Britain in the Early Eighteenth Century

Based on Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Who were the people that brought about the Industrial Revolution? Although they had much in common with the Dutch, they were different from other Europeans in a number of ways. They were also very different from the British of a century earlier. They were a people primed for deep societal change.


There were two distinct marriage patterns in Europe:

East and south of a line from St Petersburg to Trieste, virtually all women married, and many of them married in their teens. West and north of that line, as many as one-fifth of women never married, and most of those who did marry waited until their twenties. These tendencies were most pronounced in northwestern Europe. The first marriage pattern led to high fertility and low living standards. The second…implies a lower level of fertility and one that responded to economic conditions through shifts in the proportion of women marrying and the average age of women at first marriage.1

Two factors contributed to this pattern. The first factor concerned religion. To the west of the line, and in particular in northwestern Europe, religion emphasized personal responsibility, and that responsibility extended to a woman’s choice of a husband. Women were prepared to remain single until a desirable match was possible. The second factor was economic. The age of oceanic exploration had created new commercial opportunities for countries bordering the Atlantic, and in particular, for Britain and the Netherlands. The demand for labour was strong in these countries, so women could readily find work that paid good wages. They could leave their families before marriage and support themselves until they were ready to marry.

The northwestern marriage pattern made countries more productive by drawing women into paid employment. It raised the living standard of women by allowing them to earn independent incomes, and to postpone marriage until a financially desirable match was possible. It also raised the living standards of the families: later marriage meant fewer children, so that a given income supported fewer people.

Distribution of Population

The table below shows the evolution of the population distribution in several European countries: the entries are percentages of each country’s population.2 Italy, Spain and Belgium had been the economic leaders in the sixteenth century. Later, the Netherlands became the most prosperous country in the world, a position that it subsequently lost to England.

Agriculture dominated every economy in 1500. Three-quarters of the English population was engaged in agriculture. A smaller fraction of the population were agricultural workers in the more advanced economies of Spain, Italy and Belgium, and even in the not-yet-wealthy Netherlands, but it was more than one-half everywhere. The more advanced economies had relatively large urban populations, and somewhat surprisingly, the Netherlands were already the most urbanized country in the group. All countries had a fairly large rural non-agricultural population, engaged in the support of agriculture and in small industry.

The changes in Italy and Spain between 1500 and 1800 are relatively small. They end the period as they began it: they are moderately urbanized, and people are more likely than not to work in agriculture. The Netherlands becomes slightly more urbanized, and markedly reduces its agricultural sector. Belgium draws people from both the cities and the farms to increase its rural non-agricultural sector.

The largest changes occur in England. It had the smallest urban population in 1500, but in 1800, it is almost as highly urbanized as the Netherlands. Over the same period its agricultural population is cut in half, reflecting very substantial improvements in agricultural productivity. Its rural non-agricultural population doubles as rural industry expands. The combined urban and rural non-agricultural population of England is significantly larger than that of the Netherlands. Some of these changes are due to the Industrial Revolution itself, but the Industrial Revolution is generally dated from 1760 and was a slow-motion revolution rather than an abrupt one, so most of this change preceded it.

Literacy and Numeracy

Although the evidence on literacy is fragmentary, it appears that the literacy rate was higher in England and the Netherlands than it was elsewhere in Europe. Only 6% of the English population had been able to write their names in 1500, but by 1800, 53% could do so. There is also some evidence that a facility with arithmetic and geometry was much more common in both of these countries. These changes are partially explained by the increasing importance of trade and commerce in both places. Commerce requires written documents, the keeping of accounts requires arithmetic, and ocean navigation requires geometry. Another part of the explanation is a virtuous cycle created by printing. The ready availability of books made literacy more important to people, while an increasingly literate population encouraged printers to produce more, and more varied, books.

The Class System, Stirred and Shaken

Feudalism left England’s nobility with almost all of the political power and almost all of its wealth, the latter chiefly residing in the land. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the social classes that had been engendered by feudalism were still intact:

Well-educated and well-connected gentlemen who have lost all their money through reckless gambling or unwise investments may still be entertained in houses where a prosperous farmer would not be permitted to cross the threshold. Similarly, a widow form an old gentry family who lives in a rented room in a trademan’s house in a county town, but who can still boast a coat of arms and a nephew with a commission in the navy, will be welcome in places where the trademan’s wife will merely be tolerated.3

However, over the course of the seventeenth century the nobles had begun to lose their grip on the wealth and power that had sustained their status. Britain’s per capita output rose strongly from 1630 to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1760. Britain began to produce lightweight woollens that found ready markets in Europe. Its transoceanic trade, both with the American colonies and the Asian markets, was growing steadily. Coffee, tea and chocolate were brought into the British market for the first time. Printed cotton textiles were imported from India, and proved so popular that the government passed the toothless Calico Act in 1700 to protect the wool industry. Silks and porcelain were imported from China. Domestic manufactures, such as clocks and watches, were also popular. It was evident to observers of the day that the British had developed a consumer culture:

