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Britain's history from an economic/social standpoint - a summary

We have tried to give below a very brief summary of Britain’s history from an economic/social/political viewpoint, with an attempt to identify how the principal changes would have affected people living in the Fox Corner area.  

Condensing 700 years of history into a few paragraphs obviously requires a lot to be omitted.  For a much fuller description of the same topic, there is a lengthier piece here.

The early years

Fox Corner has a long history of agriculture dating back to the 13th century.  The majority of the land was owned by the Lords of Pirbright, Worplesdon and Crastock Manors, with more and more freeholds granted by the Manor to individuals over time.  

The early history of the area was shaped by the agricultural landscape.  Until the 1800s, the vast majority of people there were agricultural labourers who lived close to poverty.  They had a standard of living similar to their ancestors who had been working on the land in the 1300’s.  They also had to endure frequent poor harvests, famine, and the occasional plague outbreak.  Additionally, there was a long period of inflation in the 1500s and 1600s, which reduced the standard of living for the working class.

Overall, the population of Pirbright and Fox Corner followed the trends of the English population, with a slow growth from 1600 to 1800. 

The Basingstoke Canal opened in 1792, providing a new source of coal for heat, but it's doubtful that many labourers could afford it.

1800 - 1914

The Industrial Revolution of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s made huge differences to the work and lives of many people in Britain.  But despite some improvements in agricultural productivity, there were few changes to the daily lives of most agricultural people until the later part of the 19th century.  

Literacy was low, with little access to education, and poverty was widespread.  To help the poorest in the community, there were various “Poor Relief” schemes, but they were not enough to improve the standard of living for the many of the poorest people.  Life expectancy at birth was around 35 years.

New jobs (brought about by the Industrial Revolution) saw people move away from rural areas in the middle of the 1800’s, causing a sharp decline in the population of Fox Corner.  Agriculture remained tough, with long hours and low wages.  The Napoleonic Wars prevented the import of cheap grain, causing high bread prices and poverty for more Fox Corner families.  The government's introduction of the Corn Laws perpetuated this situation until 1846, when the Corn Laws were repealed.  There were agricultural riots in 1816 and again in 1830.

Between 1850 and 1880, Britain experienced significant economic growth.  Technological advancements such as faster shipping, the opening of the Suez Canal, and increased rail links boosted international trade and economic activity.  This led to continued migration of farming workers to cities and towns, and a further decrease in the number of farm workers.

Some big local infrastructure projects created several job opportunities for local people:  The London and Southampton Railway was opened in 1838, and, 26 years later, Brookwood station was built.  In 1856 Brookwood Cemetery opened, and then in 1875 the War Office purchased 3,000 acres of Pirbright heathland, bringing a military presence to Pirbright which remains to this day.

During this period, Britain achieved global economic dominance, with 40% of all globally exported manufactured goods being made in Britain.  However, other countries started to catch up in terms of technology which reduced Britain’s competitive edge in export markets.  The "Great Depression of British Agriculture" from 1870 to 1895 saw wheat prices plummet due to cheap imported grain from America, putting further pressure on agricultural wages and livelihoods.

Adult literacy increased during the 19th century, but education was not compulsory. Some form of schooling was available in Pirbright in the early 1800’s, but Pirbright School itself opened in 1870.  Over the next 20 years more and more children from Fox Corner attended, although not all parents could afford to pay the fees.

Housebuilding in the area began in earnest in the 1890’s and continued apace until the onset of WW1.

Between 1890 and 1914, Britain became the dominant player in the global economy, with London as the centre of global finance.  However, Britain’s economy was slowing and facing competition from Germany and the US.  The wealthy became wealthier but poverty was still a problem, even though social reforms such as Old Age Pensions and National Insurance had been introduced.  

In the years leading up to WW1, government spending on defence was increasing, leading to rises in taxes.  Fox Corner residents saw improvements in their standard of living at this time, with increased prosperity and better education, but some still faced poverty.  The government followed the 3 principles of a balanced budget, tariff-free trade, and a fixed exchange rate, but the last of these was later shown to have been a mistake.

1914 - 1939

During WW1, a significant portion of Britain's economy was devoted to the war effort, leading to reduced personal consumption and inflated prices. The government issued War Bonds to finance the war, and massive amounts were borrowed from the US.  By 1918, the war was won, but the economy was struggling due to the loss of export markets and the need to refocus away from war production.  Despite promises from Lloyd George of a "Land fit for heroes," there was little serious planning for the post-war period, and the country faced the challenge of paying massive amounts of interest on its war loans and war-related pensions over the ensuing years.  

The period from 1918 to 1939 was a very challenging time for the economy in Britain. After WWI, the country was faced with high unemployment, low wage growth, and a deep recession. The Spanish Flu of 1918 added to the difficulties, killing 200,000 people, mostly of working age. 

