Saturday, 30 July 2011

How did the banking system evolve after 1800?

Between 1800 and 1914, manufacturing industry grew steadily in importance to become dominant within the economy and this was reflected in the structure of class relations. The relationship between agriculture and industry changed tilting the economic balance of power in favour of the manufacturing class while Britain’s central position of in the international flow of commodities and capital ensured the continuing importance of the financiers and merchants of the City of London.[1] The landed interest was forced to come to terms with its changed circumstances. The nineteenth century saw the development of a closer relationship between property owners whether in agriculture or industry. The distinction between the two had never been complete, even in the eighteenth century where successful industrialists bought themselves landed estates and landowners exploited the mineral reserves beneath their land. Although by 1900, the landed, manufacturing and commercial classes had moved closer together in economic, cultural and political terms, they had not yet coalesced into a unified propertied class. [2]

Class 22

Changes in the banking system in the second half of the century stimulated a closer relationship between the two groups. In 1830, three different types of bank together formed the British banking system. [3] At the heart of the London financial system were the private banks such as Hoares, Childs, Coutts and Martins that had often developed out of older goldsmith businesses.[4] The private banks of the West End had many landed clients and were often heavily involved in the long-term mortgage business of the landed class. By contrast, the private banks of the City itself were mainly concerned with the provision of short-term credit for merchant firms and, to a much lesser extent, manufacturing business. The Bank of England and, perhaps less importantly, the Scottish chartered banks were concerned with the management of government finances but also carried out some private banking transactions for the merchant houses that comprised its major shareholders. The Bank was by no means a central bank that regulated the rest of the banking system; its main role was to facilitate the formation of the financial syndicates that purchased government stock.

The third type of bank was the country bank, a private bank located outside London.[5] These often arose as adjuncts of mercantile concerns and had strong banking links with both local landowners and industrialists. Though their businesses were highly localised, the country banks were tied into the national system of capital mobilisation through their use of London agents and correspondent offices, generally one or other of the London private bankers.

Major changes in the financial system began with the repeal of the ‘Bubble Act’ in 1825 and the two Companies Acts of 1856 and 1862.[6] These changes made limited liability and transferable shares more easily available to businesses and did much to stimulate the establishment of joint-stock banks in London and the provinces. The country banks were often involved in the formation of joint-stock banks, a number of these being in London. Agency arrangements between London and country banks were, in many cases, formalised in mergers to form large joint-stock banks. The tightening up of the banking system, especially in the 1844 Bank Act[7], enabled it to become more closely involved in capital mobilisation: agricultural wealth filtered through the country banks to London from where the money went to finance the industries of the north and midlands and to finance landowners’ mortgages.[8]

By the 1860s and 1870s, the City of London had become the hub of an international monetary system, with a particularly important group of ‘merchant banks’ specialising in the financing of foreign trade and in funding foreign government loans.[9] Such prominent merchant bankers as Rothschild and Baring, together with others such as Goshen and Hambros, were generally based around the businesses of émigré merchants and bankers and often continued with their merchant businesses alongside their banking activities.[10] The merchants and merchant bankers of the City formed a tightly integrated group with numerous overlapping business activities: they joined together to syndicate loans and to run the major dock, canal and insurance companies and dominated the board of the Bank of England. This City group was united through bonds of business, kinship and friendship and its cohesion was increased by the frequency and informality in the exchanges, coffee-houses and other meeting-places in the square mile itself.[11]

[1] On this issue see Chapman, S.D., Merchant Enterprise in Britain, (Cambridge University Press), 1992.

[2] See, for example, Rothery, Mark, ‘The shooting party: the associational cultures of rural and urban elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, in Hoyle, Richard W., (ed.), Our hunting fathers: field sports in England after 1850, (Carnegie), 2007, pp. 96-118.

[3] On the development of banking in the nineteenth century see ibid, Collins, Michael, Banks and Industrial Finance in Britain 1800-1939, and Quinn, Stephen, ‘Money, finance and capital markets’, in ibid, Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A., (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Volume 1: industrialisation, 1700-1860, pp. 147-174 and Cottrell, P.L., ‘Domestic finance, 1860-1914’, in ibid, Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A., (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Volume 2: industrialisation, Economic Maturity, 1860-1939, pp. 253-279.

[4] Hutchings, Victoria, Messrs Hoare bankers: a history of the Hoare banking dynasty, (Constable), 2005 and Temin, Peter and Voth, Hans-Joachim, ‘Credit rationing and crowding out during the industrial revolution: evidence from Hoare’s Bank, 1702-1862’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 42, (2005), pp. 325-348.

