Saturday, 9 August 2014


A/N: Part I, Paper 10 essay from Michaelmas term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. E. Foyster at Clare.

In what contexts, and by whom, were the popular ideas of ‘class’ first articulated, and how widely were they accepted?

The traditional historiography of this period has maintained that ‘class’ was created by the Industrial Revolution and within a very short time superseded hierarchy as the primary way of looking at social relationships. In recent times however, especially in light of the ‘slow growth’ theory of the Industrial Revolution (the idea that it was in truth a very gradual process and has little claim to the title ‘revolution’ at all) this view has become disputed. Some have argued that the traditional, medieval hierarchical view of society with its immovable ‘ranks’ and ‘orders’ held sway well into the mid Victorian period. Then there is an argument that, in fact, a two class structure, the dichotomous ‘us’ and ‘them’ was the real way contemporaries viewed society, a structure that stretched back to primitive civilisation. But these views need not have been in conflict and argued all three existed side by side in the Victorian Britain. This essay shall seek to discover to what extent the traditional historiography, favoured by historians such as E.P. Thompson, was correct in its assumptions that class in Britain emerged during a time of revolution, first cementing middle class identity and then creating a unified and coherent working class.

Before looking at the issue in more depth it is first necessary to clarify what is meant by the ‘popular ideas of “class”’. The study of ‘the rise of class’ has been, and continues to be, complicated by the lack of consensus amongst historians over a definition of ‘class’. Perkin describes it, somewhat wordily, in terms of vertical and horizontal relations whereas others argue for it simply being a descriptive label which need not carry deeper connotations. In recent years historians have focused on linguistics, pointing out that contemporary use of the word ‘class’ was interchangeable, as a term synonymous with ‘sorts’, ‘parts’ and ‘interests’ amongst others. This approach has in turn been criticised as language is often imprecise and does not necessarily reveal what people had in mind when they wrote using such classifying terms, or what others understood by them. Pitt the Younger described the labouring poor as a ‘class’ in parliament in 1796, something which could easily be misconstrued to imply that a Marxist sense of class was then current when in all probability Pitt was merely using ‘class’ as another word for ‘group’. With these problems in mind it is still the case that ‘the popular ideas of “class”’ refers, in all likelihood, to the Marxist idea of ‘class in itself becoming a class for itself’; that class was then a grouping of people with common characteristics – a triadic system is used most commonly as it correlates with the idea that people live on rents, profits or wages – who were becoming bound together as they recognised this and found common ground with each other. It is this definition that has most shaped the historiography of the topic and so, accordingly, will receive most attention in this essay.

