Looking back on the economic history of England, the first impression that strikes one is how changes in the size of the population have influenced national welfare. Before the number of people living and working in England began to mount rapidly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an essay on the principle of population was published in which it was argued that the growth of population was necessarily limited by the means of subsistence; and since historically the constant trend was for the number of people to increase before the amount of food needed to sustain it did so, the standard of living for the bulk of the population had been and always must be on a mere subsistence level. For if the means of subsistence increased, it stimulated the birth of more children and thus the minimum subsistence level was re-established. The book in which this theory was put forward was anonymous, since it was in fact written by a clergyman, the Reverend T. Robert Malthus, and the publishers feared that the public would be shocked if it discovered that a scholar in holy orders was pontificating on such a theme. The world, it was explained humorously in a novel written by Thomas Love Peacock, was ‘overstocked with featherless bipeds’ and the only way this could be checked was by vice or misery or ‘moral restraint’.

Maithus’s arguments are not so easily dismissed today as they were when the population of England rose dramatically after his death in 1834, since in countries like India and Sri Lanka, where birth control is little practised and mortality rates have declined, immense poverty is to be found. Moreover, the history of England tends to show that its people as a whole were better off when the population was falling, at least before industrialization. It is true that a fertile soil and a temperate climate promoted the output of food, while the possession of minerals like coal, metals like tin and an ample pasturage for sheep has always made a reasonable standard of subsistence possible.

Caesar, as has been noted, thought the population ‘exceedingly large’ and the ground ‘thickly covered with homesteads’. Modem archaeological research has confirmed Caesar’s opinion and a population as high as five or six million has been considered likely during the Roman occupation. Massive settlements have been detected by air photography. Yet it was after the Romans evacuated and the size of the population fell owing to the ravages of barbarian invaders, plagues and some emigration across the Channel that Gildas could write of the country as abounding ‘with such plenty of grain as no previous age remembered’; a modem historian has observed that the collapse of the Roman government in Britain ‘made possible an economic exploitation of our natural resources on a scale never attempted in prehistoric or Roman times’. 1

Again, after the Anglo-Saxon and Danish invasions, the butchery of natives and internecine warfare, the Father of English history, the Venerable Bede, could write in the eighth century of ‘the peace and prosperity that prevailed’. No medieval historian has ventured to put the size of the population of England at more than two and a half million when the Normans thought it worth their while to take over this affluent land. Indeed, one expert on the period has claimed that ‘the primitive means of exploiting natural resources prevented the population from rising much above a million’. 2 By the end of the thirteenth century, however, the population had doubled or trebled, and it was then that the condition of the peasantry worsened, real wages fell, poverty and distress were widespread and the villages were so full of people that some of them starved. 3 But after the Black Death, when the population declined from some four million to two and a half million, the mass of the people enjoyed a golden age which lasted through much of the fifteenth century.

The latest estimate of the size of the population of England when Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 is about three million, but after that it exploded, particularly among the gentry and yeomanry. It is now generally accepted that the growing imbalance between the size of the population and that of agricultural output offers the most satisfactory explanation of the inflation of that age. During the sixteenth century the population is thought to have increased at the rate of almost 1 per cent a year, and the value of real wages fell drastically. By the time the civil wars began in 1642 the population of England had again reached five million, and afterwards prices rose to the highest level recorded in the seventeenth century.4 After the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 166o the population declined, prices fell and real wages improved. By 1701 the population was still only about five million (or just under six million including Wales), but with the industrialization of the country in the second half of the eighteenth century it shot up to over nine million and continued to rise fast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By 1931 the population of England and Wales was nearly forty million; fifty years later it stood at over forty-nine million. In each case it included two to three million unemployed.

The claim has been made that on the whole Malthus’s correlation between the growth of population and the rise in prices of food can be proved statistically up to the time he was writing. 5 In the Middle Ages, when England was predominantly an agricultural country, the cost of living remained pretty steady except in years when harvests were poor; but in early modern England rising prices were the rule. It was not until the nineteenth century that prices fell when the population rose: this was the biggest economic and social revolution in English history until modern times. Without the increase in the size of the population before and after the Napoleonic wars the new industrial technology, which gave England a head start or what has been called a rapid take-off, would have been retarded. Nevertheless between 1754 and 1994 prices multiplied six times and between 1956 and 1976 prices trebled. By then the value to the consumer was about one-fifth of what it had been at the close of the 193945 war. The idea that economic stability is the characteristic of long periods of English history is completely mistaken, especially since industrialization. Trade cycles can be shown to have taken place every seven or ten years. 6 To the modern economic historian it looks as if price inflation is the normal lot of mankind.

