Setback and Recovery

Setback and Recovery

By the sixteen-twenties the long-drawn-out period of price inflation, which had stimulated the economy but hurt the wage-earner, came to an end. It was followed by a trade depression that exercised the minds of the King’s Ministers and Members of Parliament. Sir Lionel Cranfield, the merchant who ‘started up suddenly … from a base and mean original’ to be surprisingly appointed Lord Treasurer in 1621, spoke of ‘the want of money in the kingdom’, ‘the greatest dearth’, and ‘the decay of trade’. One feature of the depression was a decline in exports. The Dutch had forbidden the importation of dyed and finished broadcloths into their country from England; and by 1617 the value of cloth exports of all kinds, on which English commerce chiefly depended, dropped by nearly a third as compared with the value of those exported at the beginning of the century. Moreover the exports of ‘New Draperies’, introduced into East Anglia by exiles from the Netherlands in the later half of the sixteenth century, met with fierce competition from the Dutch, especially in the Mediterranean area. Exports of tin and lead were handicapped by export duties. As Germany had been the principal market for English broadcloth or ‘Old Draperies’, the disruption of commerce brought about after the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618, which was to engulf much of Europe, further damaged English exports. Above all, currencies abroad were depreciated, which made exports difficult to sell profitably.

But foreign trade was not so essential to the English economy as it has since become. Other reasons for the deepening depression, less emphasized at the time, were a succession of bad harvests and plagues that devastated London and other towns. Unemployment and under-employment reached such a pitch that justices of the peace, though they had been given wide powers by the act of 1563, were unable to cope with the problems of the poor. Attempts to enforce minimum rates of wages for shearers, weavers, fullers and dyers failed, since the unemployed were eager to find work at any wage. The analysis of the situation by the ruling class and the cures suggested were mostly beside the point. The blame for an adverse balance of trade was laid on excessive imports, such as those of cattle from Ireland, wine from France and, above all, tobacco from Spain. The gains from cloth sold in Spain, which were said to have brought in £100,000 a year, thus went up in smoke. Finally the East India Company was castigated for exporting bullion, though the need to do so to pay for remunerative imports, such as spices, that could be re-exported, was strongly defended by the directors of the company.

The remedies proposed to overcome the adverse balance of trade were hardly new. The prohibition of the export of wool was urged on the ground that by cheapening its price the cost of producing English cloth would be lowered; and a ban on imports of grain, which was brought in from Poland and elsewhere, was advocated so as to help English farmers. It was argued that foreign merchants residing in England must be obliged to spend their money on English goods. More linen must be made at home and more fish caught from the sea. In some quarters it was demanded that the export trade in cloth should be thrown open to all comers instead of being left largely in the hands of the Merchant Adventurers, who had resumed their operations after the failure of the Cockayne project. Others simply wanted the Merchant Adventurers to be pressed into greater activity. Lastly, it was urged that the rate of interest on borrowed money, then usually about 10 per cent, ought to be reduced; but as no central banking system yet existed that would have been difficult to ensure. Clothiers attributed their industry’s depression to high taxation and Customs duties.

The economic situation of the kingdom picked up in the sixteen-thirties. Wars against Spain and France, which ruined the royal finances, came to an end; and the assassination of Charles I’s favourite, the first Duke of Buckingham, and his replacement by more cautious and economical Ministers, who cut down royal prodigality, was conducive to a revival of trade. The prices of wheat, barley and wool fell, so that real wages rose; the rate of population growth also slowed down. Although such taxes as Customs duties (known as ‘tonnage and poundage’) and ship money, levied to pay for the expanding royal navy, were felt to be grievances, they were paid. The rents of land rose. Exports of cloth recovered. Indeed, it has been said that ‘from 1629 to 1635 the government of Charles I, like that of Pharaoh, was blessed with seven fat years’.1

It is doubtful if the average wage-earner gained much from this epoch of recovery, however. Unemployment and under-employment remained rife. Even those regularly at work were thought by contemporaries to be chronically below what they regarded as the poverty line. It was the general opinion that the country was overpopulated – ‘pestered with people’ was the phrase used – hence emigration was approved. It was also contended that the excessive growth of London had thrown the economy out of gear: ‘it is no good state of body’, declared a Member of Parliament in 1641, ‘to have a fat head, thin guts and lean members’. Indeed, the King’s Government attempted to develop Bristol and Exeter as rival centres of the export trade, especially during the Civil War in the forties, when they were two of the few ports left in Royalist hands.

It is likely that in London the standard of living was higher than in the countryside because its business was not dependent on the soil and the weather: it is true that Londoners had to buy their food from outside, but they could afford it. In the country at large the gentry and the enterprising yeomen, who could manage to save against a rainy day, did well enough, but the husbandmen and agricultural labourers were much less secure. They were unable to save; they had many children to support; their expectation of life at birth was less than thirty-five years, their wives were often ill-fed and died young: as Lady Stenton wrote, ‘no farm labourer’s wife can ever have felt well’.

If their way of life was uncomfortable, the independent poor nevertheless resented interference with it. Enclosures of lands in the Midlands and the draining of the fens in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, initiated by Charles I in the hope of making a handsome profit for himself, led to local rioting. In the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, where the fenmen made a living by fishing, keeping geese and hunting wild-fowl, they rose just before the beginning of the Civil War in revolt against the draining company, breaking down fences and destroying the crops. Later they pulled up the floodgates to allow the tides from the river Trent to drown much of the reclaimed land. In other parts of the country – in Wiltshire and Cornwall, for example – riots were provoked by arbitrary enclosures and the diminution of popular rights in the commons.

