English People in the Eighteenth Century

By Dorothy E. Marshall | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE

IT IS impossible to understand eighteenth-century England, and equally impossible to estimate the effect of the economic developments which marked its closing decades without a fairly detailed knowledge of its social structure. Prominent though the merchants were in moulding the policy of this country in its relations, both economic and diplomatic, with the rest of the world, England was still basically agricultural. For the greater part of the people the tie with the land remained close: the landowner was still the most potent influence in shaping its social structure.

Misled by the sophistication of so much of eighteenth-century thought and literature and by the polished elegance of its ruling class, it is easy to forget how much of the medieval foundations of society still remained, hidden, it is true, by this superstructure, but still sustaining it. Towns no doubt were growing, but, with some few exceptions where trade provided the impetus, their growth had not that staggering quality that was to mark their progress in the nineteenth century. Most of them remained small, hardly more than glorified villages except in a constitutional and legal sense. Their relation to the countryside that surrounded them also remained virtually unchanged in that their chief function was still to provide a market for the adjacent rural areas. Their population rarely numbered more than a few thousands: the great majority of people still lived in the country.

It would be a mistake to think of this rural population as being purely agricultural. By the opening years of the eighteenth century the domestic system,1 with its flexible organization, had scattered the possibilities of industrialization up and down the countryside. Probably by this time there were few localities where

____________________
1
The term domestic or outwork system is generally used to describe the type of industrial organization in which the craftsman works in his own home and (usually) with his own tools. His relationship to the merchant who supplied him with the raw material and took his finished goods varied from one of almost complete economic subordination to one of comparative independence.

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