Living in the 17th century

Standard of Living

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the period of price and population rises ended and the country entered a period of stability in both, that was to last until the mid-eighteenth century. The expansion of the landowning classes continued until the mid-century but thereafter, this group faced growing pressure. Quite apart from those who lost land or had to pay fines as a result of the upheaval of the Civil War, from 1660, taxation continued at a high level.

After 1689, for example, the land tax was levied at its full 20% rate of four shillings in the pound. Rental incomes stopped rising as rapidly and as food prices fell in the latter century, tenants found it harder to pay rents at all. Generally larger landowners were able to cope with this better and in some areas, although not universally, great estates expanded as smaller gentry were forced to sell up. Society, however, was not entirely static and people continued to cross the gap into the class of ‘gentlemen’. Among smaller farmers there were also pressures from the mid-century.

While pastoral farmers in forest areas may have escaped relatively unscathed or even prospered, small arable farmers found it difficult when grain prices fell. Many small farms were engrossed into larger units worked by paid labourers. Therefore in certain areas, there was a marked shift to larger farms and fewer small farmers. When prices began to stagnate or fall after 1650 a period of prosperity began for the labouring population of England. With population no longer increasing, there was less competition for work and wages began to rise. The wage-earners therefore had more disposable income.

The seventeenth century also saw an expansion in the numbers and wealth of great merchants, a result of the struggles for control of international markets which had begun in the previous century. Merchants were attracted by new products from expansion into more distant territories such as sugar and tobacco from the Americas or silks and spices from Asia.

The East India Company obtained it’s royal charter in 1600 to allow it a monopoly of trade in the Indian Ocean region. In the late seventeenth century, some contemporaries began to comment that goods normally restricted to the upper landed classes were being bought, worn and eaten by a much greater range of people. More people were eating meat and wheat and although the new goods from abroad were initially often re-exported to Europe, they were later retained and consumed at home and their prices began to fall.

The growth of the consumer society is demonstrated by the further development of shops and the retail trade which had begun in the sixteenth century. The two best known shopkeepers of the late seventeenth century are Roger Lowe of Leigh and William Stout of Lancaster both of whom stocked a wide range of goods of English, colonial and foreign origins.


Stage coaches first appeared in the 1630s and at first only covered the shorter distances linking nearby towns. By the later 1650s there were a few longer routes between London and York and London and Exeter that were served by coaches in the summer months only. The trip from to Exeter in 1658 took four days and such travel had the advantage of accommodation in coaching inns along the way and advertised departure times. The chief problem, from the point of view of the poor, was the cost, with fares for inside passengers being, typically, 4d. or 5d. a mile and for outside passengers 2d. or 3d.


In February 1663 the first coins minted with a milled edge to prevent clipping began to issue from the Royal Mint. They were manufactured using a machine developed by a Frenchman Pierre Blondeau, who despite considerable opposition from the moneyers was made ‘Engineer of the Mint’ early in the reign of Charles II. To accommodate changes in the price of gold, a new 20s. gold coin was issued with gold brought to the mint by the African Company. Stamped with an elephant (later an elephant and castle) these became known from the place of origin of the metal as ‘guinea pieces’.

In 1662, the old English groat was discontinued. This century also saw the development of banking and in association with that the emergence of a paper currency. The fist surviving cheques date from the 1670s but records of the Court of Chancery show that they were in use by 1665. Gradually during the Civil War and Commonwealth period, landowners and merchants transferred their liquid cash from the care of stewards and scriveners to the goldsmiths who were prepared to pay interest on money lodged with them. You might deposit a lump sum with a goldsmith and be given a receipt or a number of receipts of convenient amount but equal in total to the sum deposited. An account was opened in your name and you had an agreement, with might or might not be on the face of the receipt, as to the interest you were to get and the length of notice you were to give before withdrawal.

As early as 1668, and probably some time before that, these seem to have become exchangeable as on 29 February Pepys notes that he has sent his father Colvill’s note for £600 for his sister’s portion. Colvill being one of the three goldsmiths with whom Pepys did most of his business. This is the earliest recorded use of a goldsmith’s note for making a payment but this gradually became common place. From 1667 paper orders or assignments of revenue were issued to those who lent money to the Crown or supplied goods. They could be exchanged and were paid in order as the revenues came in. They were issued in convenient amounts of £1, £2 and £5 and were effectively the government issue of paper money.

In 1672 financial pressure caused a decision to suspend for twelve months, any payments on these orders to divert funds to the war effort. This confirmed in the eyes of the commercial world, the unsafe condition of a bank under a monarchy so when the central bank came to be formed it was but into private hands. The Bank of England was created in 1694 and the first issue of bank notes followed in the same year.