Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The working-classes: An 'Aristocracy of Labour'

In 1870 George Potter, a prominent unionist and radical journalist wrote, ‘The working man belonging to the upper-class of his order is a member of the aristocracy of the working-classes. He is a man of some culture, is well read in politics and social history....His self respect is also well developed.’ [1] His view of the ‘aristocracy of the working-classes’, distinguished from other workers by their way of life, values and attitudes and seen as a moderating influence on the politics of popular protest, can be found scattered widely through contemporary accounts of the working-class in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.[2]

This raises important historiographical questions. How valid are these attempts to identify a distinct upper stratum within the working-class? How far did these divisions affect the militancy and class consciousness of the labour movement in this period? It is certainly misleading to discuss the working-class or, for that matter, any other class as though it was a uniform homogeneous social entity with a fixed and unchanging identity. This led historians to look more closely at the internal make-up of social classes, the role of different occupational groups and so on. All workers may have some similarities of experience arising from economic insecurity and subjection to their employers’ dictates, but the exact form of that experience varied with the varying direction and timing of economic change in different industries and regions. A coherent ‘working-class’ identity was created with difficulty, through cultural and political activities that could cut across differences. The debate about the labour aristocracy belongs to this framework. The concept suggests that divisions within the working-class were particularly marked and took particular forms after 1850. Eric Hobsbawm, in his influential essay first published in 1964, said that there was ‘a distinctive upper strata of the working-class, better paid, better treated and generally regarded as more ‘respectable’ and politically moderate than the mass of the proletariat.’ [3] The continuing discussion about the existence and composition of such strata is one theme of the debate about the labour aristocracy. The discussion is more complicated than a debate between supporters and opponents of the concept of labour aristocracy; its supporters are by no means agreed among themselves, and critics of the concept would certainly not all argue that divisions within the working-class did not exist or were not historically important.

Nineteenth century industry was very diverse in its levels of mechanisation, scale of operation, subdivision of processes and so on. ‘Traditional’ unmechanised production, largely unaffected by the processes of industrial change, continued to manufacture individual items for clients. Equally features of the ‘craft’ division of labour were reproduced in large-scale mechanised production. Economic differences within the working-class have therefore to be placed in the context of the social and technical organisation of work. The heavy dependence of key sectors of nineteenth century industry on skilled labour can be seen very clearly but does this provide a case for an aristocracy of labour?

Engineering is often regarded as central to the formation of a labour aristocracy. The expansion of the industry was certainly associated with the expansion of skilled employment, much of it highly paid. Skilled engineering workers had been under pressure in the 1840s culminating in the lock-out of 1852. Thereafter, however, the pace of technical change slackened, at least until the 1890s, and there was a spread of techniques from their narrow base in Lancashire and the West Riding. The following elements can be identified. The industry was heavily dependent on the skilled labour of turners and fitters. Management’s authority was limited by craft custom; foremen retained their trade affiliations, often belonging to the same craft unions, and were only slowly transformed into a distinct supervisory stratum. There were some attempts by ‘advanced’ employers to respond to new competitive challenges from the 1870s and introduce further technical change but these developments were more marked in some regions than others, and the entrenched position of apprentice-trained craftsmen remained intact in many engineering centres.

Building is often cited as a classic case of a ‘traditional’ sector growing to provide the infrastructure of an industrial-urban society. But, as in other sectors of Victorian industry, a focus on the absence of large-scale mechanisation can obscure important changes in the organisation of work and a resulting growth of specialisation and occupational subdivision. By 1900 wood-working and stone-cutting machines, new materials like concrete and steel and the acute depression were undermining craft controls. The piecemeal application of machines was typical of the changes occurring in labour-intensive crafts in the second half of the century, with effects on the pace of work, the versatility and initiative of skilled labour and the possibility of ‘dilution’. The position of building craftsmen depended on their ability to maintain trade boundaries in the face of these pressures.

A number of skilled trades were characterised, like building, by their relationship to an expanding urban market, the most skilled employment often being for the luxury or bespoke end of that market. There may not have been widespread mechanisation but this did not mean that there were no changes in methods of production. In printing the steam-powered press was a skill-intensive method and hand labour continued to dominate the typesetting process. In Edinburgh, a major centre of publishing, divisions emerged between the minority of compositors paid on time-rates and a larger group of less regularly employed men paid on piece-rates. In clothing and shoemaking, the process of casualisation was more marked, with a substantial sector of sweated labour working at home with no customary or trade union control of wages or conditions. Other urban crafts were more successful in retaining some control over the restructuring of the labour process, adapting to and partly shaping changes in the division of labour. Workers in such trades were often employed in very small units with rather limited application of machines or steam-power. This did not mean that they enjoyed a ‘traditional’ situation, unaffected by industrial change. Their security rested on their ability to control changes in the division of labour.

