Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The middle-classes: The professions

The emergence of a substantial and powerful professional group within the middle-classes was a phenomenon that gathered considerable pace in the later Victorian period.[1] The emergence of a larger group of professional occupations was a function of more global developments in nineteenth century Britain. The growth and maturation of the world’s first modern capitalist economy: the growth in GNP was impressively high between 1841 and 1901. It more than doubled in the period to 1871 and, in spite of anxieties about Britain’s weakening competitive position it managed an 83 per cent increase to 1901. An increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population: the UK population grew by a third in the last three decades of the century, a higher growth rate than for 1841-1871 though here the rate was influenced by the Irish famine and its aftermath. Together with its concentration in urban settlements: in 1841 48 per cent of the population of England and Wales lived in settlements of 2500 people or more; by 1871 this had risen to 65 per cent and by 1901 78 per cent. The diversification of the industrial structure with an increased emphasis on the service sectors: the service sectors’ share of the national income rose from 44 per cent in 1841 to 54 per cent by 1901.

It was in the towns and cities that the middle-classes burgeoned. Those with incomes over £150 per year increased by about 170 per cent from around 307,000 in 1860-1861 to 833,000 in 1894-1895. From the ranks of this expanding middle-class came not only those who retained the non-industrial tasks of the traditional professional occupations -- religion, law, medicine and education (the civil service and armed forces may also be seen as part of this group but, equally, they may be seen as part of ‘government’) -- but also those who helped to ‘professionalise’ other occupations connected with the demands of the post-industrial world: accounting, surveying, civil and mechanical engineering and the emergence of what has been termed the ‘service class’. For Harold Perkin the professions constituted the ‘forgotten middle-class’, temporarily ignored in the early stages of the industrial revolution as the aristocratic, entrepreneurial and working-class ideals vied for supremacy. This neglected groups nevertheless benefited from the expanded opportunities provided by industrialisation.

What is a profession?

Sociologists have long been engaged in a length debate searching for a definition of the term ‘profession’ and the attributes of professional status. By 1850 certain occupations had acquired a fairly high social status by mastering a core of esoteric knowledge and offering it to society for financial reward. However, it was the notion of service to the community that was held to justify a privileged position of trust ‘This great class includes those persons who are rendering direct service to mankind and satisfying their intellectual, moral and devotional wants.’ [2]

A promise of integrity and codes of conduct, identified with the established professions of religion, law, medicine and education, differentiated ‘professional’ from ‘non-professional’ occupations, and in return the state permitted the professions to license and to regulate themselves. The late nineteenth century saw a considerable competition for professional status as emerging occupations tried to join their more established colleagues. In order to do so they had to combine an ideology of service with a mastery of a differentiated body of knowledge. It is possible from this discussion to suggest certain characteristics of a ‘profession’. It requires control of a particular area of knowledge and expertise combined with a license to use this knowledge and expertise. This is combined with an ideology of service to the community of society generally. The activities of a ‘profession’ are controlled and regulated by the profession itself that seeks a degree of monopoly power via restrictive practices. The professions used their control of knowledge and collective organisation to establish a mandate to define the parameters of the work to be performed.

Who were the professional groups in the late Victorian economy?

The counting of professional heads is as difficult as the task of defining professional status. The main source is the decennial census of population that exhibits numerous adjustments to the occupation classification. These reflected not only the structural changes in the economy but also shifting contemporary perceptions of what constituted a ‘professional’. This, for example, the ‘professional class’ in 1851 embraced not only those in the ‘learned professions’ plus ‘literature, art and science’ but also those engaged in government and defence. This classification included Victoria and the royal family as professionals but excluded accountants, architects and surveyors who were included on the list of industrial occupations. Taking the last forty years of the century numbers in this group in the United Kingdom rose from about 345,000 in 1861 to 515,000 in 1881 to 735,000 in 1901, an increase of 113 per cent across the period. Expressed as a percentage of the occupied population, the professional elements in society increased from about 2.5 per cent in 1861 to 4.0 per cent in 1901.

