British History - England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution (1) - Village life and agriculture - The roads - Town life and apprenticeship - The Municipal and Parliamentary System - London.
( Originally Published 1922 )
WHEN George III came to the throne in 1760, the old-world system of economic and social life had undergone little change. Prosperity and personal independence, though very far from universal, were widely diffused. Although few had any voice in the government, many had a stake in the country. The agriculturist or manufacturer in his cottage accepted his lot in life, whether easy or hard, as part of the order of things. It did not occur to him to question the framework of society, or to regard the oligarchy under which he lived as an oppression. He only raised his voice against the political and municipal corruption all around when it resulted in England being worsted by the French.
On one such occasion, the free spirit latent in our never wholly fraudulent Constitution enabled the people to raise up as their tribune, William Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, to give us victory in either hemisphere. After that, the reign of folly and corruption was resumed, this time under the King's favourites instead of the Whig oligarchs. But John Bull, though more suspicious and grumbling than before, had no means of exerting continuous control over government. At length, in 1782, he was again exasperated into action, by discovering that the corruptionists had lost him America. Then, after two years of confused counsels, he found for himself a second William Pitt.
When the French Revolution broke out, the political and legal institutions of the country were still unreformed. The second Pitt was doing all that an honest and able man could do as the administrator of a corrupt system. That system had become more than ever out of date, for by this time Great Britain was in process of rapid transformation. The Industrial Revolution had laid rude hands on the social fabric of old England.
At the time of George III's accession there had been no canals; few hard roads; practically no cotton industry; no factory system ; few capitalist manufacturers ; little smelting of iron by coal ; and though there had been much enclosure of land, there had not yet been a wholesale sweeping of small farms into big. In these and many other respects, changes due to inventions and improved methods were in full progress soon after 176o. But it was only during the last ten years of the century that the pace of the movement became terrible. Then, too, it became disastrously involved in ` Jacobin ' and ` anti-Jacobin ' politics, And in the economic consequences of the war against the French Republic. Then first it began to attract the attention of statesmen. In that later period, the most characteristic developments of the Industrial Revolution will command our attention. But this and the following chapter are devoted to a sketch of the old England as it was in the early years of George III, already touched by the coming change, but not yet transformed.
In the life of our day, the characteristic unit is the town, the factory or the trade union. Then it was the country village. Village life embraced the chief daily concerns of the majority of Englishmen. It was the principal nursery of the national character. The village was not then a moribund society, as in the nineteenth century ; nor was it, as in our own day, a society hoping to revive by the backwash of life returning to it from the town. It contained no inspected school imparting a town-made view of life to successive generations of young rustics, constantly moving shuttles that wove together the threads of far-scattered British industry. So long as this system of manufacture continued, the rural population was much more numerous than the city population. A dozen of the southern counties retained more inhabitants to the square mile than any shire in the north, until the general adoption of machinery brought in the factory system.1
The work of women and children played as large a part in these cottage industries as in the factories that replaced them. We shall never know enough about the hours and conditions of their home work, for any sure comparison with subsequent factory conditions. But it is safe to say that there was a greater variety of treatment, when the circumstances of each family, or the temperament of its most strong-minded member, dictated the habits of each household. The discipline of the home could seldom have been as severe, and never as artificial and dehumanised as in the mills of the worst period before the Factory Acts. On the other hand, the sanitary conditions in most of the cottages, and the long hours of labour in many, would not be tolerated by the factory code of the present day.
But the village was, first and foremost, an agricultural community, as indeed was England herself. Although our methods of tilling the soil were wasteful and antiquated, especially in the great corn-growing area of the Midlands, we were still able in 1765 to export corn abroad, after feeding the small population of seven millions in England and Wales. Afterwards, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the numbers rose to eleven millions, it became necessary to conduct agriculture on the principle of extracting from the soil the utmost possible quantity of corn. But in the early days of George III there was no such pressure of hungry population in the island, and the political economy of the village sought only to provide ` subsistence ' for each family resident in the parish.