Because it is essential today to export manufactured goods to pay for half our food and much of our raw materials, economic historians have been inclined to lay too much stress on the importance of foreign trade to the national economy in earlier times. More than 200 years ago Adam Smith wrote: ‘that foreign trade enriched the country experience demonstrated to the noble and country gentlemen as well as to the merchants; but how, or in what manner, none of them well knew’. In 1981 a distinguished British economist could write: ‘The link between exports and [economic] growth is not self-evident. 7

In fact through much of known economic history English exports consisted predominantly of wool. This largely paid for luxury imports like wines and silks, not for grain or raw materials, which, when a surplus was available, were exported. It was not until the fifteenth century that cloth replaced wool as England’s principal export, and then at least half of the export trade was handled by foreigners. During the reign of Elizabeth I four-fifths of English exports consisted of cloth. At the opening of the seventeenth century the total value of English exports was only one million pounds.

The beginnings of a more varied export trade are recorded in the second half of the seventeenth century and are associated with the development of the first British Empire, such as the colonization of Virginia and Maryland and the conquest of Jamaica. Tobacco and sugar were valuable re-exports; so were slaves. Nevertheless, it has been estimated that at the end of that century exports only represented 1o per cent of the gross national product and that the bulk of manufactured goods were destined for the home market. The value in sterling of re-exports continued to grow fast until the middle of the eighteenth century. Commerce was interrupted by the American War of Independence, but because of England’s island position, its large fleet and its command of the sea foreign trade as a whole did not decline. However, it was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that the speedy growth in the export of cotton textiles, outstripping woollen textiles, particularly to Europe and the United States of America, plus ‘invisible exports’ promoted a favourable balance of payments and substantial investments abroad.

The peak of British success as an exporter was reached in the period between 185o and 1875, when British exports amounted to about a fifth of all international trade; this accounted for the marvellous air of prosperity in mid Victorian England, but the population was increasing fast and long hours were being worked. After that exports grew more slowly, but this was offset by improvements in the terms of trade, that is to say, the price of imported food and raw materials fell. When the first census of production was taken in 1907 it was estimated that one-quarter of the goods produced in the United Kingdom were for export and one-fifth of the goods at home came from imports, which revealed how much the country then depended on foreign trade. In 1913 exports constituted nearly one-fifth of the net total income, but by 1929 they fell to 17 per cent and by 1938 to 9.8 per cent. After the temporary spurt in exports following the war of 1939-45 they became sluggish.

Balance of payments difficulties induced governments to pursue stop-go policies so as to cut down excessive demand at home, to which these difficulties were attributed. But the conclusion could be reached, as Sir Alec Cairncross has observed, that exports had been held back by the same forces and to roughly the same extent as output itself, in other words by the failure of the English people as a whole to increase their industrial productivity. Thus in recent years in practically every branch of the economy, from the coal mines to the railways, managements have insisted that wage increases should be linked to productivity. Export drives are only necessary if it is essential to enlarge the volume of imports, particularly of consumption goods. Arguably the standard of living of the people of England could be improved by manufacturing more goods for domestic consumption and fewer for export.

The people of England have been fortunate in their natural resources, such as coal and North Sea oil, and in the skills of their inventors. Only in war time have they needed to respond to challenges, as the Dutch did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and as the Japanese and Germans did after defeat in the twentieth century. Some foreign visitors in the pre-industrial age inclined to the opinion that the English were a lazy people. When the Tudors reigned an Italian declared that ‘the farmers are so lazy and slow that they do not bother to sow more wheat than is necessary for their own consumption’, and Polydore Vergil, who lived in England for a long time, wrote that ‘men do not over-exert themselves and live to a great age’. As has already been observed, an English pamphleteer writing in 1675 said: ‘it is our own negligence and idleness that brings poverty upon us’. That such lack of enterprise continued in the industrial era was suggested by the Macmillan report of 1931 on finance and industry, which noted: ‘the feeling is that the former easy-going ways will no longer ensure our prosperity in a crowded and increasingly capitalist world’.

It is true that exports fell off between 1919 and 1939 as compared with the increase earlier, but output per man hour was higher and compared favourably with that of other countries, at any rate after the ‘great depression’. But following the war of 1939-45 industrial growth ‘was less dramatic than in other industrial countries’. 8 It has been suggested that because productivity was relatively high when a three-day week was established during the coal strike of 1973, it should have been higher during a five-day week. But equally the thesis has been put forward that British governments demanded too high a rate of growth in the postwar years. In fact modern research does not substantiate the belief that the English are a lazy and idle people, resistant to inventions and incapable of making discoveries. Nevertheless, economic change is usually troublesome.

