Generation 488, 1740-1760. The industrious revolution

In this post I am going to focus on Europe, and Great Britain in particular. The European energy for expansion in this period is focussed on India and the Americas, and wars between European states. So southern Africa and Australia do not appear on the mental map of most Europeans.

Looking back from generation 500, I am struck by the background silence during this time. There is the clank of waterwheels, the turning of cartwheels, the noise of animals. But no cars, no trains, no motors. No electrical pollution from wireless signals, mobile phones or the internet. Just clear air in the countryside (no aircraft vapour trails) and choking fumes from coal fires in the cities.

We have already seen the empowering, levelling effect of new technologies. (The internet, for example, or mobile phones.) During generation 488 the industrious revolution was in full swing. Sheffield cutlers built water wheels along every available stretch of local rivers, to make the knives, forks and spoons their city was already renowned for. More efficient ways of smelting iron (using coke rather than charcoal) were coming into use in Birmingham. Finished goods could be sent to London (by then the largest city in Europe, and the largest in Britain by far) via the growing network of turnpike roads.

London was so big that it had a huge appetite for food and fuel. Coal came by sea, mainly from the north-east of England. Beef cattle were slowly driven to London from the north and west via a network of drove roads. They were fattened up in the countryside north of the city, then taken to Smithfield Market to be sold. The drove roads had to be separate from the turnpike roads because the animals needed to stop and graze as they travelled and their hooves would ruin the road surface for horse-drawn carriages. If you come across a road with unusually wide verges – the hedge or wall set well back – and possibly a pub called the Drover’s Inn, then it was probably a drove road. They became obsolete once the railways were built a couple of generations later. The drovers themselves were skilled men who made the trip from Scotland or Wales to the south of England every year. More opportunities for contact and exchange of information.

The drove roads and turnpikes themselves were possible because of another change that was happening. Farming itself was changing and becoming more productive. The horse-drawn seed drill, which speeded up the process of planting cereal crops, invented a couple of generations earlier, became widely used in this period. Such technology required larger fields, and the old strip cultivation was being replaced by enclosed fields, usually planted around by hedges. This was a process which had been happening since the previous century and would continue into the next, mostly by agreement but sometimes imposed.

I wonder if the extravagant outfits of the aristocracy at this time were a last-ditch attempt to resist the tide of levelling that was going on, to reinforce the separation between the classes that was visibly eroding.

court dress 1745

This is a court dress from 1745. There is a pannier extending from the waist, over which the fabric is draped. How did the woman wearing this dress get through doorways? Sideways, I suspect! Clothes like this were a distant memory two generations later, after the American and French revolutions.

The English gentry did make a huge contribution in another arena, that of gardening and landscaping. They made their country estates into naturalistic works of art, with lakes, woods, grottoes and viewing points. During the Enlightenment everything could be improved by humans, including nature itself.

This generation also saw the Encyclopedie first published in France and Dr Johnson’s dictionary of the English Language published in England. Knowledge could be catalogued and accessed. And in the Netherlands, a Swedish scientist set up a system for naming and classifying all of the plants known to humans, a system that is still in use today. His disciples hitched rides on military and scientific voyages around the world and brought back plants for classification, in an apparent attempt to catalogue the whole of nature.


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