The ‘fat years’ were succeeded by lean years starting in the middle of the sixteen-thirties. In 1641 the citizens of London complained of ‘a great decay of trade in the kingdom and great scarcity of money’. The prices of grain and wool fell and so did rents and exports of cloth, owing partly to increased foreign competition. The gentry and yeomen weathered the storms created by harvest fluctuations, but the position of the husbandmen and agricultural labourers, who constituted half of the population, worsened. Although an act passed in the reign of Elizabeth I required new cottages built for labourers to have four acres of land attached to them and a number of yeomen were indicted at quarter sessions for failing to provide them, by 1640 few agricultural labourers owned more than an acre or two; they were gradually losing their modest property rights and sinking to the level of a landless proletariat. It is true that where labourers lived in their masters’ farmhouses they were pretty well-fed (and those, generally married men, who lived out mostly kept pigs and sometimes one or two cows), and that two-thirds of the cottages in the Midlands had two rooms; but the average wage of a shilling a day (without food or drink) did not go very far. ‘Poverty and fear of poverty’, it has been said, ‘were a normal part of the social pattern of early seventeenth-century society.2

By contrast with the precarious condition of the bulk of the rural population the position of the gentry and yeomanry had actually improved. The ‘rise of the gentry’, that is, of a middling landed class, can be traced back at least to the fourteenth century. The evidence of the building of country houses on a large scale, of the number of grants of arms and conferring of knighthoods during the first half of the seventeenth century and of the high average wealth of Members of Parliament at that time contributes to proof of the observation that the rise of the gentry was ‘a simple fact’. 3

The House of Commons, whose assembly in the autumn of 1640 was a first step along the road that led to civil war, consisted mainly of well-to-do landowners, lawyers and a number of merchants who for the most part were local men with local ties conscious of local grievances. To begin with, they had not the slightest intention of destroying the monarchical government, but they expressed indignation over the various ways employed to raise money for the King’s purposes without the consent of the House of Commons, which had normally been called upon to vote any extraordinary taxation. Merchants resented the higher Customs duties they had to pay, while country gentlemen objected to finding ship money to enlarge the fleet when they lived in areas far from the sea. Farmers of the Customs, who had advanced considerable sums to the Crown, lost their leases and were made to disgorge heavy fines. Other minor grievances over the draining of the fens, the felling of timber in the royal forests, the fining of gentlemen who refused to accept knighthoods, the granting of patents, which were stigmatized as monopolies, and the attempts to regulate industry by the use of prerogative powers were all magnified to demonstrate the existence of a conspiracy against the people by evil counsellors of the King.

Up till the autumn of 1641 the reformist attitude of the members of the Commons was virtually unanimous. But after grievances over property rights had been met and the Commons turned to constitutional and religious questions, the mood changed, and the House became divided along no fixed lines. When civil war followed because the King refused to allow Parliament to approve his Ministers and officials and to take control of the country’s armed forces, it proved to be a fratricidal conflict. Though immense research has gone into the matter, it was certainly not a class war. The most that can be said is that the majority of the aristocracy supported the King and most yeomen backed Parliament. But the bulk of the population was indifferent, except for the consciousness that the political conflict had interrupted and damaged trade.

As the war spread right across the country, from Cornwall to Yorkshire and Sussex to Lancashire, crops were destroyed, livestock seized, houses razed to the ground, men forcibly enlisted and farmhouses and cottages plundered. Vainly in areas not yet fought over men armed themselves with clubs in an effort to keep the war out of their counties. And to pay for the war the Parliamentarian leaders introduced new taxes, such as a direct tax on real and personal property known as the monthly assessment, and the excise, which was imposed both on goods manufactured at home, such as beer, and on a variety of imports. Both these taxes were highly efficient and exceedingly unpopular -‘extortionate’, one historian (who is perhaps unconscious of the range of taxation in his own time) has called them. Yet by the end of the century they had become a fundamental part of the public finance of the kingdom.

Apart from these financial changes, what was the effect of the Civil War and the establishment of a republican government, following the defeat and execution of the King, on English economic and social life? So far as agriculture was concerned, the sales and transfers of land had many repercussions. All the estates belonging to the Crown and Church were sold to meet the expenses of a greatly enlarged army and navy. Some Royalist landlords were heavily fined, the fines usually amounting to one-sixth of the value of their property. The result was not catastrophic, because most Royalists succeeded in paying their fines and resuming the management of their estates, while the bigger landowners – the Duke of Newcastle, for instance – were able to regain their estates after the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.

Nevertheless many Royalists with modest possessions were so encumbered with debts contracted during the Interregnum (1649-60), or caused by the expenses involved in getting back their estates, that they had to sell their land either to wealthier landowners or to successful merchants or rising yeomen. During the reign of Charles II, it has been pointed out, ‘the hatred of the small squires and gentry for the great lords who were buying them out’ was ‘the theme of many contemporary plays’ .4 Often these great lords were not satisfied, as many of the manorial barons had been, to leave the running of their estates entirely to stewards and bailiffs, but turned themselves into ‘improving landlords’. John Houghton, the author of Letters for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, wrote: ‘The great improvement made of lands since our inhuman civil wars was when our gentry who before hardly knew what it was to think then fell to such industry and caused such an improvement as England never knew before.’

Other big landlords took the easier course of marrying rich merchants’ daughters. Thus although the extraordinary expenditure forced upon the lesser gentry because they had been loyal to Charles I did not have any dramatic effects on their fortunes after his son’s return, since they were able to borrow or mortgage their estates to meet their debts, in the long run many of them had to sell out and thus contributed to the enlargement of the great estates of hereditary landowners, who managed them in a more businesslike way and bequeathed them by entail.

