Archive for the ‘Samuel Johnson’ Tag

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English: Change and Continuity in the Language.   2 comments

Grammarians and Reformers:

William Cobbett (1763-35), the self-educated farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, who had served in the army in Canada from 1785 to 1791, then returned to England to become a journalist. He began a weekly newspaper, The Political Register, in 1802 as a Tory, but soon became converted to the radical cause of social and Parliamentary reform. After the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, he became an MP, continuing to write for and edit The Political Register until his death. In 1817, following the suspension of habeas corpus (freedom from imprisonment without trial), Cobbett was back in North America, from where he continued to write his newspaper. He wrote about how the use of the concept of vulgarity in language was used to deny the value and meaning of petitions to Parliament:

The present project… is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, ‘a knowledge of Grammar’. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions ‘not grammatically correct’. And those petitions were ‘rejected’, the petitioners being ‘ignorant’: though some of them were afterwards put into prison for being ‘better informed’…

No doubt remains in my mind that there was more talent discovered, and more political knowledge, by the leaders among the Reformers, than have ever been shown, at any period of time, by the Members of the two houses of parliament.

There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called ‘grammatically correct’. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the ‘mind’ of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness, that the Petitioners were a set of ‘poor ignorant creatures’, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower Classes’ who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carols, and the like.

For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind. To possess a knowledge of those rules is a pitiful qualification…

Grammar is to literary composition what a linch-pin is to a waggon. It is a poor pitiful thing in itself; it bears no part of the weight; adds not in the least to the celerity; but, still the waggon cannot very well and safely go on without it…

Therefore, trifling, and even contemptible, as this branch of knowledge is ‘in itself’, it is of vast importance as to the means of giving to the great powers of the mind their proper effect… The grammarian from whom a man of genius learns his rules has little more claim to a share of such a man’s renown than has the goose, who yields the pens with which he writes: but, still the pens are ‘necessary’, and so is the grammar.

Cobbett therefore wrote A Grammar of the English Language in the same year, in order to satisfy that desire which every man, and especially every young man, should entertain to be able to assert with effect the rights and liberties of his country. At the same time, he cautioned his educated young readers against calling the Hampshire plough-boy… ignorant for his colloquialisms such as Poll Cherrycheek have giv’d I thick handkercher. It would be wrong to laugh at him, because he has no pretensions to a knowledge of grammar, but yet may be very skilful as a plough-boy. As Olivia Smith remarked, in her 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (OUP), Cobbett considered grammar, in short, as an integral part of the class structure of England, and the act of learning grammar by one of his readers as an act of class warfare.

It is clear that no significant differences in the grammar of Cobbett’s writing separate today’s language from the English of the early nineteenth century. What we now call Standard English has been established for over two hundred years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at least. It is the only form of the language, together with its North American variant, which obtains universal acceptance. This seems to contradict the linguistic statement that all living languages are in a constant state of change. However, the grammatical innovations since Cobbett’s day are developments of established features, rather than of fundamental changes. Once a standard form of writing becomes the norm, then the rate of change in the grammar is slowed down considerably. At the same time, however, there have been significant lexical shifts and changes, plus modifications in pronunciation, especially in recent decades.


As there has been a constant change in the vocabulary of the language over the past two hundred years, it almost goes without saying that there have been many losses of gains of words since the eighteenth century. English is a language that has taken in and assimilated words from many foreign languages to add to the core vocabulary of Germanic, French and Latin words. I have more to write about this later, in connection with the late twentieth century.


The standard orthography was fixed in the eighteenth century by the agreed practice of printers. Dr Johnson set down accepted spellings in his Dictionary of 1755, and also recorded some of the arbitrary choices of ‘custom’:

… thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, ‘convey’ and ‘inveigh’, ‘deceit’ and ‘receipt’, fancy and phantom.

A few words found in the original versions of eighteenth century texts have changed in spelling, such as cloathing, terrour, phantasy and publick, but there are not many. More recently, it has become acceptable to change the ‘ae’ spelling in words like archaeology to ‘e’ – archeology. Some American spellings have also become acceptable in Britain, such as program, mainly as a result of its use in computer programming. With few exceptions, however, it is true to say that our spelling system was fixed over two centuries ago, and that every attempt to reform it, e.g. with a more phonetic system, has failed.


While the underlying rules of grammar have remained unchanged, their use in speech and writing has continued to develop into forms that distinguish the varieties of language use since the eighteenth century. This can be described in terms of ‘style’ and ‘register’. In present-day English we can observe, in some varieties of language use, a greater complexity in both the noun phrase and the verb phrase.

Modifiers of nouns normally precede the head of the noun phrase (NP) when they are words (normally adjectives or nouns) or short phrases, as in a/the red brick wall and follow it when they are phrases or clauses. The rule of pre-modification has developed so that much longer strings of words and phrases can now precede the head word, as in a never to be forgotten experience. This style is a particular feature of newspaper headlines and other media, where a noun phrase is used to shorten longer statements containing a number of post-modifying prepositional phrases. For example, the statement There has been a report on the treatment of suspects in police stations in Northern Ireland is turned into the headline Northern Ireland police station suspect treatment report…

The process of converting clauses with verbs into noun clauses is called nominalisation. The word is itself an example of that process. It has become a marked feature of some contemporary styles, including formal and academic writing. However, this does not signify a change in grammar, but rather reveals the way in which the flexibility of English grammar readily permits nominalisation. In Standard English, verb phrases can also be constructed in increasingly complex forms, such as she has been being treated, using auxiliary verbs to combine the grammatical features of tense (past or present), aspect (perfect or progressive), voice (active or passive) and mood (positive/ negative statement or interrogative). Question forms such as hasn’t she been being treated? and won’t she have been being treated? may not be common, but they are conceivable, and have developed since the eighteenth century. They are examples of how English has become a more analytic language in recent centuries, in that its structures now depend far more on strings of separate words, rather than on inflections of words.

Another development in the resources of verb phrases is the increased use of phrasal and prepositional verbs like to run across for to meet, put up with for tolerate and give in/ give up for surrender. They are a feature of spoken and informal usage, and although the structure can be found in earlier forms of English, they have increased considerably in modern Standard English, with new combinations being continually introduced, often as slang, as in get with it, afterwards being gradually accepted and assimilated.

The Queen’s English

We still tend to judge our fellow latter-day Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some have been much more positive in their reactions than others. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr. Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, principally to those among the inhabitants of towns. Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

As I write these lines, which I do while waiting in a refreshment-room at Reading, between a Great-Western and a South-Eastern train, I hear one of two commercial gentlemen, from a neighbouring table, telling his friend that “his ‘ed’ used to ‘hake’ ready to burst.”

Alford’s attitude here is no different from that of some eighteenth century grammarians in their references to ‘the depraved language of the Common People’. One common usage that is still taught as an error is what is called ‘the split infinitive’, as in the ‘infamous’ introit to the 1970s US television series, ‘Star Trek’, ‘…to boldly go…’, which has become almost as legendary in sociolinguistics as the series itself has become in popular culture. Here is Dean Alford on the subject:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the ‘to’ of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb.

The Dean was wrong in his assertion that the practice was ‘entirely unknown’. The idea that it is ungrammatical to put an adverb between to and the verb was an invention of prescriptive grammarians, but it has been handed down as a ’solecism’ (violation of the rules of grammar) from one generation of pedagogical pedants to another. It has become an easy marker of ’good English’.