Subsistence agriculture, as modern historians call it, was the theory and practice of our fathers from the earliest times until the Industrial Revolution. In the eyes of statesmen and economists, alike in the days of Alfred, Elizabeth and George II, the duty of the village to the State was to breed and maintain not less than its traditional number of stalwart and contented preparing for migration to other scenes. City civilisation, with its newspapers and magazines, had not supplanted provincial speech and village tradition. At most a single news-sheet of four pages, with advertisements of the latest books, snippets of news from all countries, and attacks on the Ministry by 'Anti-Sejanus ' and ' Patrioticus,' went up twice a week to the Hall or the Rectory. After some days, a well-thumbed copy might find its way into the parlour of the inn.
The squire and the parson were usually resident. Even if . they were absentees, their agents and the shadow of their greatness loomed large over everything. A few hardy Dissenters enjoyed a legalised exclusion from the religious domain of the parson. But against the landlord magistrate there was no group of men who could stand out, except his brother squires.
Among the villagers collectively subjected to this rule, there was a considerable measure of equality and independence. Large tenant farmers, and agricultural labourers entirely de-pendent on their wages, did not then constitute the whole village society. It varied from place to place, but everywhere there were many classes, many sizes of holding, many forms of rights on land, and many occupations and means of livelihood.
In the first place, the village was less purely agricultural than it became in later times. Its craftsmen supplied its requirements locally in many articles now fetched from the towns. The wives and families of the yeomen and agricultural labourers, and the labourers themselves when field labour was slack, carried on various branches of manufacture in their own cottages. Spinning was the special task of women and children. But there were often in the villages professional weavers, men who never tilled the soil except of an evening in their own back gardens. This class was found thickly congregated in the stone-built villages around the infant Thames, or on the steep banks of Yorkshire dales. In Yorkshire, indeed, some of these rural communities were destined to change by imperceptible stages into urban districts.
The villages of England fed with the labour of their hands the great staple industries, like the woollen trade, by help of which our oversea commerce had already taken the lead of the world. Commerce had to be centred in the towns, but much of the manufacture that supplied it was put out to farm among the country cottages, and collected by the cloth merchants going round with their long trains of pack-horses--the men, rather than to accumulate wealth for taxation or to grow corn for the consumption of the towns.
Subsistence agriculture was still the rule in the first years of George III, and it must needs have been so when the means of transport were so bad. Without canals, and with few roads capable of bearing wheeled traffic, the constant distribution of great quantities of foodstuffs was impossible. The first object in cottages on remote heaths and in hamlets at the end of miry lanes, was that there should be enough food of all sorts produced in the immediate neighbourhood for the subsistence of all who dwelt there.
The object of the village was to supply itself not only with enough corn, but also with dairy produce, meat, pigs and poultry, all of which a small peasant-holder and his wife could attend to better than a large farmer. The village produced also a part of its own purchases in cloth, basketwork, farm and household furniture, according as local conditions allowed. To grow corn on a large scale for distant markets was often but a secondary consideration. The subdivision of the land among so many of the inhabitants tended to the supply of these very various wants. The small holding was indeed the true 'political economy,' provided the population of the island remained stationary, and so long as England And the whole world with her desired to be stable and contented rather than progressive and rich.
Our ancestors did not think that the law of the Universe was progress, evolution and perpetual change. There had indeed been great economic progress in the hundred years following the Restoration, but it had not been sufficiently rapid or symptomatic to colour the prevailing philosophy. Dr. John-son and his contemporaries would have scouted the modern notion that we must be for ever pressing restlessly forward on pain of falling back. The world as they found it in England was good enough for them, and their aim was to preserve, not to improve or to enlarge. This view of things the static as opposed to the evolutionary differentiated our ancestors from us, in agriculture and industry, as well as in politics and religion.
The typical village of the great corn-growing area of the East Midlands was a single long street of cottages, each standing in its garden, or a cluster of roofs huddled round the church, while the great ` open field ' of the village, perhaps a mile long and half a mile broad, surrounded on all sides the group of houses where its cultivators lived together ; in this type of parish scattered farms were few. Once outside the cottage gardens, there were no more hedges to be seen. Rupert and Cromwell used to charge their cavalry across the ` open field,' as they could not have done over the chess-board landscape of modern English agriculture. This ` open field ' was divided up by balks or furrows into several hundred oblong patches. The total effect to the eye was not unlike that of an allotment field of the present day, on a gigantic scale.
