The Age of Georgian Greatness, 1714-1837 a brief Survey of People, Places and Events



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The Age of Georgian Greatness, 1714-1837

A Brief Survey of People, Places and Events


Prepared by Professor Matthew Ruane

January 2002, 2010


The long 18th century is one of the most fascinating periods of development in British history. It sees the transformation of Britain from an internally looking nation state, focused on the problems of power sharing between Parliament and the monarchy, and long standings issues over religion. Britain becomes a true imperial power by the early 19th century; its political and economic influence having a global span and the problems facing Britain become more international in scope and nature. At the heart of this global colossus would be the capital of London, a city with aspirations to shed it historical past and become a showplace to the world.
Dr. Johnson, a scholar famous for writing the first English language dictionary, was quoted as saying “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford”. Never was this more true than in 18th century London.
Monarchs:

George I (1714-1727)

George II (1727-1760)

George III (1760-1820)

George IV (1820-1830)

William IV (1830-1837)


The long 18th century was a period of great change, but not necessarily marked by the domestic bloodshed and turbulence of the 17th century. The expansion of the English over the globe was marked by the acquisition of two empires and the lost of one of them. Settlement in North America began under James I, promoting private chartered companies to searching for riches in the New World. Encouraged by religious dissidents and the profits that could be made from the sale of tobacco and cod, the colonies grew in size and importance. By the reign of Queen Anne, the British colonies in North America stretched from Newfoundland to modern day South Carolina, with the political centers being in Virginia and Massachusetts. The Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) added New France to the British sphere of control in North America, and southern expansion of the colonies was encouraged with the penal colony of Georgia established to relieve the overcrowded British prisons of their populations. The American Revolution (1775-1783) would change the whole situation and lose Britain its first overseas empire, leaving it only control of its Canadian dominions and the restless population of Quebec.
Emphasis switched to the development of Britain’s second empire, that in India. The East India Company had been founded in 1600 in an attempt to challenge the Dutch and Portuguese near monopolistic control of the spice trade. The foothold of the British in India was the city of Madras, constructed by the company in 1641. Charles II’s Portuguese wife brought as part of her dowry the city of Bombay (Mumbai), and British interests slowly grew in the early 18th century despite resistance from Indian princes. The situation would change with Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 when the French and their Indian allies were forced to cede control of Bengal and the Ganges River to the British. The British East India Company became the rulers of their own empire, and though the British government was concerned with other interests closer to home, this addition to Britain’s power would slowly reshape both countries. By 1784, the government of William Pitt passed the India Act, shifting most responsibility for the governing of India from the hands of private EIC governors to Parliament in Westminster. The real growth of India, however, would come in the 19th century.
The 18th century was also a period marked by increasing warfare between Europeans, driven in part by overseas expansion and greater wealth brought with global commerce. Two wars with France over Spain, including the bloody and long War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713) and a shorter war between 1717-1719. A new war erupted with the Spanish in 1739 (War of Jenkin’s Ear 1739-1748) which then drifted into the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) in which Britain supported Austria against France and Prussia. Peace would simply provide a breathing space before the resumption of warfare once again. This time, the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763) was the first truly world war, with fighting taking place on three continents between the major participants (Britain and Prussia versus France and Austria). By the end of the century Europe was once again plunged into conflict with the eruption of war between revolutionary France and Napoleon (1793-1815). At home, Britain faced several uprisings and rebellions by supporters of the exiled James II and his Stuart supporters. These Jacobite rebellions (1715, 1719, 1745-46) threatened domestic political stability, especially with the final burst of activity in 1745. It truly was an age of warfare.
The acquisition of world power cost money and perhaps one of the great 18th century solutions to a long-standing problem was how to finance the ruling of the realm. A land tax was introduced between 1693-1697 to help finance William III’s overseas wars, but the money taxed on land was never really an accurate reflection of national wealth. Eventually this land tax would be replaced by a personal income tax introduced as a “temporary measure” in 1797. In 1842 it became a permanent fixture of the revenue-raising scheme. Perhaps more important than these experiments with national taxation was the creation of the Bank of England in 1694. Created to manage the national debt and to advance loans to the government at favorable rates, the Bank of England helped to revolutionize the international monetary system and introduced modern banking practices. Though the investor scam of South Seas Bubble in the 1720s nearly undid the gains of the bank, it nevertheless weathered the scandal. The success of the bank proved that by investing part of the tax base to guarantee loans made by investors to the state, that Britain’s government was never short of money to finance the expensive wars that dominated the century.
