Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Foundling children (update)

The Foundling Museum have released this fascinating story of how foundling children were robbed by an unscrupulous trader. See this report in The Guardian. By bringing in Oliver Twist and workhouses the article muddies the waters somewhat but it's still a very interesting read.

And also in The Guardian there's this very interesting review of the current excellent 'Feeding the Four Hundred exhibition'.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Making Georgian bacon

As we know, before the development of fodder crops allowed animals to be fed over the winter, most had to be slaughtered in the autumn. This article describes the laborious process of making bacon, a great staple of the winter diet. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The experience of industrialisation

The world's first factory.
Cromford mill, 1771
 Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons  

The term ‘Industrial Revolution’ was coined in 1884 by Sir Arnold Toynbee to describe the move from domestic to factory production, a process made possible by the application of water- and steam-power. 

Not all historians agree with this term. Those who prefer to think in terms of evolution point out that in the middle of the nineteenth century most people still worked on the land, or worked in unmodernised industries.

However, industrialisation should be seen as one of the great changes of history along with the prehistoric neolithic revolution. The census of 1851 revealed that the majority of British people were no longer living in rural areas but in towns and cities. This had never happened before in human history. 

The Industrial Revolution took place against the background of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. The demand for more goods stimulated innovation, which then produced more goods at lower prices and provided a further stimulus to consumerism.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

"Tyburn tree" by Unknown
Retrieved from National Archives website.
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

Why study crime?

Crime is well-documented for this period, and digital material such as the wonderful Old Bailey Online is now making a vast mass of material widely available. A study of property crime shows us the range of consumer goods in a society. Changing attitudes to crime provide an insight into wider social attitudes. 


There have been anxieties about crime in most periods of history. Sometimes the anxieties were exaggerated but this is not always the case. In the eighteenth century there was anxiety about crime caused by the prevalence of cheap gin. In London in the 1850s and 1860s there was a panic about garrotting. In the 1890s the word 'hooligan' came into use.

The growth of crime was the obverse of the consumer revolution, fuelled by the increase in the volume and range of goods in circulation. To eighteenth-century social commentators like the novelist, Henry Fielding, the key cause of crime was not poverty but ‘luxury’ - a word which symbolised the dangerous aspirations of those who sought material possessions and ‘diversions’ above their station. For example, the gin epidemic, made famous by Hogarth's print, 'Gin Lane' (1751) was seen as a cause not a consequence of poverty. 

'GinLane by William Hogarth
Licensed under Public domain 
via Wikimedia Commons 

One eighteenth-century strategy against crime, especially highway robbery, was the bill of exchange. But watches, silk handkerchiefs or even wigs could be stolen from individuals with relative ease from the swelling number of shops. The word shoplifting was first recorded in 1680. But property crime could not be prevented. It was the obverse of the consumer revolution.

The administration of the law

Since the Glorious Revolution, English law was regarded as superior to all other systems. Torture was not allowed, legal proceedings were public, trial by jury was common, habeas corpus acted as a safeguard for liberties, and the judges were not subject to political intimidation. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Education in Norfolk in the eighteenth century

I've just come across a very good blog post about education in eighteenth-century Norfolk, which throws more light on the varieties of educational provision in the period. It reinforces the growing view that more people might have been literate than was previously thought.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Religion in the eighteenth century

John Wesley

Secularism: the debate

Historians debate how far eighteenth-century England was moving towards secularisationCompared with previous centuries, there was a greater range of leisure activities and reading materials, and this made people less reliant on religion that in the past. On the other hand, the eighteenth century saw important religious movements and religion continued to play a major role.

Varieties of religion

In his Letters on the English, the French sceptical writer, Voltaire saw religious liberty as characteristic of England. 
‘Everyone is permitted to serve God in whatever way he thinks proper.’ 

He was struck by the variety of religious practice he had observed during his stay in England from 1726 to 1728. 

Since the reign of Elizabeth I the Church of England had been the established religion of the country. Everyone was obliged by law to attend their parish church on Sundays and religious dissent was not tolerated. But during the Civil the machinery for enforcing uniform religious observance broke down. The Anglican monopoly was challenged, first by Presbyterians and Independents, and then by Baptists and Quakers.  

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Philanthropy in the eighteenth century

"St Lukes Hospital for Lunatics, London" by Unknown -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Although the 18th century has a reputation for lax morals, it was also an age of profound moral earnestness and of burgeoning philanthropy. One of the key moral values was ‘benevolence’. Both the aristocracy and the middling sort founded and contributed to numerous and varied charities, which acted as a sort of proto-welfare state. See this site for more information about the range of charities to be found in London.

