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ClassicsOnline Home » MARSHALL: Our Island Story, Vol. 3 (Unabridged)
Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall is an Edwardian history book for younger listeners (aged six–twelve) which tells the story of England, concluding with the reign of Queen Victoria. Antonia Fraser and many other current historians declare that it was this book that opened the delights of history for them. It fell from fashion in the 1960s, but its recent re-release in hardback has seen it become a publishing surprise in the UK, with sales of some 75,000 copies in a few months. Now, Naxos AudioBooks releases it unabridged in three volumes released in March 2006, April 2006 and May 2006, divided into three clear periods of history. Though slightly edited to take account of historical changes and attitudes, it is presented unabridged.
Our Island Story Volume 3
from James I and Guy Fawkes to Queen Victoria
When James VI of Scotland became James I of
England in 1603, and the reign of the Stuart
family began, social change began to happen
more rapidly and radically than before.
Religion was still a most important issue
for many people. In 1611, a new translation of
the Bible was published. It came to be known
as both the King James Bible (because it was
published in his reign) and the Authorised
Version. Some 50 years before, men such as
William Tyndale were burnt for translating the
Bible into English, but at last it was accepted
that people should be able to read it in their
Many communities began to take their
religious purpose into their own hands. In
1620 a Puritan community, feeling that it
could not practise its religion freely, left
England and sailed to America to set up a new
home there. These people wanted to live by
their own rules, not religious or social rules
imposed by tradition, or by others. It
demonstrated the strength of feeling within
the Puritan movement in England.
At the same time, men were looking at
the natural world around them with new eyes. Some looked inwards, into their own bodies.
In 1628 a physician, Sir William Harvey
(1578–1657), discovered the circulation of the
blood—the way in which the blood travels
around the body. He concluded this in
considerable detail even though he had no
microscopes at the time to confirm it; in fact it
wasn’t proven for another two centuries!
Others looked outwards. In 1664 (after
Charles I had been beheaded, the Civil War
had been won by Oliver Cromwell and the
Roundheads, and Charles II had been restored
to the throne) a young man was sitting in a
garden and, as the story goes, an apple fell on
his head. Suddenly, he realised the principle of
gravitation. His name was Isaac Newton
(1642–1727) and he was just 22 years old.
Between 1664 and 1666, while the plague
was raging throughout England, and London
suffered its Great Fire, he thought about
gravitation, mathematics, and the fact that
white light actually consists of all colours of
the spectrum. His discoveries helped to show
what our natural world was really like.
In the generations that followed, more
discoveries were made about biology and physics. In 1821 Michael Faraday
(1791–1867), the brilliant son of a blacksmith,
experimented with electromagnetism and
developed an electric motor. Ten years later, in
1831, he developed the dynamo.
At the same time, Charles Darwin
(1809–1882) was sailing around the world on
The Beagle, carefully cataloguing all that he
saw among the flora and fauna of the islands
he visited, especially the Galapagos Islands.
This was to lead to his major book The Origin
of the Species, which presented the theory of
evolution for the first time in a scientific
manner. The concept of all human life evolving
from tiny organisms shocked the Western
world, rooted as it still was in the Book of
Genesis and the garden of Eden.
So, while kings and queens came to the
throne, ruled and died, and men and women
fought for social freedoms and rights,
individuals were pushing science and
invention forward in a way that was literally to
transform the landscape of England and the
lives of her inhabitants.
In the late 18th century, the Industrial
Revolution began. With the harnessing of
power and development of mechanics, life
under the Hanoverians became totally
different. George II had been on the throne for
nine years when James Watt (1736–1819) was born in Scotland, the son of a merchant. Watt
proved an ingenious engineer. He started
building canals—for canals were being dug all
over England, providing the means for a slow
but smooth method of transport which was
far more reliable than travelling on the muddy,
At the time, there were some basic steam
engines which drained water from mines.
