The Times

Food, shelter, a place of safety for our families - these have been our most basic human needs since the dawn of history. But the challenge of how to secure those needs in the 21st century is nothing like it was for our ancestors.

THE MARCH OF HISTORY is like the flow of a great river. Sometimes the current is broad and strong and pulls along everything in its path, as in the Industrial Revolution or the Great Famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s. At other times there are brief periods of rapids and white water, such as foreign wars that pull men away from the land, drive up agricultural prices and create shortages.

Sometimes our ancestors were caught in these currents, and their place in history became not a coal mine in County Durham but a battlefront in Flanders or the Crimea, or a foreign port in the Caribbean or India. Sometimes they were caught in little eddies - far enough removed from the great sweep of history that their seventy years of life began and ended within the confines of a few square miles.

But there was always uncertainty. From the 9th century, Viking raiders could appear suddenly off the coast of Britain, ready to sack villages, churches or monasteries and kill those who got in their way. Later the Danes would make much deeper incursions, conquering land and enforcing their own culture and laws until they were eventually assimilated or repelled.

Then came the Norman Conquest in 1066, transforming the way England was governed. Feudal barons and kings ruled with absolute authority. For the English peasant, obligations were spelled out and personal rights were minimal, but the feudal system at least ensured a measure of protection and security. Nevertheless, you were never secure from disease or from the vagaries of the weather or the threat of local or foreign wars.

In the 1500s, religious conflict consumed the realm as Catholic and Protestant fought for ascendancy. In the 1600s, England erupted in civil war as King and Parliament faced off - and all against the backdrop of religious intolerance that blighted the entire nation.

By the 1800s and the Victorian era, Britain was transformed, but the Industrial Revolution brought squalor as well as wealth and opportunity. While the middle class grew, workhouses fed the very poor - and deliberately shamed them at the same time. One in four children died before the age of 10.

As we explore the stories of the families on this site, these are the backdrops for the lives they lived and the paths they trod.

Viking fire
Courtesy: Michigan Nordic Fire Festival
Bayeux Tapestry - comet
Public domain.
Henry VIII and abbey
Henry VIII public domain. Abbey: Michael Otterson
Ship masts graphic
Photo: Michael Otterson
Steam locomotive, England
CC BY-SA 3.0. Original photographer unknown.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

BRITAIN

The 1500s  -  England's place in the world

The 1600s  - Civil War

The 1700s  -  The British Empire takes shape

The 1900s  -  World wars and the loss of Empire

 

HISTORY-CHANGING EVENTS

1750 - 1900 - The Agricultural Revolution

1760 - 1840 - The Industrial Revolution

 

OCCUPATIONS

Coal miners

Farm laborers

Nailers

Sailors

Soldiers
British machine gunners WW1
Public domain.
Spitfire in flight
CC BY-SA 3.0 (Franck Cabrol)
Buzz Aldrin on Moon
Credit: NASA. Photo by Neil Armstrong.