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History of the British Isles

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The social history of England demonstrates innumerable changes over many centuries. These major social changes have affected England both internally and in its relationship with other nations.


Prehistoric society

The distant past does not offer us much information on the structures of society, but major changes in human behaviour make it likely that society must have changed dramatically. In common with much of Europe, the switch from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming around 4000 BC must have heralded an enormous shift in all aspects of human life. Nobody knows what changes may have occurred, and recent evidence of permanent buildings and habitation from 3,000 years ago means that these may still have been gradual shifts. One of the most obvious symbols of change in prehistoric society is Stonehenge. The building of such stone circles, burial mounds and monuments throughout the British Isles seems to have required a division of labour. Builders would have needed to dedicate themselves to the task of monument construction to acquire the required skills. Not having time to hunt and farm would make them rely on others to such an extent that specialised farmers would emerge who provided not only for themselves but also for the monument builders.

What we know of prehistoric times apart from their monuments is mostly derived from the remains of burials, and this shows another major change in society: the rise of an aristocracy. It is perhaps inevitable that a division of labour would give some people less work while others got more, and an increase of lavishly furnished graves seems to confirm this. Again, care should be taken not to infer too many complex ideas of social history from grave sites, but they do show that people had surplus time for the production of decorative items and they hint at early beliefs about death and religion. This aristocracy, whether it gained its position through martial strength or technological skill, made further social stratification highly likely.

Two other changes which surely influenced social change were the beginning of the Iron Age and the building of hill forts. The first probably necessitated the second, but the growth in population, competition for resources and an unwillingness to simply move on and abandon settled lives or farms probably made the need for forts greater. Fortification and war raise one important unanswered question about British society: the role of invasion. Any incursion of other peoples into the British Isles is bound to have major social effects, but we do not really know whether these events were invasions, immigrations or simply adoptions of outside ideas; and the native populations may have been mostly killed, slowly supplanted, integrated with the new or just had the aristocracy replaced. These questions relate to many of the changes in culture seen in prehistoric and later times such as the Beaker people, the Celts, the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons.


The arrival of the Romans in 54 BC probably did not alter society greatly at first, as it was simply a replacement of the ruling class, but numerous, at first minor, ideas would later gain footholds. Certainly, it wouldn't have affected Ireland in the slightest. It is from the Romans, and particularly Tacitus, that we get the earliest detailed written records of Britain and its tribal society. We get fascinating glimpses of society in Britain before the Romans, although only briefly and disparagingly mentioned, particularly the importance of powerful women such as Cartimandua and Boudica. City dwelling was not new to pre-Roman Britain, but it was a lifestyle that the Romans preferred even though available to only a select few Romanised Britons. Romanisation was an important part of the Roman conquest strategy, and British rulers who willingly adopted Roman ways were rewarded as client kings; a good example of this is Togidubnus and his ultramodern Roman-style house at Fishbourne.

Although the Roman conquest was relatively swift, there was often rebellion, and war with the unconquered Caledonian tribes in the far north, and so the army became an important part of Roman British life. An army, probably larger than that of most medieval monarchs, gave a low-status Briton the chance of a steady job, the possibility of seeing the rest of the empire, and rewards for service if they survived. The army also brought people to Britain, not just from present day Italy but from all over the empire. To subdue and control the country, the Romans built a major road network which not only was an important civil engineering project but formed the basis of the country's communication links. The Romans brought many other innovations and ideas such as writing and plumbing, but how many of these things were the preserve of the rich or were even lost and re-appropriated at a later date is uncertain. The one other great social change the Romans brought to Britain was Christianity, whose effect on society was probably minimal at first but eventually far succeeded.

Early medieval society

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century is thought to have brought general strife and anarchy to society, but the actual events are not well understood. Archaeology certainly shows a reduction in the expensive goods found before and the Roman cities began to be abandoned, but much of British society had never had such things. Certainly, numerous peoples took advantage of the absence of Roman power, but how they affected British society is far from clear. The hegemony of Roman rule gave way to a selection of splintered, often competing, societies, including later the heptarchy. Rather than think of themselves as a small part of a larger Roman empire, they reverted to smaller tribal allegiances.