During the Interregnum merchants too had their ups and downs. The Commonwealth Government was never able to make up its mind whether joint-stock or regulated companies trading overseas like the East India Company and the Merchant Adventurers were ‘monopolies’ and so, in Oliver Cromwell’s words, ‘prejudicial to the liberties of the people’, or lawful bodies helpful to the national economy. These chartered companies therefore went through a difficult and uncertain time. They were obliged to lend money to the government; they had to put up with competition from interlopers; and their trade was dislocated by wars waged against the Dutch and Spanish. English shipping, however, was given the assistance of a Navigation Act in 1651, which confined the import trade to English ships or ships of the exporting country. This act was only partially enforced, but undoubtedly it benefited the mercantile marine, if not the shipbuilding industry; indeed, it was said that the number of home-built ships was insufficient to cope with the carrying trade.

Another more drastic Navigation Act was passed immediately after the Restoration and other such acts were passed by English parliaments in 1663, 1673, and 1696. One purpose of these acts was to monopolize the carrying trade to and from English overseas possessions in North America and the West Indies. The act of 1660 also enumerated certain commodities – they included sugar and tobacco – which had to be brought directly to England so as to promote the business of re-exporting, which had been of relatively little importance during the Interregnum, but was growing fast by the end of the seventeenth century.

A further objective of the act was to handicap the most powerful English rivals in the carrying trade, the Dutch. Unquestionably the number of English merchant vessels increased considerably between 1660 and 1750 (from an estimated 200,000 tons to 420,000 tons), but that might have come about anyway. Their employment was already growing before the act of 1651 was passed. And the Dutch were to be injured by the four wars in which they were involved during this period. Nevertheless, the policy embodied in the Navigation Acts represents an important aspect of a system of trade protection or economic nationalism that prevailed in England until the middle of the nineteenth century.

One other consequence of the events during the Interregnum was the disappearance of most of the Crown’s economic rights. Henry VIII had instituted a Court of Wards to preserve feudal dues and services owed by tenants-in-chief; for wardship had allowed the Crown to benefit from the estates of rich orphans until they came of age. Besides wardship, tenure by knight’s service, fee farm rents and purveyance were all abolished in return for the retention by the royal government of the proceeds from excise, first introduced by the Parliamentarians in 1643. Thus the medieval conception of the monarchy dating from the time of William the Conqueror, that all land was owned by the monarch and that all landholders held their properties directly from him, was abandoned, and ‘the Statute Book’ bore ‘eloquent witness to the gathering strength of that landed class which was soon to dictate to the Crown’.5 Instead of feudal dues the taxation of beer, wine and tobacco became permanent, a boon to all Treasurers and Chancellors of the Exchequer and a delight to puritans and conscientious doctors that has endured until present times.

Except in the years of bad harvests the price of grain fell steadily between 166o and 1750. On New Year’s Day 1668, for example, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary how his friends at dinner ‘did talk much of the cheapness of corn, even to a miracle so as the farmers pay no rent, but do fling up their lands, and would pay in corn’. In the last two decades of the period average prices were the lowest ever known. Cheaper prices for wool also persisted, partly brought about by competition from Spain, partly owing to the continued prohibition on export, and partly because of a falling-off in the demand for English cloth abroad. Only the price of meat and dairy products kept up.

The Government was sufficiently perturbed about the low price of grain to introduce export subsidies in 1673. (This act lapsed in 1681, but was renewed in 1689 and continued until 1812.) Merchants were allowed to export wheat when the price fell below 48 shillings a quarter and exporters were paid a bounty of 5 shillings a quarter. Similar subsidies were paid on barley and rye sold abroad. Three consequences flowed from the low price of grain. First, because labourers were able to buy bread cheaply the value of real wages both in agriculture and industry rose. Secondly, the enclosure of fields where corn was grown so that they might be converted into pasture was no longer resisted by public opinion. The question was asked: ‘since pasturage is more profitable than tillage why should enclosing landlords not lay down their arable land for grass?’ From 166o onwards enclosures could go forward by private acts of parliament or by the enrolment of enclosure agreements in the Court of Chancery. The prerogative courts, where enclosures had often been disallowed, were abolished.

The third and most significant result of the falling grain prices was that they encouraged farmers to experiment with new methods of husbandry and thus cheapen the cost of producing food and increase their own profits. Advice about how to do so was not lacking. As early as 1645 Sir Richard Weston published a book entitled Discourses of Husbandrie used in Brabant and Flanders; Walter Blith wrote The English Improver and Improved (1652); John Worlidge, himself a farmer, who invented a drill which made sowing easier, wrote in his Systema Agriculturae (1669) about how farming costs could be reduced; and John Houghton in his Collection of Letters for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade produced a weekly paper which contained articles on agriculture, advice from experts like Worlidge, and lists of grain prices. Writing on The Mystery of Husbandry: or Arable, Pasture and Woodland Improved (1697), Leonard Meager remarked ‘where the grounds are enclosed, how happily people live’.

The Royal Society, founded in 1662, of which Charles II was the first patron, set up a committee on agriculture (confusingly called its Georgical committee), which carried out experiments, instituted inquiries and published the results. Among the refinements advocated were first, the growing of fodder crops, such as turnips, to feed animals throughout the winter; secondly, the use of artificial grasses – such as clover and sainfoin – to turn arable land temporarily into pasture for grazing (this is now sometimes called ‘up and down husbandry’); thirdly, the growing of potatoes (recipes were published showing how to make them into puddings and custards to disguise their flavour); fourthly, the watering of meadows by digging trenches and controlling the flooding of grassland at different seasons; and lastly, stronger emphasis was put on the value of manuring, the fertilizers advocated including marl, ashes, pigeons’ and hens’ dung, sea sand and, above all, lime (though farmers needed to be careful with lime).