If, as Thompson suggests, class consciousness emerged during the Industrial Revolution it makes sense to first consider to what extent class was a relevant concept before the Industrial Revolution. Inevitably when working chronologically, especially where the exact dates of the major event (Industrialisation) are disputed, the boundaries must be a little forced and the divisions used here will be no exception; for the purpose of this essay the Industrial Revolution will relate to the traditional timeframe of 1780 to 1832. Rule argued that before this cut off point class was ‘latent’, Perkin that Britain was a ‘classless’ society. Neither would disagree that individuals were nevertheless very much aware of their social status; the idea of hierarchy had been in place since at least the early middle ages, with the monarch at the head of society and the peasants (and formerly serfs) at the bottom. Hierarchical ideas were thus ingrained in eighteenth century thinking, as can be seen from the endless books on social hierarchy for use by the aristocracy and the pains taken over arranging the order of procession at state events such as coronations and funerals. At the same time however there was an increasing movement towards broader classification into groups, in 1709 Daniel Defoe categorised British society into seven groupings ranging from ‘the great, who live profusely’ to ‘the miserable, that really pinch and suffer want’. Corfield presents an interesting example of eighteenth century legislation reflecting a tripartite status structure; a 1624 statute outlawing public swearing on pain of a universal 1/- fine was adjusted in 1695 so that those ranked above a labourer should pay 2/- in, and then again in 1746 to impose a 5/- fine on those of the rank of gentleman or above. It would be wrong to accept this seemingly clear class structure at face value however. A dichotomous ‘us and them’ understanding of social relationships was the most compelling at this time. Rule argues that it was a familial relationship, at times the workers and poor would, like children, throw tantrums and riot against their ‘tyrannical’ parents, but these outbursts would quickly run their course and they would be accepted back into the familial bosom (read customary social order) by their now benevolent and paternalistic landlords and employers. What we see in the period running up to the Industrial Revolution is a clinging to custom; industrial innovation and improved agricultural methods had already seen a growth in urbanisation and the resultant erosion of the aristocratic paternalism that had made their dominance tolerable, yet new concepts of social structure were still in their infancy and for all but the most forward thinkers society continued to be viewed in hierarchical and dichotomous terms.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are remembered as time of revolution and indeed the period 1780 to 1815 saw revolution not just in industrial practice (disputed as the idea is, industrialisation did continue during this period and so became more visible) but in social relationships, culminating in the overthrowing of royalty in France and America breaking free from British rule. This essay will first consider its impact on the class consciousness of the rent takers, the ‘upper class’. Although throughout the eighteenth century there had been increasing social mobility the upper class nevertheless consisted of landowners, whether titled and hereditary or the purchased lands of the nouveaux riche. They were encouraged to form a coherent class consciousness as protection against the emerging political strength of the lower orders. Susanna Blarnire lamented in the late 1770s that, ‘all things are changed, the world’s turned upside down, and every servant wears a cotton gown’, there was a growing sense among the aristocracy that their position was under threat, as they anxiously watched events in France unfold. They took steps to keep the working class, or ‘the mob’ from becoming too powerful, for example imposing stamp duty on newspapers thus lifting them out of the price range of the average worker and passing the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 to prevent trade union activity. They were also forced to recognise the growing number of ‘the middling sorts’ and increasingly sought to marry their sons off to wealthy heiresses and their daughters into wealthy industrial families. As this suggests, the ‘upper class’ at this time could only be a vague construction. Social mobility became more marked as younger sons of the aristocracy entered the professions and in the 1820s there was a revival of the ideal of paternalism amongst some aristocrats in response to the increasing popularity of ‘laissez faire’, an idea that freed the aristocracy to enter commerce for profit, something the courts had deemed to be of dubious legality until around 1800. Eventually the pull of money without responsibility proved too attractive to the majority of the aristocracy, but by 1832 it was not yet clear which ideal would win, the period was one of change for the aristocracy and they were by no means a completely homogeneous group by the end of the period.

Secondly we must discuss the middle class, in contemporary words, ‘the glory of Britain’. Growing economic prosperity had long been creating a group that did not appear to fit the more traditional dichotomous view of society, a group that were neither landed nor living in poverty. In this period this group became more visible, not necessarily as the result of industrialisation and capitalism – as Rule points out few places outside of the ‘Cottonopolis’ towns had the structure to nurture such expansion – but through the growth in the service sector. Doctors, teachers, scientists, and so on became not only more numerous but also more respectable, for example with the passing of the Apothecaries Act in 1815 and the foundation of the Law Society in 1825. This was who the Whigs under Charles Fox were referring to as ‘the people’ as opposed to the violent and lawless ‘mob’ which constituted the lower orders. There is an argument that this group began to form a coherent class identity based on non-conformist religion, Methodist membership almost doubled in 50 years. Questioning religion encouraged the middle class to question the social structure and other previously accepted traditions. The rise of the middle class has long seen to be cemented in the passage of the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act which gave them the right to vote. This gave the middle class (limited) political power which was further bolstered by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which enabled them to impose their ideal on the lower orders. Victorian society is a catalogue of charitable reform by the middle class from establishing ragged schools to building sewers and purifying East End water supplies. And yet some argue that the middle class was a myth. As a group they were too varied to really form a coherent class identity. What this period actually saw was a rise in middle class intellectualism, and as a result a growing body of literature singing their praises. Aristocratic fear of the ‘labouring’ masses enabled them to seize the opportunity to gain political power and government concessions. A very narrow section of society was thus able to stamp its beliefs and ideals on the entire nation, meaning that the middle class was more of an ideal than something that actually existed.

Next we shall consider ‘the rise’ of the working class; Thompson claimed that between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interest among themselves and against their employers. A glance at any popular history on the subject this would certainly seem the case. Organised meetings such as those at Peterloo in 1819 and the survival of working class union groups like the L.C.S in spite of the prolonged attempts by the government to stamp them out seem to provide conclusive evidence. But, as Prothero has pointed out, caution should be exercised; what most historians mean when they talk of the working class becoming politically active, is actually artisans becoming politically active, a group which Marx grouped with the middle class in his early writings. Mayhew claimed in 1884 that the mass of the workers held ‘no political opinions whatever’, and it may well be true that many had little time for anything other than working, eating and sleeping given the appalling working conditions for the poor at this time. Even so, as Thompson correctly pointed out, working class consciousness was far more apparent in urban areas than in rural counterparts. Wales provides a case in point here; in the North there remained a dichotomous perception of society between the English speaking landowners and the Welsh speakers that made up of the rest of the community. In the industrialised South, in places like Merthyr, class consciousness was more radical and a dichotomous ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude could be utilised alongside the growing understanding of politics as in the 1831 Merthyr riots over pay, and the right for Merthyr to return an MP to Parliament. By 1832, the concept of class was understood by those who would conform to Marx’s concept of the working class, although it is doubtful that it overtook more traditional ways of looking at social relationships in popularity by this point.

