THE GENERAL OUTLINE
A New Dinasty on the Throne of Britain: the Hanoverians
The Augustan Age falls under the reign of king George I of the House of Hanover. He came to throne of Britain in 1714 after the death of Queen Anne. George I was second cousin to Queen Anne, but he was also her closest protestant relative and, since the Act of Settlement (1701) prohibited catholics to ascend the throne of Great Britain, this is how he came to the throne and was the first king of the House of Hanover. He was a German prince who didn’t know the English language, nor did he ever make the effort to learn it, he also had very little knowledge of English customs, he brought along with him the Hanoverian court and relied on government ministers to rule the country. Therefore, he was not very popular among the people.
National Stability and Corruption in the Upper Class
This time is known as the Augustan Age because in the eyes of its leaders it was seen as the heir of Augustan Rome for its political stability, economic and material prosperity. But it must be said that it was also a time of great curruption amongst the members of the upper social classes that were identified as greedy and indulging in excessive luxury while drowining in dissolute practices and progressive social decay.
Journalism and theatrical satire denounced and criticised the widespread corruption that was intoxicating British society at its highest ranks. It was thanks to Walpole and his government if, eventually, stability and prosperity were actually restored to the court and the country alike.
King George II and the Jacobites’ Threat
King George II came to the throne in 1727, he was undoubtedly a better Englishman than his father had been, yet corruption characterised his reign as well. Furthermore, it must be said that the Hanoverian succession was still not secure and that Jacobite attempts to restore James the Young Pretender to the throne of Britain mostly at the hands of Tories were still on going. On the overall we can say that this time in British history was one of great economic prosperity and social changes that affected all strata of society and can also be considered as a revolutionary turning point. This was, in fact, a time of Revolutions or a prelude to some of the most important ones in world history. It was also a time of scientific discoveries that contributed to ameliorate the living conditions of many and gave a sense of power to Man who came to believe that he could easily control and shape nature to his own needs and interests.
The Age of Reason
The 17th and 18th centuries represent a time of great changes that will later be considered revolutionaries because the world was never the same after. These changes gradually, but progressively, affected all social classes. Their daily lives, future perspectives, desires and wills were totally transformed in a way that was, at that time, unthinkable.
The shift of mentality was mainly due to the cultural and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, which first spread and reached its climax in France. Great thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, to mention a few, exercised an extraordinary influence on the birth and development of these new widespread ideas that were rooted mainly on the belief, advocated by some such as Spinoza, that the human kind was endowed with reason, allowing all individuals to claim the right to be equal on every ground. Therefore, the so called radical Enlightenment philosophers, believed in the need to abolish all differences, sexual, racial, census, they were for the freedom of speech and press, and against any religious control or supremacy. On the other hand there were some more moderate thinkers, Descartes for instance, who thought it was necessary to reform and question some old ways of thinking and of living but felt it would be better to achieve changes through reasonable compromises between old and new. Reason was the key word and, in fact, this time is also referred to as The Age of Reason.
The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions
Although Britain, at the beginning of the 18th century, was still essentially an agricultural country the first transformations were especially applied in this field. The metamorphosis was gradual at first, thanks to the increased trade and profits derived from the colonies. Many landowners and entrepreneurs invested exceeding capital in the improvement of farming methods that were being developed through new scientific studies and the mechanization of agriculture. Some of these improvements can be listed as follows:
- The soils were drained and made more fertile,
- Machines slowly replaced physical labour thus making more arable land available to be more efficiently exploited, moreover
- The breeding of animals became more selective, thus producing an increase in meat produce.
Advantages that Resulted
These new approaches to farming led to the progressive enclosure of lands and an extremely considerable increase in the production of cereals. Consequently this meant that the price market of food was lowered allowing people to be better fed and therefore living conditions were improved; in other words, the population became stronger, lived longer and was able to survive the hardships they were forced to face. The improvement was so important that in the span of time of a century Britain’s population virtually doubled.
However there were also drawbacks, one of which was the Enclosure Acts. This law allowed landowners to enclose their lands, so the common lands (portions of lands generally used by most people to grow their own crops or breed animals for household use) were drastically reduced which meant that those who could use them freely were progressively forced to leave the country and move to urban areas in search of employment.
In fact this time is also marked by the growth of industrial towns, or, as they were later called, mushroom towns for their crowded and unhealthy building conditions reserved to the poor factory workers. The first industrial sector deeply affected in Britain by the introduction of machines and the building of large factories was undoubtedly the textile industry. Before we illustrate the change it undergone we must outline that the textile sector represented for some time a sort of proto-industry, in other words, many country men and women were self-employed artisans that worked in their homes to produce fabrics that were sold to private buyers or on the market. But with the advent of machines the skilled spinners were suddenly unemployed. Just to have an idea of the drastic turn-about of their situation it is enough to say that in 1700 a few workers operating a weaver could produce one bale of cloth, whereas by 1785 one spinner working at a steam ‘jenny’ produced 50 bales of cloth. It is obviously this great difference in productivity that encouraged many businessmen to invest their exceeding capital in this promising new field and built factories producing textiles on a large scale.
Once more the immediate effect was to decrease the market price of cloth which was then more affordable for a larger number of people, who became better clothed.
The backdrop was that the once skilled workers became mere factory workers and were underpaid, but even worse, they were forced to work very long hours, in certain cases even more than 12 hours per day, they had no rights and no protection. Women and children were even more exploited as they were considered on the one hand, second rate citizens and therefore had even less protection than men and were paid even lower wages, on the other hand, they were highly prized, ironically, for the same reasons and, moreover, because their smaller body sizes and fingers allowed them to crawl underneath the machines reaching areas otherwise difficult to reach for men who were naturally bulkier.
The Heavy Industry
Textile of course was not the only field to undergo industrialization soon the coal and iron industries followed suit. The steam engine was first used to pump water out of the coal mines granting miners the possibility to reach lower levels of the mines and draw out more coal that, when transformed into coke, proved to be a more efficient combustible than wood and was employed more efficiently to fuel the furnaces of the iron industry.
The first factories used water to provide energy for the machines that were introduced and therefore they were built in areas that were close to the sea, rivers and canals, and it is in these areas that the first mushrooms towns developed. In addition to all this economic activity the industrial areas in order to be fully productive needed a more efficient transport system and this improvement was also soon achieved.
New roads were built or improved benefitting the postal system as well, but the transportation of heavy, bulky goods such as coal and iron, and fragile goods such as pottery was quicker and safer if carried out by water and so a modern canal system was built with locks to change levels in order to make waterways more direct and straight revolutionising traffic.
The new transportation and postal systems also had positive effects on journalism which acquired thus the possibility to ship a newspaper from one side of the country to another in more reasonable time to all the citizens of the United Kingdom who wished to be informed on current events.
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© L. R. Capuana