The spirit of rebellion - society

Rural poverty and change

The second half of the eighteenth century was a time of great change:

  • It was the first phase of the Industrial Revolution
  • Mills and foundries were beginning to be established, changing long-established patterns of work and residence
  • The seeds for the growth of the great industrial cities like Manchester were being sown
  • The beginnings of mechanization were beginning to hit the weaver working from home
  • In the countryside, landlords were changing the enclosure system, leaving many peasant farmers without land and work
    • Oliver Goldsmith makes this the theme of his poem The Deserted Village
  • Rural poverty was extreme and widespread.
    • The essayist William Cobbett records this in his work Rural Rides.

Anti-Catholic unrest – the Gordon Riots

There were also other causes of unrest such as the Gordon Riots in June 1780 which Blake witnessed in London. Unrest was whipped-up by Lord George Gordon against Catholics and the supporters of the Catholic Relief Act. This Act made it possible for Catholics to join the army without compromising their religion.

The riots caused great havoc and raised fears for the safety of the State. Troops were brought in to quell the riots and 25 ringleaders were hanged for treason. Lord Gordon, however, remained unscathed.

This is the setting for Charles Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge.

Child-labour and prostitution

One of the great causes of social reformers in this period was the plight of the child chimney sweeps. From the age of four, children who were orphans in the workhouse or from very poor families would be sold as apprentice sweeps. They had to crawl naked up chimneys, often spurred on by prods from their masters or by having a fire lit under them. They would work in the mornings and then be abandoned onto the streets, unfed, in rags or naked, left to fend for themselves. Physically, these children would be deformed and sick because of their work; they had no education.

Apprentices in other trades were equally poorly served. An apprentice was a source of cheap labour. Nobody had responsibility for their welfare, so many died while still very young as a result of cruelty or neglect.

The treatment of such apprentices is the theme of George Crabbe's poem Peter Grimes.

Prostitution and venereal disease were rampant in late 18th century England. The ‘double standard' of different moral codes for men and women applied.

  • The situation is reflected in the series of paintings by Hogarth, The Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress.
  • The novels of Henry Fielding are also concerned with this.

Many prostitutes ended up in prison. The plight of such women, as well as women prisoners in general, was a cause espoused by reformers such as the Quaker Elizabeth Fry.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.