By Tim Lambert

18th Century Britain

From the 1780s onwards Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. Until then most people lived in the countryside and made their living from farming. By the 1880 s most people in Britain lived in towns and made their living from mining or manufacturing industries.

From 1712 a man named Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) made primitive steam engines for pumping water from mines. In 1769 James Watt (1736-1819) patented a more efficient steam engine. In 1785 his engine was adapted to driving machinery in a cotton factory. The use of steam engines to drive machines slowly transformed industry.

Meanwhile Britain built up a great overseas empire. The North American colonies were lost after the War of Independence 1776-1783. On the other hand after the Seven Years War 1756-1763 Britain captured Canada and India. Britain also took Dominica, Grenada, St Vincent and Tobago in the West Indies.

In 1707 the Act of Union was passed. Scotland was united with England and Wales (although many Scots bitterly opposed the move). England became part of Great Britain.    

18th Century Society

In the mid 18th century the population of Britain was about 6 1/2 million. In the late 18th century it grew rapidly and by 1801 it was over 9 million.

Owning land was the main form of wealth in the 18th century. Political power and influence was in the hands of rich landowners. At the top were the nobility. Below them were a class of nearly rich landowners called the gentry. In the early 18th century there was another class of landowners called yeomen between the rich and the poor. However during the century this class became less and less numerous.

However other middle class people such as merchants and professional men became richer and more numerous, especially in the towns.

Below them were the great mass of the population, craftsmen and labourers. In the 18th century probably half the population lived as subsistence or bare survival level.

In the early 18th century England suffered from gin drinking. It was cheap and it was sold everywhere as you did not need a license to sell it. Many people ruined their health by drinking gin. Yet for many poor people drinking gin was their only comfort. The situation improved after 1751 when a tax was imposed on gin.

At the end of the 18th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were formed. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They were later called the Clapham Sect because so many of them lived in Clapham.

18th Century Towns

During the 18th century towns grew larger. Nevertheless most towns still had populations of less than 10,000. However in the late 18th century new industrial towns in the Midland and the North of England mushroomed. Meanwhile the population of London grew to nearly 1 million by the end of the century.

Many towns were improved in the later 18th century when bodies of men called Paving or Improvement Commissioners were formed by Acts of Parliament. They had powers to pave and clean the streets and sometimes to light them with oil lamps. Some also arranged collections of rubbish. Since most of it was organic it could be sold as fertiliser.

18th Century Agriculture

During the 18th century agriculture was gradually transformed by an agricultural revolution. Until 1701 seed was sown by hand. In that year Jethro Tull invented a seed drill, which sowed seed in straight lines. He also invented a horse drawn hoe which hoed the land and destroyed weed between rows of crops.

Furthermore until the 18th century most livestock was slaughtered at the beginning of winter because farmers could not grow enough food to feed their animals through the winter months.

Until the 18th century most land was divided into 3 fields. Each year 2 fields were sown with crops while the third was left fallow (unused). The Dutch began to grow swedes or turnips on land instead of leaving it fallow. (The turnips restored the soil s fertility). When they were harvested the turnips could be stored to provide food for livestock over the winter. The new methods were popularised in England by a man named Robert  Turnip  Townsend (1674-1741).

Under the 3 field system, which still covered much of England, all the land around a village or small town, was divided into 3 huge fields. Each farmer owned some strips of land in each field. During the 18th century land was enclosed. That means it was divided up so each farmer had all his land in one place instead of scattered across 3 fields. Enclosure allowed farmers to use their land more efficiently.

Also in the 18th century farmers like Robert Bakewell began scientific stockbreeding (selective breeding). Farm animals grew much larger and they gave more meat, wool and milk.

However despite the improvements in farming food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them meat was a luxury. They lived mainly on bread, butter, potatoes and tea.

18th Century Homes

In the 18th century a small minority of the population lived in luxury. The rich built great country houses. A famous landscape gardener called Lancelot Brown (1715-1783) created beautiful gardens. (He was known as  Capability  Brown from his habit of looking at land and saying it had  great capabilities ).

The leading architect of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792). He created a style called neo-classical and he designed many 18th century country houses.

The wealthy owned comfortable upholstered furniture. They owned beautiful furniture, some of it veneered or inlaid. In the 18th century much fine furniture was made by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), George Hepplewhite (?-1786) and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806). The famous clockmaker James Cox (1723-1800) made exquisite clocks for the rich.

However the poor had none of these things. Craftsmen and labourers lived in 2 or 3 rooms. The poorest people lived in just one room. Their furniture was very simple and plain.

In 1778 Joseph Bramah invented patented the modern water closet.

18th Century Clothes

In the 18th century men wore knee-length trouser like garments called breeches and stockings. They also wore waistcoats and frock coats. They wore linen shirts. Both men and women wore wigs and for men three-cornered hats were popular. Men wore buckled shoes.

Women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. Women in the 18th century did not wear knickers.

Fashionable women carried folding fans.

Fashion was very important for the wealthy but poor people s clothes hardly changed at all.

18th Century Leisure

Traditional games remained popular. These included games such as chess, draughts and backgammon. They also played dominoes and tennis and a rough version of football.

Horse racing was carried on for centuries before the 18th century but at this time it became a professional sport. The Jockey Club was formed in 1727. The Derby began in 1780.

For the well off card games and gambling were popular. The theatre was also popular. In the early 18th century most towns did not have a purpose built theatre and plays were staged in buildings like inns. However in the late 18th century theatres were built in most towns. Assembly rooms were also built in most towns. In them people played cards and attended balls. In London pleasure gardens were created.

Moreover a kind of cricket was played long before the 18th century but at that time it took on its modern form. The first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire about 1750.

Also in the 18th century rich people visited spas. They believed that bathing in and/or drinking spa water could cure illness. Towns like Buxton, Bath and Tunbridge prospered. At the end of the 18th century wealthy people began to spend time at the seaside. (Again they believed that bathing in seawater was good for your health). Seaside resorts like Brighton, Bognor, Southport and Blackpool boomed.

Reading was also a popular pastime and the first novels were published at this time. Books were still expensive but in many towns you could pay to join a circulating library. The first daily newspaper in England was printed in 1702. The Times began in 1785.

Many people enjoyed cruel  sports  like cockfighting and bull baiting. (A bull was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Rich people liked fox hunting.

Public executions were also popular and they drew large crowds. Boxing without gloves was also popular (although some boxers began to wear leather gloves in the 18th century). Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds.

Furthermore in the late 18th century the circus became a popular form of entertainment.

Smoking clay pipes was popular in the 18th century. So was taking snuff.

Wealthy young men would go on a  grand tour  of Europe lasting one or two years.
Living In England
Daily Life in England in the Eighteenth Century
Return to Home Page