Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Who were gentlemen in the nineteenth century?

The involvement of landowners on boards of manufacturing and commercial companies was complemented by the continuing movement of industrial and commercial wealth into land and an increase in intermarriage between the classes. 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. Later in the century industrialists such as Tennant, Armstrong, Coats and Wills bought into land. This can be explained by the continued status land brought since alternative and more profitable investment outlets were available. How typical these industrial magnates were is questionable since entry into the landed elite remained remarkably restricted. Most sons of manufacturers inherited the family firm not a country mansion.[1]

The cultural blending of the privileged social classes was marked by a reassertion of the status of the ‘gentleman’ with its associated life-style.[2] Tocqueville had noted this process in the 1850s

...if we follow the mutation of time and place of the English word ‘gentleman...we find its connotation being steadily widened in England as the classes draw nearer to each other and intermingle. In each successive century we find it being applied to men a little lower in the social scale...[3]

What characterised a ‘gentleman’ was instinctively known and defined though their very indefinability.[4] This inherently vague notion had long marked a fundamental status divide in society and, as the number of manufacturers and merchants increased so it took increasing significance in social control. The relatively small size of the peerage compared 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 The fact that the status could be given or withdrawn without justification by influential social circles made it a subtle and effective mechanism of social control.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. 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.[5]

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 was the essential entrĂ© into Society and the needs of the newcomers were met by the publication of manuals of instruction and by Certificates of Presentation.[6] 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 forged a cultural unity between the landed classes and the newcomers. The educational changes initiated by Thomas Arnold at Rugby were intended to produce ‘Christian Gentlemen’, a blend of the traditional notion of the gentleman with the 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. 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 reinforced the benefits of a public school education. By the 1870s, the route to top positions via public school and Oxbridge had been established.

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 who had a corresponding obligation to defer to the ‘natural’ superiority of the gentleman. This marked a restoration of the ‘bonds of dependency’ that had existed in the eighteenth century but within an industrial and urban context. Deferential behaviour was expected of subordinates as a sign of the legitimacy of the prevailing patterns of inequality. 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. In some respects, the ethos articulated by public schools represented a balance between the rationalised organisation of economic change and traditional power, a compromise between landed and entrepreneurial ideals.

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.[7] A.J.P. Taylor explained Britain’s decline

The simplest answer, which remains true to the present day, was the public schools. They taught the classics when they should have been teaching sciences.[8]

This view that ‘gentlemanly’ culture was privileged over science and technology and that middle-class entrepreneurship was diluted by aping the values and lifestyle of landed society is at the heart of this interpretation of decline. 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. In fact, the attendance by the children of businessmen at public schools did not produce a drift from business life. Many manufacturers saw the creation of a successful family business as the first step in a longer-term strategy of establishing a landed family. Once they had accumulated sufficient wealth, successful businessmen would become ‘gentlemen’, with country seats, perhaps even a knighthood or peerage, seats in Parliament for themselves or their Oxbridge educated sons. They ceased to be ‘players’ in the entrepreneurial field and became ‘gentlemen’. The major problem with this view is that the aristocracy had largely arisen from the world of business and had never rejected the idea of making money through capital investment and commerce was a good thing. Pre-modern values were entrenched in the new society, but there was nothing new about this and during the industrial revolution it was taken as a sign of successful entrepreneurialism. Some of the commercial elite certainly were ‘gentrified’ during the second half of the nineteenth century but they were primarily London financiers and bankers whose entrepreneurial performance remained confident well into the twentieth century.

The emphasis on Britain’s decline after 1870 had led historians to think in terms of who was responsible. As other countries industrialised, inevitably Britain’s share of global industrial production declined but the country remained highly competitive and dynamic. In 1913, Britain’s proportional share of global manufactured exports stood at 29.9% compared to Germany’s 26.5% and America’s 12.6% and London was the world’s financial centre. Compared to the rest of the world Britain remained an economic superpower. The cultural attack on entrepreneurial attitudes in late-Victorian Britain is far from convincing especially when Britain’s attitude to entrepreneurialism and business life was far less hostile than in the rest of Europe and there is little evidence that, despite the importance they attached to the classics, public schools were opposed to the teaching of science.[9]

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 distinction between three privileged classes that had been self-evident in the 1830s was far less clear by 1914. 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] Speck, W.A., A Concise History of Britain, 1707-1975, (Cambridge Univertsity Press), (1993), pp. 59-60.

[2] In this see, Mason, P., The English gentleman, (André Deutsch), 1982 and Raven, S.A.N., The English gentleman: an essay in attitudes, (A. Blond), 1961.

[3] Tocqueville, Alexis de, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, (Harper & Brothers), 1856, p. 108, (Doubleday), 1955, pp. 82-83.

[4] For the evasiveness of the Victorians in defining ‘gentleman’ see, Osborne, Hugh, ‘Hooked on Classics: Discourses of Allusion in the Mid-Victorian Novel’, in Ellis, Roger and Oakley-Brown, Liz, (eds.), Translation and nation: towards a cultural politics of Englishness, (Multilingula Matters), 2001, especially pp. 144-149.

[5] Davidoff, L., The Best Circles, (Croom Helm), 1973, p. 15.

[6] Ellenberger, N.W., ‘The transformation of London “society” at the end of Victoria’s reign: evidence from the court presentation records’, Albion, Vol. 22, (1990), pp. 633-653.

[7] Rubinstein, W.D., Capitalism, culture and decline in Britain 1750-1990, (Routledge), 1993, pp. 102-139 examines edication, the ‘gemtleman’ and British entrepreneurship. See also, ibid, Thomson, F.M.L., Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain 1780-1980, pp. 122-142.

[8] Taylor, A.J.P., Essays in English History, (Pelican), 1976, p. 37.

[9] Ibid, Rubinstein, W.D., Capitalism, culture and decline in Britain 1750-1990, p. 49.

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