Key dates in the Sociological history and development of Great Britain



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Key dates Great Britain 1000 - 1899

The time line begins at 1066

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 led to changes in the system of government.

The old English system worked mainly from below upwards, the village or township being the smallest unit. Between 100 and 120 villages and townships grouped together to form a "hundred", and a number of hundreds formed a "shire" or county. Each shire had to raise a certain number of men to serve in the militia for national defence. The kingdom was made up of the shires and was ruled by the king together with a council consisting of his adult sons, selected noblemen, bishops and chosen warriors. The king was leader of the army, but could not alter laws, levy taxes or grant land without the consent of the council.

Under the Norman system (feudal system) the king owned all the land, and gave parts of it to his knights, earls, and barons under certain mutual conditions. All the powers of the state were invested in the king. The barons retained some of their land for themselves and divided the remainder among their retainers. Tenure was linked to the duty to perform (or pay others to perform) military service to the king, and those holding fiefs (land) were bound to perform "customs and services" to their liege lords. The earliest agents of the king in the shires were the sheriffs (usually feudal lords of middle rank) who collected the income from the farms, presided over the shire courts, and were responsible for enforcing royal writs. French became the language of the Royal Court and of the judicial courts; statutes were written in Latin.

Later, itinerant royal courts, judges, coroners (see 1194) and justices of the peace (see 1285) were introduced, and English was spoken in the courts (see 1362)

1086 Doomsday Survey of human and economic resources, and of the ownership of land in England completed. The population of England was estimated at about 2 million.

1170 Murder of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral; canonised in 1173.

1215 Magna Carta - protected against arbitrary taxation, asserted the freedom of the church, guaranteed the privileges of the City of London and of the boroughs, allowed freedom of movement, and declared that no free man would be arrested, imprisoned, deprived of his land, outlawed or exiled except by the judgement of his peers. The Charter was re-issued in 1217 and 1225. Portions remain part of English law.

1254 Two representative knights of each county were summoned to a Council to consider what aid they would be willing to grant the King, who was at war in France.

1256 Prices of bread and ale controlled; and the pillory for bakers and the tumbrel for brewers decreed for those overcharging or selling poor quality products

1278 Statute of Gloucester sought to define and limit the powers of the barons.

1279 Statute of Mortmain brought the endowment of church lands under royal supervision, preventing the church from amassing ever greater wealth.

1285 Statute of Winchester bound every man to serve the King in case of invasion or revolt, and to pursue felons when the hue and cry was raised against them; provided for the appointment of Guardians of the Peace, the forerunners of Justices of the Peace.

1297 Acts made between 1216 and 1327 (Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II) but of uncertain date included an Ordinance for Bakers, Brewers and other Victuallers which, among other matters, set out penalties for the sale of "Unwholesome Flesh".

1300 "England in the 14th century was a consultative monarchy ... The King was required to rule in accordance with ancient law and custom, and with the advice and consent of his prelates and magnates. His freedom of action was further circumscribed by a growing volume of statutory law, which bound him as well as his subjects ... While the King was not a free agent, he was expected to be a chief executive in every sense of the word: head of government, fountain of justice, commander-in-chief and arbiter of economic policy" (Paul Johnson, life and Times of Edward Ill, London, Book Club Ass., 1973, page 12).

1300 The King (Edward I) granted that "his people shall have election of their Sheriff in every Shire (where the Shivalty is not of Fee) if they list", set out the sort of people to serve on juries, and to be chosen for sheriffs.

1322 Parliament, assembled at York, for the first time included representatives (24) from Wales. Parliament was not a permanent body, but became increasingly important during the century.

1348-50 Black Death pandemic. In England it reached a peak in July 1349 and recurred in 1361 and 1368; between a third and a half of the population died, the total falling from about 4.7

1356 The "opening" of Parliament was conducted in English instead of French.

1377 First Poll Tax imposed on all persons over 14 years of age, at one groat (four pence) per person.

1379 Second Poll Tax imposed on all persons aged 16 years or more.

1381 Third Poll Tax imposed on all persons aged 15 years or more, at one shilling per person. Peasants Revolt: Wat Tyler marched on London in protest against the poll tax.

1387 A Craft Guild of Barbers founded in the City of London; and later, in all major towns in England.

"Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer published, containing a description of a medical practitioner.

1401 Statute of Heresy provided that all heretics (people whose beliefs were not those of the Church) were to be imprisoned and if they refused to give up their heresy to be burned alive. Repealed in 1548.

