A BRIEF HISTORY OF 18TH CENTURY BRITAIN
By Tim Lambert
In 1702 Queen Anne began her reign. In the same year, the war of the Spanish succession began. In 1704 the great general the Duke of Marlborough won a great victory over the French at Blenheim. Also in 1704, the British captured Gibraltar - and they have held it ever since. The Duke of Marlborough went on to win great victories at Ramillies in 1706, at Oudenarde in 1708, and at Malplaquet in 1709.
Meanwhile the Act of Union between England and Scotland was passed in 1707. From 1603 England and Scotland shared a king but they remained separate countries. The Act of Union made them one although the Scots kept their own legal system, church, and educational system. Free trade was established between the two countries.
George I became king in 1714. He was also the ruler of Hanover (part of Germany) and he much preferred to stay there. George could not speak English and was content to leave the running of Britain to his ministers. Meanwhile, in September 1714 the Highlands of Scotland rose in rebellion. In an attempt to claim his throne James Stuart (son of James II, who was deposed in 1688) landed at Peterhead in December 1714. The uprising failed after an indecisive battle was fought at Sheriffmuir near Stirling on 13 November 1715. James Stuart left Scotland in February 1716.
In 1711 the South Sea Company was formed. It was given exclusive rights to trade with the Spanish colonies in South America. (It transported many slaves from Africa to South America). In 1720 shares in the company became massively overpriced. Then the share price collapsed. (The South Sea Bubble burst) and many investors lost huge sums of money.
From 1721 Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was the king's chief minister. People began to call him Prime Minister (Originally it was a term of abuse, not an official title). Walpole moved into Downing Street in 1735. 10 Downing Street became the Prime Minister's official residence in 1732. Walpole resigned in February 1742.
George I died in 1727 and was succeeded by his son George II. Like his father, George II was content to leave the government largely in the hands of his ministers. However, he was the last British king to lead an army into battle. He led them to victory against the French at Dettingen in June 1743. In July 1745 Charles Stuart landed in the Hebrides. He had promised his father, James Stuart, that he would capture the throne. The Highlanders rose to support him and Charles made rapid progress. In September 1745 his followers (known as Jacobites from the Latin for James, Jacobus) captured Edinburgh (except for the castle). The Jacobites then won the battle of Prestonpans. They invaded England and in November 1745 they captured Carlisle. The Jacobite army reached Derby in December 1745 but they then turned back. Charles Stuart then headed to Inverness. However, the Jacobites were crushed at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. Charles Stuart fled to France.
Also in the early 18th century England suffered from an 'epidemic' of gin drinking. Gin was cheap and drinking it was an easy way for the poor to forget their troubles. However, in 1751 a duty was added to gin, which curtailed gin drinking.
The early 18th century was noted for its lack of religious enthusiasm. It was an age of reason rather than dogmatism and the churches 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.
The Agricultural Revolution in the 18th Century
In the 18th century there was an agricultural revolution in England. It began with Jethro Tull. In the 17th century, the seed was sown by hand. The sower simply scattered seed on the ground. However, in 1701 Tull (1674-1741) invented the seed drill. This machine dropped seeds at a controllable rate in straight lines. A harrow at the back of the machine covered the seeds to prevent birds from eating them. Tull also invented a horse-drawn hoe, which killed weeds between rows of seeds.
Furthermore new forms of crop rotation were introduced. Under the old system land was divided into 3 fields and each year one was left fallow. This was, obviously, wasteful, as one-third of the land was not used each year. In the 17th century, the Dutch began to use new forms of crop rotation with clover and root crops such as turnips and swedes instead of letting the land grow fallow. (Root crops restored fertility to the soil). In the 18th century, these new methods became common in England. A man named Charles 'Turnip' Townshend (1674-1738) did much to popularize growing turnips. Turnips had another advantage. They provided winter feed for cattle. Previously most cattle were slaughtered at the beginning of winter because there was not enough food to keep them through the season. Now fresh milk and butter became available all year round. In the early 18th century farmers began to improve their livestock by selective breeding. One of the most famous pioneers of selective breeding was Robert Bakewell (1725-1795). There were other minor improvements. On light soil, farmers used marl (clay with lime content). Other farmers drained their fields with stone-lined trenches. Manure has always been used as fertilizer but in the mid-18th century, farmers began to build underground tanks to protect manure from the weather.
Finally in the 18th century there was a wave of enclosures. In the Middle Ages land in each village was divided into strips. Each farmer held some strips in each field. In the 16th and 17th centuries, some enclosures took place. Many more followed in the 18th century. When an act of enclosure was passed commissioners divided up the land in the village so each farmer had all his land in one place, which was an inefficient way of doing things.
In 1756 Britain became embroiled in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with France. In 1759 the British, led by General Wolfe, won a great victory in Quebec. That ensured that Canada became a British colony rather than a French one. Meanwhile, in 1757 Clive won the battle of Plassey, which ensured that India became British rather than French.
Meanwhile in 1760 George II died at the age of 77. George III succeeded him. The first two George's were content to leave the government in the hands of their ministers. However, George III tried to gain more power for himself. During his reign, Britain lost its colonies in North America. Fighting began in 1775 and the colonists declared themselves independent in 1776. George was determined to suppress the colonists, ignoring the wishes of those who wanted reconciliation. However, the Americans won a decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781, which ensured their independence. That caused George's crony, Prime Minister Lord North to fall from power.
Meanwhile London was rocked by the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780. Riots were common in the 18th century. The workers could not vote and there were no trade unions so if the workers were disaffected they rioted. The Gordon riot was the worst. Lord George Gordon (1751-1793) was an MP who led a huge crowd to parliament to present a petition demanding the repeal of a 1778 act, which removed certain restrictions on Roman Catholics. The demonstration became a riot. With cries of 'No Popery!' the rioters held London for several days until the army restored order. About 300 people died in the rioting.
At the end of the 18th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were 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.
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century
In the late 18th century everyday life in Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. Towns, industry, and trade had been growing for centuries but about 1780 economic growth took off. Economic growth was helped by vast improvements in transport. In the early and mid 18th century many turnpike roads were built. Local turnpike trusts were formed. They maintained a road and charged people to travel on it. In the late 18th century a network of canals was built. One of the first was built for the Duke of Bridgewater by James Brindley. It opened in 1761 from Worsley to Manchester. A number of technological advances made the revolution possible. In 1709 Abraham Darby (1677-1717), who owned an ironworks, began using coke instead of charcoal to melt iron ore. (It was a much more efficient fuel). Darby and his family kept the new fuel secret for a time but in the late 18th century the practice spread.
Meanwhile in 1698 Thomas Savery made the first steam engine. From 1712 Thomas Newcomen made steam engines to pump water from coal 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.
Life in the 18th century
A history of 17th Century England
A history of 19th Century Britain
A short biography of James Watt
A short biography of Henry Cavendish
Last revised 2020