An old hand-weaver at his loom from the \'Universal Magazine\', 1747
An old hand-weaver at his loom from the 'Universal Magazine', 1747

From the beginning of the seventeenth century until the middle of the eighteenth there was a steady and continuous commercial and maritime expansion, but it was attended by no great changes in the rural and in­dustrial populations. The era of enclosures had come to an end; the greater part of the country in fact remained still unenclosed and still culti­vated under the open field system, tilled by the small farmers, yeomen, copyholders, or small tenants-at-will who, in ordinary circumstances, re­mained in undisturbed occupation from generation to generation.

The cottar and the labourer had little inclination and little temptation to migrate from the parish of their birth; if they did move they became liable under the Restoration Law of Settlement to be promptly ordered back to their previous abode lest any parish should find itself chargeable with the maintenance of pauper immigrants from other districts. The Elizabethan Poor Law prevented actual destitution, and generally provided some sort of work for the able-bodied. The development of the domestic industries of spinning and weaving supplemented the earnings of the farm-hand, and yielded a margin for the small farmer who lived chiefly upon the produce of his farm. Some new industries, too, were developed by the Huguenot immigrants who fled from the persecution of Louis XIV.

Social conditions
For the first fifty years of the eighteenth century matters went on in very much the same fashion. Yeoman and cottar lived on, not in penury but in a respectable kind of poverty, very rarely on the verge of starvation, but very rarely in a condition of what could fairly be called comfort. The age was apathetic and unambitious, too unambitious to be discontented; and benevolent moralists observed with satisfaction that children were taught the virtues of industry and helped to earn their own living almost as soon as they could talk.

There was very little in the shape of class antagonism, none of the opposition between capital and labour which was the outcome of a later industrialism, none of the opposition between gentry and peasantry which was presently to become so terribly conspicuous in France - because in England the peasantry were in no sense serfs, and the gentry were commonly disposed to a mildly paternal benevolence. There was no incentive to agricultural progress because the old open field system still kept the comparatively enterprising spirits among the small holders at the mercy of their slow-moving neighbours.

The small farmer, even if he had the will, lacked the means to try experiments or to adopt new methods which paid when they were applied upon a large but not upon a small scale. On the other hand, considerable progress was made in agricultural methods by large proprietors. They introduced the growing of roots and grasses; they adopted an improved rotation of crops and very considerable ad­vances were made in cattle-breeding. But the point to be immediately observed is that the progress was made on the estates where en­closure had already been carried out - enclosure, that is, in the sense of the aboli­tion of the open fields made up of acre strips, and the substitution of the large en­closed fields worked under a single management.

The yeoman farmed for subsist­ence, the owner of a large estate farmed for commercial, profit; he could turn experiment and enterprise to financial account, while he was able to produce at less cost than the small farmer with his antiquated methods. As yet, however, the yeoman did not feel the pinch of competition. The owner of a great estate might be desirous of extending his operations and anxious to carry enclosure further; but the yeoman, as long as he could hold his ground, was not inclined to make way for him, and he was able to hold his ground by help of -the subsidiary occupations of weaving and spinning. Enclosure went on during the first half of the eighteenth century, but it went on very slowly.

Then a change began to set in, the change which brought about the practical extinction of the yeoman and the absorption of the land of the small freeholder and copyholder into the large estate. It is possible that if there had been no Industrial Revolution the yeoman and the cottar might have survived; possible but not probable, for the yeoman, the rough no fault of his own, or only partly by his own fault, stood in the way of agricultural progress and prevented the development of the productive power of the country.

The mere necessity for that development would probably have swept him away in any case, but his fate was sealed by the destruction of the domestic industries which had kept him afloat. Oliver Goldsmith, in his Deserted Village (1770), gives a sentimental description of the decay of rural life, attributed to the greed and oppression of the wealthy; but in fact the yeoman and the cottar were finding them­selves no longer able to make a living; they were perishing from economic pressure, not from the avarice of their wealthier neighbours, who were able to make infinitely more productive the land which small men were driven to resign, while the small men themselves were absorbed into the mass of wage-labourers.

