Living in the 18th century

Standard of Living

One of the immediate and most important effects of the Act of Union in 1707 was the creation of a united free trade area managed from London. When pre-industrialization began a few decades later it gave rise to British industry and a British working class but first came the ongoing Agricultural Revolution. This process had begun in the previous century but continued in the first half of the eighteenth. It involved changes in improved animal husbandry, the introduction of root crops and early mechanization such as Jethro Tull’s seed drill.

This process reduced the need for large amounts of labour on the land and the intensification of enclosures in the second half of the eighteenth century not only increased rental incomes, it also forced people off common land, or off the land altogether to make way for sheep and created larger fields more suited to the new machinery than the old open field systems. The early manufacturing industries might contain modern machinery or they might not. They might be powered by water or horse power, or they might not. However, what they did have was highly centralized management and control by those providing the capital.

Among the first was Lombe’s silk-throwing mill on the river Derwent in Derbyshire in 1719; from the 1760s there was Boulton and Watt’s great Soho works on the edge of Birmingham; from the 1770s Arkwright’s spinning-mills in Derbyshire, Lancashire and other counties. This would ultimately mean that the country would be able to support a population that largely did not produce food and cheaper cotton and other manufactured goods for all.


Before the eighteenth century, rivers carried much of the inland cargo traffic in England, particularly for bulky or heavy goods. Transportation by water was between three and four times less expensive than transport by land before the development of the railways. River barges, however, had their disadvantages. Apart from natural disruptions caused by flooding and drought, rivers were littered with man made obstacles such as fishermen’s nets, sluices and weirs and delays could be considerable. The continuation of river improvements during the eighteenth century, coupled with the construction of a canal network, gradually removed most of these impediments.

By 1724, as a result of improvement, around 1160 miles of English rivers were navigable and by the end of the eighteenth century there were around 2000 miles of navigable waterway. The latter being made up of a third naturally navigable river, a third improved rivers and a third canals. The ‘Canal Age’ employed technology such as aqueducts, locks and sluices that were all known and mostly imported from continental Europe, and should therefore be seen as an evolution of river transportation rather than a significant technological breakthrough. Having said this, canals did bring about important changes.

The Bridgewater canal built for Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater and Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate, by John Gilbert and James Brindley, between 1759 and 1761, linked Worsley to Salford. It cut the price of coal from Bidgewater’s coal fields at Worsley from 7d. per ton to 4d. The cutting of the canals required a logistical effort in labour organisation unprecedented in Britain’s economic history. Manual labourers, known as ‘navvies’ (from the word navigator), were drawn from throughout the north of England as well as Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The social and economic phenomenon of these large armies of men moving through the countryside continued into the period of railway construction. Canals widened the market for manufactured goods by enhancing the speed and reliability of transport and lowered the cost of obtaining raw materials.

By 1780 the postal delivery service which employed mounted postboys was outmoded as more and more coaches, travelling faster than the mounted employees took to the road and illegally carried and increasing proportion of the country’s mail. John Palmer, a theatre proprietor of Bath proposed a system of modern coaches with guards, using different contractors for each stage of the journey. After a trial between Bristol and London in 1784, which took sixteen hours, more than a day quicker than the postboys, the system was extended nationally.

By 1791 twenty-six other routes were in existence and travel by mail coach came to be considered superior to the stage coach. Approaching an inn, the coach postillion sounded his horn as a signal to the ostler to have the relay horses at the ready and barmaids brought drinks to the passenger where the stops were too short to allow them to get out.


After numerous experiments, the British currency settled down to a standard set of coins and values. The guinea or ‘gold crown’ worth £1 1s. The shilling and the pound sterling and the crown, worth 5s., which were all coined in silver. The penny, the half-penny and the farthing, all coined in bronze. Watermarked bank notes were also developed.