The Anglo-Saxons' arrival is the most hotly disputed of events, and the extent to which they killed, displaced, or integrated with the existing society is still questioned. What is clear is that a separate Anglo-Saxon society, which would eventually become England with a more Germanic feel, was set up in the south east of the island. These new arrivals had not been conquered by the Romans but their society was perhaps similar to that of Britain. The main difference was their pagan religion, which the surviving northern areas of non-Saxon rule sought to convert to Christianity. During the 7th century these northern areas, particularly Northumbria, became important sites of learning, with monasteries acting like early universities and figures such as Bede at the forefront of European thought. In the 9th century Alfred the Great was extremely interested in creating a literate, educated people and did much to promote the English language, even writing books himself. Alfred and his successors unified and brought stability to most of the south of Britain that would eventually become England, and he is also credited with organising the country into shires, the forerunners of current counties.

Late medieval society

Feudalism, although always a very contentious idea, is often used to describe medieval society. Basically stated, a lord owns land or a fief which he allows vassals to work in return for their military service. The vast majority of the people were peasants who would work on the vassal's fiefs. This or a similar system was the basis of later medieval society. It probably existed in some form in England before the Norman conquest, but the Normans did much to institute it, either replacing existing lords or by becoming 'overlords' above now-demoted lords. A wealth of information on these social structures can be drawn from one of the best early surveys of its type, the Domesday Book.

After the Norman conquest of England, English society seemed fixed and unchanging for several centuries, but gradual and significant changes were still taking place, the exact nature of which would not be appreciated until much later. The Norman lords spoke Norman, and in order to work for them or gain advantage, the English had to use the Anglo-Norman language that developed in England. This became a necessary administrative and literary language (see Anglo-Norman literature), but despite this the English language was not supplanted, and after gaining much in grammar and vocabulary began in turn to replace the language of the rulers. At the same time the population of England more than doubled between Domesday and the end of the 13th century, and this growth was not checked by the almost continual foreign warfare, crusades and occasional civil anarchy.

The crusades are one measure of the ever-increasing power of the church in medieval life, with some estimates suggesting that as many as 40,000 clergy were ordained during the 13th century. This is also shown by the spate of cathedral building, common throughout Europe, at the time. These great buildings would often take several generations to complete, spawning whole communities of artisans and craftsmen and offering them jobs for life.

The increase in population led not only to larger cities and towns, but also to the building of many more towns. This did not change England significantly from being a mainly rural society, and many agricultural changes, such as crop rotation, kept the countryside profitable. It has been suggested that the 13th century experienced a mini-industrial revolution, with the increased use of wind power and changes in the wool industry. Wool, always important to the British economy, was traditionally exported to be processed, but it was now frequently processed in England, creating a variety of extra jobs. The export of cloth continued to increase from the 14th century onwards, and after the closing of the port of Calais (which consumed much of the raw wool) by the Spanish in the late 16th century, cloth became the primary type of wool exported.[1] Many people were finding different roles and responsibilities within English society too, with the growth of common law giving people greater access to the law and the "commons" starting to have a place in the Parliament of England during Edward I of England's time.

The Black Death re-shaped society

After many years of growth and gradual change, there was one seismic event which changed British society dramatically. The Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, according to some estimates, almost halved the population. Whole villages were wiped out by the plague, but rather than destroying society it managed to reinvigorate it. Before the plague there was a large, perhaps excessive, workforce with overpopulation and people competing for scarce resources. The drop in population meant that labourers were in short supply, and peasants who had once been confined to a landowner's estate now had great incentive to travel to areas without workers. This social mobility was combined with the fact that peasants could charge much more for their services, and this began a switch from indentured labourer to wage earner which signalled the decline of the feudal system.

The peasants' new-found freedoms were very worrying to the authorities, who passed laws specifying the maximum that a peasant should be paid, but this had little effect on wages. The first of several sumptuary laws were also made, dictating exactly how people at every level of society should dress and what they could own, in an effort to enforce social distinctions. These new laws, plus a newly levied poll tax which had been calculated on pre-plague population figures, led directly to the Peasants' Revolt. Although quickly put down, the revolt was an early popular reform movement -- a precursor to later, more successful uprisings.

Geofrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales give an illuminating picture of many of the different people who made up medieval society, although these portraits are limited mainly to the middle classes. The Wife of Bath is one particularly vibrant character within the Tales and a few years later a real-world equivalent, Margery Kempe, showed in her autobiography that women had an important part in medieval society.

