A detailed examination of 18th Century England

England In Transition: Life And Work In The 18th Century - M. Dorothy George

I'm not really sure where I picked up this book, but I must have originally misread the title because for quite a while I thought this book was about the development of the English language. As it turns out this book is not so much about the English language (even though a book on the subject would probably be quite interesting) but the changes in English society during the 18th century. As George points out, this period can be a little deceptive because the industrial revolution did not, in a word, end, but was rather an ongoing event and in many ways is still ongoing up to the present day. So, while we see during the 18th Century England moving from an agrarian society through to an industrial society, the progress did not necessarily have a start point and does not necessarily have an end point.

At the beginning of the 18th Century England's agricultural base was still very much a product of the middle ages. There were still landed gentry and there were still peasants tied to the land. Along with that we also had common ownership of land as well as free holdings. The agricultural revolution at the beginning of the 18th Century saw what was known as the enclosure movement where paddocks and fields were slowly being taken over by large landowners (similar in what is happening today with massive agri-corporations squeezing out the small farmer). We also saw a change in the nature of the peasant, who was originally a small landowner, but with the enclosure movement, would end up becoming a hired labour. In fact this period saw the decline of the peasantry to be replaced by the working class.

There are a number of areas that George touches on in this book, and one of her major focuses seems to be with the poor during this period. It is interesting how she points to evidence that many of these labourers, if they earned more than they needed to sustain themselves, would end up spending that excess money down at the tavern (which still very much happens today). She does indicate that it was possible for the 'poor' (for want of a better word) to earn a decent amount, especially if the wife and children engaged in production within the cottage, which would no doubt bring in extra-income. However when we consider 'the poor' in this context we are generally looking at people who cannot work, for one reason or another, and thus are reliant upon handouts.

It is interesting some of the things that would be done to try to restrict the amount of poor in certain regions (because poor relief was the abode of the local councils as opposed to the central government). For instance there would be property qualifications for entry into some councils, and if children were apprenticed off, they had to be taken out to another council in case the apprenticeship failed and the child would end up becoming one of the poor. Many of these restrictions were in place to prevent the poor moving about and becoming a burden upon particular councils – looking after the poor is expensive business, and it is a business that governments simply do not seem to want to do, and it is not just then, but it is occurring now, with governments going out of their way to cut back poor relief on the grounds that 'it is too expensive'.

The other interesting thing in the book is how George looks at the lot of the child during this period. These days we see childhood as a magical time of fun, games, and innocence (at least that is how Hollywood seem to portray the ideal childhood) however it was not always like that. For most of history the lot of a child was not an easy one. For instance during this period children (particularly those in the lower classes) were considered wild and possessed and that they needed to be tamed, and that would come about through various methods (including regular beatings). While the concept of the family existed it was not uncommon for children to be sent off as apprentices and end up never seeing their parents again.

While this period may have still been fairly harsh, especially for the lot of the working classes (George focuses mostly on the ordinary person rather than kings, queens, and other power brokers, something which I have grown to appreciate because the life of the ordinary person is just as important, or even moreso, than the famous people that we are forever reading about), we are seeing a number of changes, such as better roads and the increase in commerce. As the roads become better, other markets begin to open up allowing people greater scope to sell their products. We also begin to see the development of the consumer culture with a variety of shops appearing in London (and at that time London was still the only city in England – all the other towns and villages wouldn't begin to grow until the industrial revolution went into full swing – which was due in part to the movement of the workers from the country into the city because as work in the country began to decline, new opportunities became available in the city). As such, the 18th Century is a very important period in England as many of the foundations of our modern world seemed to have appeared around then.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1026280328