Besides ‘benevolence’ there were other motives for charity. One was ‘social control’ – fears of a moral collapse among the ‘common people’ and the desire for trustworthy servants. Another was the  fear that the population was declining and the consequent need to save lives – especially young lives.

The most modern forms of charity were subscription charities, which appeared in the 1690s alongside other forms of subscription association such as the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Certain features marked the new charities out:

  1. They were not linked by any formal ties to the apparatus of local government and they drew no revenue from any form of taxation.
  2. They devoted considerable care and energy to wooing subscribers, often publishing annual reports and subscribers’ names.
  3. They commonly gave subscribers a voice, even outright control over management.

Sunday schools

This post is based on:
T. W. Laquer, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working-Class Culture, 1780-1850 (Yale University Press, 1976)
Anne Stott, Hannah More: The First Victorian (Oxford University Press, 2004)

The rise of Sunday schools

Robert Raikes by W. J. Townsend,
H. B. Workman and George Eayrs
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons
By the 1780s Sunday schools were the latest fashion in philanthropy. They were not invented by the Gloucester printer, Robert Raikes, but it was Raikes who turned Sunday schools into a national movement.  Many of the schools were set up by women. Of these the most famous was the school set up by Mrs Sarah Trimmer at Brentford to the west of London, which was patronised by Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.

The rise of Sunday schools was part of the intensification of religion following the Methodist revival, and part as well of the new climate of moral earnestness that followed Britain’s defeat in America. In 1785 the inter-denominational Sunday School Society was founded. 

Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital

Thomas Coram, by William Hogarth -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Thomas Coram (c. 1668-1751) retired to Rotherhithe in 1719 after achieving success in the New World, establishing a shipwright's business in Boston, and later in Taunton, Massachusetts. 

On his frequent walks through the City on winter mornings, Coram was appalled at the sight of dead and dying babies abandoned on the streets. This inspired him to take action. In 1722, inspired by the foundling hospitals on the Continent, he advocated one for London. His idea was to petition the king (George I) for a charter to create a non-profit-making organization supported by subscriptions, but at first this met with no success. He found it impossible to gain the support of anyone influential enough to approach the king and there continued to be great opposition to the idea of a Foundling Hospital established, partly because it was considered to encourage wantonness and prostitution.

The turning point in Coram’s campaign was the ‘ladies petition’ of 1729 signed by 21 peeresses, and the patronage of Queen Caroline (the wife of George II).  His petitions came before the king in council in July 1737. Subscriptions poured in and on 17 October 1739 the King signed a Royal Charter for a hospital for the 

‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. 
The Governors and Guardians of this new enterprise met to receive the Charter on 20th November 1739 at Somerset House. The group included many of the important figures of the day: dukes and earls, magnates and merchant bankers. Supporters of standing included the physician, Dr Richard Mead, and the artist William Hogarth. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

More on witch marks

A timely Halloween article in The Guardian about witch marks (see my earlier post for information about them). Have you searched your house to see if you have any?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

More on broadside ballads

Digital technology is transforming the study of popular culture. If you follow the links round this site you will learn about the fabulous collection of 30,000 broadside ballads in the possession of Oxford University's Bodleian Library.

Learning to write the alphabet

See here for how children learned to write in Shakespeare's day.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Literacy and education

A horn book from the Derby Museum,
by Mainlymazza -
Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
This post owes a great deal to David Cressy, ‘Literacy in context: meaning and measurement in early modern England’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, 1993), 306) and to Margaret Spufford's famous and ground-breaking, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Methuen 1981). Susan Whyman's The Pen and the People: English Letter writers 1660-1800 is another ground-breaking study for a slightly later period.

A problem for historians

Literacy is difficult to define for the period.  Does it just mean reading very simple sentences or does it require more sophisticated reading skills?  It is a problem for historians because it is  an ambivalent indicator of cultural attainment  It was by no means a necessity. A mark had the same legal standing as a signature. And many activities, particularly rural ones, did not need literacy. Every community contained at least one literate person, who could meet the needs of his illiterate neighbours.  

Monday, 10 October 2016

Witchcraft in England

Matthew Hopkins, the Essex witch finder.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A European phenomenon

Between 1400 and 1800 between forty and fifty thousand people, mainly women, died in Europe and colonial north America on charges of witchcraft. Europeans had long believed in witches yet only in the period after 1500 did they turn this cultural assumption into a one of the major killers of western Europe.