Watt was asked to repair a Newcomen steam
engine and decided that he could actually
make it much better and more efficient. His
further developments made the steam engine
work so well that some factory owners
realised it could be used to drive machinery—in textile factories, for example. This ushered in
a new age of powered manufacturing, and,
along with other developments, sparked the
Other inventions during the reign of
George III advanced the manufacture of
textiles. Until the start of the 18th century, all
cloth had to be woven, sewn or stitched by
hand. Then, an accident in the home of a
Lancashire weaver, James Hargreaves
(1720–1778), changed all that. His young
daughter Jenny knocked over the family
spinning wheel by mistake, and James saw the
wheel still spinning on its own. He realised
that one wheel spinning could drive a lot of spindles! It was a flash of inspiration.
In 1764 he built a machine in which eight
spindles driven by one wheel could all spin
thread, instead of one spindle at a time. He
called it the ‘Spinning Jenny’, after his
daughter. It was a basic design, and he quickly
improved it so that one wheel could drive
eighty spindles. The thread produced wasn’t
of very high quality, but good enough for
Eleven years later, Samuel Crompton
(1753–1827), son of a small farmer in
Lancashire, took the Spinning Jenny further.
His development was called the Spinning Mule
and produced better-quality thread. What’s
more, he was able to link it up to a Watt steam
engine and mechanise it.
While this produced cheaper goods, it
was not without implications. Many workers
were worried that mechanisation would rid
them of their jobs, and in many cases it did.
Furthermore, the working conditions of most
of the factories were terrible, with not only
men but women and children forced to work
long, hard, dangerous hours. There were
many industrial injuries. It was a far cry from
the slow, predictable but healthier life working
on the land.
The countryside was also being scarred by
the Industrial Revolution. Since coal was needed more than ever before as fuel to drive
the steam engines, mines were producing ugly
slag-heaps; and factories and industrial waste
were blackening the landscape. The poet
William Blake warned of this with phrases
such as ‘dark satanic mills’.
But progress couldn’t be halted.
With all these goods being made all
around the country, efficient transport became
more important than ever before. Not since
the time of the Romans did England have a
properly paved road system. Coaches and
wagons had to put up with poorly maintained
roads which were subject to the whims of the
weather, making the surface wet and muddy
or cracked, dry and full of potholes.
Thomas Telford (1757–1834) was the son
of a Scottish shepherd. He built canals, bridges
and docks—and also more than 1,000 miles of
improved road in his lifetime. But it was John
Macadam (1756–1836) who introduced a
new construction of roads. He laid a
foundation of large stones—in fact, a mixture
of crushed stone and gravel—and gave it a
camber (an arched shape) so that the water
would run off. This was a vast improvement
for the horse and coach, which was the
mainstay of everyday transport.
This was until the third strand of transport
happened: the train. If the steam engine could drive a Spinning Mule, it could drive wheels…
George Stephenson (1781–1848) started life
by herding cows. When he was 18, he went to
evening classes to learn to read and write. He
was deeply interested in machines. He began
working as a colliery engineman, and on
Saturdays he would take apart Watt and
Newcomen steam engines to see how they
He persuaded his colliery manager to see
if he could develop a steam engine that would
work—as he knew others were doing. By
1814—the year before the Battle of Waterloo—Stephenson had made a steam engine that
he called the Blutcher, which carried 30 tons
up a hill at four miles per hour.
He made more improvements and was
helped by other developments happening at
the same time. He realised that railroads
would have to be made fairly flat, though this
was a challenge of its own as England was not
flat! It was necessary to build bridges, cuttings,
embankments…and eventually tunnels. He
discovered someone else who was making
better cast-iron rails, and (though it cost him
quite a lot of money) he decided to use those.
By this time Stephenson was working on
a project to build a railway running the 22
miles between two collieries, at Stockton and
Darlington: the Stockton and Darlington Railway. On 27 September 1825, the railway
was opened. An engine called Locomotion
pulled no fewer than 36 wagons filled with
sacks of coal and flour, and at one point
reached a speed of 15 mph!
