Dramatic Changes

We stand at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the whole of society. We may think it’s already happened but the digital world we see around us is just the start.  Dramatic change is still to come and it’s fair to say that “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

We can get an idea of how change happens and what we might face by looking at the past. Here’s an example:-

Photograph of a vernacular stone cottage from the early 1700s.

This is the cottage that my wife and I lived for twenty-eight years (we now live next door!) It was built in 1732 and although its appearance has changed very little, it has witnessed 285 years of progress. 

The cottage was built by William Fell, a local stonemason, ready for his marriage in 1733 to a girl called Mary Fletcher who lived in the next village.

You can read more about them in the “Cottage” section of this website.

William and Mary will have looked out of their windows at large fields divided into strips of land that their families had farmed for generations. They saw nothing to suggest that it would ever change. Yet the seeds were already sown. Farmer George was on the throne and inventors like Thomas Newcomen were experimenting with steam power.



It was WiIliam's daughter-in-law, also called Mary and by then a widow, who saw the first drama begin in 1794 when commissioners from London arrived to begin the process of enclosing the land. It began a period of immense upheaval. Mary had to make a claim for land equivalent to her strips, less the cost of fencing and hedging. We don't even know if she could read but she was plunged into a world of lawyers and meetings at the Blue Boar in Bainton. When the dust had settled, Mary Fell owned the paddock opposite. Her name is on the Enclosures Awards Map of 1799 and the earliest document in the cottage deeds describes it as “formerly owned by the widow Mary Fell”.

The poet, John Clare, lived in the adjacent village of Helpston and this is what he wrote when hawthorn hedges changed the landscape and prevented him from roaming across his beloved countryside:-

“Enclosure, thou'rt curse upon the land, 
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.”
- John Clare

But, like us, Mary Fell and John Clare had only witnessed the first stirrings of the future. They'd seen nothing compared to what was to come. 

Mary died in 1801 before the Midland Railway built its line just a mile away and visible from her bedroom window. Within the next 100 years the entire economy of Britain changed from Agricultural to Industrial and the way ordinary people lived their lives - from birth right through to death - changed forever.

Industry to Information
Now it's happening again. The Agricultural economy into which Mary Fell and John Clare were born is no more. Agriculture still exists of course but it's not the mass employer it once was. Just 3% of the workforce now produce more food than we can eat and at a tenth of the price.

The Industrial economy into which we were born is also no more. Factory workers have largely been replaced by computerised production lines just as the field labourers were replaced by farm machinery - and this is likely to be just the beginning.

Our years at school trained us to get secure jobs with a pension but these jobs are no more. Uncertainty, zero-hour contracts and the need to constantly re-train are the stories we now read in the press on a daily basis. And as for a pensions, we are asked if retirement should be compulsory and encouraged to start building our own pension independently of any one employer. The age at which our Old Age Pension will begin has already been moved several times and is likely to be moved even more.

First Signs
These are only the first signs of change. Just as Enclosure was the first sign of the industrialisation to come, the things we are seeing are the first signs of the massive changes still to come. When the dust settles, the entire economy of Britain is likely to have changed again and, once more, the way ordinary people live their lives - from birth right through to death - is likely to be changed forever.

The stonemason who built our cottage - and carved this datestone - could not, in his wildest imagination, have conceived of the things we all now take for granted.

Even his daughter-in-law, Mary Fell, who actually saw the changes begin, could not foresee universal education, package holidays, the publishing industry, television, motor cars, flight, space travel - it's impossible to stop listing things she could not have foreseen in a million years. Yet these things are all absolutely normal for every single one of us today.

Believe it or not, we are now standing in exactly the same position that Mary Fell and the poet John Clare stood in all those years ago. We cannot, in our wildest dreams, imagine what the future holds. The new information technologies are causing change just as profound as those witnessed by William Fell's family - and it's going to happen a lot faster.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which took about 150 years to run its full course, this change is likely to happen within a generation.

Next: Danger Ahead

© Brian Smith 2015