English People in the Eighteenth Century

By Dorothy E. Marshall | Go to book overview
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Chapter Seven
THE IMPACT OF ECONOMIC CHANGE ON THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE BEFORE 1800

BY THE last three decades of the eighteenth century it is clear to the historian, and might even have been perceived by sagacious contemporaries, that changes of sufficient magnitude in the technique of industry were taking place to affect the traditional social structure of the country. As we have seen, in a brief review of some of the most outstanding among them, they offered opportunities of successful advancement, even of wealth, to the man who could somehow accumulate a tiny capital to invest in the new machines or the new processes. By the close of the century many men, with diverse backgrounds, had thrown themselves with enormous energy and singleness of purpose into developing these possibilities. Already in the areas most suitable for their activities, Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Black Country and South Wales, this new type of businessman was numerous. In these districts, and particularly in growing towns like Birmingham and Manchester, a new kind of society was forming. In this society, though the merchant was still important, he was slowly losing his predominance. More and more his activities were being restricted to those of the mere merchant rather than the wider ones of financing and organizing production. These functions the industrialist was beginning to perform for himself and, as he came to differentiate his interests from those of the merchant, his influence on the new pattern of society became increasingly important. Lastly it was a society in which the town proletariate was assuming a new significance and to some extent a new character, though just what that character was to be, and how it was to differ from the older urban craftsman was not yet clear. In the country the same break with the pattern of the past was occurring. In these last decades all was flux, though it would have taken a very discerning eye to visualize the shape of things to come.

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