One final group remains to be looked at, a group that in the words of Davidoff and Hall has, for the most part, been relegated by historians to ‘domestic obscurity’. They go on to argue that women have the misfortune of being classified purely by gender, whereas men are also defined by class, thus denying women their proper role in the historical process. Whilst it is true that women are often overlooked by historians and contemporaries alike it would be a mistake to deny them any class consciousness. Whilst women were no doubt aware of their inferior status in relation to men, they could have been no less aware of the shortcomings of class. For instance a poor factory girl might have classed herself first as a woman she could not but be aware that she belonged to the lower orders, that she would not be welcomed into the society of her middle or upper class ‘sisters’. This was as clear in 1832 as in 1910 when Constance Lytton disguised herself as a common worker to expose the difference in treatment suffragettes received in the prison system based on class. What is clear is that barred from the political world in many cases, although Barbara Taylor draws attention to the Owenite socialist feminists, it was harder for women to show outward expressions of class consciousness, but this does not mean that they did not feel it.

If then class was a concept widely recognised by 1832, and this is an essay about when the concept was first articulated it might seem strange to continue the discussion on into ‘the age of reform’ and high Victorian period. To do otherwise however would be to ignore a large portion of the historiographical debate over class; historians like Wharman maintain that the Industrial Revolution far from confirming the existence of class, actually instigated its creation. Cannadine argues that other concepts overtook class in contemporary opinion, for example the idea of respectability, an idea which consequently became more important. In addition Hierarchy remained important, for example in 1867 R.D. Baxter identified 69 occupational groups in the hierarchy of labour. The road towards class consciousness was along and rocky one.

In conclusion the story of class has been convoluted and complex; as a method of understanding social relationships it took a long time to outshine earlier methods. Even into the early twentieth century (and, arguably, right up to the present day) alternative perceptions of ‘class consciousness’ existed. Individual position in the hierarchy of society could be seen as more important as class boundaries, especially as increasingly people came to believe that education and business could help them up the rungs of the ladder. Similarly the dichotomous social relationship of ‘us’ and ‘them’ remained very powerful, the boundaries often changed and were never very clear and often temporary but it provided the way in which many viewed the world around them. Many of the working class movements seen to be examples of class consciousness on a Marxist basis by historians undoubtedly recruited many of their members by emphasising the idea of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Class as a triadic concept really began with the thinkers and intellectuals of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, slowly disseminating through society as the results of mechanised industry and the growing service sector created a visible ‘middling sort’ who were neither terribly rich nor terribly poor. The idea of the three classes gained acceptance n the popular mindset the reality was that the members of each class had relatively little in common with each other, their income, opinions and standard of living varied widely and there was confusion as to where class boundaries should be. As Dicey asked where does one class end and the next begin? In rural areas ‘us’ and ‘them’ ruled supreme. In short although the traditional historiography has its merits it oversimplified and condensed what was, in reality, a lengthy and complex process from the birth of the idea of ‘class’ as social groupings in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries through to the realisation of the rural agricultural worker that social relationships consisted of more than their self and their family against ‘them’ consisting of everyone from their richer neighbour to the monarch.


  • D. Hay and N. Rogers, Eighteenth-Century English Society (1997), chapters 2 and 12. 
  • D. Cannadine, Class in Britain (1998), chapters 1-3. 
  • R.J. Morris, Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution 1780-1850 (1979). 
  • A. Briggs, ‘The language of ‘class’ in early nineteenth-century England’ in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History (1960). 
  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), preface, chapters 5,6. 
  • H. Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 (1969), chapters 2,6,7. 
  • L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (1987), prologue. 
  • A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (1995), introduction. 
  • P.J. Corfield, ‘Class by name and number in eighteenth-century Britain’, History 72 (1987) 
  • D. Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780-1840 (1995), chapter 1. 
  • J. Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial Britain (1986), pp.383-93.

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