Tudor society

The Tudor dynasty period was seen as a very stable time compared to the previous years of almost constant warfare. The Reformation caused not only internal and external conflict, but also had some surprising effects on society. Before the Dissolution of the Monasteries these institutions had been one of the important parts of social welfare, giving alms and looking after the destitute, and their disappearance meant that the state would have to adopt this role, which culminated in the Poor law of 1601. The monasteries also had been the major educational establishments in the country; after they had gone, many new grammar schools were founded and these, along with the earlier introduction of the printing press, helped to improve literacy. At the same time, though, language suffered when the Laws in Wales Act 1535, which combined England and Wales into one state, outlawed the use of Welsh language for public offices.

The agricultural reforms which had begun in the 13th century accelerated in the 16th century, with inclosure altering the open field system and denying many of the poor access to land. Large areas of land which had once been common, and whose usage had been shared between many people, were now being enclosed by the wealthy mainly for extremely profitable sheep farming. This change in farming practices probably contributed to the growth of cities, as the unlanded and unemployed moved to look for work; at the same time, there was a marked growth in the suburb. These features were described by an 'explorer' of England, John Leland, as not a place for the excluded poor, who were traditionally kept on the outskirts of the city, but a place for the middle classes to escape the crowded centre.

Many new opportunities presented themselves for people to alter their places in society. There were the refinements of both the blast furnace and gunpowder which made the arms trade lucrative, and science, art, trade and exploration were all on the increase. William Shakespeare is a very good example of the burgeoning society, showing not only that a lowly son of a glovemaker could go on, apparently without a university education, to become an actor, playwright and theatre owner - not highly socially regarded professions - but also that people increasingly had the money and time to attend the theatre.

Stuart society

Oliver Cromwell, the man with the most influence on British society?

If Shakespeare and his contemporaries symbolised the start of true social mobility, then Oliver Cromwell reached the high point of social movement, unequalled even in the 20th century. The son of a farmer, he went on to become a king in all but name, and the effect of that short-lived republicanism would permanently alter British society.

Cromwell's rise to power was in part the outcome of religious conflict and dissent present since the Lollards of the 14th century. However, these religious radicals and even the Protestant Reformation did not seem to affect society greatly, and in the case of the Reformation it was in England a relatively calm transformation compared to other parts of Europe. There was burning of heretics on both sides as the two factions vied for power, but the vast majority of laypeople seemed unmoved or even uncertain as to which faith they belonged to. It was only in Stuart times, when the population felt itself to be strongly Church of England, that fear of the re-adoption of the Catholic religion began to cause problems.

The English civil war was far from just a conflict between two religious faiths, and indeed it had much more to do with divisions within the one Protestant religion. The austere, fundamentalist Puritanism on the one side was opposed to what it saw as the crypto-Catholic decadence of the Anglican church on the other. Divisions also formed along the lines of the common people and the gentry, and between the country and city dwellers. It was a conflict that was bound to disturb all parts of society, and a frequent slogan of the time was "the world turned upside down".

In 1648 the Grandees on the winning Parliamentary side of the Civil War, faced with the perceived duplicity and uncompromising stand of King Charles I, gradually came around to the idea which more radical elements on the Parliamentary side had been advocating for some time: that the death of the King was necessary to restore peace. In January 1649 King Charles was tried and executed as a traitor. During the Interregnum there were two major types of government: the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Both these governments were based on the rule of the same class of gentry and wealthy merchants who had formed the majority of the electorate to Parliament before the Civil War. After the capture of King Charles I, and during the first few years of the Interregnum, the old ruling class faced challenges to their position by other sections of society. The most important of these groups were the Levellers, who wished to level society, removing class distinctions to make all men equal. They also wished to see universal suffrage for all adult male householders, regular elections and the abolition of all tithes - which would break the power of the established church. The Levellers' power base was in the New Model Army, but the Grandees managed to contain and then destroy dissent within the Army, and with this loss of influence the levellers were no longer able to mount a credible challenge to the established order. There were more radical groups than the Levellers - for example the Diggers, the Fifth Monarchy Men, and the Ranters - but these more radical groups did not attract many supporters.

