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© 2002-07 AFHS
18 Jul 2002

 

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Charles II to William IV:

 

The Lives and Times of their English Subjects

Suddie (Bill) MumfordAFHS Main Program - 2 February 1998
by Suddie Mumford (notes by Robert Westbury)
See also current AFHS Programs

Importance of Social History

The central theme of the talk was that, if one is to gain some understanding of the events in the lives of one's ancestors, one must make the attempt to grasp the main points of the history of their times, especially the social and economic history.

As most of our ancestors who emigrated from England to North America came in the 19th century, the two centuries before this are the most important ones for us to understand.

Population Growth, Industrial Revolution, and Social Stratification

The central issue in the social history of this period was the huge increase in population; from 1700 to 1841, the increase was from 5.5 million to 16 million. The population doubled in the last 40 years of this time period. This was accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of people emigrating. The increasing population, the Industrial Revolution and other factors led to some very important changes in the social organization of England. We were shown some impressive charts that compared the distribution of wealth and power in 1700 with that in 1801: the differential in income between the rich and the poor widened enormously, and the number of people with an income so low that it could be considered to be zero increased by over 30%. From 1710 to 1805 the income of the working person, adjusted for the cost of living, fell by 40%.

As if this were not enough, there were other momentous changes in the social fabric that made life for the poor and lower middle classes more difficult. The network of interlinked powers and responsibilities that constituted government for the ordinary person changed; the source of power shifted away from the county and parish, where officials would at least know, and to some extent understand, the problems of the common person, to the central government, which owing to its constitutional makeup, was more remote from the person in the street, and thus less responsive to his needs.

Reforms in Specific

Reforms were attempted, but were slow and uncertain. They could cut both ways; the organization of the workhouses and the Speemhamland Scale were well-intentioned, but many of our ancestors suffered because of them. The changes in governance affected the ecclesiastical as well as the temporal hierarchy, and in those times men were closer to their church. The rise of non-conformism in the middle classes was a dramatic expression of the changing outlook of the people. It is often forgotten that the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by an agricultural revolution, and that this drove families to the overcrowded cities in their thousands.

In this time a relatively small number of inventions changed the world forever. The upheavals in trade and commerce profoundly affected the day-to-day lives of working men and women. The modernization of the transport system made the changes more visible to the genealogist as people voted with their feet. Genealogists also need to bear in mind that there were many changes in this time that concerned the records that were kept of the lives of the citizens.

Historic Events: A Multi-dimensional Timeline

We were presented with a gallop through 200 years of history, and a discussion of events both great and small, which affected the common person, his livelihood and his pursuit of happiness.

The Moral of the Story

Genealogists should never forget that they are historians.