1415 Battle of Agincourt.

1429 Every City and Borough to have a common Balance and Weight

1463 Import controls. “Certain Merchandises not lawful to be brought ready wrought into this Realm” included playing cards, dice and woollen clothes, silk and embroidery, leather and metal goods among other things

1477 William Caxton set up a printing press in the precincts of Westminster Abbey


The Sixteenth Century

At the beginning of the sixteenth century ideals, methods and customs, which had existed for centuries, were being challenged. The old feudal ways of life had largely disappeared and a new aristocracy drawn from the ranks of the growing middle classes had begun to emerge.

The triumph of the Crown over the Church during the 1530s marked the close of the Middle Ages in more spheres of life than the ecclesiastical. A concept of humanism began to emerge which saw civilised man as an educated person concerned with the common weal and his civic duties, and one who had freedom of choice and the power to change his own and society’s destiny.

The sixteenth century was a period of exploration, and of expansion in overseas trade which provided a new source of wealth.

The Tudors united Wales with England so that one set of laws and rights applied to both countries; Scotland continued to be independent.


1534 Act of Supremacy made the King supreme head of the Church of England with authority to reform and redress all errors, heresies and abuses in it.

1539 Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries and Abbeys.


1541 Act for maintaining of Artillery, and the debarring of Unlawful Games.


1549 Act of Uniformity forbade the use of the Catholic Mass, and enforced the use of the first prayer book of Edward VI.


1559 Second Act of Supremacy repealed legislation passed during Mary’s reign and restored to the Crown jurisdiction over the Church as well as the Realm. A further act in 1562 assured the Queen’s Power over all estates and subjects within her dominions.

Under the Act of Uniformity of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament attendance at church became compulsory and non-attendance was punishable by censure, fine or imprisonment.

1604 “Counterblaste to Tobacco” by James I published. The King described smoking as “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs”.

1620 The Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America in the Mayflower and landed at Cape Cod.

1625 Horse-drawn fire engines introduced.

1628 A Petition of Right presented to the King concerning “divers Rights and Liberties of the Subjects”

1641 The Grand Remonstrance beseeched the King to “concur with the humble desires of your people in a parliamentary way, for the preserving the peace and safety of the kingdom from the malicious designs of the Popish party...”. It set out all the unconstitutional acts of Charles I, the good work that Parliament had done, and demanded the appointment of ministers by Parliament.

1642-48 Civil War

1649 Execution of Charles I (January 30th).

1653-60 The Protectorate. Oliver Cromwell introduced the “Instrument of Government”.

1660 Restoration of the monarchy. All statutes of the Commonwealth were declared void. The Royal Society founded at a meeting in November; Royal Charter granted by Charles II in 1662.

1663 Hearth Tax introduced, abandoned in 1689.

1665 Great Plague Epidemic,

1666 Fire of London.

1687 “Principia Mathematica” by Isaac Newton (1642-1727, Cambridge professor) published by the Royal Society.

Royal Hospital, Chelsea, founded around this time.

1689 The Bill of Rights set out the rights and liberties of the subjects, and settled the succession of the Crown.

Toleration Act established freedom of worship.

1696 Window Tax introduced to raise extra money for the war against France which was supporting the exiled James II.

Eighteenth Century

England at the start of the century was still mainly a land of hamlets and villages with the majority of the population living in the south. The population probably numbered about five and a half million.

In the towns, houses, including the cellars, were desperately overcrowded; there were no sanitary systems, and streets were unpaved and filthy. In the early part of the century) only about one child in four, born in London, survived.

During the century transport between towns improved, mills and factories were built; and, as towns developed, dispensaries, general hospitals, hospitals for special groups of patients, and charity schools were founded in London and in provincial towns. By the end of the century ideas of state intervention in public health matters were emerging, and concern was expressed about the conduct of asylums (madhouses) and the treatment of prisoners.

1707 Act for the Union of England and Scotland; the first Parliament of Great Britain met on October 23rd.

1714 John Bellers (1654-1725, philanthropist) in his “Essay Towards the Improvement of ‘hysic” proposed that government should establish hospitals for teaching and research and should provide medical care to the sick poor.

1716 “The Art of Midwifery Improved” published

c 1718 Inoculation for smallpox introduced by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1679-1762, wife of he British ambassador to Turkey).

1719 Westminster Hospital, London, founded.

1733 Bastardy Act ordered that fathers of bastard children shall be committed to gaol until they gave security to indemnify the parish from expense.