These agricultural innovations spread slowly from the gentry to the yeomen and thence to husbandmen, according to the benefits they offered to different classes of farming. Turnips had first been planted in gardens as vegetables, but Colonel Robert Walpole, father of the future Prime Minister, was growing them as fodder in Norfolk as early as 1673 and encouraged his tenants to grow them too. In the seventeen-twenties Daniel Defoe noted how the fattening of cattle with turnips had originated in East Anglia and expanded from there over most of eastern and southern England. Later in the sixteen-seventies Colonel Walpole started sowing clover, which was introduced into Suffolk at an early stage. Clover seed was imported in small quantities from Holland. Potatoes, like turnips, were first grown in kitchen gardens and only gradually planted in fields. The watering of meadows was an expensive business, especially as it was liable to be resisted by neighbouring farmers and led to litigation. As to manure, it was always scarce, as it still is today, while fertilizers needed to be applied scientifically.

Undoubtedly a phase of experiments and novelties in agriculture can be dated from the middle of the seventeenth century. Market gardening developed along the Thamesside, where orchards of apple and cherry trees were planted. Asparagus was grown there around 168. Exotic fruits were not unknown. John Evelyn remarked on ‘the great plenty of oranges’ in Lord Sunderland’s estate of Althorp in 1675 and of how Charles II had been presented with a pineapple tree, just as Oliver Cromwell had been earlier. Tobacco plants were cultivated in Gloucestershire, though this was strictly illegal as it competed with imports from the American colonies. With the lifting of the ban on enclosures cattle and sheep farming was concentrated in areas unsuitable for arable farming, for example in the Yorkshire Dales, where some farms had no ploughland at all. Ley grasses were sown to feed animals in fertile districts, while careful grazing, weeding and draining benefited pastures. Furthermore, attention was paid to the systematic breeding of horses, which had been of concern to the gentry since the early Tudor period. Sidney Godolphin, the future Lord Treasurer, imported Arabian horses. Finally, disafforestation and fen drainage continued in spite of frequent grumbling by the local inhabitants.

Nevertheless the evidence scarcely points to a ‘revolution’ or ‘great leap forward’ in agriculture in the seventeenth century. Farmers have always tended to be conservative. At the end of the century more than half the cultivated land still lay in open fields, where the customary communal husbandry was practised. It has been estimated that the amount of clover seed imported for ley farming was relatively small and opposition to growing turnips for fodder was even greater than that to growing clover. Turnip fields were mainly confined to Norfolk and Suffolk; they did not appear in Lincolnshire until the second quarter of the eighteenth century. It was the proximity of East Anglian ports to Holland that induced the trial there of new farming methods. Potatoes did not find favour as a staple item of diet for many years: they were largely grown to feed pigs. Indeed, it has been claimed that none of these crops became general until the four-course rotation of wheat – root crops – barley – clover became commonplace during the nineteenth century. On the whole, progress was slow. One pamphleteer, writing in 1675, gloomily remarked: ‘it is our own negligence and idleness that brings poverty upon us’. The picture of ‘early modern English farmers bursting with industry and enterprise’ is difficult to sustain.

The number of very big landed estates grew between 1666 and 1750. At the top of the ladder were those belonging to the titled aristocracy: nobles often proved to be easy-going landlords, who might choose their tenants for social reasons rather than clamouring for the highest rents. The kind of tenants they liked were those with 200 acres or more, who paid their rent regularly and kept their holdings in repair. These magnates were able to supplement their incomes by holding political or Court offices, selecting their wives or their sons’ wives judiciously and investing their money in mineral rights or commercial enterprises.

George I (1714-27) and George II (1727-60) ennobled very few commoners and the aristocracy scarcely increased at all during their reigns. It has been calculated that there were some 400 ‘great magnates’ at this time, each owning not fewer than 10,000 acres of land.6 Not all of them were really active. Some of them preferred to spend most of their time entertaining their relatives and friends, building themselves more and lovelier houses and furnishing them with paintings and other works of art collected from all over the world. Nevertheless a ‘coherent oligarchy’ or a ‘charmed circle’ did exist who jostled among themselves for social and political authority.

Beneath the titled aristocracy the gentry or squirearchy owned about three-fifths of the cultivated land in the country, with rentals amounting to between £1,000 and £5,000 a year. They represented counties and boroughs in the House of Commons, served as deputy lords-lieutenant, sheriffs or unpaid magistrates and overseers of the poor. Following the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 the number of small landowners declined, owing to the burden of taxation or harvest fluctuations or their own extravagance; and so, it seems, less social mobility prevailed than before, although merchants and professional men infiltrated the landed classes. It was an age of stability and conservatism. At the same time neither the small tenant farmers nor the agricultural labourers were materially worse off. The fear that had haunted the Elizabethan government, that the country would be depopulated because of the enclosure of arable fields for pasturage, was shown to have been groundless. Indeed the view was now held that the country was overpopulated.

In this period the bulk of the larger farmers were to be found in the corn-growing areas and a greater number of small farmers in the pastoral districts. There the farmers bought grain from the neighbouring arable regions (which was fairly cheap) to make bread, and they supplemented sheep and cattle grazing with dairy farming, pig farming, fishing, market gardening, carpentry, weaving, mining or other part-time occupations. Since most of them lived in hamlets or small villages they were free from the domination of squires, who, even if they were considerate to their tenants, could not alter their sense of servitude. The absence of a lord of the manor living on the spot gave the small pastoral farmers a sense of independence. They were perfectly content with being tenants, usually on leasehold, which was replacing copyhold tenures, and they did not require much in the way of fixed capital such as ploughs and mills.