[5] Dawes, M. and Ward-Perkins, C.N., Country banks of England and Wales: private provincial banks and bankers, 1688-1953, (Chartered Institute of Bankers), 2000, Brunt, Liam, ‘Rediscovering Risk: Country Banks as Venture Capital Firms in the First Industrial Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 66, (2006), pp. 74-102, Caunce, Stephen, ‘Banks, communities and manufacturing in West Yorkshire textiles, c.1800–1830’, in Wilson, John Francis and Popp, Andrew, (eds.), Industrial clusters and regional business networks in England, 1750-1970, (Ashgate), 2003, pp. 112-129, Cottrell, P.L., ‘Britannia’s sovereign: Banks in the finance of British shipbuilding and shipping, c. 1830-1894’, in Akveld, L. M., Loomeijer, Frits R. and Hahn-Pedersen, Morten, (eds.), Financing the maritime sector: proceedings from the fifth North Sea history conference, (Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet), 2002, pp. 191-254.

[6] Alborn, Timothy L., Conceiving Companies: Joint-stock Politics in Victorian England, (Routledge), 1998, pp. 87-143 examines the development of joint-stock and deposit banking from 1826.

[7] Horsefield, J.K., ‘The Origins of the Bank Charter Act, 1844’, Economica, Vol. 11, (1944), pp. 180-189. See also, Torrens, Robert, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel’s Act of 1844, (Longmans), 1857.

[8] Ackrill, Margaret and Hannah, Leslie, Barclays: the business of banking, 1690-1996, (Cambridge University Press), 2001.

[9] Kynaston, David, (ed.), The Bank of England: money, power and influence 1694-1994, (Oxford University Press), 1995 and Cottrell, P.L., ‘The Bank of England in transition, 1836-1860’, in Bosbach, Franz and Pohl, Hans, (eds.), Das Kreditwesen in der Neuzei, Banking System in Modern History, (K.G. Saur), 1997.

[10] See, for example, Burk, Kathleen, Morgan Grenfell, 1838-1988: the biography of a merchant bank, (Oxford University Press), 1989.

[11] Collins, Michael, ‘English banks and business cycles, 1848-1880’, in Cottrell, P.L. and Moggridge, D.E., (eds.), Money and power: essays in honour of L.S. Pressnell, (Macmillan), 1988, pp. 1-40, Capie, F.H., and Collins, Michael, ‘Banks, industry and finance, 1880-1914’, Business History, Vol. 41, (1999), pp. 37-62 and ‘Industrial lending by English commercial banks, 1860s-1914: why did banks refuse loans?’, Business History, Vol. 38, (1996), pp. 26-44, Cottrell, P.L., ‘The domestic commercial banks and the City of London, 1870-1939’, in Cassis, Youssef, (ed.), Finance and financiers in European history, 1880-1960, (Cambridge University Press), 1992, pp. 39-62.

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.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A crisis in the British state!

It is not hyperbole to suggest that there is a systemic crisis in the British state.  Over the past few years and especially weeks, we have seen the old certainties of the economic and political establishment dramatically unravel.   There was the collapse of the financial system in 2008 followed by the MPs’ expenses scandal and now we have the further tarnishing of the media in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the demolition of the reputation of the Metropolitan Police over police corruption and operational failures in investigation leading to the resignations of the Metropolitan Police and Assistant Police Commissioners.  Four key elements of establishment power – the banks, Parliament, the press and the police – have had their misuse of power exposed and their reputations perhaps irretrievably besmirched.  Yet the signs have been there for well over two decades that there was something seriously wrong with the morality of our political system.  Remember the ‘cash for honours’ enquiry, the failure of Parliament to heed the overwhelming attitude of public opinion opposed to the Iraq War, the ‘brown envelopes’ stuffed with cash lavishly splashed around in the 1990s, the creation of the security state after 9/11, the burgeoning power of the media to set rather than comment upon prevailing political agendas…… The political solution appears to be to establish public and judicial enquiries to establish ‘the facts’ and posit solutions…a case of the establishment policing itself. 

Yet there has been little attempt at the fundamental reform of the political establishment from top to bottom that is needed.    Politicians have never had a high reputation among the public who rightly recognise that they say a great deal but actually accomplish little and who cannot be trusted.  They are generally regarded as morally corrupt even if not taking money for their ‘services’.  The question is whether they are capable, even if they are willing, to introduce the reforms necessary to re-establish the British state and recover or redefine the public moral values that should underpin it.  Surprisingly David Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’ with its bottom-up rather than top-down solutions to problems may provide a basis for this.  The only problem is that currently it is not even a damp squid! For too long politicians of all parties have adopted the ‘we know better than you’ approach.  If politicians are unable or unwilling to find solutions to people’s problems and to the moral bankruptcy of the establishment then perhaps it is time that the people should take over those responsibilities.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

How far were entrepreneurs agents of change in the nineteenth century?

