English society in the 18th century
The Augustan Age was characterized by a period of stability and prosperity. The middle classes had started to grow in the previous century and this trend continued throughout the next. Merchants became wealthy as they controlled a flourishing and productive trade, owned mines and growing factories. This richness allowed them to buy large estates and reach a status such as their children could join the aristocracy. Since the wealthy and the gentry would meet at the “bath”, the fashionable spa of the time, the “Bath society” became the symbol of this new coalition between classes. However, most of the middle classes were living a quiet life still believing in the puritan morality although they were supporters of the Whigs and of Sir Robert Walpole (the Whigs oriented Prime Minister).
The main trait of the social life in London were the coffee-houses that not only provided entertainment but also occasions for gossips and the spreading of news and, after the development of a postal system, they also served as meeting places for the most important companies (they had a box number). It was in these coffee-houses that public opinion and journalism started to develop. They were still and for the most part attended by men, but during the Augustan Age women began to show the symptoms of emancipation. However, women could not attend University, nor cover important professions and their best chance for a wealthy life was still laying on a good marriage.
Below the upper classes there were the hard-working low-waged artisans and craftsmen and below them a numerous urban population who lacked of political rights and lived in poor conditions leading to the spread of diseases in the suburbs of the cities. Half the children in London would die of such diseases before they reached the age of five, the other half would start working as apprentices at the early age of about seven by the parishes who were building workhouses where the people could live at public expenses. Due to the poor conditions and hardness of life, drinking and organized crime grew among the urban population and in particular among the unemployed. Poor women lived a cruel life between childbirth and prostitution. Nevertheless, children within the family of the 18th century were for the first time recognized as people in need of attention and consideration and within the family there was a growing sense of privacy and a revaluation of feelings.
In the meantime, the countryside had been affected by the enclosure system. The farming had been improved and countryside became fertile and prosperous; however, many laborers who had been deprived of the communal open fields were in misery and were to become the urban proletariat.
As a reaction to the material values of the middle classes, a new religious movement, the Methodism, took place. The Methodists believed in moral dignity, in the respectability of the individual and in the importance of a methodic and restrained way of living. They created Sunday schools where people could read the Bible and learn to write and read.