Life in England in the 18th Century

By Tim Lambert

Society in 18th Century Britain

In the late 18th century the industrial revolution began to transform life in Britain. Until then most people lived in the countryside and made their living from farming. By the mid 19th century most people in Britain lived in towns and made their living from mining or manufacturing industries.

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

Owning land was the main form of wealth in the 18th century. Political power and influence were in the hands of rich landowners. At the top were the nobility. Below them was a class of nearly rich landowners called the gentry. In the early 18th century there was another class of landowners called yeomen between the rich and the poor. However, during the century this class became less and less numerous. But other middle-class people such as merchants and professional men became richer and more numerous, especially in the towns.

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

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

At the end of the 1700s, a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect was formed. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They were later called the Clapham Sect because so many of them lived in Clapham.

Population in 18th Century Britain

At the end of the 17th century, it was estimated the population of England and Wales was about 5 1/2 million. The population of Scotland was about 1 million. The population of London was about 600,000. In the mid-18th century the population of Britain was about 6 1/2 million. In the late 18th century it grew rapidly and by 1801 it was over 9 million. The population of London was almost 1 million.

But most towns still had populations of less than 10,000. However, in the late 18th century new industrial towns in the Midlands and the North of England mushroomed.

The population of Liverpool was about 77,000 in 1800. Birmingham had about 73,000 people and Manchester had about 70,000. Bristol had a population of about 68,000. Sheffield was smaller with 31,000 people and Leeds had about 30,000 people. Leicester had a population of about 17,000 in 1800. In the south, Portsmouth had a population of about 32,000 in 1800 while Exeter had about 20,000 people.

Towns in 18th Century England

In the later 18th century bodies of men called Paving or Improvement Commissioners were formed in many towns. They had the power to pave and clean the streets and sometimes to light them with oil lamps. Some also arranged collections of rubbish. Since most of it was organic it could be sold as fertilizer.

Agriculture in 18th Century England

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

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

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

Under the 3 field system, which still covered much of England, all the land around a village or small town, was divided into 3 huge fields. Each farmer owned some strips of land in each field. During the 18th century, land was enclosed. That means it was divided up so each farmer had all his land in one place instead of scattered across 3 fields. Enclosure allowed farmers to use their land more efficiently. Also in the 18th century, farmers like Robert Bakewell began scientific stock breeding (selective breeding). Farm animals grew much larger and they gave more meat, wool, and milk.

Food in the 18th Century

There was little change in food in the 18th century. Despite the improvements in farming food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them, meat was a luxury. In England, a poor person’s food was mainly bread and potatoes. In the 18th century drinking tea became common even among ordinary people.

Houses in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, a tiny minority of the population lived in luxury. The rich built great country houses. A famous landscape gardener called Lancelot Brown (1715-1783) created beautiful gardens. (He was known as ‘Capability’ Brown from his habit of looking at land and saying it had ‘great capabilities’). The leading architect of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792). He created a style called neo-classical and he designed many 18th-century country houses.

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

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

Clothes in the 1700s

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

Women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. Women in the 18th century did not wear knickers. Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the rich in the 18th century but poor people’s clothes hardly changed at all.

Leisure in the 18th Century

Traditional games remained popular in the 18th century. These included games such as chess, draughts, and backgammon. They also tennis and a rough version of football. It is believed dominoes was invented in China. It reached Europe in the 18th century. Then in 1759, a man named John Jeffries invented an entirely new board game called A Journey Through Europe or The Play of Geography in which players race across a map of Europe.

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

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

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

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

Reading was also a popular pastime in the 18th century and the first novels were published at this time. Books were still expensive but in many towns, you could pay to join a circulating library. The first daily newspaper in England was printed in 1702. The Times began in 1785.

Many people enjoyed cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bull baiting. (A bull was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Rich people liked fox hunting. Public executions were also popular and they drew large crowds. Boxing without gloves was also popular (although some boxers began to wear leather gloves in the 18th century). Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds. Furthermore, in the late 18th century the circus became a popular form of entertainment.

Smoking clay pipes was popular in the 18th century. So was taking snuff. Wealthy young men would go on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe lasting one or two years.

Education in the 18th Century

In the early 18th century charity schools were founded in many towns in England. They were sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of the children’s uniforms. Boys from well-off families went to grammar schools. Girls from well-off families also went to school. However, dissenters (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England) were not allowed to attend most public schools. Instead, they went to their dissenting academies.