During the economic transformation between 1780 and 1830, entrepreneurs were regarded as the main instruments of change because of their enterprise and innovation, organisational skill and their ability to exploit commercial opportunities.[1] Many industrial pioneers operated in a uniquely favourable economic environment. They faced an expanding domestic market buttressed, especially in cotton, by a flourishing overseas demand. This allowed entrepreneurs such as Robert Owen[2], Benjamin Gott[3] and his partners, George Newton and Thomas Chambers to exploit profit potentials. In these largely favourable economic conditions, substantial profits could be achieved without effective use of power supplies or optimal factory layouts. However, successful entrepreneurs such as Arkwright, Strutt and Peel were perhaps not typical of contemporary businessmen. More representative were individuals such as the Wilsons of Wilsontown Ironworks[4] or the Needhams of Litton[5] whose concerns suffered from serious entrepreneurial shortcomings coupled with gross mismanagement. Such was the strength of the home and overseas markets, the former benefiting from the coming of railways and gradually rising living standards that entrepreneurs had no great inducement to alter the basic economic structure that had evolved before 1830.

The absence of any dramatic change in the scale of operations, the relatively slow enlargement of the labour forces of individual enterprises and the close coincidence of firm and plant, meant that the nature of entrepreneurship and the structure of the firm changed little in the middle decades of the century. However, some firms that traced their origins to the Industrial Revolution were declining in relative importance and some were disappearing altogether. Marshall’s of Leeds began to decline in the 1840s, though it was to linger on for another forty years by which time many of its leading competitors in flax spinning had already gone: Benyons in 1861, John Morfitt and John Wilkinson a few years later. The Ashworth cotton enterprises, built up between 1818 and 1834 by Henry and Edward Ashworth, began their relative decline in the 1840s. In iron, Joshua Walker & Co. did not long survive the end of the Napoleonic Wars, its steel trade being formally wound up in 1829 and its iron trade finally wasted away in the 1830s. Other ironmasters fared little better: John Darwin, one of Sheffield’s leading industrialists, had gone bankrupt by 1828. The Coalbrookdale Company bereft of managerial guidance when Abraham and Alfred Darby retired in 1849 and Francis Darby died in 1850, faltered and was sustained only continuing demand for the products of its foundry.[6]

The view of entrepreneurs in the late-nineteenth century as having declining initiative and flagging drive rests on a view of the dynamism of their predecessors of the classical industrial revolution that can be seen to lack firm foundations. [7] How competent were entrepreneurs in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain?[8] Growth in industrial production declined; there was a relative deterioration in Britain’s international economic status and a sluggish rise in productivity that have, to some degree, been blamed on declining entrepreneurial spirit.[9] David Landes, for example, supported this position suggesting that British enterprise reflected a

...combination of complacency. Her merchants, who had once seized the markets of the world, took them for granted; the consular reports are full of the incompetence of British exporters, their refusal to suit their goods to the taste and pockets of the client, their unwillingness to try new products in new areas, their insistence that everyone in the world ought to read in English and count in pounds, shillings and pence. Similarly, the British manufacturer was notorious for his indifference to style, his conservatism in the face of new techniques, his reluctance to abandon the individuality of tradition for the conformity implicit in mass production.[10]

This view of British entrepreneurial failure implied an unfavourable comparison with performance elsewhere, usually in Germany and America. However, McCloskey [11] found that the British iron and steel masters exploited the potential of world technology before 1914 as well as, if not better, than their much lauded American competitors though he was less convinced by the potential of the British coal industry.[12] Similar studies of the cotton industry found that failure to introduce newer technology and reliance on mule-spinning did not lead to a decline in productivity.[13] On the basis of these and other studies, McCloskey argued that there was ‘little left of the dismal picture of British failure painted by historians’.[14] But doubts still remained. British entrepreneurs were criticised for failing to confront organisational weakness especially their labour-intensive nature that was progressively strangling the staple industries and for failing to enter more vigorously new manufacturing industries. Conversely, entrepreneurs did move into the service sector, whose relatively rapid rate of growth and high productivity between 1870 and 1914 was superior to the old staples and provided what little buoyancy there was in Britain’s aggregate economic growth. British entrepreneurial errors and hesitation were always present, even during the Industrial Revolution. They simply became more apparent after 1870.[15]

There is a deep-seated and enduring conviction that British culture was the root cause of Britain’s industrial decline. Central to this tradition is the belief that the British people, especially the middle-classes, have long been averse to industry. For them the real Britain has been the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the traditional British countryside. Those businessmen who could forsake industry and trade for a life of gentility have eagerly done so. This ‘gentrification’ of the English middle-classes caused a dampening of industrial energies and led to a decline in Britain’s economic prowess. [16] The politicians and civil servants whose actions shaped the economic environment in which private enterprise functioned were drawn from the gentry or, if of humbler birth, educated to the ideals of style, leisure and service at a public school or one of the ancient universities. The financiers and traders of London to whom they looked for economic expertise were also imbued with the same anti-industrial spirit. In reality, however, the middle-classes were not as hostile to manufacturing as some historians believe. The upper middle-classes sent a significant number of their sons into business and the flow of elite sons into manufacturing and commerce was neither limited to genteel pursuits like merchant banking. Sons of landowners and professional accounted for a quarter of British steel manufacturers active in the period 1865-1914 and both groups were substantially over-represented in this heavy industry in comparison with their incidence in the population as a whole.