Let any man make an experiment of this nature upon himself by entering into the first shop. He will nowhere so quickly discover his wants as there. Every thing he sees appears either necessary, or at least highly convenient; and he begins to wonder (especially if he be rich) how he could have been so long without that which the ingenuity of the workman alone had invented.4

Trade and manufacturing made the British prosperous, allowing them to purchase consumer goods, which resulted in more trade and more manufacturing and still greater prosperity. Buying and selling was not an activity that English nobles wished to engage in, so the benefits of the increased economic activity accrued mainly to commoners. As wealth shifted towards the commoners, so did power. This shift was accelerated by the Glorious Revolution (1688), which substantially reduced the power of the king and increased the power of Parliament. Parliament itself was slowly becoming a more representative body. As well, property rights that had had a “now you see them, now you don’t” quality before the Glorious Revolution, were firmly entrenched after the Revolution. The nobles were still a step up, but it was a rickety step.

The Scientific Revolution

The new approach to science was firmly established in Britain by the early eighteenth century; indeed, Voltaire argued that Britain had embraced science more firmly than any other European country. The result was the sweeping away of all of the flotsam of the medieval mind. A well-educated Englishman in 1600 had essentially the same beliefs as any other well-educated European. David Wootton describes those beliefs as follows:

He believes in witchcraft and has perhaps read the Daemonologie (1507) by James VI of Scotland, the future James I of England, which paints an alarming and credulous picture of the threat posed by the devil’s agents. He believes witches can summon up storms that sink ships at sea — James had almost lost his life in such a storm. He believes in werewolves, although there happen not be any in England — he knows they are to be found in Belgium…He believes Circe really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs. He believes mice are spontaneously generated in piles of straw. He believes in contemporary magicians…He has seen a unicorn’s horn, but not a unicorn.

He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound. He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind. He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone knows how to do it. He believes that nature abhors a vacuum. He believes that the rainbow is a sign from God and that comets portend evil. He believes that dreams predict the future, if we know how to interpret them. He believes, of course, that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours — he has heard mention of Copernicus, but he does not imagine that he intended his sun-centered model of the cosmos to be taken literally. He believes in astrology…He believes that Aristotle is the greatest philosopher who has ever lived, and that Pliny, Galen and Ptolemy are the best authorities on natural history, medicine and astronomy. He knows that there are Jesuit missionaries in the country who are said to be performing miracles, but he suspects that they are frauds. He owns a couple of dozen books.5

By the early eighteenth century a well-educated Englishman’s beliefs were radically different, and those beliefs were no longer fully in accord with those of other Europeans. Wootton explains:

Our Englishman has looked through a telescope and a microscope; he owns a pendulum clock and a stick barometer — and he knows there is a vacuum at the end of the tube. He does not know anyone (or at least not anyone educated and reasonably sophisticated) who believes in witches, werewolves, magic, alchemy or astrology; he thinks the Odyssey is fiction, not fact. He is confident that the unicorn is a mythical beast. He does not believe that the shape or colour of a plant has any significance for an understanding of its medical use. He believes that no creature large enough to be seen by the naked eye is generated spontaneously — not even a fly. He does not believe in the weapon salve or that murdered bodies bleed in the presence of the murderer.

Like all educated people in Protestant countries, he believes that the Earth goes round the sun. He knows that the rainbow is produced by refracted light and that comets have no significance for our lives on earth. He believes the future cannot be predicted. He knows that the heart is a pump. He has seen a steam engine at work. He believes that science is going to transform the world and that the moderns have outstripped the ancients in every possible respect. He thinks that Locke is the greatest philosopher who has ever lived and Newton the greatest scientist…He owns a couple of hundred — perhaps even a couple of thousand — books.6

In short, he sees the world far more clearly than his countrymen of the previous century.

Industrial Revolution

I said earlier that the British in the early eighteenth century were primed for the societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. There are, however, economists who argue that the concept of an Industrial Revolution is misleading, as it suggests a sharp break where there is only continuity, and at best, an acceleration of the changes that were already occurring. Under this view, the British of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were not primed for change — they were already driving it forward.

  1. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in International Perspective, p. 13. This idea originates with J. Hajnal, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in Glass and Eversley (eds.), Population in History (Aldine, 1965).
  2. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in International Perspective, Table 1.1.
  3. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain (Pegasus, 2017), p. 61.
  4. James Steuart, Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767). Steuart was an advocate of mercantilism. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) was in large part an attack on mercantilism, and was better received that Steuart’s treatise.
  5. David Wootton, The Invention of Science, pp. 6-7.
  6. David Wootton, The Invention of Science, pp. 10-11.