Four years later, Stephenson produced his
Rocket, which won a competition to be the
engine for the Liverpool and Manchester
company. The opening of the railway was in
1830 and attended by the Duke of
Wellington. However, it was marred by an
accident when a government minister was
knocked down and killed by a locomotive
which he didn’t see coming.
Soon, Stephenson was producing
locomotives that travelled at nearly 30 mph;
and train lines began criss-crossing England.
At the same time, the engineering genius
of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859)
was beginning to make its impact. In 1833 he
became chief engineer of the Great Western
Railway, which ran from London to Bristol. His
viaducts, bridges, tunnels, and the station in
Bristol itself made his name.
His imagination and daring knew no
bounds. He built the longest steamship, the
Great Western, which took passengers to New
York in just 15 days. It crossed the Atlantic 60
times over the next eight years.
Then came the SS Great Britain, which was the first ship to have an iron hull. It was a
remarkable piece of engineering. This was the
first ship to be powered by a screw, which
could be lifted so that the vessel could revert
to a sailing ship when the wind was right. This
extraordinary invention saved a lot of coal. The
ship made numerous journeys to Australia.
The face of England had changed, as had
the pace of life.
Gas lighting was now in use all over the
country. As early as 1792, William Murdock
(1754–1839) had managed to create a gas
light in his home using burning coal; and
Matthew Boult developed the concept further.
By 1814 the first gas street lamps were
erected, and by 1820 gas lights were common
in the foggy streets of London.
Many of the seemingly smaller inventions
and improvements also played a vital role.
James Nasmyth (1808–1890) was a Scottish
tool maker. Without his massive steel
hammers, the works of Brunel would not have
been possible. Nasmyth also built large pile
drivers and hydraulic punching machines.
Henry Bessemer (1813–1898) developed
new ways of producing higher-grade steel
from molten pig-iron. He used it to make train
rails, but also guns—for the military realised
very quickly how useful these inventions were
for the process of war and killing. Bessemer wasn’t the only inventor to be drawn into the
demands of war. Sir Joseph Whitworth
(1803–1887) used his inventiveness to design
rifles and field guns.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901,
England and the world were facing an even
faster rate of social change. The very concept
of change was becoming in-built into society.
This was quite unlike the time of James I,
when, generally, society wanted and expected
stability, and only a few far-sighted men
realised that individuals could be free and
more in charge of their own destiny. In the
time of James I, if you were born a shepherd,
the likelihood was that you would die a
shepherd. But 300 years later, this was not so.
If James I wanted to travel from London to
Canterbury, it would have taken him about
the same time as it took Chaucer with his
pilgrims, 200 years earlier. By 1900 the time,
by train, was cut to a little over an hour—scarcely time for the first of Chaucer’s tales,
told by The Knight, to be completed.
Notes by Nicolas Soames
James I of England and VI of Scotland reigned 58 years, 36 as King of Scotland
only, from 1567 to 1603, and 22 as King of Great Britain and Ireland, from
1603 to 1625 A.D.
Charles I reigned 24 years, from 1625 to 1649 A.D.
The Commonwealth lasted 11 years, from 1649 to 1660 A.D.
Charles II reigned 25 years, from 1660 to 1685 A.D.
James II of England, VII of Scotland, reigned 3 years, from 1685 to 1688 A.D.
Mary II and William III reigned together for 5 years, from 1689 to 1694 A.D.
William III reigned alone for 8 years, from 1694 to 1702 A.D.
Anne reigned 12 years, from 1702 to 1714 A.D.
George I reigned 13 years, from 1714 to 1727 A.D.
George II reigned 33 years, from 1727 to 1760 A.D.
George III reigned 60 years from 1760 to 1820 A.D.
George IV reigned 10 years, from 1820 to 1830 A.D.
William IV reigned 7 years, from 1830 to 1837 A.D.
Victoria reigned 68 years, from 1837 to 1901 A.D.
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MARSHALL: Our Island Story, Vol. 3 (Unabridged)