Many of the humbler villagers cultivated, each for himself, one, two or three of these oblong strips; the larger farmers twenty, forty or more. The plots of a well-to-do yeoman or farmer were scattered far and wide over the field, like the estates of a great abbey or feudal lord up and down mediaeval England. No one, great or small, could cultivate his strips as he thought fit, but only according to village rules of immemorial antiquity. The revolving three-year course of wheat, spring-corn and fallow was usually enforced. On the ' open field ' there was no room for experiment or improvement in agricultural methods. If, therefore, the idea of progress once got abroad, if ` improving landlords ' came into fashion, if the population of the island increased and required more corn to feed it, the ` open-field ' system was certain to disappear. The only questions would then be, how would it disappear, on what terms for the bulk of the smaller cultivators, and what kind of social system would take its place ?
All round the ` open field ' the waste lands of moor and marsh, wood and coppice, stretched away to the confines of the parish. There were few of the hedges and plantations which are the chief beauty of the same land today, but the dingles were filled with the irregular beauty of self-sown wood, wreck-age of the primeval English forest that had not yet been wholly swept away even in the most cultivated districts. These unreclaimed lands constituted the common, where many of the villagers, some by legal right and some by customary use, took fuel, and fed cows or sheep, pigs or geese. If ` subsistence' for so many independent families was to continue, the use of the common was an integral part of the system. Yet much good land was thus left uncultivated. From the point of view of the community at large, the old ideal of the village life began to appear retrograde and impossible.
The smaller yeomen had, since the beginning of the century, declined in numbers. Many of them had a hard struggle to live, and were glad to sell their land to the squires. There was a ` land-hunger ' among the upper class of the day, eager to amass large consolidated estates, alike for reasons of profit, social prestige and game preserving. But in spite of this movement, small farming, labourers' . allotments, pasturage on the common, and the independent system of society that these things favoured, were still the rule rather than the exception all over England. But the ` open-field ' method of cultivation that we have described was an unnecessarily antiquated part of the system. It had already been abolished, at different epochs down the course of ages, in Kent, Devon, Cornwall, in most of Sussex, Suffolk and Essex, in the greater part of the fruit-growing counties along the Welsh border, and in some parts of the North.'
In all these districts perhaps in one-half of England the arable land had already assumed much of the appearance that it wears today. In 1782, a Prussian pastor, approaching our island for the first time by coasting up the Kentish shore past Gravesend, marvelled at ` those living hedges which in England, more than in any other country, form the boundaries of the green cornfields, and give to the whole distant country the appearance of a large and majestic garden.' When he wrote thus, the aspect which he describes was not characteristic of more than a moiety of the English shires, though it was already much more common than twenty years before. Kent, at which he was looking, had been famous for centuries for its enclosed fields and its good farming. So, too, had Devon.
These early enclosures of the ` open field,' made under a former economic dispensation, had been consistent with the survival in Kent and the Western Shires of small farmers, yeomen and labourers as independent as any in the island. But the later movement of enclosure by Act of Parliament, which between 1760 and 1840 abolished the remaining 'open fields ' and most of the commons in England, was part of a general revolution in society, which introduced large farms as the almost universal rule. The revolutionary effect of the new enclosures was increased by the other industrial changes of the age, by roads and canals opening up new markets, by the cry of growing towns for more corn, and of landlords for more rent, above all by the removal of textile industry from the rural cottage to the urban factory. The various classes of small, independent agriculturists with industrial families, which had composed so important a part of the village community when George III ascended the throne, had almost completely disappeared when he died. In the course of those sixty years their place had been taken by the large farmer and by the landless and pauperised labourer whom he employed.'
Yet we must not idealise too much the old village society, merely because it has passed away. No doubt the period of the two first Georges, with its good wages and moderate prices, compared favourably with the period of rural pauperism in the early nineteenth century. But there had been hard times before, in days when hard times meant famine. In the ` dear years ' of William III, and often before, people had failed to ` subsist ' on their ` subsistence agriculture.' The ' cottars ' too, whose disappearance we deplore, had been classed with the ' paupers ' by Gregory King, a publicist of William's reign. King's often quoted analysis of English society at the time of the Revolution, points to the existence of a rural proletariat more numerous than the yeomen and tenant farmers put together.
