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'Poor and backward' or 'wealthy and developing' - which of these descriptions most accurately portrays Britain in 1750?

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Introduction

'Poor and Backward' or 'Wealthy and Developing': Which Of These Descriptions Most Accurately Portrays Britain in 1750? To describe Britain in 1750 as 'wealthy and developing' would be, from a contemporary perspective, a fairly accurate portrayal. However, after having considered such aspects of economy as Agriculture, Industry, Trade and Transport and Society, it has become clear that Britain could only be described as 'wealthy and developed' to a certain extent. Though all sectors of the economy showed improvement during the period before 1750, and a certain amount of dependence on each other, (for example trade and transport, agriculture and industry and society and trade) all sectors had both positive and negative aspects. For example, in the agricultural sector, there were, according to E. Kerridge, signs of significant progress. In his opinion, the period 1560-1690 saw "an agricultural revolution of unparalleled achievement." However, in other sources, there is little evidence of development. In C More for example, it states that "Many of them [the agricultural workforce] were not far above the subsistence level." When judging whether 'Britain' in the mid eighteenth century was 'wealthy and developing' or 'poor and backward', it is difficult, as national and regional differences were very distinct. Some of the more affluent areas of England, such as London, could have most definitely been considered 'wealthy and developing', but some parts of Scotland and Wales are depicted to be much more 'poor and backward' in various sources. Agriculture, according to some sources, seemed to be at an unrivalled stage for its time. As stated by N. Tonge, "Even agriculture was developed beyond a mere subsistence level." ...read more.

Middle

Despite the fact that there was evidence of improvement, however, some sources argue that it showed little significance. For example, P Mathias claims that "Canal age began in the 1750s with improvements before that piecemeal and no great capital investment taking place in transport." This would tend to indicate the very embryonic nature of river transport before 1750, since there was evidently little wide spread adoption of 'revolutionary' techniques such as canals. Road transport was also exhibiting signs of improvement. Turnpikes (roads which provided capital for improvements by charging people to travel along them) were, according to K Morgan, far advanced as an innovation as 1750, and were fully networked by 1770. Even "By 1730, 57% of the 1560 route miles of the 13 main roads to the capital had been turnpiked; another 31% was added by 1750, leaving only 182 miles to be so improved." This could be said to be a pioneering phase of network development up to the 1740s and 1750s. It is evident to see how 'wealthy and developing' turnpike roads were in 1750 when we consult M Falkus' statistics of journey times to London. In 1700, a journey from Edinburgh by stagecoach to London took 256 hours. By 1750, because of the improvements in roads by turnpiking, this time had been halved to only 150 hours. Overall, there was definitely evidence of rapid development of roads in certain areas of the country Despite the substantial proof for the argument that road transport was very developed by 1750, some historians believe that there only was perceptible improvement after the end of the 18th century. ...read more.

Conclusion

In N Tonge's opinion, "The social hierarchy of Britain...had a greater number of segments and opportunities for social mobility." The middle classes, compromising of tenant farmers, bankers, merchants, clothiers, brewery owners and even some shop keepers and craftsmen whose businesses had prospered, were beginning to emerge as the individuals who were sustaining and promoting the country's economy. "Far from the very simple pyramid country we might expect in a backward country" (M Falkus), these 'middle men' enabled a 'consumer revolution' to occur. The only factor preventing the entire country from becoming a consumer based market were the working class, who received very little annual income. According to C More, the gentry and aristocracy together constituted around 20,000 families, owning between them nearly three-quarters of the land surface of the country. This shows that though middle classes were emerging, the upper classes still owned the majority of the land between them, seemingly preventing further advancement towards a less 'backward' society. Quintessentially, the economy of Britain in 1750 could be considered to be 'wealthy and developing', but only to a certain extent. Some sectors, such as industry, were said to show 'revolutionary' development before the time of 1750, whereas others, for example shipping, were categorised as almost stagnant, and lacking any real progress. The contrasting views of historians and the erratic nature of progress in different areas of the country pre-1750 make it almost impossible to define whether development by the mid eighteenth century was in fact 'wealthy and developing' or 'poor and backward', and the true picture of the economy in 1750, from a contempory view, was likely to be at a point somewhere between the two extremes. ...read more.

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