It was rather different with the small arable farmers who owned their own land, for while it is an exaggeration to say they were being swept away by enclosures or being bought out of existence by big landowners, the fact remains that such farmers did suffer from the loss of commons and waste on which they had been accustomed to graze their few cows and pigs. But the disappearance of the smallholder, which dates from this time, also owed much to the fact that yeomen were willing to sell their freeholds and set up as large leasehold farmers instead.

What of the cottagers or agricultural labourers? The examination of 119 villages in Nottinghamshire has shown that the population of predominantly rural villages rose only less fast than that of villages in which manufacturing and mining took first place.7 Even in villages where land had been enclosed for pasturage population grew slowly. The low level of food prices in the seventeen-thirties is assumed to have reduced the infant death rate and thus assisted the later increase in the size of the population. At the same time the bounty on corn encouraged the production of wheat and wheaten flour, as well as of barley and malt, for export. Hemp, flax and woad, as well as wool, were grown by substantial farmers, who needed to hire labourers. The dual economy of the pastoral areas – sheep and cattle combined with craftsmanship – gave adequate employment and a reasonable standard of living. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the English lower classes were better off than their European counterparts, and indeed they enjoyed their first golden age since the fourteenth century.

Although textiles continued to be the most important industry in the country, they were becoming more diversified. Besides the New Draperies a linen industry was developing, notably in Lancashire, where smallholders had woven flax, chiefly brought there from Ireland, since the sixteenth century, while the manufacture of stockings and knitted or woven underclothing was spreading. In his tour of Great Britain Daniel Defoe noted that the chief manufacture of Nottingham was the framework knitting of stockings, ‘the same as at Leicester’, and in Warrington he discovered a weekly market for linen ‘called huk-a-back or huk-a-buk’, so well known to housewives that he did not think it necessary to describe it. What the volume of textiles bought at home was cannot be calculated exactly; but to some extent the industry was protected from foreign competition, since the import of printed calicoes was forbidden in 1721 except for the purpose of re-exporting. In Norfolk Norwich ‘stuffs’ were made of silk and wool; elsewhere in East Anglia and in Devonshire bombazines, a twilled dress material such as was used for mourning, and kerseys, the coarse, narrow cloth made from long wool, were produced.

The aulnage system, introduced in the Middle Ages for the inspection and valuation of woollen goods, was unable to cope with all these varieties of textiles and was abolished in 1696. The coal industry extended from the north through the Midlands and mines were being deepened. The output in England, Wales and Scotland was three million tons from 1681 to 1690 and rose to six or seven million by 1760. New ironworks were being erected, more forges and slitting mills constructed, and coppices cultivated as a source of charcoal. Iron was made into ploughshares as well as cannon, but not nearly enough was available for the needs of other industries and iron had to be imported from the Baltic countries and elsewhere. But in 1709 a Quaker ironmaster, Abraham Darby, began producing pig iron smelted with coke, a process that was to help the manufacture of iron castings. The tin industry was still in difficulties, but was rescued by the invention of tinplate during the reign of Queen Anne. Like tin, copper and lead were localized industries. More copper was being fabricated by the end of the seventeenth century. Salt continued to be in immense demand and so did beer; a large brewing industry was developing in London. Ale was consumed in enormous quantities; variety was given to it by warming it, spicing it, and sweetening it. Another lively industry was leather manufacture.

Foremost among new industries was paper-making. Thirty-seven mills existed in 165o and by 1670 fifty or more were making brown paper. Huguenots – Protestants who fled from France in consequence of persecution – improved the technique of paper-making and by the end of the seventeenth century 150 to 200 paper mills were employing 2,500 to 3,000 workmen. Rags and water, necessary to produce the pulp from which paper was made, were in ample supply. Glazed pottery was another new industry, started at Stoke on Trent. The refugees from France contributed to the making of watches, beaver hats, tapestries and fine glass.

It may be an exaggeration to say that by now England had become a semi-industrialized country, but during the first half of the eighteenth century at least a quarter of its inhabitants were employed in mining or manufacture. Yet in 1750 agriculture still remained the largest occupation. Three-quarters of the working people lived in villages and hamlets.

In the second half of the seventeenth century foreign trade had begun to broaden. Up till that time exports had consisted overwhelmingly of woollen cloth, chiefly unfinished broadcloth, New Draperies, such as serges, and, cheapest of all, kersies, dyed and finished in England. But whereas at the outset of the century four-fifths of the total exports from London had been cloth, by the end of the century the proportion was three-quarters, which is still remarkable. By this time the value of all exports (it was not until 1697 that reasonably reliable figures, based on Customs returns, became available) was £6,419,000, including re-exports, and that of imports was £5,849,000. By 1750 the value of exports had risen to £10,000,000 and by 1760 to over £12,000,000. These figures do not take account of the profitable slave trade, or of wool smuggled out and tea smuggled in, though Customs officers were not above searching French ladies’ petticoats for any contraband they could find. More English cloth was being sold in Spain, Portugal and Italy than ever before.

In fact the structure of foreign trade was distinctly changing. Trade with neighbouring countries like France, Spain and Portugal had always been open to all merchants. With the growth and diversification of English manufactured goods, the enlargement of the mercantile marine, the availability of more capital for investment and the success of individual exporters, who were becoming richer and more enterprising, the monopolistic trading companies set up by the government were no longer needed. The Merchant Adventurers lost their privileges in 1689, the Eastland Company was obliged to throw open its trade with the Baltic states in 1673 and the Muscovy Company, already decadent, faded away in 1698, though it continued to exist until fairly modern times. The Levant Company, which did business in Turkey, and the Royal African Company in effect lost their privileged positions by the end of the century.

