In this paper we argue that the kind of individualistic ethos Brown and Levinson's (1987) politeness model is accused of — and in particular its notion of (non-imposition) negative face — is not simply a reflection of British culture, but a reflection of British culture at a specific point in time. That point is the nineteenth century. Before then, the notion of an individual self separate from society and with its own hidden desires was not fully established. We argue that sociocultural developments, such as secularisation, the rise of Protestantism, social and geographical mobility, and the rise of individualism, created conditions in which the self became part of a new ideology where it was viewed as a property of the individual, and was associated with positive values such as self-help, self-control and self-respect. We also trace the history of conventional indirect requests, specifically can/could you X structures, the most frequent request structures used in British English today and, moreover, emblematic of British negative politeness. We show how such ability-oriented structures developed in the nineteenth century, and propose a tentative explanation as to why ability in particular was their focus.