There are major problems of interpreting the available statistical data but it is possible to discern considerable variations in the growth rates of the several occupations. For 1861-1901, the growth in the established professions was modest. Numbers in religion, law and medicine rose by 30-60 per cent, compared to an overall increase in population of 61 per cent and an increase of 170 per cent in those with incomes over £150. However, some occupations exhibited much higher growth rates: dentistry established itself as a recognised activity after the Medical Act 1858 and the Dentists Act 1878; writing and journalism; music and entertainment, indicative of the expansion of leisure activities and their commercial exploitation in the late nineteenth century; teaching, stimulated by the expansion of both public and state schools; and the ‘industrial professions’ of architecture, engineering and surveying. After 1881, the expansion of most professional occupations was more modest. Two occupations experienced considerable growth. Most of the increase in the numbers of physicians and surgeons after 1861 were concentrated after 1881. Acting continued to exhibit above-average growth, its 174 per cent increase between 1881 and 1901 receiving special attention in the 1901 Census Report. Employment opportunities for women remained limited in the major professions and within them the more prestigious posts were meagre. In the main women took part in more subordinate activities and dominated three occupations, teaching, midwifery and nursing, where status was usually low: of the 230,000 teachers listed in 1901, 172,000 or three-quarters were women.

How did they emerge?

Between 1860 and 1900 there is clear evidence of the organising ability of these predominantly male professionalising occupations. New, protective organisations were established, and there was a considerable increase in educational and training activities. Many important landmarks, however, lay outside it: the establishment of the Law Society in the 1830s, the creation of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and a similar body for Mechanical Engineers in 1847, the appearance of the Institute of British Architects in 1834 and the British Medical Association in 1856. In the period after 1860 earlier advances were strengthened. Local and provincial bodies combined to form national associations; royal charters were conferred on existing institutions; and other elements of enhanced status were evidence in statutory recognition, regulation and privilege.

In law, the separation of barristers from the subordinate branch of solicitors and attorneys remained. Barristers took steps to defend restrictive practices through a Bar Committee of 1883, reorganised in 1894 as the Bar Council. Solicitors, who had obtained a monopoly of conveyancing in 1804, obtained more work with the creation of country courts in 1846. Their association, the ‘Incorporated Law Society’ was entrusted with registration in 1843, given a new charter in 1845, given the right to conduct its own examinations in 1877 and established its own Law School in London in 1903. The number of members of the Law Society increased fourfold to reach 77000 by 1901 and the number of practising solicitors rose by 60 per cent over the same period to 16,3000. The creation of the ‘industrial professions’ was, by contrast, emphatically a creation of the nineteenth century. Railways acted as a major stimulus encouraging change in engineering, accounting, surveying and architecture as well as in specialist branches of the law. Two notable organisations were established before 1860: the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and a similar body for Mechanical Engineers in 1847. In the period 1860-1900 a dozen more bodies were established, six in 1860-1873 and six more in 1889-1897. Membership of engineering institutions rose from about 1700 in 1860 to 23,000 in 1900.

There were several common features of the professionalising activities of this period. First, all had broadly similar aims to raise status, increase financial rewards and provide occupational security by means of differentiation, regulation and an emphasis on the gentlemanly virtues of education and middle-class morality. Secondly, both the transformation of the older professions and the emergence of newer branches were part of the general process of socio-political change in Britain with the middle-class striving for an idealised and organising image of itself. Thirdly, professionalising activities, whether stimulated by internal occupational factors like new knowledge, or by external changes like industrial growth, urbanisation and the railways, was a major element in the process by which middle-class elites established and protected their position in an industrial society. Finally, this involved both a separation from the working-classes and a power-sharing and therefore partial identification, with the old aristocratic order. The rise of the professions pointed both backwards and forwards: backwards in that professionalisation failed to shake off the trappings of aristocratic values; forwards in that it encouraged a greater degree of government intervention in the economy, the hallmark of the modern twentieth century state.


[1] W.J. Reader Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Nineteenth-Century England, 1966 is still the best short introduction to the subject but needs to be read in relation to T.R. Gourvish 'The Rise of the Professions' in T.R. Gourvish and Alan O’Day (eds.), Later Victorian Britain 1867-1900, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 13-36.

[2] 'Remarks on the Industrial Statistics of 1861', Return on Poor Rates and Pauperism, July 1864.

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