Year 5 History and Geography

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What was Life Like in Georgian Britain?

In 1709, Daniel Defoe divided the population of England into seven groups, from highest to lowest in money and power. They were:

1. The great, 2. The rich, 3. The middle sort, 4. The working trades, 5. The country people,
6. The poor, 7. The miserable.

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The Aristocracy

By the ‘great’, Defoe meant the aristocracy. This was a class of extremely rich landowners. They led privileged lives, spending half of the year in their large country houses, and the other half of the year in London attending Parliament. Those most powerful held aristocratic titles such as Duke, Marquis, Earl and Viscount. As members of the House of Lords, they had an automatic place in Parliament.

The aristocracy certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. Horse racing, playing cards, hunting and golf were all popular during this period. During the 1700s, aristocratic fashions became extraordinary. Women wore enormous towering white wigs and powdered faces. Fashionable men were called ‘Macaronis’ because they copied Italian styles and wore elaborate clothing and powdered wigs. Another popular, but potentially deadly, pastime was duelling. If a gentleman felt he had been insulted, he would call the culprit out for a duel. The duellists would stand at a set distance from each other and each had one shot with a pistol.

The Middling Sort

By 1770 there were 9,400 British merchant ships bringing £13.2 million of goods into the country, and exporting £14.3 million worth of goods. This wealth from trade caused the growth of a new class of people. They were not from landowning, aristocratic families, but they were not poor. Due to the fact that they were between these two groups, they were called the ‘middling sort’. They were merchants, doctors, lawyers, bankers and writers. They lived in grand terraced houses, which can still be seen in the fashionable cities of the Georgian period such as Bath, Cheltenham and Leamington Spa. The middling sort would have enough money to buy fine food, and to decorate their houses with new comforts such as wallpaper and curtains. Often, they were ambitious and intelligent. They spent money on books and formed societies for sharing new ideas in philosophy, religion, technology and economics.

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The Poor

The great majority of Britain’s population were poor farmers and labourers. Craftsmen such as silversmiths and tailors would live comfortably, but most of them led hard lives. The worst poverty was to be found in cities such as London. A famous writer called Henry Fielding described the streets of London as: ‘oppressed with hunger, cold, nakedness and filth… They starve and freeze and rot amongst themselves; but they beg and steal and rob amongst their betters… There is not a street that does not swarm all day with beggars, and all night with thieves.’

Alcohol was cheap and many of the poor drank themselves to death with a newly popular drink called gin. It was said that by the 1730s in London, there was one gin shop for every 11 people. When Parliament tried to limit the amount of gin people drank with the 1751 Gin Act, there were angry riots in the street. However, the poor could do very little to change their condition. Only the rich and powerful were allowed to vote in elections, and if the poor stood up for themselves they could be ruthlessly punished. Even petty theft could result in a public hanging.

This activity is adapted from pages 143-147 of What Your Year 5 Child Needs to Know. Other books in the Core Knowledge UK series can be purchased here.