The Protectorate, which preceded the Restoration, might have continued a little longer if Oliver Cromwell's son, Richard Cromwell, had been capable of carrying on his father's policies. Richard Cromwell eventually resigned his position as Lord Protector, but England was not yet ready to be a republic. George Monck, governor of Scotland under the Cromwells, instituted military rule when the younger Cromwell resigned his position in 1659; Monck then began negotiations for Charles to return from exile. The Declaration of Breda paved the way for the restoration and Charles's return from exile, an event which took place on May 23, 1660. Later in London, on May 29, he was restored as king.

After eleven years without a king, the transition back to a true monarchy was quick and almost uneventful. The people might have supported the limiting of the power of the king, but what they did not like were the strictures placed on society by the Puritans. Amongst other things, the Puritans banned gambling, cockfights, the theatre and even Christmas. The arrival of Charles II—The Merry Monarch—brought a relief from the warlike and then strict society that people had lived in for several years. The theatre returned, along with expensive fashions such as the periwig and even more expensive commodities from overseas. The British Empire had been expanding since the late 16th century, and along with much wealth returning to the country, expensive luxury items were also appearing. Sugar and coffee from the East Indies, tea from India and slaves from Africa were all essential items forming the backbone of trade and the first three became the basis of London society.

One in nine of the population of the country is estimated to have lived in London near the end of the Stuart period and, as a hub of trade, expensive goods from all over accumulated there. Coffee houses were becoming the centres of business and social life, and it has also been suggested that tea might have played its own part in making Britain powerful, as the antiseptic qualities of tea allowed people to live closer together, protecting them from germs, and making the Industrial Revolution possible.[2] These products can be considered as beginning the consumer society which, while it promoted trade and brought development and riches to society, helped widen the gap between rich and poor.

At the beginning of the reign of the Stuart kings, James I of England (James VI of Scotland) authorised a new translation of the Bible which was known as the King James Bible or Authorised Version. This was not only an important event in clearly separating the Anglican and Catholic churches, just as the Book of Common Prayer had done fifty years earlier, but as a standard text it also was a major influence on English literature, language and thought for centuries to come. Newspapers, a fairly new invention, soon became important tools of social discourse and the diarists of the time such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn are some of the best sources we have of everyday life in Restoration England.

Georgian society

Stuart society ended with the Glorious Revolution, perhaps not all that glorious, but it did show that the power of the king had not recovered from limitations it suffered in the civil war and was still under obligation to the state. One of William III's first actions on coming to power was to sign the Act of Toleration of 1689 which granted rights of free religious worship to many of the Protestant sects which had been formed around the time of the civil war. Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Ranters and Quakers were all allowed to pray freely, although many of these groups had taken the opportunity of the expanding empire and had set themselves up in colonies.

The Industrial Revolution can be thought of as starting as early as the 16th century, although it did not reach its peak until the 19th century, and the form it took during the Georgian era was an agricultural revolution. Along with developments in technology such as Jethro Tull's seed drill which allowed greater yields, the process of enclosure, which had been altering rural society since the Middle Ages, became unstoppable. More people were made unemployed by being excluded and forced off the land which, despite compensation, often meant having to enter the workhouse, leaving many with a lasting distrust of the law. Criticism from the church did not stop the process, and the new mechanisation that was being introduced needed much larger fields — the layout of the British countryside with the patchwork of fields divided by hedgerows that we see today. As in other major times of inclosure, the poor moved into the cities looking for work, and not only did existing cities grow but small market towns such as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds became cities simply by weight of population.

Despite changes taking place in England throughout Georgian times, it is often noted that the country was relatively calm and stable, certainly compared with the revolutions and wars which were convulsing Europe at the time. The politics of the French Revolution did not translate directly into British society to spark an equally seismic revolution, nor did the loss of the American Colonies dramatically weaken or disrupt Great Britain. Part of the economic stability can be ascribed to wealth gained through the colonisation of India. Great Britain's more gradual adoption of the radical politics of the time is often explained by the growth in Methodism among the poor and working classes, which diverted their attention to more spiritual rather than physical revolutions. Another factor frequently cited for the stable basis which the burgeoning industrial revolution would be built on is the fact of the Civil War in the 17th century. Although not in living memory, the war that raged between king and parliament still influenced national life, and fear of yet another damaging revolution is thought to have prevented many from engaging in such activities.