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Above: Details from The Village Choir by Thomas Webster (1800-1886), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Henry Alford was born in Bloomsbury, London, in 1810. His father, also Henry, was rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. Henry junior was educated at Ilminster Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he subsequently became a Fellow. Ordained in 1833, he became curate of Ampton in Suffolk, and incumbent of Quebec Chapel, London, before becoming Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1857, where he remained until his death in 1871. He became a distinguished scholar and wrote numerous books, including a critical commentary on the Greek New Testament. A strong evangelical, he wrote a number of hymns, some of which remain well-known and are still used regularly today. Among these is the harvest hymn, Come ye thankful people, come, which he wrote in 1844 for use in services in his rural Suffolk parish. It uses the parable from Mark’s gospel (chapter 4. 26-29), about the seed springing up without the sower knowing about it, including the line: For the earth bringeth forth of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. As they sang this verse, the local farmers and labourers from Suffolk’s ‘grain belt’ would have had a very clear image to match the meaning of the parable. The hymn was first published in his own collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1844. He then revised it for his Poetical Works (1865) and his Year of Praise (1867). The writers of Hymns Ancient and Modern included it with their anthology first in 1861, but changed Alford’s simple, rustic words of the second verse, from:

… First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear:

Lord of harvest, grant that we

Wholesome grain and pure may be;


… Ripening with a wondrous power

Till the final harvest hour

Grant, O Lord of life, that we

Holy grain and pure may be.

Although these changes were firmly repudiated by the author, they have persisted to this day, reappearing in the New Standard version of the Anglican hymn book. This shows that, although Alford may have been a stickler for correct grammar, he was also in favour of the movement to bring the folk language and culture of the countryside into church worship, connecting it with the simplicity of the gospel texts.


His other famous hymn was, however, very different in both content and style. Ten thousand times ten thousand, a stirring hymn about the Church Triumphant, it is full of imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation, and the opening lines are suggested by the reference in chapter 5, verse 11 to St John the Divine’s vision of a mighty throng of angels around the throne of God, and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand. The rush of hallelujahs and the ringing of a thousand harps are also taken from the book (19. 1-6 and 14.2):

Ten thousand times ten thousand,

In sparkling labour bright,

The armies of the ransomed saints

Throng up the steeps of light;

’Tis finished, all is finished,

Their fight with death and sin;

Fling open wide the golden gates,

And let the victors in.


What rush of hallelujahs

Fills all the earth and sky!

What ringing of a thousand harps

Bespeaks the triumph nigh!

O day for which creation

And all its tribes were made!

O joy, for all its former woes

A thousandfold repaid.          

The first three verses of which first appeared in his Year of Praise in 1867. The fourth was added in 1870 in The Lord’s Prayer. The complete hymn was sung at Alford’s funeral in January of the following year. Hymns, unlike other forms of writing, were written to be sung by all classes of society together, in church, so that Alford was well aware of the need to keep their language simple and direct if they were to become popular with the masses in Victorian society who were the object of his evangelical ministry. At the time he was writing his hymns, the Chartists were also launching their equally ’evangelical’ campaign among the working classes, and they too wrote hymns to popularise their cause of Political Reform. A copy of The National Chartist Hymn Book of 1845 has recently been discovered in Todmorden Public Library, in fact what is believed to be the only surviving copy. Michael Sanders of Manchester University believes that it was almost certainly complied by the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting. It is interesting to see how the desire for social justice is expressed in biblical language, and in the form of a hymn like God of the Poor!:

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?

Lo, they who call thy earth their own,

Take all we have – and give a stone.

God of the poor! Shall labour eat

Or drones alone find labour sweet?


Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all;

And by thy work, and by thy word,

Hark! Millions cry for justice, Lord.

Yet not in vain thy children call

On thee, if thou art Lord of all.


The last verses of Great God are equally rousing in their call to martyrdom in the cause of freedom and justice:

Tho’ freedom mourns her murdered son,

And weeping friends surround his bier,

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.


O May his fate cement the bond,

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise! Raise the cry! Let all respond;

’Justice, and pure and equal laws.’


The hymn form was further popularised by the Methodist preachers who formed the early agricultural workers’ unions in the 1860s and ’70s. They came together in their thousands in pouring rain and muddy fields to sing folk anthems such as When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, defying both squire and parson in its words. This poor man’s choral tradition passed into the Clarion Movement (see pictures below) which ‘evangelised’ for socialism in town and countryside in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The invention of sound recording, and especially of the portable recorders, has made it possible for us to study the spoken language in a way that students of English were unable to fifty years ago. Through such recordings, we are able to produce transcripts of modern Standard English, enabling us to compare it with surviving dialects. However, the only way of comparing contemporary Standard English with that which was in use 150 years ago or more, is to return to the texts of the King James Bible and compare the Revised Version made by teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities between 1870 and 1880, with the New English Bible of 1961:

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26 verses 69-75:

Revised Version:

Now Peter was sitting without in the Court: and a maid came unto him, saying, Thou also wast with Jesus the Galilean. But he denied before them all, saying, I know not what thou sayest. And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and saith unto them that were there, This man also was with Jesus the Nazarene. And again he denied with an oath, I know not the man. And after a little while they that stood by came and said to Peter, Of a truth thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee. Then began he to curse and to swear, I know not the man. And straightway the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

New English Bible:

Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard when a serving-maid accosted him and said, ‘You were there too with Jesus the Galilean.’ Peter denied it in the face of them all. ‘I do not know what you mean’, he said. He then went out to the gateway, where another girl, seeing him, said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Once again he denied it, saying with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ Shortly afterwards the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Surely, you are another of them; your accent gives you away!’ At this he broke into curses and declared with an oath… ‘I do not know the man.’ At that moment a cock crew; and Peter remembered how Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ He went outside, and wept bitterly.

 Although the revisers of the King James Version were given a brief of making a more intelligible version than the 1611 original, they also kept as close to its wording as they could. In this way the Revised Version represents both the transitional elements of Early Modern English and the forms of dialogue in use in mid-Victorian England, just as the New English version reflects the contemporary speech of the early 1960s, whilst at the same time trying to remain true to the original meaning.

The Deterioration of English?

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, fears for the future of the language had once again become the staples of newspaper columns, and were also joined in discussion of these by the new media of television news items and chat shows. They were even, in the Britain of 1978, the subject of a special debate in the House of Lords. The record of the debate, The English Language: Deterioration in Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers accepted the proposition that the language was deteriorating, and together they made a series of complaints about, for example, the misapplication of words such as parameter and hopefully. The language was cluttered with monstrosities like ongoing, relevant and viable. In addition, ‘good’ old words were acquiring ‘bad’ new meanings, as far as their Lordships were concerned. It was, remarked one of them, virtually impossible… for a modern poet to write ‘the choir of gay companions’. The use of the word for propaganda purposes… had destroyed its useful meaning…

Pronunciation, another familiar bugbear, was also considered to be slipping in words like controversy and formidable. In this context, as in many, the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There were laments also about the latest revisions of the Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, there were the usual condemnations of the way in which American usages, such as location for place which were creeping into our language. Lord Somers expressed the view that if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

Besides the BBC, the Anglican hierarchy and the Americans, the peers also blamed schools, the universities and the mass media for the state of the language. Children and students, it was claimed, were no longer educated in grammar and classics. Newspapers, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion… A major cause of deterioration, noted one peer, exhibiting more than a touch of xenophobia, was very simply the enormous increase in the number of people using it. Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Lord Davies of Leek:

Am I right in assuming that in an age of uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and prosperity, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

In one sense, Lord Davies was probably right. The relativism of the twentieth century probably did encourage a more permissive approach to language. In a deeper sense though, it was the decline of respect for God, the family and property that really concerned Lord Davies and his fellow peers, and he used Language-change or deterioration as the means for complaining about society. When all is said and done, language is only the medium of discourse, not the matter itself; the messenger, rather than the message. Language is, as it always has been, the mirror to society, not to be confused with society itself. In Britain, where English developed, it has become standardised and centralised in the South, apparently cautious of change. In the British Commonwealth, the independent traditions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have breathed new life into the English that was exported from Britain more than two hundred years ago. In the Caribbean, it is the focus of an emergent nationalism. In Africa, it is the continent-wide means of communication and in South Africa it is the medium of Black consciousness. In India and South-East Asia, it is associated with aspiration, development and growing self-confidence, taking on distinctive forms. Therefore it is not neutral: it is a vehicle of both change and continuity, rather than a victim of social degradation.


Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Eighteenth Century English: ‘The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue’.   Leave a comment


Modern Standard English was achieved when writers began to use prescribed and agreed forms of vocabulary and grammar, regardless of the dialectal variety that they spoke in everyday life. As a result, regional and class dialects, which were themselves no less rule-governed and systematic than the agreed standard form, were increasingly regarded as inferior to it. In the eighteenth century, there were major shifts and changes in attitudes towards, and beliefs about, the standard language and the dialects. The linguistic changes which took place from the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century were relatively few and far between.

During the eighteenth century, many pamphlets, articles and grammar books were published on the question of correcting, improving and, when and if possible, fixing the language in printed form. One word that recurred time and time again in referring to the state of the English language was corruption. It can be found in the following text, an extract from an article by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the journal The Tatler. The complete article took the form of a supposed letter written to Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq;


There are some Abuses among us of great Consequence, the Reformation of which is properly your Province, tho’, as far as I have been conversant in your Papers, you have not yet considered them. These are, the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers, the great depravity of our Taste, and the continual Corruption of our Style…

These two Evils, Ignorance and Want of Taste, have produced a Third; I mean the continual Corruption of our English Tongue, which, without some timely Remedy, will suffer more by the false Refinements of twenty Years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing Hundred…

What Swift disliked most were certain new colloquial words and phrases, together with fashionable features of pronunciation, all part of spoken rather than written usage. He specifically condemned these as features of Style, that is, of deliberate choices of words and structures from the resources of the language. At the same time, he referred in general to the Corruption of the English Tongue, an evaluative metaphor that implied worsening and decay, as if the style he disliked to hear could affect everyone’s use of English in both oral and written forms.

This attitude of condemnation, focusing on relatively trivial aspects of contemporary usage, was taken up time and time again throughout the eighteenth century, and continued until the late twentieth century. It is important to study it and its effects, one of which was that non-standard varieties of the language tended to become stigmatised as substandard, while Standard English was thought of as the English language, rather than as the prestige dialect of the language.

The written language and speech of educated men and women of the south-east, especially in London, Oxford and Cambridge, was the source of Standard English. This was the sixteenth century writer John Hart’s best and most perfite English and George Puttenham’s usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London. The following text from James Beattie’s Theory of Language of 1774, given in facsimile, illustrates the establishment of this choice:



Swift’s concern for the state of the language, as he saw it, was so great that he published a serious proposal for establishing some sort of ’academy’ to regulate and maintain the standards of the English language, similar to the Academie Francaise which had been set up in 1634. The arguments used were similar to those he had expressed in The Tatler in 1710, but he also added the idea of ascertaining the language, fixing, making it certain, so that it would not be subject to future corruptions. Below are some facsimile extracts from his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue; in a Letter to the Most Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford, and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain, 1712:


Swift thought that the century from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 to the beginning of the Civil Wars in 1642 was a kind of ‘Golden Age’ of improvement in the language, although he also believed that it had not yet reached a state of perfection. This belief that languages could be improved and brought to a state of perfection was a commonly held one among Swift’s contemporaries, though it is not widely believed in our time. Confusion between language and language use caused one to be identified as synonymous with the other, so that a period of great writers is often referred to as a period of ‘greatness’ for the language. Swift identified and associated styles which he disliked with corruption of the English language.

Swift’s assertion of the concept that language need not be ‘perpetually changing’, and that ascertaining or fixing the English language was desirable was disputed by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who published his Dictionary in 1755. He referred to Swift’s proposal in the preface to the dictionary, revealing himself to be sceptical of the possibility of success, although he shared his belief in the concept of perfection and corruption of language:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.

… tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration: we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

Some writers of what has become known in Literature as The Augustan Age believed that a state of Classical perfection would be achieved some time in their forseeable future, but later eighteenth century grammarians placed it in the early and mid-eighteenth century language of writers like Addison, Steele, Pope and Swift himself. The period is known as the Augustan Age because it was compared with the period of the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD, when great Latin writers like Virgil, Horace and Ovid flourished. The language and literature of Classical Rome and Greece still formed the foundation of education in the nineteenth century. Writers in English copied the forms of Classical literature, like the epic, the ode and dramatic tragedy, while the Latin and Greek languages were models of perfection in their preserved, unchangeable state, to which it was hoped that English could aspire and attain. The influence and sound of Latin and Greek helps to Swift’s dislike of ‘Northern’ clusters of consonants.

Of course, the vernacular Latin language of the first century had continued to change, so that after several centuries its several dialects had evolved into French, Italian, Spanish and the Romance languages. But Classical Latin was fixed and ascertained, because its vocabulary and grammar were derived from the literature of its greatest literary period. This state seemed to scholars and writers to be in great contrast with contemporary English, and so, following Swift’s call, many of them sought to improve the written vernacular language. Somewhere, either in the past or the future, lay the perfect form of the English language.

In contrast to the second half of the seventeenth century, there were few references to the language of the ordinary people in the writings of the eighteenth century ‘grammarians’. Anselm Bayly wrote in 1772 that it was beneath a grammarian’s attempt to study colloquial English dialects. Neither were writers whom they admired necessarily taken as models of good English. Authors’ writings were subjected to detailed scrutiny for supposed errors. Grammarians sometimes spoke of the Genius of the Language or the Idiom of the Tongue as a criterion for judgement, the word ‘genius’ meaning sometimes ‘character’ or ‘spirit’, sometimes simply ‘grammar’. However, in practice, this latter concept meant no more than the intuition of the grammarian: what he felt sounded right, expressed in the Latin term Ipse dixit (he himself says). Sometimes this reliance on personal opinion was clearly stated, as in the following extract from Robert Baker’s 1770 Reflections on the English Language:

It will be easily discovered that I have paid no regard to authority. I have censured even our best penmen, where they have departed from what I conceive to be the idiom of the tongue, or where I have thought they violate grammar without necessity. To judge by the rule of ‘Ipse dixit’ is the way to perpetuate error…

… even by Swift, Temple, Addison and other writers of the highest reputation; some of them, indeed, with such a shameful impropriety as one must think must shock every English ear, and almost induce the reader to suppose the writers to be foreigners.

Their ‘crime’ was apparently the misuse of prepositions! Baker condemned Ipse dixit as used by these ‘best penmen’, but not when applied to himself. Appeals were often made to ‘Reason’ or ‘Analogy’, but grammarians were not always consistent in their arguments. They recognised that the evidence for the vocabulary and grammar of the language must be derived from what people actually wrote and spoke, which they sometimes referred to as ‘custom’. The one eighteenth century grammar book which had a particular influence on later grammars published for use in schools was Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762. Lowth’s attitude was ‘prescriptive’ – that is that he laid down what he considered to be correct usage, as illustrated by the following extract from his book:

Grammar is the Art of rightly expressing our thoughts by words, etc. … The principal design of a Grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language, and to be able to judge every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not, etc …

The words ‘propriety’ and ‘rightly’ are important here because Lowth was not describing the language in its many varieties, but prescribing what ought to be written in a standard variety of English, and pointing out the ‘errors’ and ‘solecisms’ with examples from authors like Milton, Dryden and Pope. He described other varieties of usage only in order to condemn them. The following text, given in facsimile, is an extract from the preface to his work, typifies this particular attitude to language use. What people actually say or write, even though they may be socially of the same background, the ‘highest rank’ of eminent authors, is subject to Lowth’s prescriptive judgement. The second text below is an example of Lowth’s prescriptive method as stated in his book, in which he is stating the use of ‘will’ and ‘shall’, together with a short extract from his preface:

 001 (2)


Lowth’s book was intended for those who were already well-educated, as can be inferred from his preface in which he stated that… Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction which we pass thro’ in our childhood… His use of the first person plural implies that his readers, like him, would have studied Latin and Greek – the ancient… learned languages – at grammar school. This, however, did not provide them with knowledge of English grammar, even though they lived in a polite society and read English literature, an activity not followed by most of the population at that time. Lowth’s style of writing, like that of the other grammarians, was very ‘formal’; its vocabulary and structure were unlike that of everyday language. Below are two short contrasting examples of eighteenth century writing, the first from Thomas Hearne’s diary, Remarks and Collections (1715), and so in an informal prose style, and the second from a literary journal, The Rambler, written by Samuel Johnson in July, 1550. Literary prose adopted its own fashionable choices from the language at different periods, while ‘ordinary’ prose, in both speech and writing, continued generally unremarked upon:

MAY 28 (Sat.) This being the Duke of Brunswick, commonly called King George’s Birth-day, some of the bells were jambled in Oxford, by the care of some of the Whiggish, Fanatical Crew; but as I did not observe the Day in the least my self, so it was little taken notice of (unless by way of ridicule) by other honest People, who are for K. James IIId. Who is undoubted King of these Kingdoms,… ’tis heartily wish’d by them that he may be restored. (Thomas Hearne)

The advantages of mediocrity

Health and vigour, and a happy constitution of the corporeal frame, are of absolute necessity to the enjoyment of the comforts, and to the performance of the duties of life, and requisite in yet a greater measure to the accomplishment of any thing illustrious or distinguished; yet even these, if we can judge by their apparent consequences, are sometimes not very beneficial to those on whom they are most liberally bestowed…

The standard language recognised by the eighteenth century grammarians was that variety used by what Swift called the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation – polite in the sense of polished, refined, elegant, well-bred. By definition, the depraved language of the common people was, in every sense, viewed as inferior. George Campbell expressed this with great clarity when he wrote in his Philosophy of Rhetoric that:

No absolute monarch hath it more in his power to nobilitate a person of obscure birth than it is in the power of good use to ennoble words of low or dubious extraction; such, for instance, as have either arisen, nobody knows how, like ‘fib’, ‘banter’, ‘bigot’, ‘fop’, ‘flippant’ among the rabble, or ‘flimsy’, sprung from the cant of the manufacturers …


Samuel Johnson (above) was equally dismissive of common speech in the Preface to his Dictionary of 1755:

Nor are all words which are not found in the vocabulary, to be lamented as omissions. Of the laborious and mercantile part of the people, the diction is in great measure casual and mutable; many of their terms are formed for some temporary or local convenience, and though current at certain times and places, are in others utterly unknown. This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.

These comments clearly show that the divisions in eighteenth century society were marked as much by language as by birth, rank, wealth and education. If the language of the common people was regarded as inferior by the educated upper classes, so too were their ideas and thoughts equally devalued. Language was regarded as ‘the dress of thought’ or, using another common metaphor, ‘the mirror of thought’. It was believed that there was a direct correlation between good language and good thinking. On the one hand was the dominant social class, the Gentry, whose language and way of life were variously described as polite, civilised, elegant, noble, refined, tasteful and pure. On the other hand were the laborious and mercantile part of the people, shopkeepers and hackney-coachmen, the rabble, whose language was vulgar, barbarous, contemptible, low, degenerate, profane, mean, abject and depraved.

This view was reinforced by a theory of language that was called Universal Grammar, the belief in a direct connection between language and the mind, or soul, and in the superior value of abstract thought over the senses. For students of language today, the differences between Standard English and regional dialects are viewed as linguistically superficial and unimportant. The same meanings can be conveyed as easily in one as in the other, although we cannot, in everyday life, ignore the social connotations of regional and non-standard speech, which are still very powerful in conveying and maintaining attitudes. However, in the eighteenth century, the linguistic differences between refined and common speech were held to match fundamental differences in both intellect and morality. The gulf between the two was reinforced by the fact that education was in the learned languages, Latin and Greek. The classical Greek language and literature were judged to be the most ‘perfect’.

As it was believed that the contrasts between the refined language of the classically educated class and the vulgar language of the common people mirrored equal differences in intellectual capabilities, and also in virtue and morality, such beliefs had social and political consequences. These can be demonstrated by the fact that, during the long years of warfare with France (1793-1815), there was marked political oppression of popular movements for reform, and ideas about language were used to protect the government from criticism. For example, the notion of vulgarity of language was used to dismiss a series of petitions before Parliament calling for reform of the voting system. If the language of the labouring classes was, by definition, inferior, incapable of expressing coherent thought and of dubious moral value, then it was impossible for them to use language properly in order to argue their own case:

Liberty of speech and freedom of discussion in this House form an essential part of the constitution; but it is necessary that persons coming forward as petitioners, should address the House in decent and respectful language.

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 779)

The following extract from a 1793 Petition to Parliament from Sheffield shows that while the spelling and grammar were perfectly correct, the Members of Parliament may have considered its style and tone as indecent and disrespectful:

Your petitioners are lovers of peace, of liberty, and justice. They are in general tradesmen and artificers, unpossessed of freehold land, and consequently have no voice in choosing members to sit in parliament; – but though they may not be freeholders, they are men, and do not think themselves fairly used in being excluded the rights of citizens…

(Parliamentary Debates, xxx. 776)

To the modern reader, this would appear to be not only accurate but also appropriate in its use of English. Indeed, one contemporary commented that he suspected that the objection to the roughness of the language was not the real cause why this Petition was opposed. To gain an idea of the relative ’roughness’ of working-class language from the time, we should contrast the above with the following anonymous protest letter against the closure of common land, from the Combin’d Parish of Cheshunt… to Oliver Cromwell Esquire (the pseudonym for their local landlord)… 27 February 1799. It uses non-standard spelling, punctuation and grammar, which would have provided Parliament with an excuse for its dismissal, had it come before them.

We right these lines to you… in the Defence of our Parrish rights which you unlawfully are about to disinherit us of… Resolutions is maid of by the aforesaid Combind that if you intend of inclosing Our Commond Commond fields Lammas Meads Marches &c Whe Resolve before that bloudy and unlawful act is finished to have your hearts bloud if you proceede in the aforesaid bloudy act Whe like horse leaches will cry give, give until whe have split the bloud of every one that wishes to rob the Inosent unborn. It shall not be in your power to to say I am safe from the hands of my Enemy for Whe like birds of pray will prively lie in wait to spil the abode are as putrified sores in our Nostrils. Whe declair that thou shall not say I am safe when thou goest to thy bed for beware that thou liftest not thine eyes up in the most mist of flames…

(Quoted in E. P. Thompson (1963), The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 240.)

It sets the tone for the letters of the later Luddite, Swing and Rebecca rioters. At the same time, writers such as Tom Paine, in his The Rights of Man (1792) and The Age of Reason (1794) and William Cobbett (1763-1835), were able to demonstrate that men of humble origins could also argue effectively in Standard English. From 1785 to 1791, Cobbett, a farmer’s son from Farnham in Surrey, served in a regiment of foot in Canada, leaving the army when he failed to bring some officers to trial for embezzlement. Although receiving an elementary education as a young man, he had little knowledge of ’grammar’. However, his ability to write in a fair hand procured him the role of ’copyist’ to the regimental Colonel and commandant of the garrison:

Being totally ignorant of the rules of grammar, I necessarily made many mistakes in copying, because no one can copy letter by letter, nor even word by word. The colonel saw my deficiency, and strongly recommended study… with a promise of reward in case of success.

I procured me a Lowth’s grammar, and applied myself to the study of it with unceasing assiduity, and not without some profit: for, though it was a considerable time before I fully comprehended all that I read, still I read and studied with such unremitted study that, at last, I could write without falling into any gross errors. The pains I took cannot be described: I wrote the whole grammar out two or threetimes; I got it by heart; I repeated it every morning and every evening, and… I imposed on myself the task of saying it all over once every time I was posted sentinel. To this exercise of my memory I ascribe the retentiveness of which I have since found it capable, and to the success with which it was attended… that has led to the acquirement of that little learning of which I am the master.

(The Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, 1796)

Cobbett was convinced that without this ability to master standard grammar, no young man of humble origins could ever hope to aspire to anything beyond mere trade or agriculture. Without grammatical knowledge, it was impossible to learn to write properly, and the ability to speak correctly would be a matter of chance. All well-informed persons, he wrote, would judge a man’s mind according to the correctness of his speaking and writing, at least until they had other means of judging. He followed up his conviction in this by writing a grammar book which took the form of a number of letters addressed to his son.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. 

