If you watched the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, you might be under the impression that eighteenth century peasants inhabited a rural idyll. They were cruelly snatched from this world of maypoles, milking maids and cottage gardens, and forced to work in squalid cities.
Hmm. Let’s take a closer look.
Life expectancy in England in 1800 was less than 40. Common causes of death included typhoid, whooping cough, smallpox, scurvy, measles and diphtheria. The murder rate was three times higher than in Dickens’ time. Many people died through starvation following famine. Among the living, chronic ailments such as bronchitis and toothache were commonplace. Food consisted mostly of gruel, with fruit and vegetables a rarity and meat almost unheard of among the peasantry. Clothes were so expensive that most people owned just a few items. Firewood for cooking and heating had to be collected by hand. Candles were prohibitively expensive, so people went to bed as soon as it got dark. Women’s rights were non-existent and children had to work from an early age.
The truth is that rural peasants moved to the cities because life was better there. It may not have been great from the point of view of contemporary observers like Charles Dickens and William Blake and it certainly wasn’t great by modern standards, but it was a lot better than before.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that economic and industrial progress leads to higher standards of living for all, and especially for the poorest. But for some reason, this simple fact needs to be constantly restated.