Victorian era

The social changes during the Victorian era were wide-ranging and fundamental, leaving their mark not only upon the United Kingdom but upon much of the world which was under Britain's influence during the 19th century. It can even be argued that these changes eclipsed the massive shifts in society during the 20th century; certainly many of the developments of the 20th century have their roots in the 19th. The technology of the Industrial Revolution had a great impact on society. Inventions not only introduced new industries for employment, but the products and services produced also altered society. Mining to extract the coal and other raw materials needed to fuel the Industrial Revolution was a major new industry, and before 1842 even women worked in the mines.

The status of the poor is one area in which huge changes occurred. A good illustration of the differences between life in the Georgian and Victorian eras are the writings of two of England's greatest authors, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Both writers held a fascination for people, society and the details of everyday life but in Austen the poor are almost absent, mainly because they were still the rural poor, remote and almost absent from the minds of the middle classes. For Dickens, only a few years later, the poor were his main subject, as he had partly suffered their fate. The poor now were an unavoidable part of urban society and their existence and plight could not be ignored. Industrialisation made large profits for the entrepreneurs of the times, and their success was in contrast not only to the farm workers who were in competition with imported produce but also to the aristocracy whose landowning wealth was now becoming less significant than business wealth. The British class system created an intricate hierarchy of people which contrasted the new and old rich, the skilled and unskilled, the rural and urban and many more.

John Wesley's Methodists had succeeded in their campaign for the abolition of slavery in 1807, but at the same time indentured labour and near-slavery were still common, even at the heart of the Empire. Some of the first attacks on industrialisation were the Luddites' destruction of machines, but this had less to do with factory conditions and more to do with machines mass-producing linen much quicker and cheaper than the handmade products of skilled labourers. The army was called to the areas of Luddite activity such as Lancashire and Yorkshire and for a time there were more British soldiers controlling the Luddites than fighting Napoléon in Spain. The squalid, dangerous and oppressive conditions of many of the new Victorian factories and the surrounding communities which rose to service them became important issues of discontent, and the workers began to form trade unions to get their working conditions addressed.

The first unions were feared and distrusted,and ways were devised to ban them. The most widely known case was that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs of 1834, an early attempt at a union whose members were tried on a spurious charge, found guilty and transported to Australia. The sentence was challenged and they were released shortly afterwards, but unions were still threatened. It was not until the formation of the TUC in 1868 and the passing of the Trade Union Act 1871 that union membership became reasonably legitimate. Many pieces of legislation were passed to improve working conditions, including the Ten Hours Act 1847 to reduce working hours, and these culminated in the Factory Act 1901.

Many of these acts resulted from the blight of Britain's agricultural depression. Beginning in 1873 and lasting until 1896, many farmers and rural workers were hard-pressed for a stable income. With the decline in wheat prices and land productivity many countrymen were left looking for any hope of prosperity. Although the British parliament gave substantial aid to farmers and laborers, many still complained that rents were too high, wages too low, and the hours laborers were required to work were too long for their income. As a result many workers turned to unions to have their concerns heard and, with the acts listed above as proof, were able to achieve some success.

Links and progress

The railways changed communications and society dramatically

Another important development during the Victorian era was the improvement of communication links. Stage coaches, canals, steam ships and most notably the railways all allowed goods, raw materials and people to be moved about, rapidly facilitating trade and industry. Even later communication methods such as photography, cinema, telegraph, telephones, cars and aircraft, which would not have an impact but also leisure. Many people used the train services to visit the seaside, helped by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 which created a number of fixed holidays which all sectors of society could enjoy. Large numbers travelling to quiet fishing villages such as Worthing, Brighton, Morecambe and Scarborough began turning them into major tourist centres, and people like Thomas Cook saw tourism and even overseas travel as viable businesses. The trains became another important factor in regulating and ordering society, with "railway time" being the standard by which clocks were set throughout Britain. Steam ships such as the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western made international travel more common but also advanced trade, so that in Britain it was not just the luxury goods of earlier times that were imported into the country but essentials such as corn from the America and meat from Australia. One more important innovation in communications was the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, which standardised postage to a flat price regardless of distance sent.

