Tom Jones was published in 1749, and set during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. King George II was on the throne, the Whigs were in Parliament, and England was engaged in several foreign wars. The industrial revolution had yet to begin. Poverty in the countryside was driving people to the cities. The Church of England was being challenged by an Evangelical revival and the new Methodist religion, which reached across class barriers and promoted social justice. Philanthropists and writers were increasingly concerned with social problems, and agitated for the founding of hospitals and orphanages, the abolition of slavery and prison reform.
London was a place of fashionable coffee houses and theatres, gaming houses, and gin shops which allowed the poor momentarily to forget their troubles. For much of the city’s population, life was characterized by poverty, gambling, prostitution and heavy drinking.
The gentry were moving into luxurious new town houses in areas such as Grosvenor Square and Hanover Square. They attended masquerade balls, went to the theatre, read newspapers and engaged in clever conversation. But the line between wealth and poverty was often precarious, and many gentlemen and women languished in debtors’ prisons as a result of gambling habits or changing fortunes.
The poor lived in ramshackle tenements and shacks along dark and dirty alleys. The city’s buildings were relatively new; much of London had been rebuilt after the fire of 1666. But housing for the poor was hastily erected and of bad quality. Collapsing houses were fairly common, often killing occupants and passers-by. In 1738 Dr. Johnson described London as a city "where falling houses thunder on your head." Tenements jostled with slaughterhouses and tanneries. The worst slums were concentrated around Covent Garden, St Giles, Holborn and the older parts of Westminster in the west. To the East, they spread through Blackfriars and beyond the Tower, to Limehouse Reach, Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe Highway, Southwark, Stepney and Whitechapel.
Drowning one’s sorrows was a popular pastime. In 1751, more than 11 million gallons of gin were consumed in the city (the population had yet to reach one million). In the same year, more than 9,000 children died of alcohol poisoning.
Prostitution was ubiquitous. Dan Cruickshank, in The Secret History of Georgian London, suggests that one in five of London’s female population was engaged in prostitution. The Strand was lined with brothels, alongside gentlemen’s coffee shops. Country girls arriving in the city were quickly snapped up by procuresses, as illustrated by the fate of Fanny Hill in John Cleland’s 1748 novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and Moll Hackabout in Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress engravings. A visitor at the time noted, 'no place in the world can be compared with London for wantonness.' Venereal disease was rife; syphilis and gonorrhea observed no class distinctions.
Newgate Prison and Bridewell swallowed up those poor who fell foul of the authorities. Every six weeks, wooden carts would roll along what is now Oxford Street, taking the condemned to the communal gallows at Tyburn (opposite present-day Speakers' Corner). “Poor’s Holes” were scattered around St. Martin’s, St. James’s and St. Giles: large open pits filled with the corpses of those whose families could not afford burial.
The Jacobite rebellion sought to return the Stuarts to the British throne. Its origins lay in the dispossession of James II in 1688 by Holland’s William of Orange, supported by English Parliamentarians opposed to James’s Catholicism. William's successful invasion saw him ascend the English throne as William III, jointly with his wife Mary.
Supporters of James, who were concentrated in Catholic Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, became known as Jacobites (from the Latinised form of James). They led a rebellion in 1689, but were defeated. A second major uprising followed in 1715, but this too was crushed.
The 1745 rising was led by James’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, known as the Young Pretender. It was prompted by the War of the Austrian Succession, which by 1743 had drawn Britain and France into conflict. Leading English Jacobites requested military support from Louis XV of France, who responded with plans for a large-scale invasion of southern England to take place in February 1744. Charles, supported by French troops, was to sail to Essex, where he would be joined by local Jacobites in an immediate march on London. But on 24 February 1744, as preparations were underway, a terrible storm scattered the French fleet, sinking and damaging ships with considerable loss of life and equipment. The French were forced to cancel their invasion.
Charles however was determined to proceed. A small number of Scottish clan chieftains had promised they would fight on his behalf if he could muster 3,000 French troops. In July 1745 Charles set sail for Scotland with two ships. One of them, the Elisabeth, which was carrying weapons, supplies and 700 volunteers, was badly damaged in a confrontation with the British Navy and had to turn back to France. The other, however, successfully landed Charles and seven followers in the Outer Hebrides on 2 August 1745.
The Scottish clans and their chieftains were less than impressed that Charles had turned up with neither troops nor munitions. Charles nonetheless managed to attract about 1,200 men, and gathered more as the Jacobite force marched south from Glenfinnan, growing his army to almost 3,000. Most of the British army was in Flanders and Germany, engaged in the War of the Austrian Succession. There were only about 4,000 troops in Scotland. This created an opportunity for the Jacobites, who captured Perth, Coatbridge and Edinburgh. Charles’s supporters proclaimed him King James VIII and took control of Holyrood Palace.
Charles, flush with success, wrote to France pleading for a prompt invasion of England. The French sent some weapons and funds, and assurances that they would invade by the end of the year – but that was still some months away. Charles’s highland supporters began to drift home to their farms, and his efforts to raise a local regiment proved fruitless. Charles was nonetheless confident that he would attract supporters in England, and with 6,000 men he proceeded to march south on 3 November.
The government, meanwhile, had recalled troops from the continent and was mobilising its army against Charles. The Jacobite force was shrinking, as deserters slipped away and English supporters chose to lie low. The French were however beginning to act. At the end of November around 800 French troops arrived in Scotland and a French invasion fleet was assembled at Dunkirk.
The Jacobites took Derby, in the Midlands, on 4 December. Despite Charles’s optimism that he could take London, the promised English support had not materialised and the army was closing in. Charles’s generals insisted on a retreat to Scotland. The French responded by cancelling their planned invasion.
By Christmas the Jacobites had reached Glasgow, and on 3 January they marched on Stirling. Reinforcements joined them from the north, bringing the Jacobite army to about 9,000 men. On 17 January they defeated the British army at the Battle of Falkirk. The Jacobite forces continued north, but were losing men. The Jacobite rising was finally crushed on 16 April 1746 at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness. The Highland sword charge was mown down by the cannons and muskets of the government forces under the Duke of Cumberland. Charles abandoned his army and fled to the Isle of Skye disguised as a lady's maid, and from there to France. Cumberland dealt brutally with the rebels, instructing his troops to kill all the wounded left behind on the battlefield.
A 'pacification' of the Highlands followed. All those believed to be rebels were killed, including non-combatants. 'Rebellious' settlements were burned and livestock was confiscated on a large scale. Estates were forfeited, the clan system dismantled, and weaponry, plaid and pipes were outlawed.