HIST 215: Guest Lecture: Prof. Brian Lewis: Social Class in 19 Century Britain
1. Decoding Downton
[Downton Abbey; Earl & Countess of Grantham]; Highclere Castle; Lord and Lady Caernarvon.
o The hit British TV Soap Opera
o It’s about the fictional ecounters of Grantham (3 daughters and the household) filmed in
Highclear castle… South Central England.
o Begins with death in 1912 on the Titanic. Death to the heir of the estate—bc aristocratic
passed down through male line, the 3 daughters would again be overlooked in terms of
inherting the estate in favour of next male who turns out to be a distant cousin. Matthew
o 1780s- outbreak of WW1
o Downton abbey demonstrates status divisions in English society.
o The Crawley character shows middle classes into the story as well.
o People know their place and follow their code.
2. The Origins of Class
o What do we mean by class?
o Derivation from Latin classis; in English language from C16th; modern usage from
late C18th/early C19th to signify socio-economic stratifications in capitalist
societies. Division of people of ancient Rome according to how much property they
owned. th th
o Modern usage to distinguish social and economic layers from late 18 -19
centuries…western societies were being transformed by industrialization.
o An older language of ranks, orders, decrees was gradually supplanted by class terms.
Social class went on to become principal form of stratification.
o There is potential for moving through classes.
o Class is a complicated term because of its multiple uses:
Objective (based on income, property, occupation, education, etc); may or
may not be used or understood by people themselves.
Subjective: class as “imagined community”; (c) “class” used to
describe/analyze inequalities of wealth/power in “class-divided societies”.
Working class believes that they share similar economic resources and
lifestyles as other people elsewhere.
“Class” describes and analyzes wealth and power in a class divided society
even in absence of language of class.
Variety of class terms:
o Relational (upper, middle, lower—frequently replaced by working class or laboring class,
o Working/labouring; plural—middle/working classes;
o Bourgeoisie, proletariat, peasants, aristocracy, nobility;
o Politically charged—“them” v. “us”, “rich” v. “poor”, “tax-eaters” v. “taxpayers”.
Some of the main characteristics of the upper, middle and working classes weaving together some
of the objective and subjective criteria: Upper classes consisted of aristocracy and gentry. Apex of the upper classes was the Monarch
(Queen Victoria), below the monarch is the dukes, lords, earls, and vicants. Around 1900, the
wealthiest was the Duke of Westminster (1000 pounds a day) ---Average wage at that point was
about 50 pounds a year. The aristocracy made up the House of Lords in the Parliament. Replaced in
1834. In parliament, the aristos wielded a considerable amount of power. Leaders (conservatives
and liberals) and great deal of power in the local government as well as officers in the army and
navy. They also occupied all the posts in the navy.
Below aristocracy is the gentry, less rich than aristos and they did not have titles. The power of
gentry was more local and regional than national. In some senses, the upper classes were the
remnants of older based on landed wealth. Many were able to hold onto their wealth during
industrialization in spite of new industrial wealth and power. Number of reasons why:
o Rapidly growing urbanizing population needed to be fed, so farmland remained valuable.
o That was the case until 1870s. Major shift from 1870s onwards—time when the
railroads began to open up the prairies…wheat and beef could be shipped across the
Atlantic more cheaply than it could be produced in Brithin. The impact of the ships
only kicked in after WW1. It had begun in the late 19 century. In spite of this,
farmland remained valuable so the aristocracy was doing quite well. Secondly, many
of these landowners owned the lands where the mines were dug and cities
expanded—they were beneficiaries rather than victims of industrialization. Duke of
Westminster got his wealth because he owned the richest real estate in England.
o The ranks of Elite were replenished by newcomes (financiers and newcomers) who
bought their way into the aristocracy—plutocracy (ruled by the wealthy)
o The landed elite could exploit other forms of revenue—investments in railroads,
directors in Banks, or estute marriage alliances with new money or with new wealth
in United States.
o Lord Grantham marries an American heiress to shore up familys fortunes
Winston Churchill—mother was America, lord Randolf Churchill married
into American money ^
o Landed Elite number of things:
How they based their claim to power
Sense that they were performing public service to nation
They based their claim to wealth on superior education either through
governeesses or private tutors or top public schools—(private schools) and a
lot of their education emphasized classical languages and learning—another
way to separate them from bulk of population.
Conscpicuous consumption—vast dinner parties (finest wines and
champagnes), domestic servants, townhouses and devoted most of their
leisure time to field sports (foxhunting, deer stalking) to give a public
andprivate demonstration of wealth.
Paternalistic to social inferiors in the household along the estate
Rigid code of etiquette and manners (knowing which items of dress to wear,
correct aptterns of speech, right gestyre, and role of women and men)
Nouveu riche had difficulty to adjust to aristo society
Accent was a problem—heavily divided by regional and class
accents. It was easy to place someone socially by how they speak.
o Middle class people from North of England, pronounce class
3. Class Divisions
(a) Upper classes: aristocracy (dukes, marquesses, earls, lords, viscounts; Duke of Westminster;
House of Lords); gentry. --Some initially did well out of industrialization/urbanization; beginnings of decline from 1870s
because of American food-growing competition; recruitment of new wealth; marriage alliances, e.g.
with US heiresses (e.g. Lord Randolph Churchill).
--Claim to power and status depended on public service ethos; education, esp. in Classics (public
schools; Eton, Harrow; Oxford, Cambridge); conspicuous consumption; paternalism; code of
etiquette (dress, posture, speech, accent); (George Bernard Shaw).
(b) Middle classes:
Upper middle classes (bourgeoisie (merchants, mill-owners, professionals, etc);
Lower middle/petite bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, school teachers, white-collar workers, office
workers and their families); education in minor public schools, grammar schools,
Numbers expanded with rise of industry, commerce and financial sector, the development of
state bureaucracy and urban society.
Few in these ranks would have got a university education—at the top end of minor public
schools or in grammar schools in towns around the country or commercial schools.
Had local power—mainly in charge as town councilors and bureau magistrates.
Formed an extremel