Even before industrialization, enclosures understandably dismayed farmers and contributed to riots and revolts. The earliest large English export industry, woollen cloth, was disrupted by opposition first to the introduction of fulling mills, then to gig mills, described as ‘a nefarious means of stretching cloth’, and finally in the eighteenth century to power looms. The invention towards the end of the sixteenth century of a knitting frame, which made the output of silk and worsted stockings much faster and cheaper than hand knitting, provoked resistance, and for various reasons the smashing of hosiery frames continued into the eighteenth century. In general the transformation of the domestic system of industry into the factory system was a painful process.

In the twentieth century we have seen the prolonged resistance of print workers to photographic typesetting, computerization and other laboursaving devices, with the result that newspaper offices have been grossly overmanned and some newspapers forced to close. This has been contrasted with the attitude of trade unions in the United States of America, which have welcomed reduced hours and higher wages rather than clinging to outmoded industrial methods. The Luddites, who started breaking up machinery during the Napoleonic wars, were by no means unique. ‘The protest against the power of machinery over man’, noted a Russian journalist who worked in England for five years as correspondent of Pravda, ‘so naïvely expressed by the Luddites in their day is typical of their fellow countrymen even now.’ 9 They had precedents in the past and imitators in the future. Their indignation should be treated sympathetically.

The Luddites and their predecessors smashed up machinery or pulled down fences because they feared their livelihoods were being taken from them. At the same time an enduring habit among the people of England has been to gaze back wistfully to a golden past. Gildas, the Welsh historian, looked back ‘with bitter nostalgia to the vanished glories of the civilized past’. 10 The first great Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, admired the Romans and wrote of an age when ‘everywhere the Faith advanced victoriously, the shrines of the martyrs were built and endowed, the festivals of the Church were observed … and the Church in Britain remained in peace’. Nineteenth-century historians like Bishop William Stubbs were endeared to an Anglo-Saxon society in which, they believed, egalitarianism existed. The two brilliant Roman Catholic authors Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton pictured a merry England in the Middle Ages before Henry VIII established the Church of England and destroyed the monasteries. Earlier Carlyle and Ruskin had also regarded the Middle Ages as a more congenial era than that of Victorian industrialism, which they disliked, and pictured a past with jovial yokels sporting on village greens.

In the early twentieth century, however, the Victorian age, if not admired for its arts, was thought of as a prosperous and happy time when family life was a contented reality and so was the British Empire. On 19 January 1909 The Times wrote of contemporaries: ‘They place the golden age behind them, and assume that no generation ever had to deal with evils so great and perplexing as those of the present day.’ After the Second World War the old and the middle-aged sighed for the grand old days of the middle classes, when food was cheap, shopkeepers were deferential and servants could be found who were prepared to live in. In the early nineteen-eighties the people of England for the most part have been thinking with nostalgia of the early seventies, when they rejoiced in full employment, high real wages, and inexpensive petrol. They also appear to have longed to return to the times when England was above all rural. Between 1971 and 1981 the population of rural areas rose by over a million and that of inner cities declined.

Of course exceptions can be discovered to the propensity to yearn for the past: Charles Dickens had few illusions about it, while Sir Robert Peel’s ‘first lieutenant’, Sir John Graham, said bluntly: ‘the lot of eating, drinking, working and dying must ever be the sum of life among the masses of the human family’. Only a few authors of genius, such as George Bernard Shaw (and he was an Irishman), have looked forward with any conviction to halcyon days in the future. The socialist and communist millennia which young men and women hoped for fifty years ago are still a long way off. By and large, it is remarkable how often the people of England have regretted a golden past and how seldom they have dreamt of a golden future. That explains the popularity of history books.

Most history books are written by members of an educated middle class, but in surveying the course of English social history it needs to be remembered that no such class existed until fairly recent times. Nor did the lower middle class of clerks, commercial travellers, small shopkeepers, managers of public houses and minor Civil Servants and the like, a class that surfaced during the eighteenth century and is now largely disappearing.

In the early Middle Ages society consisted of the baronage, their retainers and the mass of common people, peasants and labourers. During the later Middle Ages the gentry rose and made their presence felt in the House of Commons, as did also such members of the professional classes as lawyers, merchants and later soldiers and sailors. By the Tudor age society was becoming more fluid. Writing in 1565 Sir Thomas Smith divided the community into monarchy, aristocracy, gentry, yeomen and the common people (proletarii), who ‘had no voice or authority in the Commonwealth’, while William Harrison, writing in 1587, observed: ‘we divide the people of England commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen and artificers’. Until the eighteenth century the country continued to be dominated by the aristocracy, a few hundred wealthy landlords with huge estates and palatial mansions. The taxation levied during the wars against France damaged the squires and country gentlemen, but most of the great landowners survived.

