Thursday, 31 July 2008

The middle-classes: who were they?

Though there are important differences in their approach, historians generally agree that the central features of modern British society were crystallised during the nineteenth century. Defining the beginning and the end of this process of change has proved difficult, but it would probably be generally accepted that the mid-nineteenth century marked some sort of turning-point as the new society became increasingly integrated into an effectively functioning whole and many of the conflicts that threatened its stability, especially between 1830 and 1850, seemed to have been successfully resolved.

The changing place of the middle-classes

It proved difficult for historians to establish a clear view of this change. They were often more concerned with establishing an appropriate emotional response to ‘Victorianism’. The emergence of a more detached perspective emerged in the 1960s when historians like Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Perkin began to use categories drawn from the various traditions of the social sciences to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the working-classes and to ask new questions about the broad processes of social change. The central assumption of this approach was that there had been a complete break in the nature of the social order in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Because of the trauma involved in such a fundamental transformation and because of the nature of the new social classes that it produced, it was necessary to construct a new set of social relations. The independent and dispersed small farmers and artisans of the eighteenth century had been replaced by a subordinate and concentrated factory proletariat. The traditional landed and paternalistic aristocracy had been replaced by a more or less ruthless industrial bourgeoisie. Given the increase in economic class conflict and the recurrent threat of mass popular revolt that resulted, it had therefore been necessary to introduce new methods of social control. As a result the history of the first half of the nineteenth century has been written largely in terms of the threat of dynamic social revolution, while that of the second half was written largely in terms of the success of social stabilisation.

These assumptions now seem rather simplistic and it now seems that it is more accurate to see the development of British society after 1830 in the following terms. There was a greater degree of continuity in the nature of the major social classes than has often been assumed. This view questions the existence of a major social crisis in the early nineteenth century that parallels the recent revisions of the notions of a dramatic ‘Industrial Revolution’. It is, however, misleading to point only to continuity: over these years Britain was transformed from a largely rural to a largely urban society within which levels of both population and of material consumption reached unprecedented heights. It would be equally misleading to ignore the serious stresses and strains that accompanied this transformation: above all as a result of the combined pressure of all groups within the urban population for new forms of freedom and self-government. However, much of the new wealth and new power was accumulated in the same old hands, above all those of the landlords and financiers, and much of the new productivity was achieved less by heavy investment in science-based technology and more by piecemeal innovation and the reorganisation of a largely skilled workforce.

This model calls into question the traditional assumptions about the role of the middle-classes in nineteenth century society. It asks historians to re-examine their view of the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie based on their growing economic wealth from the middle of the eighteenth century and their successful domination of social values by the middle of the nineteenth century. Both contemporaries and later historians consistently refer to non-landed property as the ‘middle-classes’ implying that, however wealthy and influential they were becoming in the nineteenth century, there still remained more powerful groups above them in the national hierarchy. Perhaps equally significantly, the standing of the highest income groups within the working-classes has often been indicated by referring to them as ‘labour aristocrats’.

The middle-classes and middle ‘classness’

Who were the ‘middle-classes’? George Kitson Clark rightly counselled caution when he pointed out that ‘Of course, the general expression ‘middle-class’ remains useful, as a name for a large section of society .... (but) it is necessary to remember that a belief in the importance and significance of the middle-class in the nineteenth century derives from contemporary opinion .... They do not always say clearly whom they have in mind, and since the possible variants are so great a modern writer should follow them with great caution....’ [1] The middle-classes can be distinguished from the aristocracy and gentry not so much by their income as by the necessity of earning a living, and at the bottom from the working-classes not by their higher income but by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by their educational investment in skills or expertise. Yet, as J.C.D. Clark commented of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the divide that was emerging was not the Marxist division between aristocracy and bourgeoisie but ‘a cultural one, between the patrician landowner, banker, lawyer, clergyman or merchant on the one hand and the plebeian tradesman and manufacturer on the other....’ [2]

There may have been considerable room for agreement between capital and labour in attacking the political monopoly of the aristocracy, an agreement that was frequently reinforced by shared local, political and religious loyalty. The alliance between capital and labour was, however, often fraught by fears of bourgeois dominance and by suspicion of ‘betrayal’.[3] Paradoxically it was often the aristocracy that provided legislative support for the working-classes against opposition from manufacturers and industrialists.

