iron and coal industries underwent dramatic change as new technologies and new markets stimulated growth on an unprecedented scale. This traditional view of an 'industrial revolution' provides only part of the picture. The experience of cotton textiles was not typical of manufacturing industries. There was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system by 1850. Growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experience of cotton production. Change took place on a far broader canvas. There was growth of a far less dynamic nature in a whole range of traditional industries. Most employment in manufacturing industries remained small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets. These trades were hardly affected by new technology. It was the wider use and division of labour that allowed output to grow. Economic transition was the result of the combination of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation was varied and factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal producing industries. Change varied across industries and regions. Lancashire may have seen vigorous industrial development but in Norfolk and Suffolk, the woollen textile industry declined in the face of competition from the more advanced and mechanised production of Yorkshire.
 
The industrial landscape changed under the impact of the 'industrial revolution'. Industrialisation in the eighteenth century occurred largely in the countryside and rural industry was domestic often in conjunction with farming. This industry was capable of mass production and of supplying regional, national and international markets. The move of some industries to factories did not lead to the emergence of the modern industrial landscape. Waterpower did not create smoke or dirt. Only when coal and steam were used directly did towns become blackened and their air and water polluted. Steam power led to larger concentrations of industries, often near canals or navigable rivers, and of the labourers needed to work in them. The move from the rural cottage industry to the urban factory is over-exaggerated. As late as 1851, the majority of people employed in Britain worked in the unmechanised sectors of the economy.
 
The market, local, regional, national or international, was at the heart of the economy in the 1780s. The transport of bulky good, and a reduction in the cost of carriage, was made easier by the development of the canal network in the second half of the eighteenth century and by railways after 1830. Coastal and river transport became increasingly important but Britain remained predominantly a horse-drawn society until the late nineteenth century. The last half of the eighteenth century saw growing demands for consumer goods. London, for example, used over three million tons of coal each year and thousands of cattle, sheep and fowl were driven to the London food markets from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The experience of London was paralleled in the growing cities of the Midlands and the North. Population growth stimulated home demand for cloth, leather for shoes, bricks, pottery, iron pots and pans. Growing consumption influenced, and was in turn influenced by, trade and economic growth.
 

Friday, 3 February 2017

England in 1780

Few writers can live solely from their writings. Thomas Love Peacock [1785-1866] was no exception. He began work as a clerk in a City office and in late 1818 took up a well-paid and responsible job at the India House where he worked for almost forty years. In taking his post with the East India Company, Peacock became a high-ranking civil servant and chose amateur status as a novelist. His writings, particularly Nightmare Abbey [1818] and Crotchet Castle [1831] ridiculed the poets of the Romantic Movement and political economists in their quest for scientific progress and 'the march of the mind'. Mr Crotchet lists certain great controversies he would like to see settled in his lifetime: "the sentimental against the rationale, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical". Peacock, like other contemporary social critics, was trying to make sense of a Britain of increasing contrasts. Thomas Carlyle stated in Signs of the Times in 1829 that: "Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age, which with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand.... Our old modes of exertion are all discredited and thrown aside...."

In his Autobiographical Fragments, probably written in the early 1820s, the poet John Clare expressed an alternative view:

My hopes of bettering my station with the world was agen and I started for Wisbeach [in Cambridgeshire] with a timid sort of pleasure and when I got to Glinton turnpike I turnd back to look on the old church as if I was going in to another contry. Wisbeach was a foreign land to me for I had never been above 8 miles from home in my life and I coud not fancy england much larger then the part I knew. At Peterboro Brig I got into a boat that carrys passengers to Wisbeach once a week and returns the third day a distance of 21 miles for eighteenpence.... one of my worst labours was a journey to a distant village name Maxey in winter afternoons to fetch flour once or sometimes twice a week. In these journeys I had haunted spots to pass as the often heard tales of ghosts and hobgoblins had made me very fearful to pass such places at night it being often dark ere I got there....

William Cobbett wrote of Sheffield in his northern tour of 1830:

The ragged hills all round this town are bespangled with groups of houses inhabited by the working cutlers. They have not suffered like the working weavers; for to make knives there must be the hand of man. Therefore, machinery cannot come to destroy the wages of the labourer. The home demand has been very much diminished: but still the depression has here not been what it has been, and what it is where the machinery can be brought into play....
 
The England of the 1780s was in some respects 'modern', an 'age of machinery' as Carlyle maintained. It was an England of rapid industrial change where a growing population was being drawn to the expanding towns and cities of the north and midlands. It was a land of canals and newly surfaced roads feeding economic growth. But it was also an 'old' country in which going to a different part of the country was viewed as going to a foreign land and where a belief in the supernatural remained. In the 1780s, the tensions between change and continuity were unresolved and in some ways they remained unresolved in 1846. These pressures were more obvious outside England. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland the distinction between innovation and tradition was starker and resistance to change often took on a strongly nationalist character. Attitudes to particular crops grown in Ireland illustrate this distinction. The cultivation of turnips was seen as innovative by many rural labourers and, perhaps more importantly, as an English innovation. Turnips were destroyed in the fields just as some believed they were destroying their lives. By contrast, the potato, introduced by the English in the seventeenth century, had become an accepted indeed essential part of Irish cultural, as well as dietary, life. It is not surprising that some nationalists of the Young Ireland movement were able to represent the potato famines of the 1840s as part of a deliberate policy of genocide by English government. For many contemporaries Britain was a country of opposing poles: improvement and resistance, modernity and tradition, change and continuity, Englishness and cultural and linguistic nationalism, north and south, rich and poor. As is always the case, reality was far less clear-cut and far more complex than the rhetoric suggested.