Much is guesswork in history before the age of statistics. But it is safe to say that, on the whole, there was more independence, variety and joy in life under the old system than under the new system at its worst, and the worst of the new economic dispensation came when it was first introduced.
The first unconscious step towards great economic and social change was taken between 1750 and 1770, when a perceptible improvement was made in the roads, with a resulting increase in the amount of wheeled traffic. So long as the products of agriculture and industry had generally to be carried along miry paths, slung across horses' backs, there could have been no very great expansion in the volume of external and internal trade, and 'subsistence agriculture' must have continued.
The old English road was not a metalled surface of definite limits, hedged off from the rest of the world, and maintained by an army of special functionaries paid from the public purse. It was an open track through the fields or over the common ; its borders were metaphysical, for it was, in law, a right of way from one village to another, and if, as usually happened after bad weather, the customary track was ` foundrous,' passengers had the right to take their beasts over the edge of the neighbouring field, even if it were under corn. Only in lands of en-closed agriculture like Kent or Devon was the road imprisoned by bank and hedge; in that case it was very often a winding lane, a few feet broad and many feet deep, across which, according to tradition, hounds and horsemen had been known to leap over the hood of a waggon. The roads had no prepared surface, though on some of the larger highways, a narrow causeway of stones through the middle of the mud gave footing for the saddle- and pack-horses. In nine cases out of ten where we use a bridge, our ancestors splashed through a ford.
The duty of keeping the road open that is, of removing obstacles and occasionally filling up the worst holes with a cartload of faggots or large stones fell by law on each parish through which the highway passed. The unwilling farmers usually held in turns the office of Parish Surveyor, whose duty it was to direct the unpaid service of six days' annual work on the roads, obligatory on every parishioner, but largely evaded and nearly worthless. The villagers resented this corvée, on the ground that it was unjust to throw on them the whole upkeep of a highway constantly destroyed by the traffic of distant cities and shires. The users of the roads ought clearly to pay for their maintenance.
At the close of the Stuart epoch this situation was met in a few places by the Turnpike system. Local Trusts were formed and were empowered by Parliament to erect toll-bars, and there levy tolls from all passengers except pedestrians, in return for which the Trust kept up the few miles of road committed to its charge. But the Turnpikes only began to be really effective between 1748 and 1770, during which years the number of Trusts rose from 160 to 530, and the mileage under their control was quadrupled. An improvement in the roads of Britain was then noticed, perhaps for the first time since the Romans.
But even the Turnpike system had its faults. There was no coordination or general supervision. Many of the Trusts, like everything administrative in that epoch, became incompetent and corrupt. And the best of them had seldom the money or the power for up-to-date undertakings, for example, to divert the course of a road so as to avoid a steep bank, up which pack-horses could saunter, but which in slippery weather defied the new-fangled waggons and coaches. Northern fellsides even today show many bad examples of still undiverted 'pack-horse roads.' Worst of all, the Turnpike system was far from universal. A great part of the mileage was still maintained only by the Parish Surveyor and his unwilling gangs of conscript farmers. So it might happen that a main road would be good for twenty miles, indifferent for fifty more, and would suddenly become a quagmire for the next ten.
Such as they were, the roads in the early years of George III had hard usage, for canals were only beginning. The new era was represented on the larger roads by waggons and carts carrying goods, and by the first lumbering stage-coaches with the ' outsiders ' clinging on precariously by handles to the unseated top. On the more improved roads, the new post-chaises, with their brisk and pert postillions, rattled along at ten miles an hour, the wonder of all beholders. But the bulk of the wayfarers were riders of all classes, on every kind of business and pleasure; trains of led pack-horses, bearing corn, hardware and coal ; and endless droves of cattle, sheep and pigs, keeping the roads near great markets in a perpetual churn of filth.
The drovers, formidable in numbers if not in respectability, were opposed to the introduction of hard roads, as bad for the feet of their beasts. It was the users of wheeled vehicles who clamoured for improvement, and as they were usually the per-sons of most wealth or enterprise, and as they increased in number with every decade, their complaints received more and more attention. Yet as late as 1788 Gunning records that in North Herefordshire such was the state of the roads that ` from autumn until the end of April all intercourse between the females of the neighbouring families was suspended, unless they would consent to ride on pillions, a mode of travelling at that time in general use. In the spring they levelled the roads by means of ploughs, drawn by eight or ten horses; and in this state they remained until the following autumn.
