Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Eighteenth-century society

Population and Family
In 1689 England had c. 4.93m, Scotland c.1.2m, Ireland c. 2m, Wales c. 300,000. In European terms Britain accounted for c. 4% of the Continent’s inhabitants. France had nearly 22m, Spain c. 8.5m and Italy and Germany c. 12 m each. By 1726 England’s population had risen to 5.44m.

Between 1714 and 1740 population growth was steady rather than spectacular. Between 1741 and 1771 the annual increase grew by 0.5%. But between 1771 and 1811 the increase was 1%. By the time of Waterloo the population of England had risen to 10.5 million. The Industrial Revolution broke through the age-old constraints which had until then imposed a population ceiling of 5 million.

Compared with today, English society in 1700 had a large proportion of young people. In the second half of the 17th century the average age of women at first marriage was 26.5 years. This rose slightly between 1700 and 1719, before declining significantly in the second half of the 18th century. This pattern of marriage - taking place well after the age of sexual maturity - was a significant brake on population growth, helping to limit average family size to a little less than five. Men married on average a year later at about 27 or 28. In the first decade of the 18th century 10% of the population were celibate. Illegitimacy rates were low – only 2% of births c. 1700.3 However, between 15 and 20% of first births were pre-nuptially conceived (three times the level of France). Figures for abortions are (of course) unobtainable.

In England (and most of Western Europe) the nuclear rather than the extended family was the norm and most people established their own home at marriage. Old people lived in their own homes (or almshouses) only moving in with their children when they became very frail.

Town and Country
Probably 80% of the population lived in scattered hamlets and villages though England was more urbanised than most European countries. In 1700 London had a population of 500,000, making up half the urban population and was overtaking Paris as Christendom’s largest city.5 (By 1775 London’s population had increased to 750,000.) Only six other English urban centres had more than 10,000 people. But by 1700 Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield had already emerged as important centres of industry and trade. Defoe described Manchester as ‘one of the greatest, if not really the greatest, mere village in England’. Bristol, Liverpool and Whitehaven were expanding because of the Caribbean trade. To quote Julian Hoppit
‘England in 1700 ... was far from simply an agrarian society and was already a mixed economy with prominent industrial and commercial sectors.’

The Middling Sort
English society was fluid rather than fixed. But it was also hierarchical consisting of the royal family, the five degrees of nobility, the gentry, the ‘middling sort’ and the (probably) 70% who did manual work, who were described as ‘the labouring poor’, the ‘vulgar’ or ‘the common people’. Few questioned the divine plan for a hierarchically ordered society.

On the other hand it was also recognized that the ‘middling sort’ were growing in importance. It has been estimated that by the 1760s they comprised 40% of the population.

Who were the 'middling sort'? A rough definition is people earning between £40 and £400 pa (the professional and mercantile classes and those traders and craftspeople who paid the poor rate and had a modicum of disposable income).

Their rise in wealth and status attracted the attention of conservative moralists like Oliver Goldsmith (‘Of the Pride and Luxury of the Middling Class of People’, The Bee, 1759):
'Of all the follies and absurdities which this great metropolis labours under there is not one … appears in a more glaring and ridiculous light than the pride and luxury of the middling class of people … You shall see a grocer or a tallow-chandler sneak from behind the compter, clap on a laced coat and a bag, fly to the EO table, throw away fifty pieces with some sharping man of quality.’

[E and O tables were so called from the letters E and O, the turning up of which decided the bet. They were otherwise called Roulette and Roly Poly, from the balls used in them. They seem to have been introduced in England about the year 1739. The first was set up at Tunbridge and proved extremely profitable to the proprietors.]

From c. 1680 doctors were establishing professional status. Like attorneys – another growing body – they were distinguished by a body of knowledge they claimed to utilize. The other professions were the clergy (an increasing number of whom were graduates) and naval and military officers.

‘Polite’ Society
The term, derived from the Greek polis (city state), carried implications of good breeding and sociability. ‘Politeness’ united (most of) the aristocracy gentry and middling sort in a common culture of ‘gentility’. These members of polite society read the periodicals, the Tatler and Spectator, and (from 1738) the Gentleman’s Magazine. They frequented the spa towns of (eg) Bath, Tunbridge (not yet Tunbridge Wells) and Buxton. Those who could afford to do so spent the winter in London where they attended plays and concerts, and retreated to the countryside in the summer where they paid ceaseless calls on their neighbours and attended the provincial theatre and assemblies.

Coffee Houses
One particular notable sphere of ‘polite society’ was the coffee-house, an institution that had existed in England since the reign of Charles II. It was often a domicile for the keeper and his family, sometimes a first-floor room in a private house. Men sat at tables, read the newspapers that were supplied and drank coffee. In 1714 there were probably 650 in London and Westminster. In some of them there was strict political segregation. The Tories met at the Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall, Ozinda’s Chocolate House in St James’s Street, Smyrna in Pall Mall. The Whigs met at the St James’s Coffee House, Button’s Coffee House in Covent Garden and Whites (a gambling club).

