Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The aristocratic elite: Deference and decline

The involvement of landowners on boards of manufacturing and commercial companies was complemented by the continuing movement of industrial and commercial wealth into land. At the same time the extent of intermarriage between the classes increased. By 1830 London bankers and merchants such as Lloyd, Baring, Drummond and the Rothschilds, brewers such as Barclay, Hanbury and Whitbread had bought into land, as had wealthy lawyers. Entry into land through purchase or through marriage continued after 1830 at very much the same rate as in the previous century. It must be presumed that the main reason for this was the status land brought since alternative and more profitable investment outlets were available. Later in the century industrialists such as Tennant, Armstrong, Coats and Wills bought into land.

To be a gentleman

The movement of the privileged social classes towards one another was marked culturally by the emergence of the status of the ‘gentleman’ with its associated life-style. The notion of the gentleman had long marked a fundamental status divide in society and, as the number of manufacturers and merchants increased so this social status took on an increased significance in social control. The relatively small size of the peerage in relation to the large manufacturing and commercial classes meant that even the admission of their most wealthy representatives into the peerage could only operate as a mechanism of social control if the peerage continued to be associated with the more informal and flexible concept of the gentleman. Acceptance as a gentleman by those who were already recognised as gentlemen defined a person as someone who mattered socially and politically. The fact that the status could be accorded or withdrawn at will by influential social circles without having to be justified in terms of any explicit, formal criterion, made it a curiously subtle and effective mechanism of social control.

The life-style of the gentleman, therefore, had to be accommodated to the practices of the manufacturing and commercial classes. The round of dining and visiting in the great country houses, the meetings of the Quarter Sessions, and rural pursuits such as fox-hunting and racing were already integrated into the London-based ‘Season’ of activities in which all members of ‘Society’ participated. After 1830 this became increasingly more formalised and acquired a new authority over those who regarded themselves as gentlemen. In part this was a consequence of the need to accommodate the rise of wealthy men from outside the ranks of the landed classes. L. Davidoff is undoubtedly correct when she states that ‘Society can be seen as a system of quasi-kinship relationships that was use to "place" mobile individuals during the period of structural differentiation fostered by industrialisation and urbanisation.’[1]

In this period ‘Society’ was rapidly growing in size and directories listing the families of gentlemen found a growing market. In 1833 John Burke published the first edition of his genealogical directory of county families: initially called Burke’s Commoners, it was subsequently given the more acceptable title of Burke’s Landed Gentry. The 1833 volume listed 400 county families, the qualification for inclusion being possession of at least 2,000 acres of land. The 1906 volume had grown to 5,000 families, of whom 1,000 were of industrial background. Burke’s General Armory was published in various editions from 1842 and listed all those families claiming the right to bear heraldic arms. Most of the 60,000 families included in the definitive 1844 edition owned little or no land. Such were the changes that were occurring to Society.

Presentation at court was regarded as central to the life of a gentleman and his family. By 1850 it had become an essential entry into Society, and the needs of the newcomers to Society were met by the publication of manuals of instruction and by Certificates of Presentation. The London Season, together with such events as yachting at Cowes and grouse-shooting on the Scottish moors, were central features of the life-style of the gentleman. It was, however, the Victorian public school that was the most important institution in forging a cultural unity between the landed classes and the newcomers.

To be educated a gentleman

The educated revolution initiated by Thomas Arnold at Rugby was intended to produce ‘Christian Gentlemen’, an amalgam of the traditional notion of the gentleman with the romanticism and humanitarianism of evangelical Christianity. The public school reforms of the 1860s led to the formation of the ‘Headmasters’ Conference’ as the central forum through which the major schools could exert control and influence over the lesser schools. By the 1870s the public school to Oxbridge route to top positions had been established.

The rise of new men aspiring to social leadership, the expansion of the number of suitable posts in government service and the increasing use of competitive examinations for recruitment, all lent force to the benefits of a public school education. The moral and leadership training deemed necessary for a gentleman played a central role in mediating the relations between economic changes and the cultural and political order. The code of gentlemanly behaviour passed on through the public schools defined what was ‘done’ and what was ‘not done’. Its central assumption was that the gentleman had certain definite duties and obligations towards other members of society. The latter were regarded as having a corresponding obligation to defer to the ‘natural’ superiority of the gentleman. Deferential behaviour was expected of subordinates as a sign of the legitimacy of the prevailing patterns of inequality. The economic dependence of farmers and rural workers on the local gentleman provided a fertile ground for at least an outward show of deference. In the urban context force was the normal and frequent sanction of authority in the first half of the century, but the code of the gentleman was eagerly adopted by the rising class of manufacturers.

The public school ethos was, in part, a response to the reforms of recruitment and promotion in the civil service, the law and the army but it ran counter to the rationality, efficiency and functionality of trade and industry. The capitalist spirit was regarded as ungentlemanly in the extreme. Traditional gentlemanly virtues eschewed any rigorous application to instrumental matters. In some respects therefore the public schools came to represent the balance between rationalised organisation and traditional power, a compromise between landed and entrepreneurial ideals. The notion of the public school gentleman was an expression of the modus vivendi between the landed classes and the newcomers and, as such, it legitimised their expectations of deference from the middle stratum and the working-classes below them.

‘Amateurism’: a cause of decline?

The dominance of the values of the gentleman and the associated cult of amateurism has been cited in the context of the arguments about entrepreneurial decline after 1870. The constant flow of successful businessmen from the ungentlemanly field of trade and industry to the more acceptable fields of politics and the land is held to have resulted in a haemorrhage of talent. It is certainly true that many manufacturers had for a long time seen the creation of a successful family business as the first step in a longer-term strategy of establishing a landed family. Members of the rising manufacturing class found a set life-style waiting for them once they had accumulated sufficient wealth. The successful businessman would become a ‘gentleman’, doubtless with a country seat, perhaps even a knighthood or peerage, a seat in Parliament for himself or his Oxbridge educated son and a clear social role. He ceases to be a ‘player’ in the entrepreneurial field and became a ‘gentleman’. There was nothing new about this. During the industrial revolution it was taken as a sign of successful entrepreneurialism, so why historians have argued is the same process in the late nineteenth century taken as an explanation of entrepreneurial failure.

More likely as an explanation of entrepreneurial failure were the attempts by heads of family firms to keep control of their own firms. Given this situation, there were positive incentives not to grow: once a certain level of income had been achieved, maximum growth could be traded-off against the pursuit of leisure or a political career. It was for these reasons that family firms did not follow the path towards large-scale amalgamation and new technology. So long as satisfactory profits could be earned from old, perhaps obsolete plant, there was no incentive to risk investment in new technologies that would not yield significantly higher earnings.


Victorian society was characterised by the move towards unity among the privileged social classes, in terms of both class and status situations. But there was never complete integration. Landowners and the City may have come closer together but manufacturers and provincial merchants remained apart. By the 1870s autonomous and assertive industrial dynasties were firmly entrenched in areas such as Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff and Newcastle. It was at this provincial level that manufacturers and merchants came closer together. The three privileged classes could no longer be clearly distinguished from each other. Although each class was based round a particular kind of property, they entered into ever more extensive business and personal relationships with each other. Each class also included people who were not active participants in the control and use of property, but who drew their income from this and had family links with the core of their class. Such people were to be found in politics, the professions and the intelligentsia; and these occupations constituted major areas of overlap between the fringes of the three privileged classes.

[1] L. Davidoff The Best Circles, Croom Helm, 1973, page 15.

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