The roads converging on London were an epitome of the activities of the nation. The great city of some seven hundred thousand inhabitants, more than a dozen times as large as Bristol the next largest in the island, had daily to be fed from the fat of the land. Night and day hundreds of horses in relays were coming up at trot and gallop, from the South Coast and even from the Berwick and Solway salmon fisheries, bringing fresh to Billingsgate the best fish of every port. A hundred thousand head of cattle and three-quarters of a million sheep yearly walked up to Smithfield for the slaughter, many of them from Scotland or from the borders of Wales. But strangest of all to the modern eye would be the droves of geese and turkeys, two or three thousand at a time, waddling slowly and loquaciously along all the roads to London for a hundred miles round, between August and October, feeding on the stubble of the fields through which they passed. On one road, from Ipswich to London, 150,000 turkeys walked over the Stour bridge each year.
Except Bristol, and possibly Manchester, no provincial town of Great Britain in 1760 had over 50,000 inhabitants. Cities were still so small that even the town-dweller lived almost in the breath of the country, and could stroll out to enjoy it whenever he wished. This fact alone marks a vital difference in the mental environment of the leading part of the community in those days as compared to our own.
As in the village, so in the city, there was as yet no sharp division between the classes of employer and employed. The capitalist employer was still rare, though not nearly so rare as a hundred years before. England, indeed, already possessed the greatest quantity of easily realisable capital of any country in the world, at the disposal of government when it was waging a war of which ` the City ' approved. Our great commercial companies, backed by the Royal Navy, were the masters of the ocean and the greatest traders on the face of the globe. But our moneyed men were usually bankers or merchants. The very word ` manufacturer ' still signified, in accordance with its Latin derivation, a workman who makes goods with his hands. It had not acquired the modern sense of a capitalist who employs workmen to tend machines.
The clothier who supplied the cottage industrialists with wool, or who went round the villages to collect their finished cloth, was acting as a middleman. In the towns the normal establishment was either a solitary craftsman, or a master with a few hands working with him in the shop. The apprenticeship, through which the master and his journeyman 1 alike had had to pass in their youth, stamped them of the same class.
Apprenticeship, which had grown. up locally under the mediaeval guild system, had been imposed on the whole country as the precondition of employment in any given trade by the Statute of Artificers of 1562, by which the Elizabethan statesmen strove with some success to make seven years' apprenticeship national and uniform. This system, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, still supplied a country sadly lacking in educational facilities with a vast machinery of personal training, discipline and technical instruction, moulding the character of English boys and youths, whom it turned out as skilled workmen. Its method being the personal relation of master and apprentice, it would necessarily 'perish as soon as capitalism demanded a free labour market and the right to expand each individual business indefinitely.
From about 1720 onwards apprenticeship had shown signs of decay, and the monopoly of employment for those who had been duly apprenticed was a rule ever less enforced by the authorities, national or local. But the guilds still struggled to maintain it. When George III came to the throne, apprenticeship was still the rule, and capitalist employment in an open labour market was still the exception.
The best-known song of apprentice life, Carey's ' Sally in our Alley,' reproduces the real life and feeling of the people. Indeed, the popular songs of the eighteenth century, in England and in the land of Burns, when contrasted with those of our own day, remind us that the common life, though often narrow, ignorant and rough, was more near to beauty and to poetry than it has since become in a world driven by machines, and vulgarised by hustle and advertisement.
Equally in the towns and among the craftsmen in the villages, many old-fashioned crafts, with their call on the artistic skill of the individual, gave to daily work a fascination, which has disappeared from many of the mechanical processes of modern manufacture with disastrous results to the interest and happiness of the working day.
There is indeed a reverse to any pleasant picture of town life in the eighteenth century, and Hogarth has painted it: behind his jolly ` Beer Street' ran his foul ` Gin Lane.' In every town, besides the prosperous masters, journeymen and apprentices, lived a mass of beings, physically and morally corrupt, for whose bodies no one, and for whose souls only the Methodists, had a thought to spare. With no police, save watchmen whose proceedings were a constant theme of mockery, with criminal laws that by their careless ferocity and irregular execution fostered crime, the mob of that period was a fearful thing. In the Gordon Riots of 1780 it went near to burning down London.
