Dramatic Changes

Photograph of a vernacular stone cottage from the early 1700s.

This is the cottage we lived for twenty-eight years (we now live next door!). It was built in 1732 and although its appearance has changed very little, it has witnessed 285 years of progress. 

It was built by William Fell, a local stonemason, ready for his marriage in 1733 to a girl called Mary Fletcher who lived in the next village.

You can read more about them in the “Cottage” section of this website.

William and Mary will have looked out of their windows at large fields divided into strips of land that their families had farmed for generations. They saw nothing to suggest that it would ever change. Yet the seeds were already sown. Farmer George was on the throne and inventors like Thomas Newcomen were experimenting with steam power.

It was WiIliam's daughter-in-law, also called Mary and by then a widow, who saw the first drama begin in 1794 when commissioners from London arrived to begin the process of enclosing the land. It began a period of immense upheaval. Mary had to make a claim for land equivalent to her strips less the cost of fencing and hedging. We don't even know if she could read but she was plunged into a world of lawyers and meetings at the Blue Boar in Bainton. When the dust had settled, Mary Fell owned the paddock opposite. Her name is on the Enclosures Awards Map of 1799 and the earliest document in the cottage deeds refers to the cottage as “formerly owned by the widow Mary Fell”.

The poet, John Clare, lived in the adjacent village of Helpston and this is what he wrote when hawthorn hedges changed the landscape and revented him from roaming across his beloved countryside:

“Enclosure, thou'rt curse upon the land, 
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.”
- John Clare

The Industrial Revolution

But Mary had seen nothing compared to what was to come. She died in 1801 before the Midland Railway built its line just a mile away, visible from her bedroom window. Within the next 100 years the entire economy of Britain changed from Agricultural to Industrial and the way ordinary people lived their lives - from birth right through to death - changed forever.

The Information Revolution
Now it is happening again. The Industrial economy into which we were born is no more; it has already changed into an Information economy. Our years at school trained us to get secure jobs with a pension but these jobs are no more. Uncertainty, zero-hour contracts and the need to constantly re-train are the stories we now read in the press on a daily basis. And as for a pensions, we are asked if retirement should be compulsory and encouraged to start building our own pension independently of any one employer. The age at which one's Old Age Pension begins has already been moved several times and is likely to be moved even more.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which took about 150 years to run its full course, this change is happening within a generation.

Slums Overcrowding and Disease
I have argued that it’s wise to look at the lessons of the past, when we try to foresee the future. During any period of intense change, there will be unexpected consequences and some of them won’t be good. By looking at what happened in the past, we may be able to spot and forstall some of those that are to come.

For example, when agricultural jobs were lost, the old Parish Relief system broke down because there were too many poor people. As people moved to the towns, the system of looking after one’s neighbours didn’t work any more due to the sheer volume of people living closely together - and it was years before a proper State Welfare System was introduced. 

Worse, as people moved into towns, overcrowding led to slums and disease epidemics. Again it was years before Public Health gained a proper footing. 


Conditions such as these led to disease epidemics.

Now, in the early years of the 21st Century, we can see the change happening all about us - globalisation, reduced importance of the Nation State, the growth of Super-Cities, the loss of Antibiotics. The things that are happening might be different but the consequences could be just as damaging to us as a cholera epidemic was to the people of the 19th Century.

We should be looking closely at all these things and spotting trouble before it arises. It’s no use sticking to the old ways of doing things until society breaks. We really should be beyond that by now. We should be proactively spotting the consequences and taking action now, not just assuming everything will be OK - because it won’t, unless we act.

But we’re not!

  • Governments across the world are looking backwards, locking our Education Systems into a 19th century model. 
  • The rise of Nationalism flies in the face of the benefits of Globalisation.
  • And the mismanagement of foreign policies and mishandling of immigration has led to the Brexit Referendum, President Trump and the rise of extreme political parties both left and right.

These are the modern incidences of trouble brewing and we ignore them at our peril. In the past, they ignored overcrowding and cholera epidemics, treating both with old, tried and trusted remedies, instead of looking for new and innovative solutions

William Fell
The stonemason who built our cottage - and carved this datestone - could not, in his wildest imagination, have conceived of the things we all now take for granted.

1732 datestone on the end gable of the cottage

Universal education, package holidays, the publishing industry, television, motor cars, flight, space travel - it's impossible to stop listing things that William Fell could not have foreseen in a million years. Yet these things are all absolutely normal for every single one of us today.

Believe it or not, we are now standing in William Fell's shoes. We cannot, in our wildest dreams, imagine what the future holds. The new information technologies are causing change just as profound as those witnessed by William Fell and his family - and it's going to happen a lot faster.

That is the end of this section of my website but you can find out more about many of these issues in other sections:

Read more about the Cottage and its Inhabitants.

Read more about Education in the 21st Century.

Read my father’s memoirs: “Witness to a Passing Age”

Read about ICT in schoosl and why it has changed to Computing

Thank you for reading this section of my website. I do hope you’ve enjoyed it and that you’ll also explore the other sections. Start at my home gae or folloow the links above.

Go to my Home Page

© Brian Smith 2015