The Georgian period saw Britain – with England dominant – establish itself as an international power, at the centre of an expanding empire. Accelerating change from the 1770s onwards also made it the world’s first industrialised nation.

Kenwood House

Kenwood House, an 18th-century villa on the edge of Hampstead Heath, London


The union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707 created Great Britain. A new British identity was celebrated by the anthem ‘Rule Britannia’ (1740), the foundation of the British Museum (1753), and the publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768).

Yet England retained its own distinctive – and contradictory – character during the early Georgian period. Its refined manners and fashions, and its Classical and ‘Augustan’ art, literature and architecture, were counterpointed by casual brutality, barbarous sports, squalor and epidemic-level gin-drinking. Handel’s oratorios flourished alongside the debauchery and low life depicted by his friend William Hogarth.

Portrait of King George II

A portrait of George II from Marble Hill House, Twickenham, London. The last British monarch to be born outside Great Britain, George was brought up in Germany. During his reign Britain’s overseas colonies expanded, transforming the country into a great international power.


The property-owning elite controlled politics. But when Queen Anne died in 1714 with no surviving children, not everyone was content with the elite’s choice of monarchs – the German Hanoverians, distant but Protestant relations of the exiled Stuarts. George I (r.1714–27), who scarcely spoke English, faced an almost immediate though largely ineffective rebellion (1715–16) by the Jacobites, who supported the restoration of the Stuarts.

The more serious Scots Jacobite invasion of 1745, which had strongly support in north-west England, reached Derby, but succeeded only in rallying widespread English support for George II (r.1727–60), and inspiring ‘God Save the King’, the world’s first national anthem.

The Battle of Culloden (1746) finally extinguished the Jacobite threat, freeing British forces and their allies to wrest Canada and India from France during the Seven Years War (1756–63). Captain James Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1770, and though America was lost in 1775–83, an expanding empire enriched Britain, providing both markets for its manufactured goods and a source of raw materials.

The Atlantic slave trade which helped to underpin this was not outlawed until 1807, despite swelling domestic disapproval.

The Waterloo Shield, now on display at Apsley House

The Waterloo shield was presented to the Duke of Wellington in 1822 by the Merchants and Bankers of the City of London to celebrate his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Inspired by the shield of Achilles in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, it depicts Wellington at Waterloo in the centre, with ten major battles from the Peninsular War (1807–14) in the surrounding reliefs. It is now on display at Apsley House, London


George III (r.1760–1820), the first Hanoverian king born in England, was affectionately nicknamed ‘Farmer George’ because of his interest in agriculture. Many of his richer rural subjects were themselves busily (and profitably) improving farming methods; by contrast, smallholders and customary tenants were impoverished by the enclosure of land and the commercialisation of agriculture.


The lives of many more, especially in the north and midlands, were transformed by the rapid progress after 1770 of the Industrial Revolution. New technologies (particularly steam power), improved transport networks (especially canals), and enterprising men such as the iron-founding Darbys of Iron Bridge, Shropshire, the pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, and the cotton mill owner Richard Arkwright, turned England into the ‘workshop of the world’.

Key to the success of many industries were the new ‘manufactories’ or factories, operated by hordes of ill-paid workers, including many women and children. The tripling populations of industrial areas attracted the mission of the Methodist preacher John Wesley, whose evangelical religion had broader appeal than the established Church of England.


From 1788 George III’s intermittent mental illness raised the prospect of the regency of his son George – in youth the ‘First Gentleman of Europe’, in corpulent later life the ‘Prince of Whales’. Though his formal rule as Prince Regent lasted only from 1811 until his own accession as George IV in 1820, the entire late Georgian period is often labelled ‘Regency’.

Defined for many by the novels of Jane Austen, the Regency period also encompassed ‘Romantic’ poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats, the elegance of Beau Brummel’s fashions and John Nash’s London terraces, and the gradual replacement of the robustly corrupt culture of the early Georgian period with a new ‘high moral seriousness’.

In the background was the long conflict (1793–1815) with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Nelson’s naval triumphs at the Nile (1797) and Trafalgar (1805) did not preclude invasion scares in 1798 and 1803, and only in 1809 did the Duke of Wellington’s successes against the French in Spain begin to make equivalent victory on terra firma look possible.

The final victory of Britain and her allies at Waterloo in 1815 confirmed her status as the dominant European power.

The Pillar Gallery at Belsay Hall

The upper storey of the Pillar Hall Gallery at Belsay Hall, Northumberland. As with so many buildings of the Georgian period, this was a modern home inspired by the Classical style of ancient Greece. The Pillar Hall was meant to evoke the central courtyard of a Classical villa.


The demands of war further increased the pace of the Industrial Revolution. The slump that followed peace, however, resulted in political and social unrest, ruthlessly suppressed after the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ of 1819, when cavalry charged a peaceful crowd gathered to demand parliamentary reform. Although the limited political concessions of the Great Reform Act of 1832 averted further troubles, it still allowed only about one in six Englishmen to vote.

By now the world’s first passenger train had run (in 1825) on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and the first inter-city railway powered exclusively by steam engines had opened (in 1830). This was just one symbol of the new age that was arriving for Britain and the world, as William IV (r.1830–37) was succeeded by his far more formidable niece, Victoria, in 1837.

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