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Revision: Class

Paper 10 Revision:

Class: 1750 - 1850

Past Paper Questions: 

  • ‘The notion of class consciousness in the period 1750-1850 is fanciful.’ Discuss. 
  • ‘Any attempt to assert the three-class model of social organisation before 1870 is undermined by diversities within each supposed class.’ Discuss with reference to either the ‘working class’ or the ‘middle class’ or the ‘upper class’. 
  • Was ‘class’ just another ‘imagined community’ of the nineteenth century? Discuss with reference to either middle-class or working-class consciousness. 
  • ‘Historians have abandoned the working class and embraced the middle class.’ Is this a fair evaluation of recent trends in the historiography of class? Discuss with reference to any period of one hundred years. 
  • To what extent and why has ‘class’ lost its explanatory power? Discuss with reference to any period of at least one hundred years between 1700 and 1914. 
  • Britons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resorted to a variety of models for thinking about the structure of their society. What do these models tell us about the actual organisation of their society? Answer with respect to any period of at least fifty years between 1700 and 1914. 
  • What were the contributions of class and locality to variations in mortality and fertility? Discuss with reference of any period of one hundred years between 1700 and 1914. 
  • Examine the usefulness of ‘class’ for understanding the organisation of British society for any period of a hundred years between 1700 and 1914. 
  • ‘In the years from 1780 to 1850, the language of class served to camouflage status divisions among working people but not to overcome them.’ Discuss. 
  • In what contexts, and by whom, were the popular ideas of ‘class’ first articulated, and how widely were they accepted? 

What is ‘class’? 

Its study has been, and continues to be, made difficult by a lack of consensus on a definition. Perkins (1969) described it, somewhat wordily, in terms of vertical and horizontal relations. It was a very important construct for the C20th. But social status always has been. Eg. 1776 Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’, asserted that social identity was primarily determined by occupation and employment.

There is a belief that class difference must necessarily mean class conflict. Others argue for it simply being a descriptive label which need not carry deeper connotations.(vs. Class ‘consciousness’) There has been too much focus in recent years on linguistics. Contemporaries used ‘class’ as a term synonymous with ‘sorts’, ‘parts’, etc. Eg. Pitt the Younger described the labouring poor as a ‘class’ in Parliament in 1796.

The popular concept of ‘class’ generally refers to the Marxist idea of ‘class in itself becoming a class for itself.’ I.e. A group of people with common characteristics commonly bound to rents, profits and wages, recognising the fact.

Class Historiography 

‘Class’ was believed to have been created by the Industrial Revolution. Eg. E.P.Thompson. Perkins argues it was born in the industrial cities like Manchester. Then comes the impact of the ‘slow growth’ theory. If there was no ‘revolution’ then was there any change? Some argue that the medieval hierarchical view of society with its immovable ‘ranks’ and ‘orders’ held sway well into the mid-Victorian period.

A two class structure. Some argue that the dichotomous ‘us’ and ‘them’, dating from primitive society, remained the primary way contemporaries understood their position in society. Eg. Henry Fielding: there are ‘two great divisions, those that use their own hands, and those that employ the hands of others.’

Class before the ‘industrial revolution’ 

  • Classless Society. (Perkins) / Latent. (Rule) / Hierarchy. An entrenched idea; eg. Coronation and funeral processions. 
  • Broader Classification - We can see a growing trend towards this. Eg. In 1709 Daniel Defoe categorised British society into 7 groupings, ranging from ‘the great, who live profusely’ to ‘the miserable, the really pinch and suffer want.’ (as opposed to the tiny incremental differences in social status) 
  • An example of a tripartite structure. (Corfield) A 1624 statute outlawing public swearing on pain of a universal fine of 1/- was modified in 1695; now those ranking above a labourer should pay 2/-. 1746 it was tweaked again so that those of the rank of gentleman or above should pay 5/-. 
  • So, what we see is the creation of a middle class from a dichotomous structure. 


It’s inescapable and has driven many social historians to view it as a hopeless time. Thomas Paine, 1791: There are two classes, ‘those who pay taxes and those who receive and live upon taxes.’ 1.2% of families in 1688 and 1.4% in 1803 received c. 1/7th of the national income. In 1861 it was claimed that 150 men owned over half the land of England. In 1803 over a million people, ie. 1/9th of the population, was reckoned to be in receipt of poor relief. Not everyone was so pessimistic though. Eg. Macaulay argued that to future generations Victorian England would appear a golden age, “when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy.’

Creation of the ‘Upper Class’ 

Cohesion as defence. 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.’ Steps had to be taken to prevent the ‘mob’ from becoming too powerful. Especially as they watched events unfold across the channel. Eg. Imposed stamp duty on newspapers thus lifting them out of the price range of the average worker. Passed the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 to prevent trade union activity. Seditious Meetings Act of 1819. But they were not homogeneous. Intermarriage with the nouveaux riche became increasingly common. Younger sons entered the professions. Eg. 4th Duke of Devonshire left each of his two younger sons £1,000 to set themselves up in politics. After 1800 commerce for profit lost its dubious legal status and the aristocracy became involved in industry. Yet in the 1820s there was a revival in some circles of traditional paternalism. (Keynesian economics – esp. opposed to the new poor law of 1834.) Still seen late in the century. Eg. opening of Cadbury’s model village in the 1890s.

Creation of the ‘Middle Class’ 

In contemporary words: ‘the glory of Britain’ (Brougham to HofL, 1831: ‘By the people… I mean the middle classes, the wealth and intelligence of the country, the glory of the British name.’) Traditionally thought to be created by the ind rev, and recognised by the Great Reform Act of 1832 (and Municipal Corporation Act of 1835). Eg. Thompson said they were all but invisible in the C18th. This was a group that did not fit appear to fit the dichotomous structure. They were neither landed, nor living in poverty. They became increasingly visible (not necessarily through industry; Rule points out that few areas outside the ‘cottonopolis’ towns had the structure for this) through the service sector. They were also becoming ‘respectable’, an important concept. Eg. The Apothecaries Act of 1815, and the foundation of the Law Society in 1825. Most historians reckon that the lower limits of the MC was £200pa. But people pulled off the veneer on less.

Creation of the ‘Working Class’ 

E.P. Thompson claimed it happened between 1780 and 1832. This is supposedly helped along by events like Peterloo, fashioning a common enemy. And the writings of people like William Cobbett and Richard Carlile. Eg. Cobbett: ‘I defy you to agitate a man on a full stomach.’ Key dates = 1831 Swing Riots. 1838 Chartism. 1836 removal of all but the last penny of stamp duty. 1847 Ten Hours Act.

Variations within Class 

Eg, West Riding survey, 1839 found that clothdrawers earned 24s.6d a weeks with 12 months work, vs. 13s-14s per week for ten months for weavers, shoemakers and woolcombers.

Gender Impact 

Davidoff and Hall (1987) argue that the two cannot be separated. Women, D and H argue, are too often relegated to ‘domestic obscurity’ by historians. Barbara Taylor looked at Owenite feminists. (1820s-40s) But, generally, the wc had a conservative gender outlook.

The Empire - Peter Marshall argues it reinforced a hierarchical view of the world.

Chartism: A Case Study. The working classes were too divided.

Popular Culture. E.M. shared culture says Burke. WC leisure was envisaged as good and wholesome by Thompson. Based on commercialism says Plumb. Eg. gin consumption increased six times 1700-43.


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