The Textile Industry
Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century four-fifths of the population, or not much less, was rural, living not in the towns but in farms and villages, and practically the whole of that rural population was occupied simultaneously with agriculture in the inclusive sense and the domestic industries. In the neighbourhood of the centres of cloth manufacture, still the principal manufacture of the country, the domestic industries were their mainstay and the field-work was supplementary. Further afield the order was reversed, and the product of field-work was supplemented by the domestic industries. Textiles of one sort or another - woollens, cotton, linen, silk - were the principal products, woollens having an immense preponderance in England, linens in Ireland and to a less degree in Scotland. Silk was the specialty of the Huguenot immigrants, and the importance of cotton was still in the future.

Spinning and Weaving - new technology
The spinning and weaving on which these manufactures depended were domestic industries - industries, that is to say, conducted at the fireside of each household - so long as the loom and the spinning-wheel might properly be called not machines but tools. When we distinguish between tools and machinery we mean by the former implements driven by the workman himself, by the latter implements in which another driving power is brought into play. Machinery existed in the windmills and water mills, where the power of wind and water was utilised for grinding corn, and in the steam-pump, an invention of the last century which was in use chiefly in mines. The great feature of the last forty years of the century was the invention of machinery driven first by water power and then by steam power, which began by displacing the hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, and went on to revolutionise the entire industrial system.

The era of inventions was initiated with what was still a new "tool." The weavers could not produce fast enough; that is to say, the spinners could supply them with yarn faster than they could weave it. The output of the weavers was doubled when John Kay invented the fly-shuttle in 1732, for the new shuttle enabled them to weave cloth of double width. The spinners were left behind until, in 1764, Hargreave invented the spinning-jenny, which worked eight spindles at once by a single action; and Hargreave was followed five years later by Richard Arkwright, who invented a jenny driven by water power. Arkwright's water-frame was the harbinger of the new machinery. It initiated the application of water power to manufacture; and the application of water power was the beginning of the end of domestic industries, because the hand worker could not compete with the machines, and the machines were necessarily set up not in the farm-house or cottage but where water power was available on the banks of streams. The water-frame was followed ten years later by Crompton's machine known as the "mule "; but the weavers-did not get a power-loom until Cartwright's machine was invented in 1784. So far as concerned these two domestic industries of spinning and weaving, all the advances from 1764 until 1784 were in spinning.

Impact of the spinning-jenny
Any improvements in tools and machinery mean that for a given expenditure of human energy and labour either a better quality or a greater quantity of goods can be produced, or both. An improvement in quality is a benefit which has no drawbacks; increase in quantity is injurious to the producer unless increased demand keep pace with increased supply. Labour-saving is almost always beneficial in the long run, because in the long run demand overtakes supply; but it is not always so at the outset. Thus, before the invention of the spinning-jenny, it was the spinners who gained by the fly-shuttle, because the weavers with their increased power of production wanted all the yarn they could get. But for a time there was not enough yarn to go round among the weavers, and their profits were reduced.

Then the spinning-jenny multiplied the productive capacity of the spinners; the weavers got as much yarn as they could manage, and a smaller number of spinners than before were able with ease to meet the whole available demand; therefore the spinners in their turn suffered. When the public wanted all that the clothiers could supply, the clothiers wanted all that the weavers could supply, and the weavers wanted all that the spinners could supply, every one was the better; but when the weavers wanted more than the spinners could supply they suffered, and when they wanted less the spinners suffered. It was only in the long run that the balance became adjusted, when lowered prices increased the demand.

In the period of which we are speaking the balance was not adjusted; the whole mass of those whose livelihood depended mainly or partly upon the spinning-wheel suffered, and that meant the greater portion of the rural population. In part at least this was the cause of the disappearance of the cottar and yeoman, and the rapid progress of enclosure. And this in turn meant the increase of poverty and even of destitution in the rural districts, and a demand for a revised administration of the poor law in order to cope with it.

Once again poor relief became a pressing problem, which was dealt with by Gilbert's Acts in 1782. One of these was directed to the combination of parishes in unions for the better organisation of poor law administration. But the Acts between them introduced a system of outdoor relief for the able-bodied, and gave extended power to the magistrates for the application of rates to the mitigation of distress. The magistrates were benevolent and well-intentioned, but short-sighted; and later we shall see that before the end of the century they applied their powers with most disastrous results.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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