Saturday, 23 July 2011

Why did the professions expand after 1800?

The development of a substantial and powerful professional group within the middle-classes gathered considerable pace in the later Victorian period.[1] The growth and maturation of the world’s first modern capitalist economy played an important role in this process and the expansion 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% increase to 1901. Britain had an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population. It 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. Increasingly population was concentrated in urban settings. In 1841, 48% of the population of England and Wales lived in settlements of 2,500 people or more; by 1871, this had risen to 65% and by 1901, 78%. There was also diversification of the industrial structure with an increased emphasis on the service sectors whose share of the national income rose from 44% in 1841 to 54% 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%: from 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 in religion, law, medicine and education[2], but also those who helped to ‘professionalise’ other occupations connected with the demands of the post-industrial world such 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’[3], temporarily ignored in the early stages of the industrial revolution as the aristocratic, entrepreneurial and working-class ideals vied for supremacy. This neglected group nevertheless benefited from the expanded opportunities provided by industrialisation and by the expansion of education.[4]

By 1850, certain occupations had already acquired a fairly high social status through their control of a particular area of knowledge and expertise combined with a license to use this knowledge and expertise. The activities of a ‘profession’ were controlled and regulated by the profession itself that sought a degree of monopoly power via restrictive practices. 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. [5]

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 considerable competition for professional status as emerging occupations tried to join their more established colleagues.

The main source for defining professional status is the decennial census of population. It exhibited numerous adjustments to the occupation classification reflecting both structural changes in the economy and shifting contemporary perceptions of what constituted a ‘professional’. In 1851, for example, the ‘professional class’ 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. During 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% across the period. The professional elements in society increased from about 2.5% in 1861 to 4.0% in 1901 as a percentage of the occupied population.

There was considerable variation in the growth rates of the several occupations. Between 1861 and 1901, the growth in the established professions was modest. Numbers in religion, law and medicine rose by 30-60%, compared to an overall increase in population of 61% and an increase of 170% 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[6] and the Dentists Act 1878[7]; 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 growth of most professional occupations was more modest but two occupations experienced considerable growth. Most of the increase in the numbers of physicians and surgeons were concentrated after 1881 while acting continued to exhibit above-average growth, its 174% increase between 1881 and 1901 receiving special attention in the 1901 Census Report. Employment opportunities for women remained limited in the major professions especially in the more prestigious posts. 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.

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 but this built on critical earlier decisions. The establishment of the Law Society occurred in the 1830s, [8] the creation of the Institution of Civil Engineers[9] 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[10] in 1856. After 1860, earlier advances were strengthened and local and provincial bodies combined to form national associations. Royal charters were conferred on existing institutions and other elements of enhanced status were evident in statutory recognition, regulation and privilege.





Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873

BMA 1856

Revised Code 1862

Solicitors Act 1888

Medical Act 1858

Education Act 1870

Bar Council 1894

Dentists Act 1878

National Union of Elementary Teachers 1870

London Law School 1903

Medical Act 1886

Oxbridge reforms 1880-1883


British Nurses’ Association 1887



Midwives Act 1902





Institution of Naval Architects 1860

Society of Telegraph Engineers 1871

Institute of Surveyors 1868

Iron & Steel Institute 1869

Incorporation Society of Accountants and Auditors 1885

Royal Charter 1881

Institute of Chartered Accountants of England & Wales 1880



Institution of Mining Engineers 1889


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.[11] Their association, the ‘Incorporated Law Society’ was entrusted with registration in 1843, given a new charter in 1845 and 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 77,000 by 1901 and the number of practising solicitors rose by 60% over the same period to 16,300. 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 1,700 in 1860 to 23,000 in 1900.

There were several common features of the development of professional activities of this period. First, all sought to raise their 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, professional activities, whether stimulated by internal factors such as new knowledge, or by external changes like industrial growth, urbanisation and the railways, were 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 backward and forward: backward since the professions failed to shake off the trappings of aristocratic values; forward in encouraging a greater degree of government intervention in the economy, the hallmark of the modern twentieth century state.

[1] Corfield, P., Power and the professions in Britain, 1700-1850, (Routledge), 1995 provides context. Reader, W.J., Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Nineteenth-Century England, (Basic Books), 1966 is still the best short introduction to the subject but needs to be read in relation to Gourvish, T.R., ‘The Rise of the Professions’ in ibid, Gourvish, T.R. and O’Day, Alan, (eds.), Later Victorian Britain 1867-1900, pp. 13-36.

[2] 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’.

[3] Ibid, Perkin, Harold, The Rise of Professional Society, p. xxii.

[4] See, Schwarz, Leonard D., ‘Professions, elites, and universities in England, 1870-1970’, Historical Journal, Vol. 47, (2004), pp. 941-962.

[5] ‘Remarks on the Industrial Statistics of 1861’, Return on Poor Rates and Pauperism, July 1864.

[6] Roberts, M.J.D., ‘The Politics of Professionalization: MPs, Medical Men, and the 1858 Medical Act’, Medical History, Vol. 53, (2009), pp. 37-56. See also, Ibid, Lawrence, Christopher, Medicine in the Making of Modern Britain 1700-1920, is good on the development of medical profession.

[7] Campbell, J.M., ‘A brief survey of British dentistry: Charles Allen - Dentists’ Act, 1878’, British Dental Journal, Vol. 52, (1950), pp. 175-181.

[8] Sugarman, David, A brief history of the Law Society, (Law Society), 1995.

[9] Pullin, John, Progress through mechanical engineering: the first 150 years of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, (Quiller), 1997. See also, Reader, W.J., History of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1871-1971, based on research by Rachel Lawrence, Sheila Nemet and Geoffrey Tweedale, (Peregrinus on behalf of the Institution of Electrical Engineers), 1987 and Buchanan, R.A., ‘Institutional proliferation in the British engineering profession, 1847-1914’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 42-60.

[10] Little, E.M., History of the British Medical Association 1832-1932, (BMA), 1932, republished, 1984, Pyke-Lees, Walter, Centenary of the General Medical Council, 1858-1958: the history and present work of the Council, (General Medical Council), 1958 and Oswald, Arthur, The Royal College of Surgeons of England, (Country Life), 1962.

[11] Christian, E.B.V., A short history of solicitors, (Reeves & Turner), 1896 and Garrard, J.A., and Parrott, Vivienne, ‘Craft, professional and middle-class identity: solicitors and gas engineers, c.1850-1914’, in Kidd, Alan J. and Nicholls, David, (eds.), The making of the British middle class? Studies of regional and cultural diversity since the eighteenth century, (Sutton), 1996, pp. 148-168.

1 comment:

Alastair Ross said...

A very good post. I am currently writing a book on 'Innovation in professional services' and would like to reference this post as background to professional service development. Of course I would give you full acknowledgement. Would you be agreeable to this?

You can contact me via the enquiry page at I have not left my email address here as I am not sure if this post will be shown publicly. Thanks for your help. Yours sincerely, Alastair Ross