The East India Company survived, although a rival company had been allowed to start operating in 1698. But the older company had far more experience and possessed valuable assets in its trading posts, warehouses and its own merchant ships. Both companies were organized on a joint-stock basis and by 1702 an agreement for their amalgamation was reached, which came into full effect in 1708. One other exclusive joint-stock company which survived was the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670. It was chiefly concerned with the advantageous fur trade and, like the East India Company, built forts and trading posts in a distant part of the world. Here the government was eventually obliged to intervene to protect the company’s interests against the French in Canada. By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Hudson’s Bay territory and the whole of Newfoundland, where English fishermen sailed annually to catch masses of cod, were recognized as English possessions.

The progress of commerce, dating from the reign of Elizabeth I, meant that banking facilities were needed, if only to discount bills of exchange. Scriveners, business men who were authorized to draft documents and draw up contracts, acted as money-lenders during her reign as well as being investment brokers. During the reign of James I farmers of the Customs lent money to the Crown as advances. But the first recognized bankers were goldsmiths: this was natural, since they dealt in bullion and had a profitable side-line in melting down the heavier gold and silver coins which passed through their hands so that they could be sold as plate or exported as bullion. They also had ‘running cashes’, that is to say, they kept current accounts on which they paid interest and they issued transferable promissory notes which circulated like bank notes. These goldsmiths lent money to Oliver Cromwell and to Charles ii on the security of taxes. But when in 1672 in order to pay for a naval war against the Dutch Charles II’s Lord Treasurer suspended repayment orders, an action known as ‘the Stop of the Exchequer’, their confidence in themselves and the confidence of their customers in them were undermined. As a contemporary wrote:

the people’s fears that their money was not safe in the bankers’ hands blighted them and since there being in their declension, the famous stop upon the Exchequer blasted them to their very roots, men being unwilling to trust money in their hands to lend to his Majesty

because, so it was pathetically alleged, the bankers in consequence of the Stop failed to pay out money deposited with them by widows and orphans.

The war waged by William in (1688-1702) against the French was much more expensive than Charles II’s abortive war against the Dutch, which necessitated the Stop of the Exchequer. Although a land tax as well as enhanced Customs and Excise revenues provided substantial funds, they proved insufficient to cover the cost of overthrowing the strongest military power in the world.

Initially the Bank of England, founded in 1694, was simply the outcome of the Government’s desperate need to borrow money. A group of business men then undertook to borrow £1,200,000 from the public and lend it to the Government at 8 per cent ‘towards carrying on the war against France’. In return these gentlemen were permitted to form the Court of the Bank of England. The interest on the loan was guaranteed by the assignment of the yield of specific duties, and the Bank was allowed to deal in bills of exchange, handle bullion and act as a pawnbroker, but was given no exclusive privileges. Nothing was said in the act of parliament which created the Bank or in its charter about accepting deposits, issuing cheques or providing bank notes. Nevertheless it soon instituted a ‘running cash’, to which the goldsmith bankers contributed by opening accounts with it and thus making it the bankers’ bank. It also began issuing notes of various amounts ‘payable to bearer’. It was the reputation for business acumen and financial integrity of Sir John Houblon, the first Governor, and of members of the Court over which he presided, that explains the ease with which the money was raised for the Government and the Bank’s ability to lend more money than it actually possessed in gold and silver coin to its customers.

The foundation of the Bank was followed by recoinage, managed by the celebrated scientist Sir Isaac Newton, which meant that clipped or unmilled silver coins were no longer to be accepted except for a time in payment of loans and taxes. This caused a scarcity of coin and a run on the Bank, which it succeeded in surviving. Exchequer bills were also issued at this time, carrying interest and charged against specific taxes, but they did not prove so readily acceptable as the Bank’s own notes.

Before the Bank was founded another device to procure funds for the war had been tried. A million pounds was borrowed from the public to be paid for in the form of annuities. This was the origin of the National Debt. Thus both long-term and short-term government borrowing were instituted. By 1750 the National Debt stood at £78,000,000. Stockbrokers and stock-jobbers also came into being at about this time and were officially recognized by an act of parliament during the remarkable last decade of the seventeenth century. Quotations of stocks and shares prices were published, though the London Stock Exchange was not built until later.

The foundation of the Bank of England and of the National Debt had thus been necessitated by the needs of waging a long war against France (1689-97) in which England materially helped in the humiliation of the Sun King, Louis xiv. With its financial house in order the country was able five years later to face and win a second European war (the War of the Spanish Succession), this time not under the unattractive Dutch monarch, William III, but under Good Queen Anne, who boasted of her ‘English heart’. Victory in this second war, which ended in 1713, created a rampant sense of national pride and established the first British Empire. Scotland had been united with England and Wales in 1707, and by the peace treaty England acquired not only the valuable fishing rights off Newfoundland and control of the fur trade, organized from Hudson’s Bay, but also the Isthmus of Acadia (known later as Nova Scotia), where the fertile soil yielded crops and marshlands fed cattle. It also obtained a monopoly of the slave trade with Spanish America and permission to send one merchant ship annually to trade there, permission that was exploited to cover smuggling.

