The population of England and Wales in 1660 has been estimated at some 5,000,000; 55 probably it grew to 5,500,000 by 1700; 56 still it was hardly a fourth the population of France or Germany, and less than that of Italy or Spain. 57 About a seventh of the inhabitants—the yeomanry—owned the lands that they tilled; tenant farmers working the lands of nobility and gentry made up another seventh. The rest were in the towns.
As population rose, the supply of wood per family fell; coal was increasingly used in homes and shops; mining and metallurgy developed; Sheffield became a center of the iron industry. A fever of production and moneymaking agitated England. Manufacturers begged Parliament to pass laws forcing idlers to work. Domestic industry, particularly textiles, used more and more child labor; Defoe rejoiced that at Colchester and Taunton “there was not a child in the town, or in the villages round it, of above five years old, but, if it was not neglected by its parents and untaught, could earn its bread”; and likewise around West Riding “hardly anything above four years old but its hands were sufficient for its support.” 58
Most industry was carried on in homes or family shops, but the factory system was expanding in textiles and iron. An English publication of 1685 told how “manufacturers at great cost build whole great houses, wherein the wool sorters, combers, spinners, weavers, pressers, and even dyers work together.” We hear of one such factory with 340 employees; in 1700 Glasgow had a textile factory employing 1,400 persons. 59 Division and specialization of labor were developing. “In the making of a watch,” wrote Sir William Petty in 1683, “if one man shall make the wheels, another the spring, another shall engrave the dial plate, and another shall make the cases, then the watch will be better and cheaper made than if the whole work be put upon any one man.” 60
Wages for agricultural labor were still fixed by local magistrates according to the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices (1585), and any employer who paid, or any employee who took, more, was subject to penalty. Agricultural wages in this period ranged from five to seven shillings per week, with board. 61 Wages in industry were slightly higher, averaging a shilling per day, perhaps equal in purchasing power to $2.50 in 1960. Rents were relatively low; a house of moderate size in London cost some thirty pounds a year. 62Beer was cheap, but sugar, salt, coal, soap, shoes, and clothing cost as much in 1685 as in 1848. 63 The price of grain rose five hundred per cent between 1500 and 1700. 64 The working classes ate bread of rye, barley, or oats; wheat bread was a luxury of the well-to-do; and the poor seldom had meat. The poverty of the masses was taken as a normal condition, though it was probably greater than in the later Middle Ages. 65 So Thorold Rogers:
During the seventeenth century the landlords strove to get all the rent they could out of their tenants. To the utmost of their power they forced famine wages on the laborer. To the utmost of their power they used the legislature in order to secure famine prices from the consumer. . . . The historical evidence on this subject is cumulative and abundant. 66
In 1696 Gregory King estimated that a fourth of England’s population was dependent upon alms, and the money collected for poor relief equaled a quarter of the whole export trade. 67 The triumph of the rich over the poor was so complete that the wage earners and peasants were too weak to revolt; and for half a century the class war in England slept. 68
The Anglican Church, which under Charles I had dared to say an occasional word for the poor, now concluded, from the Puritan Rebellion, that its interests would be best assured by identifying them entirely with those of the possessing classes. 69 Parliament belonged to a coalition of landowners, manufacturers, merchants, and financiers. It listened with fellow feeling to the cry of the employing class to be liberated from the laws impeding the free play of economic forces. Before the end of the seventeenth century—long before Adam Smith—England heard the employers’ cry for laissez faire, for economic freedom, for the escape of the businessman from legal, feudal, and guild hindrances in employment, production, and trade. 70 The guild restraints were bypassed; the institution of apprenticeship decayed; the fixing of wages by magistrates was superseded by the relative bargaining power of rich employers and hungry employees. 71 It was in this clamor of entrepreneurs to be freed from legal and moral restraints that the modern ideology of liberty began.
Commerce was now so important in the English economy, and so vital in earning the funds that Parliament voted, that it soon had its way even with a government dominated by landowners. Legislation favored English trade at the expense not only of the Dutch but of the Irish and the Scots. The importation of Irish cattle, sheep, or swine into England was totally prohibited (1660); Scottish corn was excluded, and Scottish imports were heavily taxed. The alliance with Portugal, the marriage of Charles II with Catherine of Braganza, the renewed war with the United Provinces, the resolute retention of Gibraltar, were actuated by the desire to expand English commerce and give it military protection. Partly as a result of victory over the Dutch, English commerce doubled between 1660 and 1688. 72 “The thing which is nearest to the heart of this nation,” wrote Charles II to his sister, “is trade, and all that belongs to it.” 73 Mercantile fortunes now rivaled noble acreage.