1735 Conjuration and Witchcraft Act repealed previous witchcraft acts and made persons (“Pretenders”) claiming to have arts or powers whereby ‘ignorant persons are frequently deluded or defrauded” such as by witchcraft, sorcery, inchantment, conjuration, fortune telling or other occult or crafty science liable to punishment on conviction.

1747 Changes introduced in regard to the window tax (1696).

1751 “Gin” Act for “additional Duty upon Spirituous Liquors ... and the more effectually restraining the Retailing of distilled Spirituous Liquors”; suppressed about 1,700 gin shops in London.

England and Wales adopted the Gregorian calendar.

1753 Marriage Act (Hardwicke’s Act) - only marriages carried out by a Church of England parson were legal.

1759 British Museum opened.

1769 Steam engine patented by James Watt (1736-1819, engineer).

1775 Outbreak of the American War of Independence; continued until 1783.

1782 Act for the Licensing Lottery Office Keepers, and Regulating the Sale of Lottery Tickets

1785 Digitalis first used in the treatment of heart disease.

1789 Start of the French Revolution.

1791 “The Rights of Man” by Thomas Paine (1737-1809, American writer) published. Part 2 outlined a welfare state with children’s allowances, old age pensions and tax-supported elementary schools.

1792 “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wolstonecraft (1759-97, novelist) published; a milestone in the history of feminism.

1798-1802 First Napoleonic Wars.

1799 Income tax introduced for the first time, at two pence in the pound for those with incomes of more than £60 a year rising to two shillings in the pound on incomes of more than £200 a year. The tax lapsed in 1802; was re-introduced in 1806.


1815 Battle of Waterloo.

1819 John McAdam (1756-1836) introduced solid road surfaces. In 1820 he published “Present State of Road Making” and in 1827 was appointed general surveyor of roads.

1820 Street lighting installed in Pall Mall, London.

1823 Capital punishment abolished for minor offences.

1825 Stockton-Darlington railway, the first passenger steam railway, opened.

1833 Abolition of slavery.

University College Hospital, London, founded.

1834 The House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to “inquire into the laws, regulations, and usages regarding the education and practice of the various parts of the Medical Profession in the United Kingdom”. Bills to reform the profession were unsuccessfully introduced in 1844 and 1845.

Death of Thomas Telford (b.1757), engineer concerned with roads, harbours, canals, bridges and aqueducts. A Founder and first President of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1818.

1835 Municipal Corporations Act reformed the organisation and procedures of the boroughs; required the corporations to be elected by the ratepayers, to hold meetings open to the public and to have their accounts audited. The towns were given power to appoint their own police forces. The vestries or parish councils continued to appoint surveyors of highways and overseers of the poor. In 1842 justices of the peace were given power to appoint paid parish constables.

Central inspectorate of prisons introduced.

1836 Tithes Commutation Act ended the need for farmers to supply local clergymen with payments in the form of grain.

A permanent Ecclesiastical Commission, consisting of Anglican bishops, laymen and cabinet ministers, set up to end abuses in the Church and to reduce the anomalies of wealth among bishoprics and parishes.

London University established by charter as the examining body with power to grant degrees to students from University College (1828) and King’s College (1831) in the faculties of arts, law and medicine. The first examination for MB was held in 1839.

1838 Capital punishment retained only for murder and treason.

1840 Universal penny post introduced for letters throughout the UK.

1842 Justices of the peace were permitted to appoint paid constables

Ether vapour used by CW Long (1815-78) for the first time as an anaesthetic.

Income tax re-introduced (see 1815) “temporarily” at seven pence in the pound on incomes over £150 per year.

1845 Museums Act permitted local authorities to build museums and charge
up to one penny for admission.

Potato blight in Ireland caused widespread famine; recurred until 1849 resulting in high
mortality and emigration. Scotland was also affected with similar results.

1847 Corn Laws, which imposed duties on imported corn, repealed

Sir James Simpson introduced chloroform as an anaesthetic.

1848 Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) published “The Communist
Manifesto”; and in 1867 the first volume of “Das Kapital” was published.

1851 Window tax repealed

The Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, inspired by Prince Albert and
described as “the world’s most remarkable demonstration of human ingenuity and

1853 Start of the Crimean War which finished in 1856. There were 1933 soldiers killed in action, 2314 died later of wounds and injuries and 15,398 died of diseases.

1854 Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) arrived in the Crimea in November and worked there until 1856.