Cotton textiles were the first sector of industry to develop mechanised mass production and it remained the leading ‘factory’ industry throughout the century in its strongly localised centres in north-west England. The best-paid workers were the adult mule spinners, about a fifth of the total spinning labour force, who minded the machines and supervised the work of the semi-skilled piecers. Spinners were recruited from piecers and it was the regulation of this process that maintained the spinners’ position. Women were employed in the preparatory stage in the carding and blowing room. In weaving, that was sometimes integrated in the same plant as spinning but more often separate and localised to the northern part of Lancashire, more women were employed alongside men. The better-paid loom were generally allocated to men, creating a sex differential in wages. The structure of the labour force did not simply reflect the technical requirements of mechanised production. It was also shaped by the problems of supervision and control, the strategies of employers under given market conditions, the sexual division of labour and the bargaining power of groups of workers. In the greater economic stability of the mid-Victorian period the spinners, on the basis of their strategic role in production, were able to advance their economic position and establish tight controls over manning and recruitment of labour, excluding women and carefully regulating boys and men.

There is considerable diversity in the structure of Victorian industry. This poses difficulties for any attempt to define a common hierarchy of labour and to identify a potential labour aristocracy in its upper levels. At the heart of the problem is the meaning of ‘skill’. This can be seen from various perspectives. First, skill as ‘craft skill’ almost always meant adult men’s work and was not simply a matter of technical content but also conflict over the boundaries of skill. Skill was seen as a means of preventing ‘dilution’ either by using semi-skilled or unskilled labour or by using cheaper women. Secondly, skill as ‘control’ had two dimensions: ‘control’ over the induction process of apprenticeship into the appropriate skill and ‘control’ over the process of production within the workplace. Thirdly, ‘skill as ‘patriarchy’ through a sexual division of labour and the exclusion of women from skills was one means of policing the frontiers of craft skill. There was a tendency to regard any work performed by women as by definition unskilled and therefore requiring less payment regardless of the content of the particular job. Finally, ‘skill as monopoly’ where groups with traditions of craft organisation made the availability of special skills conditional on an employment monopoly over intrinsically less skilled operations. There is little doubt that within most manufacturing industries the work force was a labour hierarchy of varying degrees of skill and there were certainly important wage differentials between them. However, did those at the higher wage levels and with higher skill expertise and more regular employment form a separate and distinguishable group?

Who were the ‘Labour Aristocrats’? Were improvements in conditions restricted to a small upper stratum of 10 per cent of the working-classes? This may, or may not, be a critical issue but it does require some attempt to identify who this group were and what distinguished them from the remainder of the working-class. Hobsbawm, in his essay first published in 1954, mentions a number of criteria by which to distinguish members of the labour aristocracy: ‘First, the level and regularity of a worker’s earnings; second, his prospects of social security; third, his conditions of work including the way he was treated by foremen and masters; fourth, his relations with the social strata above and below him; fifth, his general conditions of living; lastly, his prospects of future advancement and those of his children.’ [4] His focus is on the persistence of craft methods in many sectors of British industry, the potential bargaining power this afforded to key groups of workers and the significance of ‘artisan’ cultures and modes of activity in the formation of the working-class.

The recent debate has, however, centred on issues of work organisation and especially the continuities and discontinuities of industrial development in the early and mid nineteenth centuries. While Hobsbawm concentrated on textile workers the labour aristocracy for writers like Foster are piece-workers in engineering, spinners in cotton and checkweightmen in mining. All these, he suggests, represent new forms of industrial authority emerging in the 1850s and acted very much as the agents of capital in supervising, ‘pace-setting’ and disciplining the rest of the workforce. Stedman Jones argues that the transition to a more stable industrial capitalism with an expanding sector of mechanised production involved the adaptation of all parts of the labour force to effective employer control of production. The traditional autonomy of craftsmen was destroyed, but divisions of skills were then re-created and maintained by groups with the necessary bargaining-power. The impact of capitalist development, especially in the nineteenth century, was not simply to destroy skills, but to create the basis for new forms of skilled labour within which craft methods and traditions could assert themselves. There were attempts to rationalise production by employers but these were hampered by lack of managerial technique and experience as well as by the strength of skilled labour. This gave ‘control’ to the skilled workers and there were few groups of skilled workers whose position did not involve control of some specialised technique indispensable to their employers and that control was indeed the basis for their bargaining power.