English enterprise extended its outposts in every direction. New colonies were developed in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Carolina, and Canada. The East India Company was given full rights over all of India that it could bring under its power; it had its own navy, army, forts, coinage, and laws; it declared war and negotiated peace. Bombay was acquired by marriage in 1661, Manhattan by conquest in 1664, and in that year the English seized Dutch possessions on the west coast of Africa. To man these colonies the custom of “crimping” grew: young Englishmen were inveigled into service in the “plantation” by getting them drunk, or knocking them unconscious, then carrying them on board a departing ship, and later explaining to them that they had signed an indenture. 74 The law forbade this, but was not enforced; the conscience of Parliament was clear. While the political effect of the revolutions of 1642–49 and 1688–89 was the conquest of the king by the Parliament, a simultaneous economic revolution brought the conquest of Parliament by commerce, industry, and finance.
London had now hundreds of goldsmiths-become-bankers, who paid six per cent to depositors and charged eight per cent on loans. 75 Charles II, always seeking ways to bypass the parliamentary power over the purse, borrowed heavily from these bankers—so much so that by January 2, 1672, he owed them £ 1,328,526. 76 On that date his Council, about to begin war against the United Provinces, shocked the financial community by “closing the Exchequer”—i.e., stopping for a year all interest payments on the government’s debts. A panic ensued. The bankers refused to meet their obligations to their depositors, or to keep their agreements with merchants. The Council quieted the storm by solemn pledges to resume payments at the end of a year. They were resumed in 1674; the principal was refunded in new governmental obligations; so that in effect January 2, 1672, marked the beginning of England’s national debt, a new device in the financing of the state.
London, home of the banking firms and the merchant princes, and focus of the wealth gathered by the price system from the producers of food and goods, was now the most populous city in Europe. The mansions of the rich businessmen rivaled the aristocracy in luxury, if not in taste. A succession of stores, with their picturesque emblems, swaying signs, and mullioned windows offered to the few the products of the world.* Only the principal thoroughfares were paved, usually with round cobblestones; and after 1684 they were dimly lit till midnight on moonless nights by lanterns set up at every tenth door. There were no sidewalks. By day the streets were noisy with traffic, with hawkers peddling their wares in baskets, pushcarts, or wheelbarrows, or criers offering various household services, such as “rats or mice to kill.” 77 Beggars and thieves were everywhere, but there were also street singers ballading for pence. The business center, called “the City,” was governed by a lord mayor, a board of aldermen, and a common council, elected by the householders of the wards. West of this lay the political center, Westminster—with Westminster Abbey, Westminster Palace (where Parliament met), and the royal palaces of Whitehall and St. James. Outside of these lay the slum districts, pullulating with the fertile poor. There were no pavements there, and coaches proudly splashed with rain water or mud the pedestrians hugging the walls in narrow streets. Houses there were so close together, with upper stories almost meeting, that the sun had little chance to spread its fitful light. There were no sewers as yet in London; there were outhouses and cesspools; carts carried off refuse and dumped it beyond the city limits, or clandestinely and illegally into the Thames.
Air pollution was already a problem. In 1661 John Evelyn, at the King’s request, prepared and published Fumifugium, a plan for scattering the fumes that hung over London. Said Evelyn:
The immoderate use of . . . coal . . . exposes London to one of the foulest inconveniences and reproaches; and that not from the culinary fires, which . . . is hardly at all discernible, but from some few particular funnels and issues [smokestacks] belonging only to brewers, dyers, lime-burners, salt, and soap-boilers, and some other private trades, one of whose spiracles [vents] alone does manifestly infest the air more than all the chimneys of London put together. . . . While these are belching [from] their sooty jaws, . . . London resembles the face rather of Mt. Etna, . . . or the suburbs of hell, than an assembly of rational creatures. . . . The weary traveller, at many miles’ distance, sooner smells than sees the city to which he repairs . . . This acrimonious soot. . . [ulcerates] the lungs, which is a mischief so incurable that it carries away multitudes by languishing and deep consumptions, as the bills of mortality do weekly inform us. 78
Evelyn prepared a bill for Parliament, which, being more approachable by rich industrialists than by unorganized majorities, did nothing about it. Thirteen years later Sir Thomas Browne raised his medical voice in warning against the
exhalations of . . . common sewers and fetid places, and decoctions used by unwholesome and sordid manufactures. . . . Mists and fog also hinder the . . . coal smoke from descending and passing away. [So] it is conjoined with the mist and drawn in by the breath, all which may produce bad effects, inquinite [defile] the blood, and produce catarrhs and coughs. 79