Given the willingness of the landed and professional classes to embrace industry as a source of jobs for their sons, it is perhaps not surprising that British businessmen failed to ape the allegedly anti-industrial disposition of their social superiors. Industrialists and merchants, for example, long displayed an unwillingness to educate their sons at the public schools that served as the gateways to elite status in Britain. Just 21% of the men listed in the Dictionary of Business Biography born between 1840 and 1869 had been to a public school, and only 18% of the entrepreneurs who were active in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester between 1870 and 1914 were so educated. The tendency for successful businessmen and merchants to become landowners in the late-nineteenth century did not represent a new departure. Since the purchase of estates by businessmen did not damage the economy in the decades before 1870 and since there is little evidence that the sons of businessmen were deflected to the lifestyle of landed gentry after 1870, it is hard to see why this tendency should have significantly weakened Britain’s competitiveness.

The decline of industrial Britain after 1870 was a matter of the decisions about tools and techniques, education and training and advertising and sales that the men who remained in the offices and on the shop-floors made. There is as yet virtually no direct evidence linking the choices entrepreneurs and managers made about production and marketing with the anti-industrial values to which they supposedly succumbed. If there was a ‘gentry cast’ to their minds, that strongly influenced business decision-making, historians have found few traces of it in the records of British enterprises.

[1] See this issue from a literary perspective, McKinstry, Sam, ‘The positive depiction of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in the novels of Sir Walter Scott’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, Vol. 26, (2006), pp. 83-99.

[2] Donnachie, Ian L., Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony, (Tuckwell), 2000 and Butt, John, (ed.), Robert Owen, prince of cotton spinners: a symposium, (David & Charles), 1971.

[3] See, Heaton, Herbert, ‘Benjamin Gott and the industrial revolution in Yorkshire’, Economic History Review, Vol. 3, (1931-2), pp. 45-66.

[4] Donnachie, Ian L. and Butt, John, ‘The Wilsons of Wilsontown ironworks, 1779-1813: a study in entrepreneurial failure’, Explorations in Entrepreneurial History, 2nd ser., Vol. 4, (1967), pp. 150-168.

[5] MacKenzie, M.H., ‘Cressbrook and Litton mills, 1779-1835’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 88, (1969 for 1968), pp. 1-25, Chapman, Stanley D., ‘Cressbrook and Litton mills: an alternative view’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 89, (1970 for 1969), pp. 86-90 and MacKenzie, M.H., ‘Cressbrook and Litton Mills: a reply’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 90, (1972 for 1970), pp. 56-59.

[6] Thomas, Emyr, Coalbrookdale and the Darby family: the story of the world’s first industrial dynasty, (Sessions), 1999.

[7] Payne, P.L., British Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth Century, (Macmillan), 2nd ed., 1988 is a brief analysis bibliographical study. Dintenfass, Michael, The Decline of Industrial Britain 1870-1980, (Routledge), 1992 and Dormois, Jean-Pierre and Dintenfass, Michael, (eds.), The British industrial decline, (Routledge), 1999 provide a challenging account of Britain’s long-term decline since the 1870s.

[8] Payne, Peter, ‘Entrepreneurship and British economic decline’, in Collins, Bruce and Robbins, Keith, (eds.), British culture and economic decline, 1990, pp. 25-58.

[9] Westall, O.M., ‘The competitive environment of British business 1850-1914’, in Kirby, M.W., and Rose Mary B., (eds.), Business enterprise in modern Britain: from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, (Routledge), 1994, pp. 207-235 and Kirby, M.W., The Decline of British Economic Power Since 1870, (Taylor & Francis), 1981, pp. 1-24 provides a valuable context.

[10] Landes, D., The Unbound Prometheus, (Cambridge University Press), 1969, p. 564.

[11] McCloskey, D.N., Economic maturity and entrepreneurial decline: British iron and steel, 1870-1913, (Harvard University Press), 1973, pp. 1-21, 56-72, 125-130.

[12] McCloskey, D.N., Enterprise and Trade in Victorian Britain, (Allen & Unwin), 1981, pp. 74-93.