The degraded sediment at the bottom of English town life was not the result of the old social and economic system, which was sound and humane. It was the result, rather, of the antiquated and corrupt framework of government. Alike in central and local affairs there was no serious attempt made to supply education, sanitation, justice, police, prisons, or control of drink according to the needs of the community. Institutions that had passed muster in Tudor times were allowed to fester away without being brought up to date, or were even permitted, as in the case of much educational provision, to be alienated from the service of the general public.
The population had shifted in the course of centuries, but municipal areas were as fixed as the hills. The art of legislation, not unknown to the Tudors, had been lost.
Already, under the old economic system, these deficiencies in government were producing grave social evils. And when, after the Industrial Revolution had transformed everything else, the old fabric of government was still preserved as sacrosanct in its smallest detail, the new populations suffered a prolonged moral and physical catastrophe.
The Parliamentary inertia and the municipal stagnation which clogged the otherwise vigorous life of the country were closely connected. They both remained untouched till 1831-5, when they fell together. The chartered oligarchy which misgoverned the town, sometimes enjoyed the further privilege of returning its two members to Parliament, at the dictation of a landed magnate, familiarly known as the ` borough-owner.' Elsewhere the ` borough-owner ' returned the members not through the municipal oligarchy, but through a few other privileged individuals, the owners of certain favoured fields, houses, or in some cases pigstyes, to which was attached the right of voting for Parliament.
The House of Commons had, in effect, become a cooptive body, and was unwilling, by a Reform Bill, to make itself once more elective as it had been in former times. It could not therefore afford to reform the co-optive town oligarchies, which also sat in the seat once occupied by the democratic guilds and municipalities of the medioeval boroughs. This great corruption had been wrought during centuries of time, by a thousand obscure exigencies of political and personal faction, by the migration of inhabitants, and latterly by the interference in the boroughs of the landed aristocracy.
The system was an abuse, but it had its historical meaning, and its relation to reality. For it must always be remembered that without the acquiescence of the landed aristocracy the powers formerly enjoyed by the Crown would not have been allowed to remain in the hands of the House of Commons. The failure of Cromwell's Commonwealth had proved that. The landlord class, in return for supporting the supremacy of the Lower House, obtained the right of nominating most of its members. That was an unwritten clause in the Settlement of 1689.
Now most of the members of the House of Commons were returned, not, as they should then have been, by the counties, but by the boroughs. These boroughs were some of them still important and populous, like Burke's Bristol ; others were mere market-towns like Appleby, or villages like East and West Looe ; or, like Old Sarum, had shrunk to deserted mounds since they were first represented in the Plantagenet Parliaments. In the days of their vigour, in the Middle Ages, these Parliamentary boroughs had not been able by their votes to control the King and the Barons, partly because the power of the Lower House was then very small, partly because decisions in the House did not go strictly by the counting of heads. In John of Gaunt's time, less than a hundred ` knights of the shire ' had outweighed in influence the more numerous representatives of the towns. But in the eighteenth century, when one vote in the House of Commons was as good as another, and when the majority of the House of Commons ruled the State, the borough members made and unmade governments. It was therefore in a sense natural that the most powerful social class, the landed aristocracy, should corruptly nominate most of the town representatives. The proper alternative to this corrupt system would have been a redistribution of seats, which would have made the county members more numerous than the representatives of the boroughs. Unfortunately, the idea of redistributing the Parliamentary seats had been buried in the grave of Cromwell.
The Parliamentary Revolution, in the final form that it took in 1689, had effectively checkmated the attempt of the Crown to control the local authorities. This saved the political liberties of England, and prevented us from following the con-temporary course of France, Spain, Italy and Germany towards monarchical despotism. But it did not make for efficiency or reform in administration, and it was not accompanied by any attempt to revive or create a popular element in local government. Power was left in the hands of the landed aristocracy, with the municipal oligarchies as its congenial instrument.
So Municipal and Parliamentary corruption flourished together. Just so long as the old social and economic system survived, this scheme of government was tolerable, though it lost us America. Nor need it have lost us America, had not George III, taking advantage of the prevailing corruption, made a belated attempt to recover the lost powers of the Crown.
