“Do not imagine that the knowledge, which I so much recommend to you, is confined to books, pleasing, useful and necessary as that knowledge is… The knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet. Books alone will never teach it to you; but they will suggest many things to your observation, which might otherwise escape you”1.
The English have long maintained the sentiments and entrepreneurial behaviour of country people. In 1700 only one person in five lived in a town. While London had a massive population of half a million, Norwich, the second largest city, was only a twentieth of the size. Half of these English ‘urbanites’ lived in towns of fewer than two and a half thousand people ─ little larger than Ambridge of BBC Archer’s fame. These towns were so small that a healthy adult was never more than a ten minute walk from the fields and woodlands. In this congenial environment the Englishman’s way of living was the culmination of the steady co-evolution of man and his surroundings that had gone on, not just for five thousand, or even fifty thousand years, but since the beginning of human time2. Here was a fine balance between the evolution of the internal mechanisms of the brain ─ to survive in this equation people had to use on a daily basis the multiple forms of intelligence that we now know reside within each of us ─ and a manageable, but always challenging, environment. Everything that our imaginative ancestors created had to be made by ‘the sweat of their brow’. Life was still on a sufficiently human scale for people to know ─ at a deeply subconscious level ─ that everything was connected. They had to act intelligently in all that they did.
It was this creativity that was the greatest asset England possessed. Energy, imagination and inventiveness had been bred into people by centuries of successfully ‘pushing the boundaries’ in an island where to do so seemed always to open up still more opportunities. In three generations their descendants built thousands of miles of turnpike roads, more than two thousand miles of canals, developed the world’s first postal service, and revolutionised farming, while London merchants doubled their trade with North America and the Caribbean3. Londoners delighted in drinking coffee from the Americas, chocolate from Africa and tea from India. Polite manners became ever more sophisticated in the rapidly extending Georgian townhouses of London, Bath and Edinburgh, while Hogarth painted in the most salacious details the roughness of life on the edge4. Snakes and Ladders was a popular and highly appropriate game of chance ─ you could rise fast yet fall even faster from the highest positions. “Vice came in always at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination”, said Moll Flanders in 17215. while the masses still read and many deeply pondered “Pilgrim’s Progress”, an instant publication success in 1749 was “The intimate memories of Fanny Hill, a lady of pleasure”6 so racy that it remained on the censored book list in England until 1965.
The eighteenth century was so busy getting rich that its attitude towards education was strictly utilitarian. The high seriousness of Puritan times had bequeathed to later generations an intense interest in reading and a desire for self-improvement. Half the men and a quarter of the women could read and write, yet formal schooling held little attraction to their children. The young Humphrey Repton was typical of the times in being removed from Norwich Grammar School at the age of twelve because “my father thought it proper to put a stopper to the vial of classical literature, having determined to make me a rich, rather than a learned man”7. Numerous private individuals set up ‘commercial’ schools offering a curriculum that taught ─ to those who could afford about twelve pounds a year ─ such vocational skills as accountancy and book-keeping, history, French, geography and natural philosophy. Commercial schools were scorned by the traditional grammar schools, but they were also feared as more and more youngsters looked for marketable, rather than classical, skills8. Some grammar schools collapsed never to be heard of again; Winchester College received only ten pupils in 1750, and the number of students going to Oxford and Cambridge fell by nearly a half.
Yet in this society where most people were too busy to go to school, innovation knew no limits. In 1771 a former wig maker, Richard Arkwright9, built the world’s first mechanical textile factory powered by a water mill in Derbyshire, and within ten years was employing five thousand workers. Shortly afterwards a Scottish engineer, James Watt10, revolutionised the steam engine developed earlier by Thomas Newcomen11 and, by using separate condensers, turned a simple horizontal motion into a rotational force. “I sell here”, the exuberant engineer Matthew Boulton12 exclaimed in 1776 as he showed off the new machine, “what all the world desires to have ─ power”.
Thesis 36: 24th August 2006