The Deserted Village
Annotated by various hands

Oliver Goldsmith


Overview of 18th-C Poetry

18th-C London and Rural Life

Critical Opinions

Works Cited



Additional Texts


Eighteenth-Century London and Rural England

Eighteenth-century England can best be described in terms of the two structures that incurred and provoked the greatest changes within its borders: economy and society. The mass migrations from the rural interior to the urban city ports were just one of the side-effects of England's mercantilist approach to commerce. The shifting population, which now included a growing merchant middle class, left the countryside bare and further stratified the social structure of the cities. The landscape was forever changed as England pioneered the way through the Industrial Revolution, and her society re-invented itself in the image of the British pound sterling.

England's commercial boom most greatly affected the rural regions and small villages, and it did so in two significant ways. First, the government-imposed Enclosure Acts encouraged emigration from the villages to the cities as they brought previously fallow land, used collectively by the village for livestock grazing, under active cultivation. This was done to meet the increased food demands of the growing population. While the official Acts were heavily concentrated in the second half of the century, quiet, non-parliamentary enclosures had been going on for decades (Langford 430). As a result, capitalist farmers, often tenants of wealthy landlords and not landowners themselves, came to dominate "a world where all below them...were reduced to landless labourers" (Langford 431).

Second, the higher wages offered by the urban centers attracted the rural poor. The quantity and variety of commercial goods coming into and displayed in the cities drew the attention of those in pursuit of material posessions. As Roy Porter writes, "the insatiable demands of London" (and other growing cites) effected a tremendous strain on the economy, which in turn depleted the peasantry of its traditional way of living (54). Even the trip to the large cities became attractive due to the construction of a national turnpike system which drastically reduced the journey times of both freight and passenger traffic (Langford 425). In addition, the technological advancements of the century improved manufacturing at the cost of the cottager. The crisis of the rural cottage industry (the independent farmer buying local supplies and selling in the local market) led the shift to an urban way of life.

They (village youth) quit their clean healthy fields
for a region of dirt, stink, and noise.

Arthur Young 1771 (Porter 133)

Most of the social and economic developments of the eighteenth-century converged upon the city of London. The city itself is a study in contrasts between material wealth and wretched poverty, urban improvement and deteriorating quality of life. Some describe London at this time as being the epitome of "urban elegance" due to its formal squares, neo-Georgian style buildings and lined boulevards and circles (Black 91). Houses old and new displayed all the new products and opulent decorations/furnishings that this empire-driven economy could offer. An explosion of new buildings such as museums, halls for "societies," theaters, and assembly rooms appeared to accomodate the social calendar of the rich and the growing middle class (Black 91). An important, if symbolic, act toward the modernization of London was the demolition of the city's medieval gates in 1761 (Langford 429). This was a period of fundamental change in the material life of the city, and there was an increased emphasis on "space, hygiene, and order" (Morgan 427). The orderly rows of homes and warehouses were even greatly admired by visiting Europeans (Langford 427).

On the other hand, criminal activity and public disturbances were extensive as the tripling of trade between 1720-1800 resulted in severe congestion in the city and harbor. The "urban elegance" existed very near to rows of the "dirty trades"; the bone-boilers, grease-makers, glue and dye works, paint-makers, and of course, the odorous tallow-makers. The variety and number of different industries led to the development of zones and districts (Porter 142). Apparently the close proximity of such wealth drove the poor to madness, for London saw the establishment of its first mental asylum in 1781 (Grun 347). In addition, the preoccupation with hygiene could not withstand the onslaught of disease. In the first half of the century, London, as well as the rest of Great Britain, had one of the worst mortality rates since the Plague centuries earlier.

It is worth noting that London had become a very cosmopolitan city, and it attracted all varieties of master artisans and tradesmen. Unfortuntely, this attraction led to growing levels of unemployment as the workers outnumbered the jobs. Also, the village poor, now displaced due to enclosures and outdone by technology, added to the city's competing labor force. These people often sunk to wretched levels of poverty as their talents could not complete in such a skilled arena. The poverty often went unnoticed by the rich or by those able to indulge in a "born to shop" mentality. The city certainly had much to offer those with disposable income. Daniel Defoe even commented on the numerous shops: "I have endeavoured to make som calculation of the number of shopkeepers...we may as well count the stars" (Porter 190). Clearly, eighteenth-century London was primarily about getting and spending, while the laboring poor continued to make up the majority of both the rural and urban population.

Works Cited

Black, Jeremy. An Illustrated History of Eighteenth-Century Britain 1688-1793. New York: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Langford, Paul. "The Eighteenth Century." The Oxford History of Britain. Ed. by Kenneth Morgan.

Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Magill, Frank, ed. Great Events from History-Modern European Series. Vol. 1.

New Jersey: Salem Press, 1973.

Porter, Roy. London-A Social History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1994.

------------ English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Revised edition.

New York: Penguin, 1990.

Prall, Stuart E. and David Harris Willson. A History of England. Vol. 2. 4th ed.

Philadelphia: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1991.

Williams, Neville. Chronology of World History. Vol. 2. Oxford, England:

Helicon Publishing Ltd., 1999.

Last update: Tuesday, June 5, 2001 at 6:06:27 PM.