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 The 1700s
 The 1800s


by Jim Nelms
George I and Robert Walpole 1714
The son of the first elector of Hanover, Ernest Augustus, and great grandson of James I, George I (1714-27) became king on the death of Queen Anne. He spent most of his reign in Hanover, Germany, never having learned English. However, George did leave competent administrators to control affairs in his absence and his reign witnessed the development of the role of prime minister.

Sir Robert Walpole, a member of the House of Commons, played a key role in the Whig ranks, continuously making and losing vast sums of money for himself and for the country (in particular out of the slave traffic of South America). His success made him the most powerful of the Whigs and it became natural for him to preside over the meetings of the ministers.

Although the description was not yet applied, from now on there would invariably be a prime or first minister, surrounding himself with an entourage that was to develop into the Cabinet. The term 'Prime Minister' was first applied as an insult by opponents - indicating someone too closely in touch with royal wishes.


The Georgians 1714 - 1836
The Georgian period was a one of change. There was a new dynasty on the throne and, before long, the very infrastructure of Britain was changing.

Agricultural developments were followed by industrial innovation and this, in turn, led to urbanisation and the need for better communications. Britain became the world's first modern society.

With these changes came increased population and increased wealth (for some). Politically, the Georgian period was a period of confrontation. This came, initially, at home with the Jacobite rebellions but, as the eighteenth century progressed, the theatres of war expanded and Britain became involved in conflicts with India, her American colonies and continental Europe. Because of its financial, naval and military strength, the British government tended to prevail.

The '15 and the 'Old Pretender' 1715
In 1715, the Earl of Mar (an ousted government minister) raised a royal standard on the Braes of Mar in favour of James Stuart, the son of James VII and II, and also known as James VIII and III or the 'Old Pretender'. Mar led his supporters - the Jacobites - south in an attempt to seize Edinburgh Castle, the government's main arsenal in Scotland.

A simultaneous rising occurred in the north of England but was defeated at Preston. The Scottish Jacobites reached as far as Sheriffmuir in Perthshire where they fought with government troops. Although the battle was indecisive, the Jacobites withdrew.

In reality, the revolt failed abysmally - principally because of Mar's indecisive leadership - and James (who had landed on the Scottish coast after the battle) fled back to France. Further rebellions were attempted in 1719 (defeated at Glenshiel) and throughout the 1720s. Eventually, however, James settled peacefully in Rome.

The South Sea Bubble 1720
When the South Sea Company had been set up in 1711, it was hoped that it would one day challenge the financial strength of the Bank of England and the East India Company when it came to providing loans for the government to support the national debt. The company had a monopoly on trade with all Spanish territories, South America and the west coast of North America.  

In 1713, the Company received the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies. In 1720, the government encouraged investors to trade governments stocks for South Sea Company shares and as these boomed, more and more people speculated in them (forcing the share price higher). In July 1720, with company shares at a vastly inflated, unrealistic and unsustainable level, confidence collapsed (as did the share price).

Investors lost considerable amounts and some even committed suicide. Despite the Bubble bursting, the company survived into the 1850s.

Accession of George II 1727
George II (1727-60) succeeded his father, George I, on his death in 1727. The accession of the new king excited hopes amongst Walpole's opponents that he might be replaced. The first minister had acquired many enemies due to his powerful position and his policies. The king did not care for Walpole but Queen Caroline thought him sound, and persuaded her husband to retain him in government.

Spain was becoming increasingly angry over the expansion of British trade and had been protesting repeatedly over Britain's supposed semi-piratical exploits. In 1731, a Captain Jenkins who had been carrying out illegal trade in the Spanish Colonies reversed the charge, claiming to have had his ear cut off by Spaniards at sea. He later produced this ear in the House of Commons.

Captain Jenkins may or may not have contributed to its outbreak, but by 1739, Britain was at war with Spain, and the conflict soon spread until Britain, Hanover and Austria were lined up against Spain and France. Walpole, incapable of coping with a conflict of this scale, resigned.

Also during his reign, George II was victorious at the Battle of Dettingen, in 1743, during the War of the Austrian Succession. This was the last battle commanded by a British king. George II died in 1760 and was succeeded by his grandson, also George.

