Social conditions in England

A time of poverty and hardship

The disruption to trade during the war with France from 1793 to 1815 meant that food prices soared, which affected all levels of society but particularly the poorest, for whom bread was a staple food. 

If it was a time of hardship for the urban poor, life was even worse for those living in the countryside. The enclosures of the previous century and the development of agricultural and spinning machinery reduced the number of jobs available in rural communities. Spinning as a cottage industry was eventually wiped out - hence the Luddite Riots (1811-1816) in which English craftsmen protested about the negative impact of technological advances on employment in the weaving industry.

Consequently, many of the poor left the countryside and sought work in the growing industries of northern towns and cities or in London, where they frequently became domestic servants. For those left behind in the villages there was widespread distress, with large numbers unemployed and frequently homeless. The journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister, make frequent reference to wretchedly poor country dwellers. Many of Wordsworth’s poems are populated with retired or injuring soldiers and sailors, those who survived the Napoleonic wars only to find themselves rejected, homeless and unemployed.

Poor children often suffered a particularly miserable fate during this period – and especially those boys who, as young as five or six, were ‘apprenticed’ to chimney sweeps. They were made to climb up twisting, narrow, soot-filled chimneys, forced upwards by being prodded with sticks or by having fires lit under them. 

Government response

The Government took a hard line towards the poor, especially in the light of revolution in France. In the 1790s Prime Minister William Pitt introduced Combination Acts which banned working men from combining into clubs and societies. He also suspended the right to appear before a judge or a court when arrested (known as Habeas Corpus). 


Peterloo massacreRule by the people in France made the British government very nervous: for the country’s rulers, any working-class meeting was potentially dangerous. Radical leaders were arrested, put on trial and condemned to transportation to Australia. In 1819, at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, the local magistrates attempted to disperse a peaceful gathering of some 60,000 people who had gathered to protest about their economic conditions – and used soldiers to do so. This action resulted in 11 dead and 4-500 injured and the event became notorious as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.

Radical politics and the young Keats

Politics played a role in Keats’ decision to turn to poetry as a vocation. Cowden Clarke, Keats’ close friend and son of the Headmaster of Enfield Academy, was a supporter of Leigh Hunt. Hunt was the radical publisher of The Examiner, a journal which advocated political reform and frequently criticised those in power. In 1813 he had been imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent and in 1814 Clarke frequently visited him in his prison cell.

Just as Keats was swept up in the imaginative world of great literature, so he was excited by the idea of political progress and democratic reform. He was also opposed to the aristocracy who were waging a counter-revolutionary war against Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact he greeted the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 with his poem On Peace, in which he called on the victors to support political reform.

When Hunt was released from prison in 1815 Keats composed a sonnet to mark the occasion: Written on the Day That Mr Leigh Hunt Left Prison. The publication of this poem in 1817 marked him out as an associate of Hunt and as a target for attack by conservative reviewers. It was a courageous act by a poet in his early twenties.


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