As late as the reign of Queen Victoria the majority of the Cabinet were peers: even William Gladstone’s first Cabinet contained seven out of a total of fifteen, and in the eighteen-nineties two successive Prime Ministers were noblemen. More prestige was attached to birth than to wealth. Then at last the old landed aristocracy began to crumble: it abdicated its authority and sold much of its land after the First World War. The foundations of English society, so long shouldered by this class, finally collapsed during the depression of 1929-32. Death duties (first introduced in 1889) had helped to spell their doom and they had to manage by gradually selling off their heirlooms, including great paintings and historic manuscripts. One has only to look round London and note how the great houses in which they used to reside have been replaced by office blocks or converted into museums.

That the middle classes expanded during the twentieth century is plain enough, but to define them with any degree of precision remains difficult. One estimate, based on the census of 1961, puts 32 per cent of the population into the upper, middle and lower middle class and 6o per cent into the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled ‘working class’, 11 some ten million of whom were members of trade unions. Bringing up the rear, as always, were the old-age pensioners. The upper middle class can be said to consist mainly of professional people, such as chartered accountants and surveyors, barristers and solicitors, doctors, stockbrokers, high-grade Civil Servants and well-to-do farmers. But when one comes to the lower middle classes or ‘white-collar workers’, as they are sometimes called, it is hard to distinguish them from the skilled wage-earning class. It has been estimated that in 1970 the ‘white collar workers’ numbered nine million as compared with fourteen million manual workers.

Since striking for higher pay has permeated all classes – before the last war no one would have believed that Civil Servants would go on strike, as they did in 1981 – so one obvious class distinction has vanished. Nor do salaries necessarily mean higher earnings than wages. For example, printers often earn more than journalists, and scene-shifters than actors. Class consciousness has become a largely outmoded exercise. The raising of the school leaving age to sixteen in 1972, the increase in the number of universities and technical colleges in recent times and the popularity of the social sciences have all contributed to the number of educated people who interpret history in terms of class, leaving great men and women outside it: Marxist history has become extremely respectable, but it is a minority belief in England.

In fact it can be contended with equal conviction that it is interests rather than classes that determined the nature of English society. People talk about health, money and the weather, but what animates conversation is when common interests are found and discussed. Now that education is free and open to all, the hard-working and the ambitious no longer need to be self-taught to succeed in life: careers are open to talents.

In the twentieth century what has emerged is an Establishment that can be entered by merit. The ‘ruling class’ is not necessarily to be discovered in the two Houses of Parliament. Cabinets generally take their decisions for political reasons, but the decisions that are, or should be, reached impartially for what is thought to be the general good are made by Treasury knights, permanent secretaries, chairmen of nationalized industries, secretaries of big trade unions, editors of serious newspapers, directors-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the heads of other institutions like the National Trust or the Arts Council, and of course the secretary-general of the Trades Union Congress and the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. For good measure one could throw in the Masters of Balliol College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge. A typical Establishment figure at the time of writing is the general secretary of the National Association of Local Government Officers, who is also a member of the National Economic Council, a director of the Bank of England, a magistrate and a member of the TUC’s so-called ‘inner cabinet’. It is true that men and women in key positions often deny that they belong to the Establishment, but the fact remains that they shape the character of democratic society.

Social history, it has been said, satisfies the desire of people to escape into another world, not our own. 12 But it can also help us to analyse our own society and recognize how it has evolved. The people of England were once at the mercy of tribal chieftains; now they have different masters.



  1. J.N.L. Myres, Roman Britain and the Settlement of England p. 325
  2. Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 (1974), p. 4
  3. Edward Miller, ‘The English Economy in the Thirteenth Century’, Past and Present, 28 (1964); Ian Kershaw, ‘The Great Famines and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322’, ibid., 59 (173); M. Postan, The Cambridge Economic History of Europe I (1966), p. 566; M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society 1973), p. 228
  4. According to the composite index in the tables compiled by Sir Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila Hopkins, the figure for 1629 when Charles dissolved Parliament was 510; in 1642, when the civil wars began, it was 557; when Charles was beheaded in 1649 it was 770, and in 1651 during the third civil war it was 839.
  5. E.A. Wrigley, The Population History of England 1541-1871 (1981), pp. 402- 3. Other population figures quoted are from this book, which is based on parish registers; they do not include Wales. See also J.D. Chambers, Population, Economy and Society (1972), p. 23 seq.
  6. A. G. Ford, ‘The trade cycle in Britain 1860-1914’, in The Economic History of Britain since 1700, R.C. Floud and D.N. McCloskey (eds) (1981), pp. 27-30
  7. Sir Alec Cairncross, ibid., p. 388
  8. ibid., p. 375
  9. V.V. Ovchinnikov, Britain Observed (1981), pp. 39-40
  10. J.N.L. Myres, Anglo-Saxon Pottery and the Settlement of England (1969), p. 101
  11. These estimates were made by Mark Abraham and published in D.C.Marsh, The Changing Structure of England and Wales (1965)
  12. J. H. Plumb (ed.), Studies in Social History (1955), p. xiii