Having sufficient investor money was secured by the economic well being of Britain. Part of this was made possible by the long process of industrialization begun in Britain between 1760-1820. Another reason was an agricultural revolution that truly did revolutionize the largest employer in Britain. Finally, a third part was the growth of the professional consumer that had an effect both of the previous aspects of the growth of financial wealth in the 18th century. The agricultural revolution, while it did produce the occasional periods of dearth, especially in the 1760s, was nevertheless undergoing a massive upheaval. For centuries, Britain had barely been meeting its own agricultural needs. But by the end of the century, it was exporting huge quantities of grain and meat to domestic and foreign markets. Much of this was due to the Enclosure movement which, through acts of Parliament, transferred public ownership of lands to private hands. This land was in turn leased out by the English aristocracy to prosperous farmers who employed tens of thousands of paid and landless laborers. This huge increase in land called for a long term vision of rationality and efficiency in agriculture that was largely heeded in England (Scotland however turned to beef cattle, and Ireland, shedding its diverse agricultural heritage switched to potato production). With the rationalization of agriculture, and increasingly the mechanization of the process as the century wore on, large numbers of rural poor laborers migrated to the cities in search of work. These poor and desperate agricultural laborers held to swell the populations of London and other cities throughout the country, as well as providing a cheap labor force for the new industrialists.
Government in the 18th century had to be altered to deal with these changes to British society. The basic machinery of domestic control was the 1715 Riot Act that enabled magistrates to call in military help to disperse rebellious mobs. The law encouraged numerous calls for reform, but no overarching reform was ever attempted. Instead, dozens of private Parliamentary bills were submitted to deal with the real rise in criminal activity in a non policed Britain. Hundreds of crimes were punishable by death on the scaffold (in London that meant Tyburn Hill (near present day Marble Gate Arch) until 1783). Though the rates of hangings increased, there was also a greater increase in judicial leniency leading to reduced sentences, including transportation to Georgia and Australia. Rural laws against poaching were enforced, the most notorious law being the Waltham Black Act (1723) passed to deal with gangs of deer poachers and a potential Jacobite uprising against the crown. The 18th century was a lawless century, one in which violent crime increased right alongside crimes against property (see lecture notes for January 28th).
On a larger scale, the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742) created the office of Prime Minister and set in place standards that would form the basis of modern British government. Walpole and his successors encouraged the shift away from the royal appointed Privy Council to the emergence of the parliamentary Cabinet (though it would not become official until 1916). The offices of the two secretaries of state (for North and for South) were reorganized between 1782-1784 into the more efficient Foreign Office and Home Office. The growth of the British Empire and the increased importance of trade led to the permanent integration of the Board of Trade and Plantations (founded in 1696) into the structure of government in 1786. Constant warfare led to reorganizations of the Ministry of War and the Admiralty, as well major improvements in the Ordnance Office that was responsible for supplying artillery and gunpowder.
It was also an age of political parties and political agitation. The century began with the “rage of parties” that had begun earlier with the controversy over the Exclusion Crisis in the 1670s and 1680s. The Hanoverian kings, though supported by the Tories, tended to favor the more powerful Whigs after 1714. For much of the first half of the century, the lingering support of the Stuart claim and accusations of being Jacobite supporters tainted the Tories. But the long parliamentary rule by the Whigs led to charges of corruption, greed, and political cronyism. The reign of George III shifted the political identities briefly, when there emerged a hard core group of Whigs and a looser confederation of Whigs and Tories known as the King’s Friends. With the failure of the war for the American colonies blamed largely on the King’s Friends, the parties mutated once again into two quite different but traditionally named political parties. However, despite the Glorious Revolution and its assertion that Parliament was superior to the crown, political realities of the 18th century showed that very little had changed. Parliamentary power was still split between the elected House of Commons and the non-elected membership of the House of Lords. Most prime ministers, with the exceptions of Robert Harley, Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger, came from the House of Lords, home to the landed aristocracy. Walpole’s 20 years as prime minister was not because he had the support of a Whig party in Parliament, but because he was able to organize enough Whig support because of the backing the crown gave him. When he lost that support, as well as a vote on a minor financial bill in the newly elected seven year Parliament in 1742, he was forced to step down. Pitt the Younger came to power with the direct assistance of George III, who in 1784 was looking for someone to rejuvenate his image in the wake of the loss of the American colonies.