The Victorians were impressed by science and progress, and felt that they could improve society in the same way as they were improving technology. The model town of Saltaire was founded, along with others, as a planned environment with good sanitation and many civic, educational and recreational facilities, although it lacked a pub, which was regarded as a focus of dissent. Similar sanitation reforms, prompted by the Public Health Acts 1848 and 1869, were made in the crowded, dirty streets of the existing cities, and soap was the main product shown in the relatively new phenomenon of advertising. Victorians also strove to improve society through many charities and relief organisations such as the Salvation Army, the RSPCA and the NSPCC, and at the same time there were many people such as Florence Nightingale trying to reform areas of public life. Another new institution was Robert Peel's "peelers", one of the earliest formal police forces.

Queen Victoria was possibly one of the most powerful women in Britain since Queen Elizabeth, but her status did not dramatically improve the position of women within society. There were many movements to obtain greater rights for women, but voting rights did not come until the next century. The Married Women's Property Act 1882 meant that women did not lose their right to their own property when they got married and could divorce without fear of poverty, although divorce was frowned upon and very rare during the 19th century. The Victorians are often credited with having invented childhood. Despite the image of large Victorian families, the trend was towards smaller families, probably because of lower infant mortality rates and longer life spans. Legislation reduced the working hours of children while raising the minimum working age, and the passing of the Education Act 1870 set the basis for universal primary education.

20th century

War and depression

Victorian attitudes and ideals continued into the first years of the 20th century, and what really changed society was the start of World War I. The army was traditionally never a large employer in the nation, and the regular army stood at 247,432 at the start of the war. By 1918 there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the RNAS and the RFC, was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the "lost generation", and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon's Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front. Conscription brought people of many different classes, and also people from all over the empire, together and this mixing was seen as a great leveller which would only accelerate social change after the war.

The social reforms of the previous century continued into the twentieth with the Labour Party being formed in 1900, but this did not achieve major success until the 1922 general election. Lloyd George said after the First World War that "the nation was now in a molten state", and his Housing Act 1919 would lead to affordable council housing which allowed people to move out of Victorian inner-city slums. The slums, though, remained for several more years, with trams being electrified long before many houses. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women householders the vote, but it would not be until 1928 that equal suffrage was achieved.

A short lived post-war boom soon led to a depression that would be felt worldwide. Particularly hardest hit were the north of England and Wales, where unemployment reached 70% in some areas. The General Strike was called during 1926 in support of the miners and their falling wages, but little improved, the downturn continued and the Strike is often seen as the start of the slow decline of the British coal industry. In 1936 two hundred unemployed men walked from Jarrow to London in a bid to show the plight of the industrial poor, but the Jarrow March, as it was known, had little impact and it was not until the Second World War that industrial prospects improved. George Orwell's book The Road to Wigan Pier gives a bleak overview of the hardships of the time.

The Second World War is sometimes regarded as simply a continuation of the previous war after a brief period of peace, but the conflicts were significantly different, particularly for British society. The war started with a phony war in which threats of major actions did not materialise, but thousands of children were moved from the cities into the country. Ten times the number of children were evacuated in 1939, when there were troops on the early expeditionary force in France, but many returned some months later and remained in the cities until the end of the war. There were half the number of military casualties in this war than the last, but the improvements in aerial warfare meant that there were many more civilian casualties and a foreign war seemed much closer to home. The early years of the war in which Britain "stood alone" and the Blitz spirit which developed as Britain suffered under aerial bombardment helped pull the nation together after the divisions of the previous decade, and campaigns such as "Dig for Victory" helped give the nation a common purpose. The focus on agriculture to feed the nation gave some people their first introduction to the countryside, and women played an important part in the war effort as the Land Girls; there were also half a million women in the armed forces, with even Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, training as a lorry driver. The measure of freedom women received through these jobs, and working in factories in the jobs of male workers who had gone into battle, is considered as contributing to the later sexual revolution.

Late 20th century

The Labour Party victory after World War II was seen as a vote by the returning soldiers for what they felt were their rights after serving their country. The most important reform was the founding of the National Health Service on July 5, 1948. It promised to give cradle to grave care for everyone in the country, regardless of income. Rationing, which had been instituted during the war, was extended even after the war — with bread rationed between 1946 and 1948, and sweets rationed until 1954. For some of the very poorest, rationing was beneficial, because their rationed diet was of greater nutritional value than their pre-war diet. Just as after the World War I, there was a short-lived economic boom after the Second World War, followed by an economic downturn in the early 1950s, which became known as the austerity years.

