THIS BLOG WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE HODDER HISTORY NEST.
As a history teacher I regularly get asked what my favourite period of history is and I always answer the late 18th century, without blinking. For me this is the seed of the modern world where you emerge from the darkness into the light. This is the birth of industrialisation, the beginning of revolution, the forming of democratic government, the ascendance of science. It’s got everything and it’s genuinely the most brilliant period of history ever.
The thing I love most about this period are the individuals, and particularly those interested in science, working out the world around them. For the first time in history, people are questioning things and on the whole getting it right. Unlike today where scientists specialise in one field these individuals (and they were men and women) were polymaths, fascinated by everything, whether it be geology, chemistry, physics, biology, zoology, you name it they were interested and had an opinion. I first came across some of these people in the excellent Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, who chapter by chapter introduces Sir Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphry Davey to name a few. As a Bristolian, I can no longer walk through the streets of Hotwells, near where I live, without thinking of a young Davey inhaling and experimenting with various gases and as a result working out the properties of laughing gas.
It was in Holmes’ book that I came across the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Once a month in the late 18th century, all the notable men of the area (and in this case it was only men) met on the full moon (so they could travel home in light) to discuss industry, science and politics. This grabbed my attention. I’ll admit it, I’m an idealist and I fell in love with the idea of the greatest of the great sitting around a table once a month and trying to figure out the world that was changing around them.
As a result I came to Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men. I read a lot of history books but sometimes a book grabs me and the Lunar Men did that, it’s genuinely outstanding. Uglow painstakingly narrates the history of this little group (it really was quite small with only about fourteen members). But what a group! These are the few men who basically kick start the Industrial Revolution. Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham industrialist, essentially created the modern factory system at his Soho Manufactory. James Watt, redesigned the steam engine to drive a wheel and as a result invented mechanisation. Josiah Wedgwood worked out how to make porcelain, an ancient Chinese secret and with it created a factory system whose products were shipped throughout the world in what has to be one of the first examples of globalisation. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) wrote down initial evolutionary ideas, classified plants and rocks to name a handful of his plethora of interests. Joseph Priestley, a Dissenting clergyman, discovered oxygen, was a chemist, a Liberal political theorist…the list goes on. Sometimes in history it is difficult to say when and where a change takes place. With the Industrial Revolution it began in Soho House in Handsworth in Birmingham under a full moon in the late 18th century. I think you will be able to tell, I am little obsessed. An obsession which has extended to dragging a colleague around canals and graveyards of Birmingham looking for material evidence of these great men. These individuals won’t leave my thoughts and yet I doubt it is something that very few, if anyone, really teaches in school.
Now, lets speed up to a more recent date. A year or so ago the author team for the Making Sense of History Key Stage Three series sat down at Hodder towers in London to plan Book 3 of the series. The book covers the period 1745 to 1901. Each of the books has an opening chapter that introduces the themes of the book, creates a sense of period and sets the scene. In Book 2, Alec Fisher did this brilliantly with Henry VIII. During the meeting John Clare (the series editor) asked everyone what event or person should set the scene for this period and I instantly shouted out the Lunar Men. Thus over the last year or so I have been writing, editing and re-editing a chapter on the Lunar Men and it is with great pride that it comes out this week. In the chapter I introduce all the men I’ve discussed above to answer the enquiry “How did the early industrialist embody the spirit of the age?” Through the enquiry the students are scaffolded to make supported inferences about the world that is emerging in the late 18th century. I appreciate that I am biased, but it will make a really good introduction to any scheme of work on the industrial world whether it be for Key Stage 3 (as this book is designed for) or Key Stage 4 where it would work to introduce the period in a breadth study. I hope that with its publication these few gentlemen are studied a bit more in class and remembered for how significant they clearly were.
At Easter I sent the final proof of my chapter to Jenny Uglow to say how much she had inspired me. At the weekend I received the following postcard:
I think this might be the best moment of my career 🙂