All societies are, to some degree, stratified or divided into different social groups. These groups may be in competition with each other for social control or wealth. They may be functional, defined by their contribution to society as a whole. They may share common 'values', have a common 'national identity' or they may form part of a society in which different 'values' coexist with varying degrees of success or conflict. What was British society like in 1780?
The working population
The labouring population made up the bulk of society consisting of those who earned their wages largely through manual work. There were, however, important differences within the working population. People worked in rural or urban environments. Their employment was agricultural, manufacturing or in the growing service sector. Some were skilled, others semi-skilled or unskilled. They were male or female. Agricultural labourers formed a major part of the workforce in rural Britain. There was, however, a distinction between the low waged southern English counties where little alternative employment was available and the higher waged northern counties where farmers had to compete for labour with expanding urban manufacturing industries. Within rural communities there was an important hierarchy based upon levels of skills that paralleled levels of income. Bird-scarers, generally children, were at the base of the hierarchy while ploughmen were at the top. Only the better-educated shepherds had greater status.
The same hierarchy of skill existed in industrial Britain and the distinction between skilled and unskilled or general labourers was one of enduring importance. Artisans formed the 'aristocracy of labour', highly paid and relatively secure in traditional trades largely unchanged by the industrial revolution. They guarded their skills, developed through the process of apprenticeship, against 'dilution' by semi-skilled workers who were paid less. Skilled factory workers, like the fine-cotton spinners and weavers of Lancashire, benefited from new technology. Others like handloom weavers and framework knitters became redundant. The creation of new skills during the industrial revolution led to the gradual creation of new skilled elites: foremen, overseers, mechanics and technicians as well as managers. Semi-skilled and unskilled manual labour was more vulnerable to economic fluctuations and to unemployment or under-employment. Men were generally able to push women to the lower-paid margins of manufacturing. In the textile industries, for example, men dominated new technology like the self-acting spinning 'mule' perfected in the early 1820s. The 'sweated trades' or the growing demands for domestic servants, low skill, low pay, long hours, was the destination for many women.
The diversity of experience is at its starkest in the debate over whether working class standards of living rose or fell between the 1780s and 1840s. Some workers, like navvies, experienced rising wages while others, for example handloom weavers, saw their income decline. This should not be surprising. There were always winners and losers of economic change especially when new technology made particular skills redundant. Even within the same occupation wages varied. In the 1810s printers earned 12-19 shillings in Scotland, 18-22 shillings in northern England, 18-24 shillings in the south east and as much as 25 shillings in London. The difference between the skilled London artisan and a Scottish crofter was, in many respects, as great as that between a member of the aristocracy and a prosperous shopkeeper. Yet, both often shared a common sense of resentment and disillusion at the inequalities in society.
The middle classes
The middle classes were increasingly defined as a 'class' in the late eighteenth century. They were distinguished from the aristocratic elite by the need to earn a living and from the labouring population by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by educational investment in skills or expertise. As a class, they benefited from the changes in the economy and, though not exclusively urban, were increasingly found in the growing towns of the provinces. Their homogeneity as a class came from their growing acceptance of a common social and political ideology. This had three strands. First, evangelicalism, whether Anglican or Nonconformist, provided a firm religious foundation grounded in a 'call to seriousness'. This contrasted with the immoral behaviour of the aristocracy. It emphasised the virtues of hard work, plain and moral living, respectable family life and above all conscience. This converted middle class occupations like the law, medicine, the Church and the armed forces into 'callings' or vocations. Secondly, the ideas of Jeremy Bentham allowed attacks on the inefficiency of the aristocratic conception of society. Tradition, restriction and 'influence', the values particular to landed society, were compared, generally unfavourably, with middle class virtues of order, discipline, merit and application. Finally, Political Economy provided an economic justification for their growing power with its focus on the freedom of the market and the virtue of enterprise. The middle classes promoted their ideology with missionary zeal.
In the 1780s the middle classes embraced at one end city bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £500 per year and at the other extreme small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of only £50. The provincial elites were a small group of men and families who controlled growing industrial complexes. In London, there were the merchant bankers. This elite, on familiar and sometimes marrying terms with the aristocracy, was not representative of the middle class as a whole. The lower middle class was composed of smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, milliners, tailors, local brewers as well as the rapidly growing number of clerks in both business and government, schoolteachers, an emerging managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. Aware of their status they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers.
The landed classes
In the 1780s, power, economic and political, still lay in the possession and exploitation of land. Landowners did not simply farm their own land or rent it out to tenant farmers. They exploited mineral deposits on their estates providing stone, slate, sand, brick-clay, timber and coal for growing industries. They rented their urban properties in response to a growing housing shortage. They invested in government stocks, the Bank of England, in industry and transport. The Duke of Bridgewater funded the first canal in the 1760s. Landowners benefited from the profits of political office since they monopolised the offices of state, their patronage and revenues. They were adaptable, if conservative, in outlook. A peerage of three hundred wealthy families dominated the landed classes. The estate and the country house were at the heart of their power providing authority and status. They controlled patronage rewarding the loyalty of friends, family and clients openly and without moral scruple to maintain their political power. Beneath of great landowners were the gentry who dominated the counties as squires, Justices of the Peace, poor law officials, churchwardens and backbench MPs. Below the gentry, landed society forked. There was a hierarchy of owner-occupiers or freeholders with incomes ranging from £700 down to as little as £30 per year; and tenant farmers who found their profits threatened by falling food prices and were the most vocal proponents of the Corn Laws.
The basis of landed society was mutual obligations within a hierarchical framework. Deferential attitudes were due to those above and paternalistic attitudes to those below. This was acceptable to most people in rural England and Scotland where the landlord was normally of the same nationality and culture. This was less the case in Wales and Ireland where landlords were often both from an alien culture and religion. However, the 'bond of dependency' between landlord, tenant farmer and labourer was beginning to break down by the 1780s. There had always be popular disturbances like food riots when people reminded those with power of their responsibilities and of the need for 'just wages' and 'just prices'. Food riots in the 1790s, the rural slump after 1815, the riots in the Fens in 1816, in Norfolk and Suffolk in 1822, and particularly the 'Captain Swing' riots across southern England in 1830 challenged established values. Each was largely unsuccessful and harshly repressed. This indicated of a breakdown in the dependency system, what Carlyle called "the abdication on the part of the governors". The market, not appeals to custom and established practice, increasingly determined the social behaviour of the landed classes.
A diverse society
Society in the 1780s was multifaceted. Attitudes were a result of particular circumstances, opportunities and fears created by an economy in which there were elements of continuity as well as change. Social attitudes, behaviour and work patterns were closely linked to support for the social hierarchy. Power was converted into moral authority and ensured the stability of a social hierarchy threatened by change. Deference, whether in urban or rural settings, remained strong because family, work patterns and communities did much to promote it. No one criterion, whether class or paternalism or dependency, can explain the complexities of society in the 1780s.