Life in 18th Century Britain

Town and country

Towns were completely different to the countryside at this time, argues Daru Rooke, Curator at Bradford Museums and Galleries:


London life:

London was transforming itself in the 18th century. The clearances of the Great Fire [of 1666] had opened opportunities for new architects to create a gleaming new city of fine public buildings, houses and shops...


During the winter, the City became the resort of the fashionable...who came to see the latest costumes, shop...see the latest shows and attend the balls... at the heart of...'polite society'. 


...country visitors might need time to 'Londonize' their dress before appearing in public.  Newcomers to town might attend concerts or take refreshment at the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall or Ranelagh where elaborate garden buildings, illuminations and international performers were all set to dazzle. 


Alternatively the Pantheon created in Oxford Street in 1772 offered a range of attractions, not least the opportunity to watch societies’ stars and to be watched. Exclusive clubs like Almacks or Whites provided a glamorous setting where the wealthy could lose as much as £20,000 in a night’s unlucky gambling.


Country life:

In the countryside, change was beginning to re-shape the rural world. Land remained the backbone of wealth and agricultural reform and the process of enclosure meant that land values doubled through the century and estates were now more productive. 


But there was fear too. The main roads leading out of London were beset by highwaymen and Horace Walpole, himself a victim of robbery, advised that  people travel at noon as if they were going into battle.


The state of the roads...caused the isolation of many rural communities where potholes rather than today’s traffic jams kept visitors away. 


Arthur Young travelled the country in 1768 and summed up the situation in his description of the Preston to Wigan Road: 'travellers will here meet with ruts which I actually measured four feet deep. For a thousand to one but they break their necks or their limbs by overthrows or breaking down'.
(Text © Daru Rooke)


Objects linked to urban/country life: 

  • Handcuffs: Towns could be dangerous places in the 18th Century, as there was no official police force. There was only the town 'watch', who could arrest criminals and take them to a Justice of the Peace. These handcuffs might have been used for just that purpose. 

  • Agricultural life: Digging and Carting Peat, a watercolour painted by George Walker in 1812 was one of a series of sketches of county people. The series focused on agricultural and rural characters, portraying a romantic view of living conditions. The reality was quite different, as this tool for digging furrows suggests.
View other relevant My Learning resources or see the teachers' notes page for discussion and activity ideas. 


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Document icon Learning article provided by: Bolling Hall Museum | 
(Text © Daru Rooke)

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