[13] Chapman, S.D., ‘The Textile Industries’, in Roderick, G.W., and Stephens, M.D., (eds.), Where did we go wrong? Industrial performance, education and the economy in Victorian Britain, (Taylor & Francis), 1981, pp.125-138.

[14] Ibid, McCloskey, D.N., Enterprise and Trade in Victorian Britain, p. 106.

[15] See, for example, Brown, K.D., ‘Entrepreneurial Failure and Retailing: a case-study’, Journal of Industrial History, Vol. 5, (2002), pp. 71-88, Toms, Steven, ‘Windows of opportunity in the textile industry: the business strategies of Lancashire entrepreneurs, 1880-1914’, Business History, Vol. 40, (1998), pp. 1-25.

[16] The classic modern exposition of this view can be found in Wiener, Martin, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980, (Cambridge University Press), 1981. See also, Trainor, Richard, ‘The gentrification of Victorian and Edwardian industrialists’, in Stone, Lawrence, Beier, A.L., Cannadine, David and Rosenheim, James M., (eds.), The First modern society: essays in English history in honour of Lawrence Stone, (Cambridge University Press), 1989, pp. 167-197 and Thomson, F.M.L., Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain 1780-1980, (Oxford University Press), 2003, pp. 19-142 and Robbins, Keith, Politicians, diplomacy, and war in modern British history, (Hambledon), 1994, pp. 67-84 on British culture versus British industry.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Was there a middle-class political revolution?

The Reform Act 1832, traditionally regarded as the beginnings of middle-class political power, does not provide an index of the rise to power of the industrial bourgeoisie.[1] The new franchise increased the representation of the urban middle-class but it was also designed to reduce the power of newly wealthy owners of corrupt boroughs and to restore and give fresh legitimacy to the traditional influence of the landed interest. As late as the 1860s, almost two-thirds of the country’s MPs came from landed backgrounds, over one-third, hereditary aristocrats and around half of the cabinets of both parties were still aristocratic.[2] It was not until after the Reform Act 1867 that the first major changes in the nature of the political elite began to emerge. The Act extended the franchise to certain sections of the urban working-classes and this led to the replacement of local patterns of influence with professionally organised political machines. This was accelerated by further extensions of the franchise in 1884 but also by such reforms as the Secret Ballot Act 1872, the restriction of candidates’ spending on elections by the Corrupt Practices Act 1883, the dilution of the aristocracy through awards of peerages in recognition of wealth and political service that began in 1885 and the establishment of elections for local government in the counties in 1888 and 1894.

Class 19

It is probably fair to talk of a major restructuring of the British Establishment from the 1870s but the extent to which the middle-classes as a whole benefitted from this was limited. It did not give the provincial manufacturers a greatly enhanced position at national level.[3] Membership of the ruling circle was being extended to include larger numbers of bankers and merchants but few manufacturers. However, though the great country houses were being displaced from the centre of political power, the network of power and influence was based even more firmly in the south of the country and the aristocracy still remained the leading group within the ruling classes. Who held what position and what social classes they came from may be less important than how and in whose interests they acted.

It can be argued that the industrial bourgeoisie was able to exert sufficient pressure on the nation’s political elite to get the kind of government it wanted. However, the challenge to which the restructuring of the Establishment was a response came less from industrial employers than from occupationally-based pressure groups among both the professional middle-classes and the working-classes that had been able to win major reforms in the 1860s and 1870s and were to make important advances in the 1890s and 1900s.

Class 20

Lancashire factory owners became a substantial group in the House of Commons after 1832 but their effectiveness was limited by internal political divisions and by their inability to create external alliances with other parliamentary groupings. [4] In the longer term, factory owners became less active in politics and more conservative in their social behaviour. Their strong attachment to the Tory Party echoed the traditional allegiance of the Lancashire aristocracy. The one apparent assertion of industrial against the landed interest was the debate over the Corn Laws that led to their eventual repeal in 1846. The Anti-Corn Law League was a popular radical campaign that secured an unusual amount of financial backing from manufacturers because of the economic benefits they expected. Repeal was beneficial to manufacturers who had a direct interest in reducing food prices but it was by no means disadvantageous to the aristocracy much of whose land was devoted to pastoral farming and whose rents from arable land were largely maintained during the long mid-century boom. It was the tenant farmer who stood to suffer most. Repeal was a result of aristocratic concession to popular opinion during a short-term crisis rather than of the long-term growth of bourgeois political power.[5]

The middle-class ‘victory’ of 1846 was atypical of their success in this period and did not mark the beginnings of middle-class control of the political system. This explains why the limitation of the hours of work in factories contained in the 1847 Factory Act was passed in the face of strong opposition from most of the Lancashire manufacturers and why it was a further twenty years before the next instalment of parliamentary reform. Similar pattern can be seen in the 1870s, not only in the widespread aristocratic support for agricultural labourers’ demands but also in government attitudes towards labour policy in general. The main line of government policy was a liberal one of not only recognising but even strengthening the rights of employees to bargain collectively over wages and conditions. It had been possible for Britain’s ruling elite, based as it was on landownership, commerce and increasingly on foreign finance, to maintain social stability through liberal concessions to pressure from below without having the sacrifice its own immediate political and economic interest.