Basingstoke: Macmillan. 

Forgotten England: Gentlemen Farmers and Labourers in the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions   Leave a comment

Part One:  1715 – 1815 – Agriculture, Trade and Towns.

005In 1700, England and Wales were still largely agricultural countries. A total population of just five and a half million (the current population of Scotland) lived mostly in small villages and market towns. With a population of 674,000, London was the only sizeable town by modern standards. A medieval peasant transported from the year 1415 to the year 1715 would have found himself still in a familiar landscape. For most people in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, life still centred around the village where they lived and worked. It was in this small circumference that the farm labourer spent the whole of his life. Villages were sited where the soil was suitable for growing crops or where sheep could be reared. The majority of the population lived, as in medieval times, in the south Midlands, East Anglia and the South East (see map), but even there, where the soil was most fertile, most villages had remained small.

A typical English farming village consisted of little more than a single street lined with farmhouses and cottages, surrounded on all sides by the fields worked by the villagers. At the centre were the manor house and the parish church. The lord of the manor, now known as the squire, continued to own more land than anybody else in the village, and was also the local magistrate or Justice of the Peace (JP), responsible for maintaining law and order. He might also be a Member of Parliament, which would increase his ability to help the people of the county borough he represented. Sometimes the squire might ride with the local hunt or go shooting, both of which sports were becoming increasingly popular. He would also entertain his friends and important neighbours to lavish meals. Squire Custance of Ringland in Norfolk frequently invited the local rector, Parson Woodforde, to dinner:

006 (2)We had for dinner a Calf’s head, boiled fowl and tongue, a saddle of mutton roasted on the side table, and a swan roasted with currant jelly sauce for the first course. The second course a couple of wild fowl called dun fowls, larks, blamange, tarts, etc., etc. and a good dessert of fruit after among which was a damson cheese.


The rector was another important person in the village, and besides attending to his religious duties, he would supervise the farming of his land. As they had done for centuries, the tenant farmers provided the rector with a tenth, a tithe, of their produce. The tenant farmers rented their land, but other farmers owned theirs. The different holdings varied in size, but most consisted of less than forty hectares and many of less than ten hectares. Some villagers would work as labourers on the larger holdings. It was still common for these labourers to live in with the farmer and his family. Later, as farmers became more prosperous, this custom declined. The cottagers in the village might also work as labourers for part of the year. However, they mainly supported themselves by growing vegetables and a little corn on their small plots of land, or by grazing a few animals on the village common.

At the beginning of the century, perhaps half of the arable land in England still consisted of great open fields undivided by fences and hedges. In a village where this was so, farming would have changed little since medieval times. Very often the village had three big fields that were divided into strips of land separated only by uncultivated ridges known as balks. Each year one field was left fallow, with nothing being sown in it, a simple way of ensuring that the soil remained fertile. The open-field system worked well for centuries, but it did have its weaknesses. Since all the livestock in the village grazed together, disease could spread rapidly. One Oxfordshire farmer reported that he had known years when not a single sheep kept in open fields escaped the rot. In addition, some farmers’ lands were divided up into far too many lots, as many as twenty-four. Such inefficiencies did not matter so long as the land was producing enough food for both people and animals, but in the eighteenth century the population, recovering from the Great Plague in the century before, was increasing more rapidly than ever before. By the end of the century more than nine million people lived in England and Wales. To feed these people, the land had to be farmed more efficiently.

007Life was precarious for labourers, cottagers and for the smaller farmers. They simply survived from one year to the next with nothing to put by as a surplus to support them in bad times or in their old age. Many families were compelled to seek help from the parish authorities because the man of the house had fallen sick. Rural poverty continued to be the largest single problem in England as the eighteenth century progressed. Only slightly above the growing number of unemployed and unemployable were the mass of those whose earnings were totally inadequate to keep body and soul together. Agricultural labourers were employed on a daily basis at five or six pence a day. In the slack seasons of the year, when the weather was bad and the harvests failed, they had nothing to do but stay at home or beg in the streets of nearby towns.

013There had been a thriving woollen cloth industry since the fourteenth century, with its centre first in East Anglia and then in Yorkshire, based on the domestic system, with workshops and fulling mills, but factories were as yet unknown. Woollen cloth manufactured in England had been sold abroad for generations, with people working in their own homes. The yarn was spun and the cloth woven in cottages and farmhouses throughout the country. The West Country, East Anglia and Yorkshire were the three main centres of cloth production, where spinning and weaving had become full-time occupations for some, and a means of supplementing incomes for many more. Nevertheless, in Suffolk, even when the yarn industry was flourishing, employing about thirty-six thousand women and children, the spinsters were paid only three or four pence for a full day’s work and had to look to the parish for additional help.

Though the poor rate increased in every community, the Elizabethan poor law was, by this time, quite inadequate to meet the needs of depressed rural communities. The system had to be supplemented by private acts of charity and many members of the more favoured classes considered such acts as part of their Christian social responsibility. Gentlemen, merchants, parsons and ladies founded almshouses, hospitals and schools. They left land and capital sums to provide for the perpetual relief of the poor.

Although these funds continue to assist rural communities today, at the time they were insufficient to fill the gap between needs and provision. By the mid-eighteenth century several parishes were seeking powers from Parliament for incorporating themselves and of regulating the employment and maintenance of the poor by certain rules not authorised by existing poor laws. Beginning in 1756, Acts were passed which gave parishes the authority to acquire funds for the building of houses of industry, bringing into existence the first workhouses.                


017 (2)There were, of course, many degrees and orders of society between the merchant and yeoman farmer and the artisan and casual labourer. In 1752 a carpenter could earn 1s. 10d. and a bricklayer (with mate) 3s 4d. for a day’s work. However, the insecure and short time nature of many rural occupations was clear for all to see and many to experience. Parents who wanted a greater degree of security for their children tried to place them in service. Any family aspiring to some sort of social status kept servants and could afford to do so because wages were so low. The servants accepted their pittance, long hours of work, lack of freedom and the insults of their betters because it would not have occurred to them to do otherwise and because they were reasonably fed, cleanly clothed and, by comparison with their own homes, luxuriously accommodated.

However, the majority of Suffolk men and women continued to be employed in agriculture. Until the Agricultural Revolution of the second half of the century, the emphasis was still on animal husbandry. The dwindling demand for wool gradually reduced the sheep flocks, but Suffolk remained a prime supplier of mutton to the London markets, as well as of beef and poultry. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) conjured up an intriguing picture of a turkey-drive:

008An inhabitant of the place has counted three hundred droves pass in one season over Stratford Bridge on the River Stour; these droves contain from three hundred to one thousand in each drove, so one may suppose them to contain five hundred one within another, which is a hundred and fifty thousand in all.

Dairying was also important, with Suffolk cheese enjoying a reputation as impressive as that of the butter from the county, although Defoe himself did not like it. The butter produced in the county, as Kirby’s Suffolk Traveller affirmed in 1734, was justly esteemed the pleasantest and best in England. Most of the milk that went into Suffolk butter and cheese came from the old Suffolk dun cow. One reason why so much acreage was devoted to stock farming was that under the old rotation system, land had to be left fallow every third year. Suffolk farmers were the first to introduce a four-crop rotation in the mid-seventeenth century, so that by the beginning of the eighteenth century, many gentry and yeoman farmers were alternating turnips and clover with their wheat and barley. In other parts of the country such improvements were effected only on the estates of major landowners, but in Suffolk, writers on the subject observed that,

… the most interesting circumstance is… the rich yeomanry as they were once called being numerous, farmers occupying their own lands of value rising a hundred to four hundred pounds a year: a most valuable set of men who having the means and the most powerful inducements to good husbandry carry agriculture to a high degree of perfection.


When, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Agricultural Revolution began, at least the yeomen of Suffolk were prepared for it. The organisation of the woollen industry, on the other hand, varied greatly from place to place, though a general pattern can be traced. The man in charge in the domestic system was the clothier who arranged for the raw wool to be distributed or put out to the spinners to spin it into yarn, which would then be collected and put out once again to the weavers to make it into cloth. It took several spinsters to supply one weaver with sufficient yarn, so that clothiers were compelled to employ spinners from further and further afield. Daniel Defoe commented that,

… the weavers of Norwich and of the parts adjacent, and the weavers of Spitalfields in London… employ almost the whole counties of Cambridge, Bedford, and Hertford; and beside that, as if all this part of England were not sufficient for them they send a very great quantity of wool one hundred and fifty miles by land carriage to the north, as far as Westmorland, to be spun; and the yarn is brought back in the same manner to London and to Norwich.


009In this way the clothiers employed hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of workers. Putters-out were employed to travel round distributing and collecting material, paying wages as they did so. They did not usually go to workers’ homes but would operate from depots set up throughout the area covered by the clothier. The workers would have to carry their material to and fro the barn, inn or shop, which served as their local depot. If foreign trade hit bad times the clothier would simply put out less wool, so that spinners and weavers would be thrown out of work, a cause of considerable complaint amongst them. For their part, the employers frequently complained of the delays caused by the custom of keeping ‘Saint Monday’ free for the alehouse.

The organisation of other textile industries, such as cotton and silk, was basically the same. However, the metal-manufacturing industry of the West Midlands and South Yorkshire were based more equally on the activities of both the men who supplied the metal and those who fashioned it into knives, swords, nails and similar products, in small sheds or workshops attached to their homes. Some industries, like coal mining and iron-smelting had to be conducted on a larger scale away from the home. Here and there, were hints of the factory system that was to develop.

In the textile industries some processes such as dyeing or fulling were already carried out in small mills because they required the operation of bulky water wheels and expensive equipment. In Yorkshire and throughout the Midlands, textiles were manufactured in clothiers’ homes, often in workshops and attics that were converted to let in as much light as possible. Defoe noticed this at Halifax:

… if we knocked at the door of any of the master manufacturers, we presently saw a house full of lusty fellows, some at the dye-vat, some dressing the cloths, some the loom, some one thing, some another, all hard at work, and full employed upon the manufacture…


008 (2)As early as 1717 Sir Thomas Lombe had set up a silk mill at Derby, which housed three hundred workers Lombe’s building was greatly admired and became the pattern for the cotton factories when they were built, like the famous cotton mill that Richard Arkwright established at nearby Cromford in the 1760s. However, until the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, most industry remained based on the domestic system.

The Industrial Revolution, in terms of a shift to factory-based production, passed East Anglia by. The growth of the manufacturing north confirmed an existing trend that had been underway since Tudor times. The roads and canals which linked the growing centres of industry in the North and Midlands with Oxford, London and Bristol sucked skill and commerce away from Suffolk’s textile towns and ports, and left a residuum of unemployment, depression and despair. Every town and village had its scenes of poverty and destitution. George Crabbe’s home town of Aldeburgh was no exception:

Between the roadway and the walls, offence

Invades all eyes and strikes on every sense:

There lie obscure at every open door

Heaps from the earth and sweepings from the floor,

And day by day the mingled masses grow,

As sinks are disembogued and kennels flow.

There hungry dogs from hungry children steal,

There pigs and chickens quarrel for a meal:

There dropsied infants wail without redress

And all is want and woe and wretchedness.


In this decayed port, warehouses, empty of merchandise, were let out as temporary havens to the homeless vagabonds. The magistrates, representatives of the gentry, wealthier farmers and more prosperous tradesmen, were increasingly concerned about the situation. They wanted to alleviate the suffering of the people beneath them.

016The Agricultural Revolution took place during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when farmers had to produce more food to feed the growing population of England and Wales. They did this by improving the way they farmed and by cultivating more land. The most important change in this respect was the enclosure of the open fields, which in 1700 still accounted for something like half the arable land in England and Wales. When a village was enclosed each farmer’s land was consolidated into a single holding. This process had been going on for centuries, especially in East Anglia, but in the eighteenth century the enclosure movement accelerated rapidly throughout the whole of southern England and Wales. From 1760 to 1800 Parliament passed over a thousand Acts, and from 1800 to 1815 a further eight hundred. Contemporary reaction to such legislation varied, as did that of historians subsequently. A more detailed investigation of the evidence has revealed an important methodological principle, that it is difficult and dangerous to generalise on to a national scale from local evidence. The locality of agricultural experience determined the particular nature and impact of enclosure within it.

018 (2)Enclosures led to many improvements in farming. For example, they accelerated the spread of new farming methods. One of the most important was the development of new crop rotations to replace the traditional system whereby one field was left fallow each year. Farmers in Norfolk were among the first to discover that fallowing was unnecessary if proper use was made of crops like turnip and clover. These were fodder crops that enabled farmers to keep more livestock, and more animals meant more manure to enrich the soil. Due to this, and the fact that turnips, clover and other small crops enriched the soil, fallowing could be avoided if they were regularly alternated with grain crops. The Norfolk system, or variations of it, had been well established in East Anglia, the Home Counties and much of southern England by 1700. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the new rotations became increasingly popular.

018Sophisticated systems of crop rotation, use of fertilisers, reclamation of waste land, regional specialisation, all these were marks of the new approach to farming. Since they kept more animals, farmers were also able to experiment with scientific, selective stockbreeding. Robert Bakewell was the most famous of a number of men who, by careful breeding, managed to produce much heavier livestock. They had shown not only that attention to diet – and, in particular, the use of root crops for winter feed – produced bigger, healthier animals, but also that it was possible, by in-breeding, to achieve in animals just those characteristics which are required. Suffolk gave the world three great breeds of domestic animals during this period – the Black Face sheep, the Red Poll cow and the Suffolk Punch, the most famous and best-loved of all the Suffolk shire horses. Thomas Crisp of Ufford owned the founding sire, from whom all these noble creatures descend, in the 1760s. In 1784 Sir John Cullum described the qualities of the breed in his History of Hawstead:


They are not made to indulge the rapid impatience of this posting generation; but for draught, they are perhaps unrivalled, as for their gentle and tractable temper; and to exhibit proofs of their great power, drawing matches are sometimes made and the proprietors are as anxious for the success of their respective horses, as those can be whose racers aspire to the plates at Newmarket.

017Wool was now of little importance to sheep farmers in Suffolk. What they needed were ewes that produced a large number of lambs, with a high meat quality. By the early 1800s it became clear that the best results were obtained by crossing Norfolk horned ewes, traditionally hardy animals, with Southdown rams, famed for their fattening qualities. The offspring were known at first as Blackfaces, but were eventually classified as a distinct breed, Suffolk Sheep. The Earl of Stradbroke was among the early enthusiastic champions of the breed and his famous shepherd Ishmael Cutter produced some remarkable results on the Earl’s pastures near Eye. In 1837 he raised 606 lambs from 413 ewes, a considerable achievement in the days before artificial feedstuffs.

 The great pioneering names in agriculture – Coke of Holkham (pictured left), Jethro Tull, and Robert Bakewell – belong to counties other than Suffolk, but that County’s claim to leadership in the Agrarian Revolution is undeniable. Early widespread interest in breeding, crop rotation, ploughing matches, and so on, led to the informal meetings of farmers to discuss their common problems. From this grew the nationwide organisation of Farmers’ Clubs in the early nineteenth century.



Suffolk also produced the man who more than any other may be called the evangelist of the Agrarian Revolution. Arthur Young was one of those who acted as a propagandist for this, publishing journals and books, and addressing meetings. Born in 1741, the son of the rector of Bradfield Combust, he inherited farmland in the parish and tried to work it, with disastrous results. He fared no better when he transferred his activities to Essex and Hertfordshire, but developed many ideas about farming from his experiences. In 1768 he published A Six Weeks’ Tour Through the southern Counties of England and Wales, the first of many books and pamphlets in which he surveyed the current state of agriculture in the regions. In 1784 he began a monthly journal, Annals of Agriculture, which covered every aspect of agriculture and ran for a quarter of a century. By 1793 he was recognised as one of the foremost authorities on farming and was appointed secretary to the newly formed Board of Agriculture. The following year, his General View of the County of Suffolk was published. Young gave wide publicity to every new agrarian idea, advocating enclosure, reclamation and the establishment of large farming units on which these latest ideas could be employed. He therefore helped to make farming a profession. It was this professionalism that enabled the awareness of the need for change among Suffolk farmers to take root. Edward Fitzgerald, the Woodbridge poet and eccentric, was certainly alive to the changes taking place:

The county about here, he wrote, is the cemetery of so many of my oldest friends; and the petty race of squires who have succeeded only use the earth for an investment… So I get to the water, where friends are not buried nor pathways stopped up.