The Flying Shuttle and cotton 1733

Prior to the later eighteenth century, the cotton industry was organised on a domestic structure with most workers undertaking various processes at home. During the course of the eighteenth century, a variety of inventions allowed for greater mechanisation to be applied to the industry and this led in turn to the industrial structure changing to a factory-based system.  

In 1733, John Kay invented the Flying Shuttle (which meant that broader cloth could be woven and at a quicker rate); in 1764, James Hargreaves invented the Spinning Jenny (which meant that more than one thread could be produced at a time). Five years later in 1769, Richard Arkwright invented the water frame (which allowed cotton to be spun for the first time); in 1779, Samuel Compton's Mule allowed the spinning of finer cloths, and Edmund Cartwright's Power Loom (1786) completed the mechanisation of the weaving process.

These inventions were the basis for the increased productivity of the textile industry throughout Britain.

Transport and the Turnpikes 1735
The Turnpike Trusts, originally set up in 1706 and extended in 1735, led to serious outbreaks of rioting in 1735 and again in 1750, in which toll-gates and houses were destroyed - largely because the population objected to paying tolls for travel on roads which had previously been free.  

Nevertheless, the Turnpike Trusts were a success, and the money raised was used in part to finance the building of new and better roads. The designs of coaches and wagons were also improved by the new steel spring, and although accidents on corners were frequent, speeds increased. Between 1750 and 1800, the average time for a journey from London to Edinburgh was reduced from twelve to four days.

Due to the high cost of horse-drawn road transport, the numerous slow-flowing rivers of England had been the main transport for heavy goods. To increase the capacity of the water system, new canals were designed and built, such as the Bridgewater Canal (1759-61); the Grand Trunk Canal (1766-77); and the Grand Junction Canal between London and Birmingham (1805).

The '45 and the 'Young Pretender' 1745 - 1746
1745 witnessed another Jacobite uprising aimed at restoring James Stuart to the throne. This was led by James's son, Charles Edward Stuart (the 'Young Pretender' or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'). After several failed attempts to cross from France, Charles finally landed in Scotland - albeit without the French support that he had hoped for - on 23 July 1745.  

Charles raised Stuart supporting clans - with the cry of 'For King James and No Union' - and marched to Edinburgh to proclaim his father as King. After a victory over the British General Sir John Cope at Prestonpans, he penetrated England as far as Derby. However, support in Northern England was smaller than was hoped for, and Charles decided to retreat to avoid being caught in a pincer movement as he attempted to take London (where George II was rumoured to be packing his bags).

Meanwhile, the government had called back troops from the continent and attempted to follow the Stuart supporters back into Scotland. Charles' army stood and fought government forces for a second time at Falkirk - and was again victorious

The Battle of Culloden and its aftermath 1746
On 16 April 1746, an army under Prince Charles Stuart met an army of his cousin, William, Duke of Cumberland, on a moor outside Inverness. The last battle fought on British mainland soil was not, as is commonly understood, between the English and the Scots, but between the British government and their rebels. More Scots fought on the government side than fought for the 'romantic' Stuart cause. The battle proved rather one sided as the experience government troops out-thought and out-fought the tired Highland clansmen. In the aftermath of Culloden, severe repressive measure were taken by the government against Highland society - tartan and bagpipes were banned and the Gaelic language was not encouraged; traditional heritable jurisdictions were also terminated; and, at various strategic points, strong stone forts were built to help subdue the local population.  

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution 1750
The sudden acceleration of technical and economic development that begun in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century had changed the lives of a large proportion of the population by the nineteenth century. Machinery and manufacturing made possible by technical advances such as the steam engine came to dominate the traditional agrarian economy.

Exploitation of new, rich coal and ore reserves kept raw material costs down and the repositioning of factories near these reserves (and near population centres) slowly transferred the balance of political power from the landowner to the industrial capitalist (while creating an urban working class).

Calendar reform 1752
In Scotland, 1 January 1600 had been recognised as New Year's Day after a decree from James VI. Until 1753, this was not the case in England. Because calendrical reform in the sixteenth century had been advocated by the Pope, Protestant England had refused to comply. Only in 1752 were the Gregorian reforms of 1582 fully accepted in Britain (and the American colonies). As a result, New Year's Day was decreed to be 1 January and not 25 March and eleven days were removed from the calendar (3-13 September 1752) to ensure that Britain was co-ordinated with most of the rest of Europe.