So if the position of manufacturers within the British ruling classes was marginal, what power did they have within their own industrial regions? Given their wealth, it would not be surprising if they exercised considerable local power but, at least within the political arena, there were limitations on that power. First, aristocratic influences persisted in many industrial towns until at least the 1870s acting as a counterbalance to the economic and political impact of the factory elite. Secondly, there were other competing non-landed groups, above all the mercantile, retailing and professional middle-classes, who were generally more active in local urban politics than manufacturers. In Bolton and Salford, for example, over half the councillors in the 1840s had been manufacturers but this had fallen to under 40% by the 1870s and continued to decline thereafter. The political dominance of manufacturers was confined to the smaller industrial towns but even there it was not unlimited. The growing powers of local government acquired either by special parliamentary private bills or by national permissive legislation led to the establishment of more democratic local procedures.

Class 21

The middle-classes had a relatively lowly status in terms of wealth-holding and political power, but can they be seen as a leading or ‘hegemonic’ class in terms of its ability to shape policy through its impact on the attitudes and values of the country as a whole? How far did the middle-classes mould society in their own image and indirectly influence the behaviour of the more prominent actors, who were after all themselves major property owners? Harold Perkin contrasted the ‘entrepreneurial ideal’ of the emergent middle-classes with the ‘aristocratic’ ideal but this characterisation has been questioned. It is difficult to define ‘bourgeois’ as opposed to ‘aristocratic’ values and it is perhaps better to focus on the simpler questions of whether the specific interests of manufacturers were represented in the attitudes and values of the ruling classes.[6]

If the country’s literary culture is taken as an index of the concerns of its rulers, it is clear that in Britain manufacturers, far from reshaping dominant attitudes, were consistently rejected unless they conformed to existing social values. Economic success was viewed with some suspicion and the early-modern notion that money was rootless and without the reciprocal obligations and duties of landowning retained its potency. Until the 1760s, attitudes were ambiguous, but thereafter the trend was distinctly towards literary condemnation of new wealth reaching its peak in the rejection of provincial manufacturers between the 1840s and the 1930s. The only route to acceptance and ‘respectability’ was to adopt the values of civilised culture and public service associated with the ‘gentleman’, and later the professional man and to abandon the values of mere money-making and sectional interest associated with new wealth.[7] These elite values had an effect on the industrial bourgeoisie itself. Many of its members lived in town houses or holidayed at coastal resorts located on large landed estates. Most aspired to acceptance by the Establishment. The wealthier sent their sons to public schools and bought their own landed estates. Those who were active in political life did so in the Conservative and Liberal parties led by the aristocracy.[8] It is, however, clear that there was a significant space for the cultural influence of non-landed groups within the industrial regions. As with political influence, merchants, retailers and professionals were just as active, if not more so, than manufacturers and there were important political and religious differences within local middle-classes.

[1] Garrard, John Adrian, ‘The middle classes and nineteenth century national and local politics’, in Garrard, John Adrian, Jary, David, Goldsmith, Michael and Oldfield, Adrian, (eds.), The middle class in politics, (Saxon House), 1978, pp. 35-66 and Briggs, Asa, ‘Middle-class consciousness in English politics, 1780-1846’, Past & Present, Vol. 9, (1956), pp. 65-74 provide a brief overview.

[2] Ibid, Searle, G.R., Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain, is the clearest statement of the position of the middle-classes in politics.

[3] The economic strength of this group, measured in terms of their share of the national wealth, began to decline from the 1870s under pressure from foreign competition.

[4] Kadish, A.’, Free trade and high wages: the economics of the Anti-Corn Law League’, and Lloyd-Jones, Roger, ‘Merchant city: the Manchester business community, the trade cycle, and commercial policy, c.1820-1846’, in Marrison, Andrew (ed.), Freedom and trade, Vol.1: Free trade and its reception, 1815-1960, (Routledge), 1998, pp. 14-27, 86-104.