Enclosure did not, however, automatically lead to improvement throughout either the county of Suffolk, nor the region and country more widely. Some soils were unsuitable for growing turnips and clover and some farmers were reluctant to change their ways.   However, the enclosure movement gradually extended the area under cultivation. Between 1760 and the end of the century at least two million acres of wasteland were brought into cultivation in England and Wales. This, more than anything else explains why, during the period of the Industrial Revolution, England and Wales were able to support a much larger population without buying in large quantities of food from the continent. On the other hand, enclosure was an expensive investment. Landowners did not have to petition Parliament to pass an Act of Enclosure, but after 1750 most did, because they could not get agreement from the smaller farmers. The legal costs involved were high, and these were followed by the costs of fencing and building new roads.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Board of Agriculture estimated that the cost of enclosure by Act of Parliament was twenty-eight shillings per acre. Some of the smaller farmers could not pay this and had to sell up, but most survived, and found that, in time, the value of their land increased, enabling them to sell or mortgage part of it.

006Nevertheless, encouraged by the government and directly patronised by George III (Farmer George), genteel farming became fashionable. Gentlemen farmers built themselves splendid new houses at the centres of their estates, and they went hunting and shooting together; the Duke of Grafton hunted with hounds from 1745 until the early nineteenth century, and the Suffolk hunt was established in 1823. The ladies played the harpsichord and the new pianoforte, paid each other visits, organised balls and made up theatre parties. The county’s major towns were revived as provincial centres of fashion, aping the customs of the capital. William Cobbett, writing in his Rural Rides, was so impressed by Bury St Edmunds (below), with its Assembly Rooms, newly opened Theatre Royal and Botanical Gardens, that he called it the nicest town in the world.


027To sum up, the effects of enclosure were rarely great or immediate. In some instances enclosure came as the last act of a long-drawn-out drama of rural change. In other localities it sometimes introduced, but more often accelerated, a similar story of change. As the result of enclosure improved farming spread more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case, larger and more efficient farms were more readily developed, and the long-run decline of the smallholder and cottager hastened and made more certain. Enclosure provided a clear example of the large gains in economic efficiency and output which could be achieved by reorganisation of existing resources rather than by invention or new techniques. Enclosure meant more food for the growing population, more land under cultivation and, on balance, more employment in the countryside. Enclosed farms also provided a framework for the new advances of the nineteenth century. But in the pre-war period enclosure did not affect the whole country, and even the limited area that felt its influence was not transformed overnight.

However, many poorer villagers felt the loss of the commons and wastes, and they were not given land in compensation. Coming at a time when the increasing population made it difficult for labourers to find work, many were forced to leave the land altogether to seek work in the expanding industrial towns and villages. In East Anglia, where industries were not developing, this forced them to seek help from the parish authorities. From the 1790s, however, the cost of outdoor relief, which did not require the recipient to enter a workhouse, began to shoot up because of the widespread distress caused by bad harvests, fluctuations in trade and the overpopulated countryside. The magistrates were most concerned to avoid a situation like that in France where a depressed peasantry had risen against their superiors in bloody revolution.

At the same time, they were also responsible for the provision of outdoor relief, and wanted to avoid encouraging the indolence of what they called, the undeserving poor, those whom they felt had no desire to work, as opposed to the deserving poor, whose poverty was due to no fault of their own. Their solution was the provision of workhouses, which soon became known, out of the hatred they engendered, as the Bastilles, but they did not provide a solution.



By the time Cobbett was writing in the 1820s, the language he was writing in had become fully standardised. Jonathan Swift’s Proposal for an English Academy may have been rejected early in the eighteenth century, but there were many who shared his frustration with the chaos in English spelling which threatened to make the gap between spoken and written English unbridgeable. In any increasingly classified and stratified society, it was no longer enough to rely on the aristocratic convention of spelling as you spoke, especially if you had not yet established your position in genteel society. More than ever, the educated Englishman and Englishwoman needed a dictionary. The rise of dictionaries is therefore associated with the rise of the English middle classes, keen to ape their betters and anxious to define and circumscribe the various worlds that they needed to conquer, lexical as well as social and commercial. It is therefore highly appropriate that Dr Samuel Johnson of Lichfield, the very model of an eighteenth-century literary man, published his Dictionary at the very beginning of the heyday of the making of the English middle classes.

Johnson was a poet and a critic who raised common sense to the heights of genius. His approach to the problems Swift had been worrying about was intensely practical and typically English. Rather than establish an Academy to settle arguments about language, he would write a dictionary, and would do it single-handedly. He signed the contract for the Dictionary with bookseller Robert Dodsley at Holborn in London in June 1746, setting up his dictionary workshop in a rented house in Gough Square. James Boswell, his biographer, described the garret where Johnson worked as fitted up like a counting house, with a long desk running down the middle at which the copying clerks could work standing up. Johnson himself was stationed on a rickety chair at an old crazy deal table, surrounded by a chaotic array of borrowed books. He was helped by six assistants, five of who were Scots and only one English, two of whom died in the preparation of the Dictionary.


035It was an immense work, written in eighty large notebooks, containing more than forty thousand words, illustrating their many meanings with 114,000 quotations drawn from English writing on every subject, and from Elizabethan times onwards. It was not a completely original work, drawing on the best of all previous dictionaries to produce a synthesis, but unlike its predecessors, Johnson’s practical approach made it representative of English as a living language, reflecting its many shades of meaning. He adopted his definitions on the basis of English common law, according to precedent. After its publication, his dictionary was not seriously rivalled for over a century following its publication in April 1755. The fact that Johnson had done for the English Language in nine years what it had taken forty French academicians forty years to complete in French was the cause for much celebration. Johnson’s friend, pupil and Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, summed up the public mood:

And Johnson, well arm’d like a hero of yore,

Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more.


036For all its faults and eccentricities, the two-volume work is a masterpiece and a landmark in the history of the language, the cornerstone of Standard English. In his Preface to the Dictionary, Johnson comments on Swift’s idea of fixing the language, scorning the idea of permanence in language. To believe in that was like believing in the elixir of eternal life, he said:

… may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change… nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity and affectation… to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.


The Dictionary, together with his other writing, made Johnson famous, so that George III offered him a pension. James Boswell, a Scot, then made the great Englishman the stuff of legend and folklore. At the same time as Johnson was writing his tomes of correct English, the language of London, or at least of the working Londoner, based on the Anglo-Saxon dialects of Mercia, East Anglia and Kent, the English of Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, was being transformed into what we refer to today as Cockney.


The same economic forces that created a market for dictionaries and books of etiquette transformed the City into the square mile of money and trade that it is today. The old City dwellers of Pepys’ time, street traders, artisans and guild workers, were driven out, taking their distinctive accents with them to the docklands of Wapping and Shoreditch, and across the river to Bermondsey.

They were joined by refugees from the increasingly middle-class West End, as the new Georgian squares and terraces of Bloomsbury and Kensington displaced the working classes. At the same time, the combination of rural poverty and urban industry was depopulating the neighbouring countryside of Essex, Suffolk, Kent and Middlesex, bringing tens of thousands of destitute farm workers to the East End in search of work.

These country immigrants added their speech traditions to those of the London Language, what we refer to today as Cockney. In fact, the working-class speech of East London was originally a blend of oral traditions from the rural communities from which the majority of East Enders came as immigrants, keeping their traditions alive in the alehouses and wash-houses of Limehouse and Stratford East. Thomas Sheridan neatly described the situation of spoken English in London at the end of the eighteenth century:

 012 (2)

Two different modes of pronunciation prevail, by which the inhabitants of one part of the town are distinguished from those of the other. One is current in the City, and is called the cockney; the other at the court end, and is called the polite pronunciation.