In the economic sphere imperialism was exemplified by the series of Navigation Acts intended to multiply shipping at the expense of the Dutch and other foreigners, by the quadrupling of import duties between 1690 and 1704, by the bounty on the export of corn, made permanent in 1689, by the ban on the imports of calicoes after 1701 and by the encouragement of ‘infant industries’ through prohibitions placed on other imports, such as linen and gold thread. On the other hand, the abolition of export duties began in 1699 and was completed after Sir Robert Walpole became the leading Minister in the House of Commons during 1722. Thus a tight system of protection – or a ‘mercantile system’ as it was to be called later – was introduced which endured for a century. After that free trade versus protection became the subject of virulent political controversy, only to be submerged when the European Economic Community was founded in the twentieth century.

England’s financial and commercial progress was reflected in a steady reduction in the rate of interest, which was 10 per cent in 1625 and 5 per cent in 1714. The opportunity to invest in business rather than in land was welcomed. The Bank of England, the East India Company and dozens of smaller companies such, for example, as Sun Insurance, offered opportunities to do so.

Anticipating the opening of trade with the Spanish overseas empire, a South Sea Company was established and received a royal charter in 1711. It was not really a trading company but a finance company, which ambitiously aimed to outdo the Bank of England and the East India Company by loaning £10,000,000 to the Government and thus take over responsibility for most of the National Debt at a low rate of interest. The directors boldly promised to pay an annual dividend of 50 per cent on its shares. By June 1720 the value of its £100 shares on the Stock Exchange soared to £1,050. In its wake mushroom companies or ‘bucket shops’, as they were later called, were formed and had little difficulty in raising funds, so potent was the craze for financial speculation. But by the end of the year the bubble burst. The South Sea shares fell to £200 and many who had bought at a much higher price were ruined. The shock to the public credit was electric, since the company had been backed by the Government; even Walpole had invested in it. A so-called ‘Bubble Act’ had been passed by Parliament on 24 June 1720, declaring that the formation of joint-stock companies without a charter was illegal; and after an investigation during the winter some of the directors of the South Sea Company were sent to prison and all of them had their estates sequestrated. However, the company outlived its unfortunate beginning, carried on trade with South America for several years, and was not wound up until 1807.

English social life in the first half of the eighteenth century was ruled by an aristocracy that was rich and becoming richer. These noblemen monopolized positions at the Court of St James’s and the most active of them obtained political offices, which, even if occupied for only a few years, generally proved lucrative. They built themselves palatial houses like Blenheim in Oxfordshire, Woburn in Bedfordshire, Cannons in Middlesex, Castle Howard in the East Riding of Yorkshire and Burley in Rutlandshire. They found handsome dowries for their daughters, generous allowances for their eldest sons, entertained lavishly and had domestic staffs ranging upwards from fifty to a hundred servants.

What is noticeable about the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is that this ‘small caste’,” as it has been called, who never worried unduly about getting into debt, derived their incomes less from the rents of their vast acreages and more from offices and investments, from industry, mines, marriages and even speculation. It was not really a caste. John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, came from a modest Dorsetshire family; Sir Thomas Osborne, who became Duke of Leeds, and Sir Robert Walpole, who was created Earl of Orford, were country gentlemen, with no aristocratic ancestors, from Yorkshire and Norfolk respectively: but having earned their titles they merged into a group of peers who all knew each other and lived similar kinds of lives.

How did they relax when they were not at home or in London? The days of seaside resorts (Brighton was then a poor fishing village lapped by an unfriendly sea) or holidays abroad had not yet dawned, except that some of the nobility completed their education by going on Grand Tours of Europe, moving around France, Italy or Spain even when a war was in progress. But the well-to-do had a choice of spas where they could enjoy themselves during the summer months. Epsom was a very popular resort, conveniently near London, because there horse racing ‘over those delicious downs’ could be seen and mineral water drunk for health’s sake from the wells. Tunbridge Wells was tricky because it was famed (as Daniel Defoe explained) for its ‘gaming, sharping and intrigue’. Ladies could find ‘all the felicities’ there if they had money, but they needed to take care of their reputations. When he toured the country Defoe preferred Buxton to Bath. Buxton had only one decent hotel, owned by the Duke of Devonshire, at the bath itself; but the surrounding country was pleasant for coach drives, whereas Bath, he thought, was ‘more like a prison than a place of diversion, scarcely giving the company there room to converse out of the smell of their own excrements and where the very city itself may be said to stink like a general common-shore [sewer]’.

The nobility patronized the theatre, prize-fighting and hunting. A foreign visitor was particularly impressed by the entertainment provided at Sadlers Wells in the village of Islington, north of London, where the proceedings started with a variety show, which included acrobats, rope dancers and men climbing ladders leaning against nothing, and concluded with a pantomime given in a pretty little theatre, where the audience ate and drank as they watched.

For ordinary folk the taverns, where huge quantities of beer were drunk, and spirit shops that sold cheap gin were the chief centres of relaxation en famille, gin being usually laced with fruit cordials. The ravages of excessive drinking offended the public conscience and acts of parliament were passed aimed at preventing illicit sales, which ultimately quartered the consumption of spirits in the middle of the eighteenth century. Increased imports of rum from the West Indies and tobacco from Virginia and Maryland, selling at a penny a pound, offered new indulgences. By 1750, too, more tea and sugar were being consumed. At coffee houses in London and elsewhere tea and chocolate, as well as wine, ale and punch could be bought and newspapers (which began to flourish in the reign of Queen Anne) were made freely available, as in modem French cafés. A Swiss visitor to the English capital in the seventeen-twenties was shocked at the amount of drinking: ‘Could you believe it,’ he wrote home, ‘though water is to be had in abundance in London and of fairly good quality, absolutely none of it is drunk?’ He also thought the English were large eaters, though their cooking was ‘simple’.