[5] Adelman, Paul, Victorian Radicalism: The Middle-Class Experience 1830-1914, (Longman), 1984, pp. 11-28 and Chaloner, W.H., ‘The Agitation against the Corn Laws’ in Ward, J.T., (ed.), Popular Movements 1830-1850, (Macmillan), 1970, pp. 135-151 are good summaries of the work of the Anti-Corn Law League. McCord, N., The Anti-Corn Law League 1838-1846, (Allen and Unwin), 1958 and Pickering, Paul A and Tyrrell, Alex, The People’s Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League, (Leicester University Press), 2000 provide different perspectives but Prentice, Archibald, History of the Anti-Corn Law League, 2 Vols. 1853, new edition with an introduction by W.H. Chaloner, (Cass), 1968, is still a valuable source. The political strategies of the League can be approached through Hamer, D.A., The Politics of Electoral Pressure, (Harvester), 1977, pp. 58-90 and Prest, J., Politics in the Age of Cobden, (Macmillan), 1977, especially chapters 5 and 6.

[6] Gunn, Simon, The public culture of the Victorian middle class: ritual and authority in the English industrial city, 1840-1914, (Manchester University Press), 2000 and Kidd, Alan J. and Nicholls, David, (eds.), Gender, civic culture, and consumerism: middle-class identity in Britain, 1800-1940, (Manchester University Press), 1999, Green, S., ‘In search of bourgeois civilisation: institutions & ideals in 19th century’, Northern History, Vol. 28, (1992), pp. 228-245 and Morgan, S., ‘‘A sort of land debatable’: Female influence, civic virtue and middle-class identity, c.1830-c.1860’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 13, (2004), pp. 183-210.

[7] See one dimension in Jeremy, David J., (ed.), Religion, business, and wealth in modern Britain, (Routledge), 1998.

[8] MacLeod, Dianne Sachko, Art and the Victorian middle class: money and the making of cultural identity, (Cambridge University Press), 1996.

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.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Who were the middle classes?

Who were the ‘middle-classes’? [1] George Kitson Clark rightly counselled caution when he pointed out that

Of course, the general expression ‘middle-class’ remains useful, as a name for a large section of society .... (but) it is necessary to remember that a belief in the importance and significance of the middle-class in the nineteenth century derives from contemporary opinion .... They do not always say clearly whom they have in mind, and since the possible variants are so great a modern writer should follow them with great caution.... [2]

The middle-classes can be distinguished from the aristocracy and gentry not so much by their income as by the necessity of earning a living, and at the bottom from the working-classes not by their higher income but by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by their educational investment in skills or expertise. Yet, the divide that was emerging was not the Marxist division between aristocracy and bourgeoisie but

...a cultural one, between the patrician landowner, banker, lawyer, clergyman or merchant on the one hand and the plebeian tradesman and manufacturer on the other. [3]

There may have been considerable room for agreement between capital and labour in attacking the political monopoly of the aristocracy, an agreement that was frequently reinforced by shared local, political and religious loyalty. The alliance between capital and labour was, however, often fraught by fears of bourgeois dominance and by suspicion of ‘betrayal’.[4] Paradoxically it was often the aristocracy that provided legislative support for the working-classes against opposition from manufacturers and industrialists.

The middle-classes of the mid-nineteenth century were an extremely heterogeneous body embracing at one end bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £1,000 per year and at the other end small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of under £50. The middle-classes can be divided into two broad groupings. The upper middle-class was divided into two fairly distinct groups: the financiers and merchants of London and the manufacturers of the North and Midlands. The former were generally wealthier, of higher social status and closer to the landed elites than the industrialists. [5]

Class 18

John Leach, 1852

London bankers and City merchants were among the wealthiest people in the country. Most of the largest fortunes, such as those of the Rothschilds, Morrisons, Barings or Sassoons, came from commerce or finance and not from manufacturing and industry. [6] The latter were dominated by the provincial elites, those men and families controlling the growing industrial complex. Factory owners were usually wealthy but not immensely wealthy.[7] By 1880, and perhaps earlier, Britain was as much the ‘Clearing House of the World’ as the ‘Workshop of the World’.

A lower middle-class emerged in the first half of the century and consisted of three main groups: first, smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, dealers, milliners, tailors, local brewers; secondly, the rapidly expanding ubiquitous ‘clerk’ in both business and government; and finally, the growing professionals, schoolteachers, railway officials, an emergent managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. [8] Middle-class occupations’ grew from 6.5% of the working population in 1851 to 7.8% by 1871. Structural changes towards a larger service sector in the late-Victorian economy resulted in a growth in the number of clerical and administrative employees.[9]


Celebratory Dinner at Assembly Rooms, c1900, Bedale Museum

Aware of their ‘caste’, they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers. Dorothy Marshall argues that

Some of these employments were lucrative, some poorly paid, but the men who engaged in them were united in the conviction that they were socially superior to the manual worker, however skilled. The struggling clerk, who earned less than the expert fine cotton spinner, underlined his superiority by his dress, his speech and his manners. These, and not his income, were what distinguished him from the working-class.[10]

Little had changed when E.M. Forster wrote prosaically of Leonard Bast a clerk,

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it and at times people whom he knew had dropped in and counted no more. He knew that he was poor and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich....[11]

While sharing the aspirations and values of the class above them, the lower middle-class was under constant pressure to differentiate itself from the working-classes whose ways of life they rejected. There was an unresolved tension between the need to maintain the symbols of status and the constraints of economic reality.[12]

There was an obsession with religious certainty, moral zeal and purity and respectability but above all keeping up appearances at all costs throughout the middle-classes and this led the children and grandchildren of the late Victorians to accuse them of hypocrisy.[13] But this was not the only or perhaps the most abiding character trait of the middle-classes.