What is witchcraft?

Belief in magic has always been common and exists in the world today, for example in Africa. But what is unique to western Christian civilization is the belief in a personal devil. There were two quite different but related activities denoted by the word witchcraft as it was used in early modern Europe: the practice of maleficium, and worshipping the devil. Maleficium meaning calling down a curse on another, was the effect of witchcraft. The cause was the pact with the devil. It was usually believed that those witches who made pacts with the devil also worshipped him collectively in nocturnal ceremonies, the ‘witches’ sabbath’ that could include naked dancing or the cannibalism of infants.

Witch marks at Knole

The renovations currently taking place at Knole have discovered a witch mark, carved apparently for the visit of James I. See here for the details. There is a fascinating forty-minute Gresham College lecture on this that can be viewed here.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Women in early-modern England

I have consulted these (and other) books for this post.

Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480-1750 (Clarendon Press, 1998)
Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe (HarperCollins, 1995).
Anne Laurence, Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History (Phoenix, 1994)
Rafaella Sarti, Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture 1500-1800 (Yale University Press, 2002)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)


Women carding and spinning
Women’s work was essential to the economy though frequently under-reported. It was ‘was arranged informally and rarely involved contact with official bodies. The work above all associated with women was spinning. Women were continually spinning and the spindle and the distaff were the signs of the hard-working woman (The distaff was probably given such significance because it was possible to spin in intervals between other tasks or even in carrying out other tasks – or in the evening while being courted.)

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Poor relief and Jane Austen

The 1601 Poor Law was still operational in Jane Austen's lifetime. This brilliant blog post shows its workings and Austen's novels and her life. Do read.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Early modern English Society

This is a very brief overview of a complex subject. I've found the following books very helpful.

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1988)
Joel Hurstfield and Alan G. R. Smith (eds.), Elizabethan People: State and Society (Edward Arnold, 1972)
Kentish Souces: IV The Poor (Kent County Council, 1964)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Joyce Youings, Sixteenth-Century England (Penguin, 1984)

These almshouses at Hungerford, Wiltshire
date from the seventeenth century,
and are a particularly good example
of private (as opposed to parish) poor relief
 in early-modern England


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the population of the British Isles was still small. 
England and Wales: 2.25m.
Scotland: 0.75m
Ireland: 0.75m
For a while the relatively high living standards of the fifteenth century continued, but from the 1520s agrarian society was subjected to sustained population pressure. In spite of the pressures of famine and disease, the population had risen to above 4 million by the 1590s.


It has been estimated that England contained about 8 million sheep, or three to every human, and with the extermination of the wolf, sheep had no natural predators. The growth of the sheep population was a response to the population decline of the 15th century and the demands of the cloth trade - but when the population began to rise in the early 16th century the complaint was that ‘sheep do eat up men’. Pastoral farming for wool, leather and meat took up large areas of arable land as enclosed fields. In 1496 there were enclosure riots around Coventry and in 1549 the issue of enclosure almost provoked revolution

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Asa Brigg's Social History of England

I've been asked to recommend a book that gives a birds'-eye account of English social history, and one of the best available is Asa Briggs' Social History of England. It is now available second-hand at an amazingly cheap price. See here.

The Reformation and cultural change

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
It was dissolved in 1539 and the abbot was
hanged for treason.
I have used the following books (among others) for this post:

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Sutton, 2004)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992)
Eamon Duffy, Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2001)
Christopher Haigh, English Reformations:Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Clarendon Press, 1993)

The changes to church and state brought about by Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the religious policies of his successors had profound cultural consequences and this is only a very brief account. 

The dissolution of the monasteries

At first the government’s moves were aimed only at the smaller religious houses (those with incomes of less than £200 pa). This inspired a series of revolts in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in 1536 and 1537, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebels marched behind the banners of the Five Wounds of Christ and of St Cuthbert. Economic grievances and northern resentment at a policy dictated from the south were mingled with religious outrage. Ballads lamented the economic distress they thought would result from the loss of monastic charity. This was the last serious attempt to halt the process of the Reformation in England - and it failed.