1855 County and Borough Police Act made obligatory the maintenance of local police forces, under the supervision of the Home Office.

1857 Smoke Nuisance (Scotland) Abatement Act attempted to abate nuisance arising from the smoke from furnaces in Scotland.

Matrimonial Causes Act allowed civil divorce without the need for a private act of Parliament.

Police (Scotland) Act set out to "render more effectual the police in counties and burghs in Scotland".

1859 "Origin of the Species", by Charles Darwin (1809-82), published.

1861 Start of the American Civil War.

1865 Prisons Act created a national system of the governance of prisons involving the closure of many local prisons; introduced a more uniform, although harsh, standard of treatment and set out detailed regulations about discipline and punishment of prisoners, the duties of prison officers and the appointment of visiting justices.

An Act established a single fire brigade within the London metropolis.

1866 Labouring Classes Dwelling Act enabled the Public Works Loan Commission to make loans towards the erection of dwellings for the labouring classes.

1868 Capital Punishment within Prisons Act prohibited public executions.

1869 Income tax was 6d in the pound.

Suez canal opened.

1870 Married Women's Property Act gave wives possession of any money they earned.

1871 "The Descent of Man" by Charles Darwin (1809-82) published.

Bastardy Laws Amendment Act gave the right to the mother of an illegitimate child to apply to a court for a maintenance order against the father of the child.

Licensing Act introduced licensing of premises selling beer and spirits; limited the number of such places; limited their opening hours to between 6 am and 11 pm; limited the sale of intoxicating liquor to any person "apparently under the age of 16 years"; and prohibited gambling on licensed premises.

1875 Income tax was 2d in the pound.

1876 Cruelty to Animals Act restricted painful experiments on animals.

1877 Charles Drysdale, senior physician to the Metropolitan Free Hospital, warned against the use of tobacco. He pointed to "the enormous consumption of tobacco in all European states", estimating that £15,000,000 was spent annually in Great Britain on tobacco, and concluded "that the use of tobacco is one of the most evident of all the retrograde influences of our time" (The Times, 25th. September).


1879 Habitual Drunkards Act passed to facilitate the control and cure of habitual drunkards; empowered local authorities to establish retreats. The Act defined an habitual drunkard as a person who, not being amenable to any jurisdiction in lunacy, is notwithstanding, by reason of habitual intemperate drinking of intoxicating liquor, at times dangerous to himself or herself or to others, or incapable of managing himself or herself or his or her affairs.

Bourneville, Birmingham, started for the employees of George Cadbury (1839-1922); was extensively developed from 1894.

1880 Statutes (Definition of Time) Act defined Greenwich Mean time as the "legal" time in all acts and legal documents and agreements unless otherwise stated.

Income tax was 5d in the pound.

1881 Veterinary Surgeons Act established a register of qualified veterinary surgeons and imposed restrictions on the practice of unqualified surgeons.

1884 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children founded.

1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of legal sexual intercourse with girls from 12 to 16 years.

KF Benz (1844-1929, German engineer) built the first car using an internal combustion engine.

1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act made ill-treatment, neglect of or causing suffering to children punishable; and prohibited begging by boys under 14 and girls under 16 years of age.

1894 Death duties introduced by Sir William Harcourt (1827-1904, Chancellor of the Exchequer) with a graduated tax; a method applied to income tax in 1909 by Lloyd George (1863-1945).

Manchester Ship Canal opened allowing ocean-going ships to reach Manchester.

1895 X-rays discovered by WK Rontgen (1845-1923, German physicist).

G Marconi (1874-1937, Italian physicist) made the first radio transmission over one mile

Manufacture of cars (Wolseley) began in Birmingham.

National Trust founded.


1897 In this year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, an editorial in “Public Health” stated “of all the achievements of the Victorian Era ... history will find none worthier of record than the efforts made to ameliorate the lives of the poor, to curb the ravages of disease, and to secure for all pure air, food, and water, all of which are connotated by the term ‘sanitation’”. (Public Health, IX, 10, January, 1897, page 286).


The electron discovered by JJ Thomson (1856-1940, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University).

“Studies in the Psychology of Sex”, by Havelock Ellis (1859-1939, English psychologist) published; the first volume in a series.

(Royal) Automobile Club founded.

1899 Start of the Boer War (1899-1902) in which 9.5 soldiers per 1000 were killed in action, 3.3 died from wounds and 20.4 died from diseases.

Coal Smoke Abatement Society founded in London.

Aspirin introduced by Bayer.

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