The middle-classes of the mid-nineteenth century were an extremely heterogeneous body embracing at one end bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £1,000 per year and at the other end small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of under £50. The middle-classes can be divided into two broad groupings. The upper middle-classes were dominated by the provincial elites, a small group of men and families controlling the growing industrial complex with merchant bankers and financiers as their London equivalent. London bankers and City merchants were among the wealthiest people in the country. Most of the largest fortunes, such as those of the Rothschilds, Morrisons, Barings or Sassoons, came from commerce or finance and not from manufacturing and industry. Factory owners were usually wealthy but not immensely wealthy. The upper middle-class was in fact divided into two fairly distinct groups: the financiers and merchants of London, and the manufacturers of the North and Midlands. The former were generally wealthier, of higher social status and closer to the landed elites than the industrialists. By 1880, and perhaps earlier, Britain was as much the Clearing House of the World as the Workshop of the World.

A lower middle-class emerged in the first half of the century and consisted of three main groups: first, smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, dealers, milliners, tailors, local brewers; secondly, the rapidly expanding ubiquitous ‘clerk’ in both business and government; and finally, the growing professionals schoolteachers, railway officials, an emergent managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. Middle-class ‘occupations’ grew from 6.5 per cent of the working population in 1851 to 7.8 per cent by 1871. Structural changes towards a larger tertiary or service sector in the late Victorian economy resulted in a growth in the number of clerical and administrative employees. Aware of their ‘caste’, they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers. Dorothy Marshall argues that ‘Some of these employments were lucrative, some poorly paid, but the men who engaged in them were united in the conviction that they were socially superior to the manual worker, however skilled. The struggling clerk, who earned less than the expert fine cotton spinner, underlined his superiority by his dress, his speech and his manners. These, and not his income, were what distinguished him from the working-class.’ [4] Little had changed when E.M. Forster wrote prosaically of England in 1910 in Howard’s End, of Leonard Bast a clerk, ‘The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it and at times people whom he knew had dropped in and counted no more. He knew that he was poor and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich....’ While sharing the aspirations and values of the class above them, the lower middle-class was under constant pressure to differentiate itself from the working-classes whose ways of life they rejected. There was an unresolved tension between the need to maintain the symbols of status and the constraints of economic reality.

There was an obsession with religious certainty, moral zeal and purity and respectability but above all keeping up appearances at all costs throughout the middle-classes and this led the children and grandchildren of the late Victorians to accuse them of hypocrisy. But this was not the only or perhaps the most abiding character trait of the middle-classes. Their search was for security, comfort and peace of mind and above all for that social acceptance and approval denoted by respectability.[5] These were, as J.F.C. Harrison says ‘....not perhaps very noble strivings, especially when pursued in a competitive and individualist spirit. Materialism in an undisguised form seldom appears very attractive.... (Yet) in retrospect the years 1890-1914 have come to seem like a golden age of the middle-classes.... It was a basically conservative civilisation, alternately complacent and fearful.... Yet it should not be forgotten that criticism of the middle-class was largely endogenous. The brilliant collection of writers, intellectuals, socialists and feminists who exposed and attacked bourgeois civilisation in the 1880s and 1890s were for the most part themselves raised within it.’ [6] Being respectable essentially meant the maintaining of a respectable front and of course encouraged all the duplicities and hypocrisies fastened on by contemporary social commentators, in fiction and out of it. Historians will never conclusively settle the argument about ‘Victorian hypocrisy’.


[1] G. Kitson Clark The Making of Victorian England, Methuen, 1965, page 96.

[2] J.C.D. Clark English Society 1688-1832, CUP, 1985, page 71; see also his The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, CUP, 1993.

[3] This can best be seen in the agitation between 1830 and 1832 that led to the Reform Act. Those sections of the working-class that had supported reform got little or nothing. This led to a powerful sense of betrayal that led logically into the demands of the Chartists for universal suffrage.

[4] D. Marshall Industrial England 1776-1851, Routledge, 1973, page 96.

[5] The briefest discussion of respectability can be found in G. Best Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875, Fontana, 1979, pp. 279-286.

[6] J.F.C. Harrison Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901, Fontana, 1991, pp. 65-66.

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