* Parties crystallized political opinion and were useful in gauging support, but they did not make or unmake ministries in the 18th century: kings did that.


Real political reform did not occur until after the American Revolution. The American Revolution opened the eyes of British politicians to some of the genuine problems in their government and there were increased calls for change. John Wilkes’ London riots in the 1760s and the Gordon riots in the 1780s encouraged debate on reforming the political system. Edmund Burke argued that the best slogan to cross from America to Britain was “no taxation without representation.” A movement for electoral reform began in the late 1780s, as did calls for women’s participation in the national governing process. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women seemed to herald a new ear of popular political unrest and combined with the effects of the ongoing French revolution seemed to spill over into new calls for revolution, which had dominated the 17th century. All of this was encouraged by the growth of the political press in the 18th century, both mainstream newspapers and the popular press. It was also reflected in the growth of political monographs, with the most powerful at the end of the century being Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. These political arguments in favor and against revolutionary zeal trickled down to create two types of protestors in Britain. The poor and unemployed turned to self-help associations that they transformed into strike prone trade unions. The rise of these domestic trade unions led to the needlessly savage passage of the Combination Acts in 1799 that banned all forms of organized protest. The second group, popular among the upper classes, was radically new and perhaps a greater threat to domestic stability. Perhaps best described as anti-patriots, they saw good coming only from abroad, and that Britain was not worthy of any praise. Those who did not embrace their “struggles against tyranny” or did not share their opinions of the “true nature of British oppression” were worthy of nothing but scorn.
English society was also transformed by the long 18th century. New towns were created throughout the century, including the great cities of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Increased global trade expanded port towns like Bristol and Liverpool. The long fashionable Regency encouraged the development of Bath and Brighton into playgrounds for the beautiful people of the Georgian court. The aristocracy continued to possess the bulk of wealth and influence on society, but it was increasingly losing share to the emerging middling classes that expanded throughout the 18th century. It was an aristocratic age, with a dramatic shift in the distance between the great and lesser-landed gentry. Between 1775 and 1825, the membership of the House of Lords increased from 199 to 358, with some families dying out to hide the creation of 200 new landed titles. It was also an age in which women played increasingly more public roles leading to demands for legal and political representation. It was Queen Caroline more than George II who would help keep Walpole in office throughout the 1730s. At the other end of the spectrum, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) did more to shift public opinion about women on the theatrical stage than any other actress did. The modern English novel may have started with the popular works of Samuel Richardson (Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) but by the end of the century, women authors were the most famous and admired. Fanny Burney and her fictionalized tales about the court of George III and Jane Austen were among the most popular (and to be honest, Jane Austen is probably the only 18th century novelist whose work can still today be read simply for pleasure).
Yet the 18th century changes to literature also had a crudity to it inherent to a rough and tumble age. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders made no bones about the advantages of being a whore, while John Cleland’s mid century Fanny Hill turned out one of the first popular pornographic novels. While many saw the 18th century as an era of increased politeness, there was an earthy vitality to the period as well. Political caricature remained the great source of literary obscenity, with Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray dominating the reign of George III with their unique brands of political commentary. Their drawings were furious and funny, setting standards which took the Victorians a while to move away from. To be honest, 18th century society was built behind a façade of politeness which tried to hide a very real base crudity that even the most respected could not escape.


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