This debate on the labour aristocracy allows four issues to be addressed. First, was the labour aristocracy simply a perpetuation of the earlier artisan traditions or was it a consequence of the formation of new skilled groupings within the working-class? This is a question of continuity or discontinuity. The earliest uses of the term ‘aristocracy of labour’ in fact referred to hierarchies within certain crafts, like coach-making, in the 1830s and 1840s and the labour aristocracy described in the third quarter of the century may therefore represent the expansion and flourishing of these groups under the favourable conditions of the mid-Victorian boom. Secondly, though there can be no doubt of the cultural importance of traditions drawn from artisan cultures of the 1830s and earlier or of the economic importance of apprenticed skills drawn from these older trades, there were newer trades, especially associated with engineering, shipbuilding and the rapid expansion of capital goods generally that altered the occupational make-up of the working-classes. Thirdly, did the persistence of craft methods in the older trades indicate an absence of change and adaptation to change? In general terms, the answer is no. Some trades did manage to stabilise their position and consequently exerted some control over the processes of mechanisation. Those that failed to do this succumbed to technological unemployment or the casualisation of employment. Finally, the notion of a labour aristocracy is not simply an economic concept. Working-class behaviour and experience was not confined to the workplace and the basis for a cohesive upper stratum within the working-class can also be sought within local communities. Labour aristocracy was not simply about ‘control’ in the workplace but about culture and community, values and life-styles. Studies have shown that the formation of a labour aristocracy or ‘artisan elite’ drew together men from a range of trades within communities that set them apart from the less advantaged sections of the working-class. Even here there are problems and, like all attempts to identify labour aristocrats, this meets with problems of generalisation. There are considerable difficulties and major limitations in all the competing definitions of the aristocratic stratum. There were certainly wide differences within the working-class and there is considerable evidence of processes of subdivision within the working-class that may have been particularly intense under the conditions of the mid-Victorian boom and the uneven incidence of mechanisation. But whether either within the workplace or the broader concept of the community there was a clearly identifiable group of working-class ‘aristocrats’ is still unclear.

As even its critics recognise, the concept of labour aristocracy has had its value in drawing attention to differences within the working-class. It has helped historians to get beyond a view of the working-class as an homogeneous entity and encouraged them to investigate the experience and activity of different groups. One of the problems of the debate has been to characterise the working-class as consisting of a small elite sitting above the homogeneous mass of increasingly impoverished labour. This is self-evidently untenable. The working-class or working-classes throughout the nineteenth century was marked by its divisions and sub-divisions on the basis of levels of skill, wages, gender, levels of control and so on. This highlights the unsatisfactory nature of any simple division between aristocrats and plebeians, between skilled and unskilled labour or between men and women. Most workers found themselves on complex wage ladders with many steps along which they generally expected to move, in both directions, at different stages of their working lives.

Rather than continue to argue fruitlessly about alternative definitions of the labour aristocracy and whether or not such a social group existed, it may be more valuable to explore the following themes in greater detail. There is scope for investigation of technology, work organisation and production processes in different industries; examining the relationship of sexual divisions to occupational hierarchies; considering the problems of language and social imagery surrounding the working-class; and, investigating behaviour outside work and the whole pattern of working-class ‘respectability’. The debate on the labour aristocracy highlights the difficulty historians face when considering and achieving agreed conclusions about the structure of the working-class.


[1] The Reformer, 5 November 1870.

[2] Robert Gray The Aristocracy of Labour in Nineteenth-century Britain c.1850-1914, Macmillan, 1981 is an excellent summary of current research on the subject but needs to be read in conjunction with the relevant sections of Alastair J. Reid Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain 1850-1914, Macmillan, 1992.

[3] E.J. Hobsbawm Labouring Men, Weidenfeld, 1964 includes his well-known essay on the labour aristocracy and other pioneering studies of the nineteenth century working-class.

[4] Hobsbawm, op.cit., page 273.

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