Transport in the 18th Century

Transport was greatly improved during the 18th century. Groups of rich men formed turnpike trusts. Acts of Parliament gave them the right to improve and maintain certain roads. Travelers had to pay tolls to use them. The first turnpikes were created as early as 1663 but they became far more common in the 18th century.

Transporting goods was also made much easier by digging canals. In the early 18th century goods were often transported by packhorse. Moving heavy goods was very expensive. However, in 1759 the Duke of Bridgewater decided to build a canal to bring coal from his estate at Worsley to Manchester. He employed an engineer called James Brindley. When it was completed the Bridgewater canal halved the price of coal in Manchester. Many more canals were dug in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. They played a major role in the industrial revolution by making it cheaper to transport goods.

Travel in the 18th century was made dangerous by highwaymen. The most famous is Dick Turpin (1705-1739). Originally a butcher Turpin does not deserve his romantic reputation. In reality, he was a cruel and brutal man. Like many of his fellow highwaymen, he was hanged. Smuggling was also very common in the 18th century. It could be very profitable as import duties on goods like rum and tobacco were very high.

Medicine in the 18th Century

Knowledge of anatomy greatly improved in the 18th century. The famous 18th-century surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) is sometimes called the Father of Modern Surgery. He invented new procedures such as tracheotomy. Among other advances, a Scottish surgeon named James Lind discovered that fresh fruit or lemon juice could cure or prevent scurvy. He published his findings in 1753.

A major scourge of the 18th century was smallpox. Some people realized that milkmaids who caught cowpox were immune to smallpox. A doctor named Jenner introduced vaccination. The patient was cut then matter from a cowpox pustule was introduced. The patient gained immunity to smallpox. (Jenner was not the first to think of this idea but because of his work it became a common practice).

In 1700 many people believed that scrofula (a form of tubercular infection) could be healed by a monarch’s touch. (Scrofula was called the king’s evil). Queen Anne (1702-1714) was the last British monarch to touch for scrofula.

However, there were still many quacks in the 18th century. Limited medical knowledge meant many people were desperate for a cure. One of the most common treatments, for the wealthy, was bathing in or drinking spa water, which they believed could cure all kinds of illnesses.

Art and Science in the 18th Century

During the 18th century, England produced two great portrait painters, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Meanwhile, the artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) painted scenes showing the harsh side of 18th-century life. The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768. In theatre, the greatest actor of the 18th century was David Garrick (1717-1779).

In science Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) discovered oxygen. Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) discovered hydrogen. He also calculated the mass and density of the earth. William Herschel (1738-1822) discovered Uranus. The Scottish engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) built roads, canals, and the Menai suspension bridge.

Technology in the 18th Century

In the late 18th century technology advanced rapidly as Britain industrialized. From 1712 Thomas Newcomen made steam engines to pump water from mines. Then, in 1769, James Watt patented a more efficient steam engine and in the 1780s it was adapted to power machinery. The first industry to become mechanized was the textile industry. In 1771 Richard Arkwright opened a cotton-spinning mill with a machine called a water frame, which was powered by a water mill. Then, in 1779, Samuel Crompton invented a new cotton-spinning machine called a spinning mule. Finally, in 1785 Edmund Cartwright invented a loom that could be powered by a steam engine. As a result of these new inventions, cotton production boomed.

Iron production also grew rapidly. In 1784 a man named Henry Cort (1740-1800) invented a much better way of making wrought iron. Until then men had to beat red hot iron with hammers to remove impurities. In 1784 Cort invented the puddling process. The iron was melted in an extremely hot furnace and stirred of ‘puddled’ to remove impurities. The result was a vast increase in iron production.

Religion in the 18th Century

The early 18th century was noted for its lack of religious enthusiasm and the churches in England lacked vigor. However, in the mid-18th century, things began to change. In 1739 the great evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) began preaching. Also in 1739, John Wesley (1703-1791) began preaching. He eventually created a new religious movement called the Methodists. His brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was a famous hymn writer.

John Wesley traveled all over the country, often preaching in open spaces. People jeered at his meetings and threw stones but Wesley persevered. He never intended to form a movement separate from the Church of England. However, the Methodists did eventually break away. After 1760 Methodism spread to Scotland.

In Wales, there was a great revival in the years 1738-1742. Howell Harris (1714-1773) was a key figure. Scotland was also swept by a revival in the mid-18th century. William McCulloch and James Robe were the leading figures.

Last revised 2024