030That polite pronunciation was much closer to the speech of the English middle classes. In the words of a contemporary lexicographer, Standard English was now based upon the general practice of men of letters and polite speakers in the Metropolis. One of the most distinctive changes was the widespread lengthening of the vowel in words like fast and path. The long a became, and has remained, one of the distinguishing features of south of England middle-class speech. However, at that time a cockney was simply a lower-class Londoner who spoke the language of the City. John Keats, the ostler’s son, was known as the Cockney poet because he came from London. The speech of East Enders may have been implicitly regarded as inferior, but it was not labelled Cockney in the way it is today. The old saying, born within the sound of Bow Bells by which Cockneys are supposedly defined, does not refer to the Bow of the East End, but to St Mary Le Bow, in Cheapside, in the heart of the City of London, some distance from what is now thought of as the East End. Traditionally, the East End starts at Aldgate, running along Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road as far as the River Lea, taking in Stepney, Limehouse, Bow, Old Ford, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. The heart of Cockneyland is Poplar, and as well as being a locality, it is an attitude of mind. Stripped of all legends, Cockney therefore simply means East End working class. Thus, many of those who claim to have been born within the sound of Bow Bells have no claims to be cockney. The social reformer Henry Mayhew did not write about the East End and neither did he identify a special accent of dialect to the London Poor. It was the later Victorian reformers, following in his footsteps, who discovered what they called the East End.

031When the rural poor of East Anglia were crammed together in the East End many of the conditions in which the oral tradition of the countryside had flourished were intensified still further. There was no privacy; everything happened on the streets; they were isolated in a particular part of London, not least by the twists and turns of the Thames. Some aspects of the cockney way of life have continuity with the days of Charles II, before the Great Fire of 1666 and Wren’s rebuilding of the City. The market at Spitalfields, for example, still does a brisk trade every morning. Market gardeners and greengrocers trade in fruit and vegetables from the early hours of the morning, crying out as they have done for centuries. There is a whole class of speech characteristics that betray the rural roots of Cockney. For instance, it is very common to find the g missing in the participle –ing endings, contrasting with Midland English, as in eatin’ and drinkin’. This is not just the pronunciation of the labourers from eastern shires, but also that of   their masters, for who it had become fashionable to go fishin’ and shootin’. This speech is incidentally and occasionally preserved for us in English literature of the period, as in that of Henry Fielding’s Squire Western and his heirs. Similarly, the Cockney pronunciation of gone, off and cough (gorn, orf, and corf) is still used by upper-class country speakers without a trace of class guilt. The characteristic long o, oo for ew, so it is no surprise that Cockneys say stoo for stew, nood for nude and noos for news, like most Americans. If the figures in Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings of Suffolk’s gentlemen farmers could speak, we might be surprised how similar some of their speech patterns might sound to those of East End barrow boys at Spitalfields.

Given the obvious paucity of evidence regarding eighteenth century speech patterns, nothing could be more evocative of the people of the Suffolk countryside than the paintings Gainsborough. The great artist found fame and spent most of his life in London, but he learned his love of landscape in the countryside round his native Sudbury where, as a lad, he wandered the fields and lanes, sketchbook in hand. He moved to Ipswich in 1750 and soon found that while no one wanted to buy his landskips, the provincial elite clamoured for portraits that would immortalise their own concept of themselves – lords of their own little corners of creation. Gainsborough obliged, and grasped the opportunity to combine portraits with pictures of his own beloved Suffolk. His paintings were of idealised scenes of sunlit countryside, in which it was always summer, the corn was always ripe, the trees were always casting a delicious shade, and his sitters’ satin shoes never made contact with the rural mud.

Even Gainsborough’s peasants were figures of heroic simplicity for who life was a merry frolic in the warm harvest haystacks. For the men and women who could live in the heart of the rural community and yet be so shielded from reality as to indulge in such fantasies, life must have been good. Over many years large-scale farming in Suffolk paid well, especially cereal farming.

For the unemployed and under-employed landless labourers, life was far from good. From their point of view, however, war provided a better, if temporary, solution to the problem of the surplus population than the workhouse. From 1793 to 1815 England was almost continuously engaged in war with France in both its Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Men were pressed into the army and navy, some never to see their native fields again, others returning broken and useless, lifelong charges on the parish. The wars were hard on the coastal communities, with press gangs very active. No ships in the harbours could be manned until the navy’s requirements had been met, and even fishermen, usually exempt, were impressed into service. However, there were still not enough sailors for the ships of Nelson and Collingwood, and regular levies were made in the counties, Suffolk being told to raise three hundred men each year. Even towns as far inland as Banbury provided sailors; one of the Gullivers from that town apparently served on board Nelson’s HMS Victory.

015In order to understand the importance of Britannia’s fight to rule the waves, we need first to understand how trade and industry had already been transformed during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Exports and imports had both increased dramatically, the chief export being textiles. In 1750, woollen cloth was still by far the most important textile made in Britain, chiefly from Yorkshire, but by the end of the century, as a result of the explosive growth of the Lancashire textile industry, the export of cotton goods almost equalled that of woollens. Whereas the greater part of Britain’s trade was with the continent in 1700, by a century later it had changed direction completely. More and more dealings were with the West Indies and North America, which grew at a spectacular rate. This brought prosperity to the western coastal ports of Whitehaven, Liverpool and Bristol (right), which were better placed than those of London, East Anglia and the south coast for the trans-Atlantic trade. Liverpools’s population increased from around six thousand in 1700 to over eighty thousand by 1800. Much of this increased prosperity was based on the slave trade. Slaves sold in the West Indies for roughly five times what they had cost on the African coast, and the ships were then filled with sugar, rum or tobacco, and increasingly with cotton, to complete the third side of the triangular trade.

014For the time being, however, it was groceries such as sugar, spices and tea, which formed the largest group of imports. The most English of pastimes, tea drinking, achieved wide popularity during the course of the century, though an excessively high import duty meant that about two-thirds of that consumed was brought in by smugglers such as Richard Andrews, who supplied Parson Woodforde among many others:

1777 29 March… Andrews the Smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’ clock a bagg of Hyson Tea, six pounds weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the parlour window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the tea at 10/6 per pound…three pounds, three shilling.


Other goods smuggled into the country included wines, spirits and tobacco, while raw wool was shipped to France to take advantage of the high prices it fetched there. Smuggling took place all along the coasts, but flourished in the more remote corners of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Therefore, the trading figures for the eighteenth century provide us with a picture of goods legally entering and leaving the country only.

014 (2)According to family tradition, the most important person of our patronomy was interred at Wimbourne Minster. This was the Dorset smuggler, Isaac Gulliver (b. 1745 in Semington, Wiltshire). He was, in the language of that time, a free-trader, and, when apprehended by the authorities for smuggling, either he, or his defense counsel pleaded that he must see the King (George III) and make some matter known to him for his personal safety. He told the King what he had discovered on his voyages to the low countries, which he suggested the King should take steps in his own personal interest to prove. This the King did straightaway and was apparently very pleased, engaging Gulliver in more secret talks. Our namesake explained that he had to have some means to maintain his ship and crew in good shape and order, but that if allowed, he would see that the King’s interest would be considered. The King gave him the freedom to carry on, pardoning Gulliver for helping to foil an assassination attempt and supplying Nelson with information about the movement of French ships along the coast.

He was also given a considerable parcel of land in the vicinity of Bournemouth and Christchurch, where he could berth his vessel. Well, our man Gulliver took full advantage, and had a crew of first class sailors and men at arms, estimated at anything between two and five hundred in number, dressed in white uniforms. They took three foreign vessels in the Channel, probably French, and it is recorded that it took a train of carts, wagons and pack-horses two miles long to carry the booty away; though, to this day, it is not exactly known to where… (to be continued).

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