The rebellion gave the government the excuse to dissolve more monasteries. In September 1538 the shrine of Thomas Becket was destroyed; chests of jewels were carried away so heavy that ‘six or eight strong men’ were needed to lug one box and twenty carts to carry them away.  An Act of April 1539 recognized the dissolution of the larger monasteries. By this time monasticism was only a shell. There was not much left to dissolve and the Act’s main function was to recognise surrenders already made. In April 1540 Waltham Abbey surrendered - the last to go.

Many of the monasteries then became private houses or parts of the buildings were seen as a valuable investment. In 1613, at the very end of his playwriting career, William Shakespeare made a substantial investment in property in London, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, where the Blackfriars Theatre was located, for £140. Others, especially if they were in remote rural areas, simply decayed. By the eighteenth century ruined abbeys were seen as picturesque and had become tourist attractions,

The monks were pensioned off. The average pension was five or six pounds per annum, the wage of an unskilled workman or the stipend of a poor priest. But the nuns received very small pensions, and they were debarred from marriage.  Many of the friars became parish priests.

Late medieval popular religion

This post is based on the following works:
The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. B. A. Windeatt (Penguin, 1994).
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (Yale, 1992).
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005).
Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992).
_______________The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006).

Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

The English Church

Ecclesia Anglicana was an integral part of both the Catholic Church and the English nation. All who lived in England owed political allegiance to the king and spiritual obedience to the bishop and the pope. Around 1400 there were probably some 9,000 parishes in England, each governed (in theory) by a priest who was (in theory) celibate. The principal function of a priest was the recital of the divine office and the celebration of the Mass in Latin, a function that could never be performed by a lay person. The Mass was one of the seven sacraments. However, lay people had an important role. They were responsible for the fabric of the nave and the provision of service books, altar vessels and vestments. These were the responsibility of the two churchwardens, who were elected from the village elite, to serve for two years.

Popular piety

The care given to parish churches reflected the piety of the people.  The historian Susan Brigden writes (p. 38): 
‘This was a society in which devotions to God and belief in the elements of the Christian faith were assumed, in which there were sanctions, worldly and otherworldly against those who did not give visible witness of their faith; in which membership of the Church and obedience to its teachings were profound social duties’.  

Popular devotion focused not on the abstruse doctrines of Christianity, but on the crucifixion.   There was an intense concentration on physical suffering – blood, wounds – and on the emotions of joy and despair. Religion was visual and ritualistic. Most churches had a rood screen that divided the nave from the chancel and represented the figure of Christ on the cross with Mary and John on either side. On Good Friday people performed the ritual known as ‘creeping to the cross’, a ritual performed by Henry VIII as late as 1539, five years after his break with Rome.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

England in 1400: a society in transition

This post owes a great deal to:
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006)

'Bayleaf' Wealden Hall House
at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex.

An empty land

England in 1400 was a society still recovering from the Black Death. See here and here for more details. The plague reached Dorset in June 1348, and between a third and a half of the population died. On the evidence of the poll tax returns of 1377 the population stood at about 2.5 million, as opposed to the 4.25 million at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This was a level barely if at all higher than in 1086, and may have declined further during the fifteenth century. 

A changing society

Competition for labour: With this dramatic change in population, villages were abandoned (see here) and churches deconsecrated. In 1367 the bishop of Rochester deconsecrated the church of Dode in Kent.

The old labour-intensive agriculture was no longer viable. A new pattern of farming emerged as many previously arable lands were converted to pasture. The labour shortage transformed the status of villeins, giving them a bargaining power they had never had before. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was an attempt by parliament to fix the price of labour and set the minimum term for contracts of employment. But though the Act was strictly enforced, Parliament could do little about the fundamental economic reality of competition for labour, and the majority of landlords had to make some concession to their tenants. The Leicestershire chronicler, Henry Knighton, wrote: 

‘The great men of the land and other lessor lords … remitted the payment of their rents, lest their tenants should go away on account of the scarcity of servants and the high price of all things – some half their rents, some more, some less, some for one, two, or three years.’

The growth of a service economy: In the new economic climate, labour became more mobile. Young people, previously tied to the land, migrated in search of work and foreign workers were brought in at harvest time. This new mobility had profound social consequences, affecting women as well as men. Domestic service became an attractive work opportunity, enabling girls to acquire housewifely skills and the money that would make them attractive marriage propositions. In the late fourteenth century a third of urban households contained servants.  In the poll tax returns of 1377 30 per cent of the paying population of Worcester were domestic servants. In Yorkshire and Essex women were employed in the textile industry.  The emergence of this service economy meant that in late medieval England there were an abundance of young women in the towns and young men in the country.