Bad air, bad sanitation, bad and inadequate food darkened every year with epidemics, and only waited some conjunction of circumstances to flare up in plague. Pepys noted in his diary, October 31, 1663: “The plague is much in Amsterdam, and we in fears of it here.” Ships coming from Holland to England were quarantined. In December, 1664, one person died of the plague in London; in April, 1665, two; in May, forty-three; so it grew until the hot summer, with little rain to cleanse the streets, gave the pestilence headway, and London in terror realized that it faced something like the still remembered Black Death of 1348. Defoe, then a child of six, could recall enough of it by hearsay in 1720 to write a fictitious Journal of the Plague Year that may almost be taken as history.80
From the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills [mortality records] rose high. . . . All that could conceal their distemper did it, to prevent their neighbors shunning . . . them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses. . . . In June . . . the richer sort. . . thronged out of town. . . . In Whitechapel . . . nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, children, etc., . . . besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback . . . a terrible and melancholy thing to see. 81
Portents and prophecies of doom added to the terror. Theaters, dance halls, schools, and law courts were closed. The King and the court removed in June to Oxford, “where it pleased God to preserve them” untouched, though many voices rose to blame them for having brought on this plague as a divine punishment of their immorality. The Archbishop of Canterbury stayed at his post in Lambeth, and spent several hundred pounds a week caring for the sick or dead. The city officials remained, and labored heroically. The King sent a thousand pounds, the businessmen of the City six hundred, a week. Many doctors and clergymen fled, many remained, many died of the infection. Cures of every sort were tried; and when these failed, people resorted to miraculous amulets. “This week,”said Pepys (August 31,1665), “died 7,496, and of them 6,102 of the plague.” Gravediggers carried away in carts those who died in the streets, and buried them in common ditches. Altogether some seventy thousand Londoners, a seventh of the population, died of the plague in 1665. By December the pestilence abated. People dribbled back to work. In February, 1666, the court returned to the capital.
The survivors had hardly time to reconcile themselves to their losses when another disaster struck the city. It was bad enough that in June, 1666, the Dutch sailed boldly into the Thames and there destroyed English vessels with broadsides heard in London. But at three o’clock on the morning of Sunday, September 2, in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, a fire began which in three days burned down most of London north of the river. Again circumstances conspired: a dry summer, the houses nearly all of wood and close together; many homes left vacant by families spending the weekend in the country; stores full of oil, pitch, hemp, flax, wine, and other readily combustible wares; a strong wind that carried the fire from roof to roof and from street to street; and the lack of organization and equipment to deal with such a fire at such a time of night. Evelyn, fortunate in Southwark, ran up to the riverbank,
where we beheld . . . the whole city in dreadful flames near the water side; all the houses from the [London] Bridge, all Thames street, and upwards towards Cheapside . . . The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it; so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures. . . . So it burned the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments, . . . houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other side, the carts, etc., carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewn with movables of all sorts, and tents erected to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh, the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it. . . . All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven. . . . God grant my eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 homes all in one flame! The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches was like a hideous storm; and the air all about so hot . . . that they were forced to stand still, and let the flames burn on, which they did for nearly two miles in length and one in breadth. 82
In this crisis both the King and his unpopular brother James acquitted themselves well, laboring with their own hands among the firefighters, directing and financing relief, providing food and shelter for the homeless; and it was their insistence, against much opposition, on blowing up houses to stop the progress of the fire, that saved part of the city north of the Thames. 83 The commercial City was almost wiped out; the political city—Westminster—was saved. Altogether two thirds of London was destroyed, with 13,200 houses and eighty-nine churches, including old St. Paul’s. Only six lives were lost, but 200,000 lost their homes. 84 Most of the booksellers were ruined; £ 150,000 worth of books were burned. The whole damage was reckoned at £ 10,730,000, 85 perhaps equivalent to $500,000,000 today.
After the disaster the Corporation of London organized a fire department; fireplugs were placed in the main water pipes; each guild company was to appoint some of its members to be ready to turn out at once on alarm; and all workmen were to follow them when called upon by the lord mayor or the sheriff. Slowly the city was rebuilt, not more beautifully, but more substantially; by royal order brick or stone replaced wood as the material of building; projecting upper stories disappeared; streets were made wider and straighter, they were paved with smooth freestone, and posts set aside a walk for pedestrians. Sanitation was improved; the fire had destroyed much filth, many rats, fleas, and germs; London had no further plagues. And Wren rebuilt St. Paul’s.