The end of wartime industries, loss of export markets, and high wartime debts contributed to the economic struggles.  Housing was also a challenge, with 80% of people renting and little private ownership. The 1929 Wall Street Crash had a significant impact on Britain's export trade, but the Bank of England leaving the gold standard in 1931 led to a devaluation of sterling and a reduction in interest rates. This helped improve the economy, leading to a growth in private sector house-building and an increase in home ownership. However, some areas, such as the north of England, remained economically depressed.

1939 - 1979

Britain's economy during WWII was devoted to the war effort. The government raised taxes, introducing the PAYE system (which is still with us). The Beveridge Report of 1942 proposed a welfare state with universal benefits, national insurance, and free healthcare, all of which were implemented after the war.  The Attlee government nationalized several industries, but this resulted in the government controlling a larger portion of the UK economy, causing exports to fall and taxes to rise. Despite the drawbacks of increased taxes and rationing, the majority of Fox Corner residents would have had jobs and some would have received benefits from the welfare state.
The period from 1951 to 1959 was a time of relative stability for the economy, during which the Conservatives came to power and implemented policies aimed at increasing prosperity and building more houses.  32 new houses were built at Fox Corner during the 1950’s.  

Macmillan famously claimed in 1957 that "most of our people had never had it so good".  Despite declining British standing in the world, most residents of Fox Corner would have considered themselves much better off than they were either before or after this period. GDP grew by an average of 3.2% and the number of cars on the road doubled, while home ownership rose from 30% to 40%. However, inflation was beginning to appear, rising above the level of interest rates and penalizing savers.  The level of productivity was also starting to decline, with Britain's GDP per capita worsening compared to that of other countries (eg France).

The period between 1960 and 1969 was marked by a decline in Britain's economy. Poor management, insufficient investment, and aggressive trade unions were the primary reasons for the decline in productivity, which saw France overtake the UK in terms of GDP per capita.  The Labour government introduced reforms, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion, but the economy continued to suffer due to rising inflation and an artificially high exchange rate. By the end of the decade, both inflation and unemployment were on the rise.

Despite the economic difficulties, the decade was marked by a continuation of house-building and an increase in home ownership, which rose from 40% at the start of the decade to 50% by the end.  22 more houses were built at Fox Corner.  

London emerged as a bright spot in the economy, finding a niche as the global centre of the new Eurodollar market, and England's win in the 1966 World Cup brought a sense of national pride.  However, trouble was brewing in Northern Ireland, which would have wider implications for the UK in the years to come.

The 1970s marked a low point for Britain's economy.  The decade was characterized by high inflation (averaging 12% per year) and rising unemployment, with prices nearly tripling from 1970 to 1979.  Strikes were frequent with the country faced the "winter of discontent" in 1978-79.  Housebuilding was lower than in the previous decade, with just 10 houses being built at Fox Corner.

Bright spots included women gaining the right to equal pay and legislation for racial equality.  Unionised workers' pay increased faster than prices, and car ownership rose from 45% to 70% of households by 1979. The decade saw the UK joining the European Community, the introduction of VAT, and the start of North Sea oil production.  Despite these positive developments, the government was forced to ask the IMF for a loan in 1976, which resulted in tax increases, cuts in public spending, and higher interest rates.

The 1970s also saw the peak of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with the Guildford Pub bombings in 1974 casting a pall over the area.  The decade ended on a bleak note, with inflation still around 10% and strikes at recorded levels.

1979 - date

The election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979 brought about significant economic changes to the UK, including a shift in focus from full employment to inflation control and greater influence of market forces on the economy.  The period saw tax cuts, particularly for higher income earners, funded by North Sea oil, and a reduction in trade union powers.  This was followed by a series of privatisations, leading to improved efficiency but also redundancies in those companies.  

The tax cuts and interest rate reductions caused a housing boom in the 1980s, with house prices rising and home ownership increasing, but it later led to a recession in the early 1990s.  The Thatcher years brought a doubling of house prices and growth in the City of London, but also rising inequality and poverty rates.  Stricter planning laws limited new housing developments in the Green Belt, including the Fox Corner area, where very few new houses have been built since the 1970’s.  Instead residents have turned to house extensions (or demolishing an existing house and building afresh).

The newly-elected Labour government in 1997 continued many of the previous government's policies such as keeping inflation in check and maintaining laws to restrict trade unions.  During the Blair years, spending on health and education rose, and poverty was reduced through a minimum wage and tax credits.  But inequality across the country did not fall.  

The financial crisis of 2007/08 led to a deep recession, and a cut in interest rates. The government of 2010 tightened the economy by increasing VAT and cutting government spending, leading to a slow recovery from recession but falling wages in real terms.  The financial sector re-established itself as a source of wealth and the technology sector created many new jobs.  Recent events such as leaving the EU, the COVID pandemic, and the rise in energy prices have caused much instability in the economy.

A local highlight of recent years was the purchase of The Fox pub in 2015, which injected new life into the area. The COVID-related lockdowns forced many people to work from home, which suited many Fox Corner residents and enhanced the sense of community spirit. The local footpaths on the heaths became well-worn and dog ownership appears to have risen considerably. 

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