British Museum 1753
On 5 April, a foundation charter was issued to create a British Museum. The Museum houses a number of important and varied collections, the first of which were donated in the 1750s. The Museum was instituted in 1759 and expanded to include the Royal Library (the basis for the collection of the British Library) in 1822. Now housed in Bloomsbury, the Museum continues to be free to the public and houses the national collection of treasures such as the Elgin Marbles as well as a National Copyright Library at St Pancras.

Seven Years' War 1756 - 1763

Following George III's accession in 1760, there was a subtle change in policy and, in March 1762, secret peace negotiations were opened. When the final Treaty of Paris was signed in February 1763, Britain had acquired Quebec, Florida, Minorca and large additional parts of India and the West Indies.

Although the war was undoubtedly costly in terms of lives and finance - the national debt almost doubled to £133,000,000 - it meant, for almost the first time, that Britain was truly a 'world power'. Unfortunately, in the next decade, it was not the heightened status but the depleted finances that proved crucial: as the British government attempted to cover its losses, by acts such as the Stamp Act of 1763, colonial tensions simply increased further.


France and England/Britain had always had an uneasy relationship. In the mid-1750s, tensions continued to build between the two countries, specifically in relation to their dealings with the colonies. Britain declared war in May 1756 and the French retaliated by seizing British colonial bases. The conflict took place in a number of spheres - America, India, the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Notable events during the course of the war were Clive's victory at Plessey, India (1757), Wolfe's capture of Quebec, Canada (1759) and Hawkes's naval victory at Quiberon Bay (1759).

Cook in the Pacific 1768
British interests in the wider world expanded through the eighteenth century. In 1768, James Cook undertook the first of three voyages to the Pacific, surveying New Zealand, modern Australia (where he named Botany Bay), Tahiti and Hawaii.  

His second voyage (1773) made him the first Britain to chart Antarctica, and his third (1778/9) led him to discover and name island groups in the South Pacific, such as the Sandwich Islands. On 14 February 1779, Cook was killed on Hawaii.

The War of American Independence 1775 - 1783
In 1775, during George III's reign, the British North American colonies revolted - due mainly to their opposition to British economic exploitation and also their unwillingness to pay for a standing army.

Anti-monarchist sentiment was strong, as the colonists wanted to participate in the politics affecting them.

On 4 July 1776, a Declaration of Independence was signed. Initial confrontations were mixed - the British being successful at Brandywine but suffering badly at Saratoga - but the situation improved for the colonists when France (1778), Spain (1779) and the Netherlands (1780) all utilised the opportunity caused by the confrontation to declare war on Britain as well. By 1782, the British campaign was crumbling.

Gordon Riots 1780

In 1778, parliament had passed the Relief Act which repealed harsh anti-Catholic legislation from the seventeenth century. In June 1780, violent anti-Catholic riots broke out in London as Lord George Gordon marched on parliament to present a petition requesting the repeal of the Relief Act and a return to Catholic repression. (Edinburgh and Glasgow had already seen similar riots).

Chapels, known Catholic houses, prisons, public buildings and even Catholics in the street were attacked. There were running battles between the demonstrators and the authorities.

It took the government and London authorities ten days to restore order in the capital. By that time, 12,000 troops had been deployed and over 700 had been killed. Gordon was tried for high treason but acquitted. The Lord Mayor of London was fined £1,000 for negligence of his duties.


East India Company Board of Control 1784

Following the loss of the American colonies, there was an increasing interest in the British Empire in the east. The East India Company had long been the main agent of Imperial expansion in southern Asia and exercised many governmental functions.

Under the India Act of 1784, although the company maintained sole responsibility for trade and patronage, a Board of Control was established to oversee the revenue, administration and diplomatic functions of the company as well as the aspects of its military expansion.



Colonisation of the Antipodes - penal colonies 1788
The colonisation of Australia and New Zealand began with the desire to find a place for penal settlement after the loss of the original American colonies. The first shipload of British convicts landed in Australia in 1788, on the site of the future city of Sydney. The majority of these convicts were young men, many of whom had committed only petty crimes. New South Wales opened to free settlers in 1819. By 1858, transportation of convicts was abolished.

First £1 banknotes 1797
Prior to 1797, the Bank of England was obliged to exchange banknotes, on demand, for gold. As a result, banknotes tended to be of relatively high denominations. The suspension of this obligation in February 1797 (until 1821) led to the issuing of the first £1 banknotes.

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