The most important of the Whig clubs was the Kit-Kat Club, which flourished between 1696 and 1720. Its toast was ‘to the immortal memory of King William’. It took its name from Christopher Cat, a mutton-piemaker and proprietor of the Cat and Fiddle in Grays Inn Lane where the society first met. It had fifty-five members, including the most powerful Whig grandees. Literary members included Addison, Steele, Congreve and Vanburgh. The club’s artist was Sir Godfrey Kneller. The Kit Kat contributed to the building of the new Haymarket Theatre (opened April 1705). Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane depicted the Whig ideal of a constitutional monarchy.

The coffee house was masculine space. (The tea-table was women’s space - and this was purely domestic.) However, the keeper of a coffee-house was often a woman - a ‘coffee-woman’. She had low social status and was often associated with prostitution.

Coffee houses fitted into the Spectator project of masculine ‘politeness’ – intelligence and good breeding without foppery. Foppery was when men imported female manners into the masculine sphere. The fop used the coffee house for a frivolous end. There were fears that the openness and freedom of coffee houses would be an opportunity for atheism and foppery. There were also fears that the coffee houses were tainted by partisan politics. The Tatler and the Spectator argued that the public sphere should be a school for moral reflection rather than heated political debate.

In 1791 a German resident of London (Frederick Augustus Wenderborn) published a travel guide for continental readers. He estimated that London alone then had three thousand coffee houses compared to a mere six or seven hundred in Paris. He warned his readers that they would find the locals hunched over newspapers, diligently reading. He was not the only foreign observer to comment on the newspaper reading habits of the British public.

Social mobility
Visiting foreigners frequently commented on the social mobility they met with in England.15 This was a source of pride to Englishmen, as it seemed the natural complement to their legal rights and political liberties. Rags to riches stories featured in plays and novels. ‘Polite society’ enjoyed instances of humbly born poets whose ‘untutored’ genius was rewarded by fame and riches. One actual instance was the thresher, Stephen Duck, who, thanks to the patronage of Queen Caroline, became a court poet. Many clergy and literary men were of modest origins. Johnson was the son of a bookseller. The biblical scholar Thomas Scott was the son of a grazier.

Below the middling sort a skilled worker might in prosperous times command up to £60, which would place him at the top of ‘the labouring poor’. Within this group, the sharpest line of demarcation was between those who paid the poor rates and those who were not only exempted by poverty but who were all too likely to find themselves applying for relief.

How many fell into this category? In 1700 about 30% of the population was unable to pay the hearth tax. Each year c. 15% of the population was in receipt of some sort of charitable aid. Somewhat more than a half of the English people would experience poverty at some point in their lives. Few enjoyed reasonably full and secure employment, and those under 14 and over 59 were usually judged unable to provide fully for themselves. It has been estimated that more than half of English people in this period would experience poverty at some point in their lives.

The poor rate: Uniquely in Europe, poor relief in England operated in a ‘mixed economy’ of charity (private and public) and parish relief under the Acts of 1597-1601 and 1662. Philanthropic individuals set up charitable schemes such as almshouses. The parish levied a compulsory poor rate on its better off inhabitants. This could work surprisingly well. The Poor Law operated in a face-to-face world where people and their problems were known. A person with a settlement had a real claim to relief. The Poor Law’s great strength was its statutory basis, flexibility and low overheads. By 1700 it was able to relieve c. 4-5% of the population on a permanent basis. This was a remarkable achievement.

The workhouse experiment: But for all the merits of the poor law, the money raised was never enough, especially in hard times. Only the resources of the rate-paying parishioners could be drawn upon. This meant that in poor parishes very little relief could be provided for the poor. The parishes lacked the means to provide the sort of institutions to deal with poverty that were available on the Continent.

In Bristol in 1696, inspired by the Quaker John Bellers, all 17 parishes came together to form a Corporation of the Poor to provide a house of industry where pauper labour would be made profitable. The new workhouse had an educational purpose – to train the children of the poor in the hope that it would reduce expenditure on poor relief and cleanse the city streets of vagabonds.

In 1723 the Bristol experiment was endorsed by Act of Parliament, known as Knatchbull's Act after the Kentish MP who sponsored it. Parishes, either singly or in collaboration with others, were permitted to establish workhouses and withhold relief from applicants who refused to enter them. One of the main aims of the workhouse movement was to stimulate the profitability of such establishments by entrusting their management to private contractors. But in practice – as happened in Marylebone - contractors often exploited the poor and defrauded the parish. By the 1770s there were nearly 2,000 workhouses in England, with a capacity in excess of 90,000.

The next significant development in workhouse history was Gilbert's Act (1782). This laid down that in places where it was adopted, workhouses were to be used only for the aged and infirm and for children, not the able-bodied.

English commentators frequently complained that the system of poor relief was ineffectual. Critics said it drained the middling sort – those who contributed – and encouraged idleness. In 1786 Joseph Townsend’s Dissertation on the Poor Laws argued that the poor laws should be abolished, forcing the able-bodied poor to starve or work for their livelihoods, leaving the plight of the rest to voluntary charity. But no government was willing to adopt such a draconian solution.