Sunday, 10 July 2011

Respectability and the middle classes

The middle-class  search was for security, comfort and peace of mind and above all for that social acceptance and approval denoted by respectability.[1] 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.[2]

Being respectable essentially meant the maintaining of a reputable facade and encouraged all the hypocrisies fastened on by contemporary social commentators and novelists. Historians will never conclusively settle the argument about ‘Victorian hypocrisy’.

The rise of the bourgeoisie or middle-classes has often been used in ways that imply a reference to the country’s dominant group.[3] It is important to consider the relative power of the aristocracy and the emergent bourgeoisie. W.D. Rubinstein[4] used two major sources of extensive quantitative data to analyse the relative wealth of different groups of property owners: the value of individual property at death as recorded in probate calendars and assessments of incomes in different districts made by the Inland Revenue for the purposes of taxation.[5] Each of these measures is subject to some technical qualifications for, even before the imposition of heavy death duties on inherited wealth in the twentieth century the rich still had reasons to dispose of some of their property before death. Tax assessments of the living promise a solution to this problem but the measurement of income by area of residence is likely to undervalue the importance of capital holdings in other districts. Despite criticisms, a clear picture emerges from his data. First, the wealth of landowners was predominant for longer than many historians have assumed. Secondly, among the increasingly important non-landed wealth-holder, industrial employers came third behind bankers and merchants with only 30-40% of non-landed fortunes at their mid-nineteenth century peak.[6]

Until the 1880s, over half of the very wealthiest still had the bulk of their property in land.[7] Even when income from rents began to fall from the 1870s, large landowners were able to increase their incomes from coal and mineral royalties and from urban rents, while landowners of all sizes were able to supplement their incomes by diversifying into commercial and financial activities in the City of London, then experiencing rapid growth because of its emergence as the major service centre for the world economy. As a result, there was a marked concentration of non-landed wealth in London, particularly the City and this was to be found at the level of the middle-classes as well as the very rich.[8] Within the industrial regions much the same pattern is repeated: centres of commerce like Liverpool contained the highest general levels of wealth and even in a city like Manchester only one out of six recorded millionaires was a cotton manufacturer, the others were bankers and merchants.[9]

The growth of manufacturing employment and of the wealth of employers in the northern industries was important but their fortunes were only impressive a small town level. [10] Their patronage of the Arts drew positive comments, as, for example, in 1857

The taste of the middle classes, then, for modern pictures is a wholesome fact­ – good for painters, good for art, good for honesty and truth, which is the cause of all true art.[11]

This was partly the result of the limited extent of the ambitions of prosperous family-based firms, as well as of the greater uncertainty and lower rate of return from productive activity in comparison with landownership and finance and it was closely connected with manufacturers’ general avoidance of heavy fixed investment in plant and equipment. Even in their own regions, manufacturers were still overshadowed by the landowning classes.


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

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

[3] There is less literature on the middle-classes in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century than for the labouring population. Ibid, James, Lawrence, The Middle-class: A History, is an exhaustive study. Bradley, I., The English Middle-classes are Alive and Kicking, (Collins), 1982 takes a longer perspective but contains a few pages of assistance.   Read, D., The English Provinces c.1760-1960: a study in influence, (Edward Arnold), 1964 is a tentative attempt to explore provincial society where the middle-classes were at their strongest. See also, Trainor, Richard H., ‘The middle class’, in ibid, Daunton, Martin J., (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 3: 1840-1950, pp. 673-713.

[4] Rubinstein, W.D., Men of Property: The Very Wealth in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Croom Helm), 1981, Elites and the Wealthy in Modern British History, (Methuen), 1987 and Wealth and Inequality in Britain, (Faber), 1988 provide valuable analyses of wealth-holding, point to the relatively low standing of manufacturers and argue that few businessmen brought landed estates and that the aristocracy was a closed elite. See also, Rubinstein, William D., ‘Wealth making in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a response’, Business History, Vol. 42, (2000), pp. 141-154 and Nicholas, Tom, ‘Wealth making in the nineteenth and early twentieth century: the Rubinstein hypothesis revisited’, Business History, Vol. 42, (2000), pp. 155-168.

[5] Ibid, Rubinstein, W.D., Men of Property: The Very Wealth in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, pp. 9-26 considers the methodological problems in studying the wealthy.

[6] Nicholas, Tom, ‘Wealth making in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain: industry v. commerce and finance’, Business History, Vol. 41, (1999), pp. 16-36.

[7] Berghoff, Hartmut, ‘British businessmen as wealth-holders, 1870-1914: a closer look’, Business History, Vol. 33, (1991), pp. 222-240.

[8] Green, David R., ‘To do the right thing: gender, wealth, inheritance and the London middle class’, in Laurence, Anne, Maltby, Josephine and Rutterford, Janette, (eds.), Women and their money, 1700-1950: essays on women and finance, (Routledge), 2009, pp. 133-150, Rubinstein, William D., ‘The role of London in Britain’s wealth structure, 1809-99: further evidence’, in Stobart, Jon and Owens, Alastair, (eds.), Urban fortunes: property and inheritance in the town, 1700-1900, (Ashgate), 2000, pp. 131-152.

[9] Ibid, Stobart, Jon and Owens, Alastair, (eds.), Urban fortunes: property and inheritance in the town, 1700-1900, highlights the importance of property and inheritance in shaping social, cultural, economic and political structures and interactions within and between towns and cities.

[10] Morris, R.J., ‘The middle class and the property cycle during the industrial revolution’, in Smout, Christopher, (ed.), The search for wealth and stability: essays in economic and social history presented to M.W. Flinn, (Macmillan), 1979, pp. 91-113, Class, sect and party: the making of the British middle class, Leeds, 1820-1850, (Manchester University Press), 1990 and Men, women and property in England 1780-1870, (Cambridge University Press), 2005 consider Leeds as an example.

[11] A handbook to the gallery of British paintings in the Art treasures exhibition, a repr. of notices orig. publ. in ‘The Manchester guardian’: Being a Reprint of Critical Notices Originally Published in The Manchester Guardian, (Manchester art treasures exhibition), 1857, p. 14.

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