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The Cities

The dramatic growth of  English cities and towns began in the 1700s, led by the emergence of London as one of the world’s greatest metropolises. It was a time of great riches and incredible poverty and suffering, depending on which class you belonged to, and how fortune treated you.

The Ports

The ports were the lifeblood of Britain’s economic boom. London, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle vied for supremacy. They were hives of activity and the key to developments in the interior of the country.

Soldiers and Seamen

Drawn mostly from the poorer classes and led by officers whose commissions were bought or resulted from entitlements, the British army and navy were miserable places to be a common soldier or sailor. Yet their discipline and bravery built an empire.

The Farms

To be an agricultural labourer in the second half of the 18th century was usually to play a losing hand in the lottery of life. A lifetime’s work could still lead to death in a poorhouse.

The Empire takes shape: 
England, 1700-1800

For more than two hundred years, the British held sway as the world’s greatest military, economic and political power. At its height, the British Empire embraced a quarter of the world’s population, from Canada to New Zealand and from India to South America, and seemingly included in its paternalistic fold every incidental island, atoll and rock in between.

Just what enabled this small island nation off the northern coast of Europe to rise to such global domination was a combination of numerous factors, but it’s doubtful it could ever have happened without the forced isolation imposed by the surrounding seas. An island nation needs to trade. As Britain’s agricultural production finally began to outgrow her needs, her eyes turned outward to the trade routes that would bring prosperity. Trade routes needed a navy both for exploration and protection, and England’s navy, which had already begun to look like a serious asset in the 1500s, was dominant by the mid-1700s and unassailable for most of the 1800s after the Napoleonic Wars. It’s share of the world’s trade in the 1700s was enormous, while its explorers, missionaries and colonizers planted the Union Jack everywhere. Moreover, an island nation is more difficult to invade than one that is landlocked. Foreign soldiers and mercenaries can’t simply walk across borders, and over the centuries that complication proved to be a costly factor for the Spanish, the French and the Germans in their turn. 

It would be simplistic to attribute everything about the emergence of Britain as a dominant world power to its navy. Its political and economic system - in the 1700s, with all its many faults, still the most liberal in the world - was another. Trade and commercial interests would fuel the economy, drive scientific invention and lay the basis for the Industrial Revolution. Those developments, in turn, would transform the face of Britain, driving social and political change well into the 20th century.

Historians tend not to divide periods neatly into centuries, but rather to bracket time periods between notable events that seem to shape or influence succeeding decades. Thus, it’s common to read of the so-called “Long 18th century” as the period from the Restoration of the English monarchy after the Civil War (1688) to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. Some historians extend this period even later. However, for our purposes the centuries provide convenient divisions when looking at the world in which the individuals and families featured on this web site lived. 

The picture of Britain in the 1700s, then, is a mosaic of military and political power, rapidly changing agricultural and manufacturing practices, scientific inventions and social and economic change. See the panel to the left for more details of 18th Century England.
The Times
  England in the 1700s
  1. Bullet English towns in the 1700s - link to come

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