A person of the middle class appreciates the value of the position he occupies; and he will not marry, if marriage will so impoverish him as to render it necessary to resign his social position.[14]

[1] James, Lawrence, The middle class: a history, (Little, Brown), 2006 is a detailed study. Wahrman, Dror, Imagining the Middle Class. The Political Representation of Class in Britain c.1780-1840, (Cambridge University Press), 1995 analyses the emergence of middle-class consciousness. Nossiter, T.J., Influence, Opinion and Political Idioms in Reformed England: Case Studies from the North-East 1832-1874, (Harvester), 1975 and Crossick, G. and Hauge, H.G., Shopkeepers and Master Artisans in Nineteenth-Century Europe, (Methuen), 1984 contain some useful comments on the ‘shopocracy’. Vincent, J.R., Pollbooks: How Victorians Voted, (Cambridge University Press), 1968 is a valuable examination of a major source of middle class political strength and much else. Ibid, Bourne, J.M., Patronage and Society in Nineteenth Century England is excellent for the changing notion of ‘patronage’ and its effects on the middle classes. Crossick, G., (ed.), The Lower Middle Class in Britain 1870-1914, (Croom Helm), 1977 is the most useful collection of papers and Anderson, G., Victorian Clerks, (Manchester University Press), 1976 deals with one occupational group. See also, Searle, G.R., Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain, (Oxford University Press), 1993 and Morality and the Market in Victorian England, (Oxford University Press), 1998.

[2] Clark, G. Kitson, The Making of Victorian England, (Methuen), 1965, p. 96.

[3] Clark, J.C.D., English Society 1688-1832, (Cambridge University Press), 1985, p. 71; see also his The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, (Cambridge University Press), 1993.

[4] This can best be seen in the agitation between 1830 and 1832 that led to the Reform Act. Those sections of the working-class that had supported reform got little or nothing. This led to a powerful sense of betrayal that fed into the demands of the Chartists for universal suffrage.

[5] See, Nenadic, S., ‘Businessmen, the urban middle classes, and the “dominance” of manufacturers in 19th century Britain’, Economic History Review, Vol. 44, (1991), pp. 66-85.

[6] On banking and the middle-class see, Cassis, Y., ‘Bankers and English society in the late 19th century’ Economic History Review, Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 210-229 and City bankers, 1890-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 1994, 2009. See also, Camplin, Jamie, The rise of the plutocrats: wealth and power in Edwardian England, (Constable), 1978.

[7] Crouzet, François, The First Industrialists: The Problem of Origins, (Cambridge University Press), 1985, 2008, pp. 99-115, Howe, A., The Cotton Masters 1830-1860, (Oxford University Press), 1984, pp. 50-89.

[8] Crossick, G., ‘The Emergence of the Lower Middle Class in Britain: a discussion’, in ibid, Crossick, G., (ed.), The lower middle class in Britain, 1870-1914, pp. 11-60; Savage, Michael, ‘Career mobility and class formation: British banking workers and the lower middle classes’, in ibid, Miles, Andrew and Vincent, David, (eds.), Building European society: occupational change and social mobility in Europe, 1840-1940, (Manchester University Press), pp. 196-216.

[9] Anderson, G.I., ‘The Social Economy of Late-Victorian Clerks’, in ibid, Crossick, G., (ed.), The lower middle class in Britain, 1870-1914, pp. 113-133.

[10] Marshall, D., Industrial England 1776-1851, (Routledge), 1973, p. 96.

[11] Forster, E.M., Howards End, 1910, (Forgotten Books), 1958, p. 42.

[12] Hammerton, A. James, ‘The English weakness? Gender, satire and “moral manliness” in the lower middle class, 1870-1920’, in Kidd, Alan J. and Nicholls, David, (eds.), Gender, civic culture, and consumerism: middle-class identity in Britain, 1800-1940, (Manchester University Press), 1999, pp. 164-182 and ‘Pooterism or partnership?: marriage and masculine identity in the lower middle class, 1870-1920’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 38, (1999), pp. 291-321.

[13] Bailey, Peter, ‘White collars, gray lives?: the lower middle class revisited’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 38, (1999), pp. 273-290.

[14] Fawcett, Henry, The Economic Position of the British labourer, (Macmillan & Co), 1865, p. 44.