Another thing that struck this visitor was the character and qualities of Englishwomen. ‘You do not see many beautiful women in London’, he informed his correspondents: countrywomen, however, he found charming and attractive, with complexions like lilies and roses; but Englishmen, he noted, did not spoil their women by flattery and attention; they preferred drinking and gambling to feminine society.

John Evelyn, who did not die until 1706 at the age of seventy-five, thought that English ladies had deteriorated since his younger days: whereas before ‘they put their hands to the spindle and did not disdain the needle and were helpful to their parents’, by the end of the seventeenth century they were reading too many romances and saw too many plays, including ‘smutty farces’. But their dresses at least improved, in his view, for instead of ‘the gorgeous brocaded robes, showing quilted and beaded under-skirts, the long hard bodice, stiffened with whalebone and encrusted with embroidery and gold lace’, they turned to a more sober garb of velvet and satin, wore few but good jewels, and combed their hair naturally; countrywomen dressed simply, a cap on their heads, a handkerchief in their bosoms and clogs on their feet.

By the time the Hanoverians came to the throne in 1714 women were able to buy their clothes more cheaply, at any rate Defoe thought so, because he wrote that ‘almost everything that used to be wool or silk relating to the dress of women … was supplied by the Indian trade’: besides silk dresses, these included checked and striped cottons, printed calicoes, muslins, chintzes and other such fabrics brought in by the East India Company from India, Persia and China. Acts of parliament in 1701 and 1721 attempted to stem the flow of imports from India; their competition certainly stimulated the growth of the cotton industry in Lancashire, but that made little progress before 1750.

Looking at the economic position of England as a whole during the first half of the eighteenth century, it is clear that the condition of the labouring classes had improved considerably. As the size of the population was increasing only slowly, if at all, the supply of labour was limited, while the demand for workers in the expanding coal industry, the metal trades and the incipient cotton industry must have been considerable. Progress was reflected in higher production in the iron industry, for instance, now concentrated largely in the west Midlands and Wales, which doubled its output between 1700 and 1750, as well as in printing and paper-making, brewing, hosiery, building, leather manufacture and woollen textiles, where finishing processes had at last been mastered. With the building of workhouses and fairly heavy expenditure out of poor rates, the less capable must have been drawn off from the labour market.

After the two long wars against France had ended, prices (which reached their peak in 1710-11) began to fall – it has been claimed that average prices between 1730 and 1750 were the lowest ever known – and real wages rose. Whereas previously workers employed in their own houses were thought to have been better off than full-time labourers paid by weekly wages, the difference now was considered to be marginal.

Domestic servants, who were employed in large numbers by members of the nobility but also by quite modest households, were usually well treated and had ambitious ideas about the food they should be given. At Woburn the Duke of Bedford’s servants were regularly visited by qualified surgeons who bled them several times a year and pulled out their teeth at their master’s expense. Wages were not high, but servants were usually supplied with clothes as well as food and expected to be tipped by visitors, so that dining at a nobleman’s house could prove quite costly: some servants doubled their wages with tips.9 In yeomen’s houses servants were looked upon as members of the family. In Samuel Pepys’s time they might be beaten if they neglected their duties. Most servants were well fed and were paid an allowance for tea (or beer).

The Tory pamphleteer Charles Davenant considered that there was ‘no country in the world where the inferior rank of men were better fed’. Daniel Defoe believed that the mass of the people ate well and drank well – ‘three times as much as any sort of foreigners’ – for they had, in his opinion, plenty of meat and beer. ‘Even those whom we call poor people’, he added, ‘lie warm, live in plenty, work hard and need know no want.’ Of course the enthusiasm of political pamphleteers needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but Defoe himself was an employer and a widely travelled reporter, who ought to have known what he was talking about.

One fact is clear about England in the first half of the eighteenth century: this is that after the end of the European wars commerce boomed, partly because Robert Walpole as Prime Minister secured twenty years of peace and partly because the first British Empire furnished assured markets in North America, the West Indies and India, to which goods made in England could be profitably exported. By 1752 exports were valued at £5,400,000 and re-exports at £3,500,000, four or five times the figure a century earlier. More manufactured goods were exported and fewer imported. England was ceasing to be an underdeveloped country. Its industries, in which more capital was being invested, were prospering, and its agricultural output was large enough for grain to be regularly exported abroad.

The country had well-tried financial institutions, headed by the Bank of England; a Board of Trade had been set up in 1696, and commercial statistics were collected by an Inspector General of Customs from 1699 onwards, showing a lively export trade and a favourable balance of payments. Agricultural methods were improving, industry was becoming more varied, and the standard of living of the wage-earning classes was higher than anywhere in Europe. Because of all this and the long period of peace during the early eighteenth century England was an affluent country.


  1. H.R. Trevor-Roper, Archbishop Laud (1962), P. 298
  2. Charles Wilson, England’s Apprenticeship 16o3-1763 (1965), P. 120
  3. J.H. Hexter, ‘Storm over the Gentry’, Encounter, 56 (1958), P. 32
  4. H.J. Habbakuk, ‘English Landownership 1680-1740’, Economic History Review, X (1940), P. ii
  5. G.E. Fussell, Economic History Review, IX (1938-9), pp. 68-71; Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution 1979), pp. 40—I
  6. G.E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (1963), P. 19
  7. J.D. Chambers, ‘Enclosure and Labour Supply in the Industrial Revolution’, in E. L. Jones (ed.), Agriculture and Economic Growth in England (1967), P. ii
  8. J.H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole: the Making of  Statesman (1956), p. 6
  9. Dorothy Marshall, The English Domestic Servant in History (1969), pp. 17-19