That unexpected assault of the young King on the rotten fabric of aristocratic Whiggism (1761-82), provoked a third party to join the strife the democracy, vaguely reminiscent of its lost rights. Though at first under no more respectable leadership than that of Wilkes, it proved a formidable opponent both to Crown and aristocracy, because it found a point d'appui in London.
London was not part of the aristocratic system. Its municipality was no less independent and democratic than it had been in the Middle Ages. It had always been a third power in the State, alongside the King and Parliament, and it was so still. The fact that the Royal Court was held outside the city boundaries, usually in Westminster, had saved the capital of England from ever becoming identified with the Government. It had always been possible to close the gates of London on the King. The Crown had never been able to interfere with its municipal administration, save during the few years preceding the Revolution of 1688 the exception that proved the rule of London's independence.
Even in the eighteenth century, the self-government of the City had not, like so much else, become a formality and a farce. No State official, and no landed magnate, could boast of exerting influence over London. Its Court of Common Council, which so often voiced the national feeling on foreign and domestic issues in the absence of any more representative institution, was a Parliament of small shopkeepers elected by their like. Even the more wealthy and dignified members of the Court of Aldermen, serving for life, were chosen by the ratepayers in their Ward elections.
The democratic municipality of London was indeed no more efficient as a port and shipping authority, no more en-lightened in providing education, public recreation or sanitation than the oligarchies in less fortunate towns. As regards the management of prisons, John Wesley wrote to the papers, ` Of all the seats of woe on this side Hell, few, I suppose, exceed or even equal Newgate' ; and Howard confirmed this condemnation of the City authorities. On the other hand, the streets of the capital were better paved, cleaned and lighted than was usual in that era. Indeed, a German Prince, who came there one night, thought that the greatest city in the world had been illuminated in his honour !
The few other municipalities which were still based on popular election, such as Norwich, wasted the gift of liberty in Whig and Tory faction fights without a thought of the public welfare. The very idea of efficiency and reform in government seemed contrary to the spirit of that happy, careless old England ; it was invented by the Benthamites for an age more serious and more grim.
But in the arena of national politics, the democratic London of Wilkes's day did a very real service to the country in defying a corrupted Parliament and a corrupting King. Between the accession of George III and the French Revolution, London and its environs became the scene of vigorous contests on political principles, which had been lacking in England since the days of Queen Anne. At the very gates of the capital, and within its political orbit, lay two constituencies most unlike the ordinary constituency of the day the thickly populated County of Middlesex that insisted on electing Wilkes, and the City of Westminster, which enjoyed the rare privilege of an extremely democratic franchise.
The Westminster elections were of national importance, partly because of their exceptionally popular character in the age of rotten boroughs, partly because of their neighbourhood to the Court and Parliament, and partly because of the tie formed between the Westminster electors and Charles James Fox. The son of an old corruptionist who represented to the nation all that was most profligate in the political oligarchy, Fox became the first great democratic leader and orator of modern England. ` His inmost soul,' wrote Gibbon in horror, ` is deeply tinged with democracy.' Under the spell of this most aristocratic of democrats, whose life dramatised the paradox of English politics in that period, Westminster hustings became a notable scene. A subject of Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had strayed into the middle of a Westminster election in 1782, thus describes what he saw and felt there:
The election was held in Covent-garden. There was a scaffold erected just before the door of a very handsome church.' It was called the hustings, on which those who spoke to the people stood. In the area before the hustings, immense multitudes of people were assembled; of whom the greatest part seemed to be of the lowest order. To this tumultuous crowd, however, the speakers often bowed very low, and always addressed them by the title of gentlemen. When you see how in this happy country the lowest and meanest member of society testifies the interest he takes in everything of a public nature, when you see how high and low, rich and poor, all concur in declaring their feelings and their convictions, how a carter, a common tar, a scavenger, is still a man, nay, an Englishman, take my word for it you will feel yourself very differently affected from what you are when staring at our soldiers in their exercises at Berlin.'
It is true that if the good man had witnessed an election at an average English borough, or had ascertained that Manchester and Birmingham were unrepresented, he might have felt less enraptured. Nevertheless, he had seen something great, which had then no parallel in France, Spain, Italy or in his own country, something which, for all its absurdities, was of the heart of England.