English Social Structure in the Early 18th Century


Britain was not a large nation by today's standards. In the first half of the 18th century, the population of England and Wales was about 6 million and grew very little until the 1740s. Scotland and Ireland grew even more slowly. Scotland had about 1.25 million in 1750, while Ireland had some 2 million residents. It was not because Britain was large that it became such and important society in the West. Britain was still mostly rural, although slowing becoming more urban. From 1700 to 1750, London grew from 575,000 inhabitants to 675,000, but there were few other towns larger than 10,000.

In this period, as today, social observers identified three broad categories of social status. It was not the level of income that mattered most, but their social ranking. The upper ranks were usually called the gentry, families whose status was assured by land ownership, and who were largely free from laboring for their livelihood. One profession was suited for the gentry, and that was government. High-ranking clergy, military and civil officers were drawn from gentry and were considered gentlemen. It was acceptable to earn money through investments as well as land, as long as you didn't have to work.

The second rank would be "the middling sort," or "tradesmen"; people who made money by working. Many of these might be more wealthy than many in the gentry, but their status was lower. Clergymen and barristers filled the upper ranks of this category, with merchants, farmers and shopkeepers making up the lower ranks.

At the bottom of society were the laboring classes, ranging from skilled artisans at the top to vagrants at the bottom. According to estimates at the beginning of the 18th century, nearly half might be considered poor, that is not able to earn the full amount of their subsistence and requiring some amount of charity to get by.

The Gentry

At the top of English society were the lords temporal, the peers of the realm---dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons--of which there were about 180 in the early century. These were men who sat in the House of Lords by hereditary right. In addition to them there were about 40 Scottish and Irish peers living in England. The most wealthy was the Duke of Newcastle who had an income of 32,000 pounds a year. Along with the lords temporal, the lords spiritual also sat in the House of Lords. These were the 2 archbishops and 24 bishops of the Church of England. Lower gentry might earn titles for service to the crown. The highest honor would be a baronetcy, which was a hereditary title, and below that was knighthood, which was for life. All other gentry were titled "esquire" or simply "gentleman" by common practice. Already by the early 18th century, these last two titles were only vaguely defined, and were used by wealthy men outside the gentry to distinguish themselves from the common person.

In winter, the wealthy gentry gathered in London during the sessions of Parliament, socializing in the clubs, parks and townhouses around Westminster. The rest of the year was spent at their country estates or at the fashionable resort at Bath, where the mineral waters were considered restorative. The sons of the gentry typically attended Oxford or Cambridge after being educated at home, and the younger sons were expected to become clergy, military or public officers. Daughters were to be matched with eligible men from the gentry, and many families hoped to raise their financial fortunes through strategic alliances.

The Middle Classes

The middle classes were made up of civil servants (something around 15,000), lower ranking military officers (about 10,000) merchants (about 12,000), lawyers and law clerks (about 11,000) and lower clergy (about 10,000 of the established church and more than 1000 dissenters), and the many thousands of freehold farmers and shopkeepers. Small tradesmen may have been the fastest growing class in this period, rising to more than 150,000 by the middle of the century. Clergy probably had the most social prestige in this group, other than the wealthy merchants, but many of them could be quite poor. A typical income was 50 pounds, which might serve as the standard for a basic decent living. Colley describes how one wealthy merchant, Thomas Coram, hoped to gain social recognition by charity work. Here is one way to translate wealth into social status if one is not of the gentry.

It is wise to bear in mind that the professions of law and medicine did not have the social status then that it enjoys today. Lawyers (like today) were often derided as predators, while doctors (probably with good reason) were often denounced as quacks. One of the greatest writers of the 18th century, Henry Fielding penned this poetic attack:

Religion, law, and physic were designed

By heaven the greatest blessing of mankind;

But priests, and lawyers, and physicians made

These general goods to each a private trade,

With each they rob, with each they fill their purses,

And turn our benefits into curses.

Only later in the century did these impressions improve their image when they formed societies and academies, and improved their professional standards. It was not until 1745 that an official distinction was made between physicians and barbers.

The Lower Classes

At the top of this category were the craftsmen who manufactured shoes, clothing, furniture, ships, metal and other goods in workshops along with journeymen and apprentices. In light of our discussion of the sea trade, we can not that about 55,000 people, or about 4% of the population were employed building or sailing fishing and merchant vessels. The largest category of employment, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was farm labor and domestic service. The first was primarily a male occupation, while the second female. We will discuss women's occupations in more depth through the Colley reading.

Beneath the working class was the non-working or occasionally working paupers and vagrants. Poverty was widespread in the 18th century, especially when harvests were poor and food prices rose. Traditionally, the vestries, boards governing church parish, along with the churchwardens, dispensed alms raised from the poor rates (taxes). In larger towns, the magistrates increasingly resorted to building workhouses. There the poor would be housed in dormitory conditions, divided by sex, with 2 or more to each bed. Rules were strict, food minimal and work difficult. These workhouses had the desired effect of lowering expenditures, largely because it deterred the poor from requesting relief.

Anglicans and Dissenters

Besides the social and economic distinctions, the most important divisions in 18th-century society were, as they had been in the 16th, religious. With the passage of the Toleration Act of 1689 and the lapse of the Licensing Act, which had censored publication of anything antithetical to the church, in 1695, many "high-church" divines and Tory gentry feared for the supremacy of the Church of England. Their fears were worsened when after Queen Anne's death in 1714, the court and government came under the domination of Whigs. For decades only "low-church" Anglicans who did not support exclusionary policies were promoted to bishoprics and other high offices in the church, which was in the power of the king and his ministers to select. Lower clergy might be high-church, because local gentry, and often a single landlord controlled the local "livings," and thus hired the clergy.

In the early century, there were perhaps some 350,000 dissenters, mostly Baptists, Independents (Congregationalists), Presbyterians and Quakers. They were concentrated in the north and east of the country and in the larger towns. Since Elizabethan days they were commonly from the middle class merchants, manufacturers, tradesmen or artisans. Catholics remained a small minority, around 60,000. Dissent was in decline in this period, and some at the time would say that Anglicanism was too. In these early years of the enlightenment, many thinking people expressed doubt about the traditions of the church, about the trinity and the authority of the Bible. Many adopted deism, unitarianism or atheism. Anglican divines responded in large part with a more rationalist theology that de-emphasized mysticism and pious zeal. Almost spontaneously, a new movement--evangelicalism-- emerged within both Dissent and Anglicanism to restore Christian enthusiasm and commitment. This movement was to have enormous social and political consequences.

Evangelicalism, most notably espoused by the Anglican clergymen John Wesley and George Whitefield, came to dominate British and American spiritual life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Britain it had two rather contradictory primary effects. On the one hand evangelicalism helped to perpetuate the religious divisions of Britain. It helped to revive the dissenting denominations, and John Wesley's organization eventually broke from Anglicanism to form a large new body of nonconformists. On the other hand, these various denominations came to share a common evangelicalism which may have helped to unify Britain during the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution. A revival of Protestantism was also a revival of British cultural identity.

As in the 17th century, however, religious vitality and division led to political upheaval. Evangelicalism was instrumental in many new social and political movements, as we shall observe.