Hogarth’s famous depiction of the seamier side of Georgian life
An Epoch of Life and Vigour
Thomas Kydd was born in the Georgian Age, into a family whose livelihood depended on wig-making, a trade that would gradually diminish in importance over the coming years.
The Georgian Age, an epoch full of life and vigour, is variously defined (but most generally take it from the reign of George 1 in 1714, to the ascension of Queen Victoria in 1837). It was certainly a time of great change and huge contrasts. During the Georgian period we can point to what was probably the most graceful, leisured and cultivated time that England has known but also to the tragic consequences of the Enclosure Acts, the appalling conditions of factory life, the harsh criminal laws, the incidence of drunkenness, squalor and disease.
The early Georgians were natural, spontaneous, and straightforward. The stiff upper lip had not yet been built into the character of the English. That would come as the Georgian era morphed into the Victorian Age, partly due to the evangelical movement, partly as a reaction against the unsettling of the traditional order by industrialisation.
As the eighteenth century progressed ordinary people enjoyed a far better standard of living than ever before, and the opening up of road communications increased optimism and the feeling of attaining a new level of civilisation.
Between 1700 and 1800 the population doubled (to 8.8 million in England and Wales), many great newspapers were founded, and the middle classes – merchants and small shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, the new landowners – came to feel more sure of their identity. Exotic influences sprang from a growing internationalism brought about by the Grand Tour and the greater ease of foreign travel, by the trading of the East India Company and other merchants, and by the voyages of explorers like Captain James Cook. These influences made themselves felt in literature, architecture and the sciences.
In the mid eighteenth century Leicester Square was a fashionable address
A steady accumulation of wealth continued throughout the Georgian period. In 1783, it was estimated that there were 28 peers with land in excess of 100,000 acres. The Industrial Revolution had its birth under the Georges but did not reach maturity until Victoria’s time.
London, ‘the Great Wen’, grew remorselessly during the Georgian era. In 1763 James Boswell observed that ‘one end of London is like a different country from the other in look and manners.’ While the rich relocated among the fashionable new squares and terraces of the West End, and the ‘middling’ classes built homes in outlying areas such as Blackheath, Putney and Kew, the poor crammed into the vacated districts on the fringes of the old City. The teeming East End ‘rookeries’ were vividly portrayed by Hogarth’s grim engravings.
Although there was a large-scale movement of workers from the countryside to London and other cities, even in 1801 78% of the population of England and Wales still lived in the country. (A fifty-fifty distribution of country vs. city dwellers was not reached until 1851.)
London’s population had topped the million mark by 1810, becoming the biggest city in the world…