Leisure activities began to be more accessible to more people after the war. Holiday camps, which had first opened in the 1930s, became popular holiday destinations in the 1950s — and people increasingly had money to pursue their personal hobbies. The BBC's early television service was given a major boost in 1953 with the coronation of Elizabeth II, attracting an estimated audience of twenty million, proving an impetus for people to buy televisions. At the same time, other new consumer goods were coming into homes, and houses were more likely to be owned with mortgages. The markets where people traditionally bought their goods were being replaced by chain stores and shopping centres, and advertising became widespread. Cars were becoming a significant part of British life, with city-centre congestion and ribbon developments springing up along many of the major roads. These problems led to the idea of the green belt to protect the countryside, which was at risk from development.

The 1960s are often considered a time of great shifts in attitudes in the United Kingdom. One notable event was the publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover by Penguin Books in 1960. Although first printed in 1928, the release in 1960 of an inexpensive mass-market paperback version prompted a court case. The prosecuting council's question, "Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?" highlighted how far society had changed, and how little some people had noticed the change. The book was seen as one of the first events in a general relaxation of sexual attitudes. Other elements of the sexual revolution included the development of The Pill, Mary Quant's miniskirt and the 1967 legalisation of homosexuality. There was a rise in the incidence of divorce and abortion, and a resurgence of the women's liberation movement, whose campaigning helped secure the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.

The 1960s were a time of greater disregard for the establishment, with a satire boom led by people who were willing to attack their elders. Pop music became a dominant form of expression for the young, and bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were seen as leaders of youth culture. Youth-based subcultures such as the mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads became more visible.

Reforms in education led to the effective elimination of the grammar school. The rise of the comprehensive school was aimed at producing a more egalitarian educational system, and there were ever-increasing numbers of people going into higher education.

In the 1950s and 1960s, immigration of people to the United Kingdom, mainly from former British colonies in the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, began to escalate, leading to racism. Dire predictions were made about the effect of these new arrivals on British society (most famously Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech), and tension led to a few race riots. In the longer term, many people with differing cultures have successfully integrated into the country, and some have risen to high positions.

One important change during the 1980s was the opportunity given to many people to buy their council houses, which resulted in many more people becoming property owners in a stakeholder society. At the same time, prime minister Margaret Thatcher weakened the trade unions. The United Kingdom's entry into the European Community (EEC) in 1973 meant that Britain was now more closely tied to its member states than ever before, and the country's relationship with the European Union (as the EEC is now called) is still much debated. The ecology movements of the 1980s reduced the emphasis on intensive farming, and promoted organic farming and conservation of the countryside.

Religious observance declined notably in Britain during the 20th century, even with the growth of non-Christian religions due to immigration and travel. Church of England attendance has particularly dropped, although it is not clear if personal spirituality has changed markedly. The movement to Keep Sunday Special seems to have all but lost its battle, and the move towards a 24-hour society continues, with working and living patterns changing accordingly.


  1. ^ G. M. Trevelyan (1973). "Shakespeare's England. II". English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries from Chaucer to Queen Victoria. Book Club Associates. p. 197. ISBN 058248488X.  
  2. ^ Did tea and beer make Britain great?


  • Briggs, Asa (1983). A Social History of England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-29-778074-3.  
  • Trevelyan, G. M. (1967). English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries from Chaucer to Queen Victoria. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 0-14-020860-7.  
  • Strong, Roy (1996). The Story of Britain. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 1-85-681099-2.  

Further reading

  • Social history of England, Louise Creighton, Rivingtons, 1887, Harvard University
  • A Social History of England, 1200-1500, Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-521-78345-3
  • A social history of England, 1851-1990, François Bédarida, Routledge, 1991, ISBN 0415016142, 9780415016148
  • The transformation of England: essays in the economic and social history of England in the eighteenth century, Peter Mathias, Taylor & Francis, 1979, ISBN 0416731201, 9780416731200
  • An Introduction to the Industrial and Social History of England, Edward Pots Cheyney, BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2007, ISBN 1434649814, 9781434649812

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