Class Structure of Victorian England
The Working Class
Members of the working class are not very visible in most Victorian fiction or in popular conceptions of Victorian life, but ironically, three out of four people did manual labor. The majority of these workers were agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and factory hands. The remaining percentage of people had unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled jobs in mining, fishing, transporting, building, the garment industry, and other manual trades.
Most people of the working class earned just enough to stay alive; they could easily be thrown into poverty by illness, layoffs or even a sudden misfortune that could have caused a short-term employment. People in unskilled and semiskilled jobs generally needed more income from other members of the family. Since manual labor was as demanding as it was, working men were often most highly paid in their twenties because at their peak physically. At this age, they married and for a year or two, husband and wife continued to work and there was even a little money for a few extra things. But upon the arrival of children, a woman could not continue to work a twelve to fourteen hour day. She might have earnings at home where she did piecework or took in a lodger. The family would be quite poor, while the children were small.
As the man grew older, he earned less as a result of his diminishing physical condition. Girls and boys had to start working at a very young age. They had very little schooling and even before they were old enough to have regular jobs, they often helped in the same work done by older members of the family. Once the children were all working, the family could temporarily rise above the poverty level. The parents might be able to accumulate a little savings for their own households after all of the children were married. At that stage of the parents’ lives, poor food and hard labor had weakened their health. They could not earn nearly as much as when they were younger. If they lived to be old, they would more than likely be very poor and return to poverty status. Their days in the workhouse would end if their children could afford to take care of them.
The Middle Class
During the Victorian period the middle class grew in size and importance. It made up about fifteen percent of the population. The middle class was a diverse group that included everyone between the working class and the elite class. The middle class included sucessful industrialists and wealthy bankers. It also included poor clerks that normally earned only half as much as skilled workers such as a printer or a railway engine driver, but a clerk would still be considered middle class, because income was not the defining factor of class, the source was.
The people with the highest social standing were the professionals within the middle class. This part of middle class was often called the upper middle class.This group included Church of England clergymen, military and naval officers, men who were in the higher-status branches of law and medicine, those at the upper levels of governmental services, and university professors. Later on in this period, civil engineers and architectural occupations were added. This sector of the middle class was mostly urban. Their sons were educated at boarding schools and universities.
Another portion of the upper middle class was made of those whose success was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. Large-scale merchants, manufacturers, and bankers achieved class mobility by also becoming able to send their sons and daughters to school. Before the Industrial Revolution, this would not have been possible.
The lower middle class consisted of small shopkeepers and clerical workers. To work, they needed to be literate, but higher education was not necessary. Their children were kept in school until the age of twelve or fourteen, whereupon they worked in the family shop, or in some other suitable occupation. As London started to become a world center of business and finance, the white collar world grew enormously, now including clerks, middle managers, bookkeepers, and lower-level government workers.
The middle class still maintained a shared set of values and ideas even though they had achieved status and income. They had to keep some type of household and they despised their aristocratic counterparts who remained idle in their work. They valued hard work, sexual morality, and individual responsibility. Their education became increasingly important and sons who were not sent off to elite boarding schools, had the chance to go to local grammar schools, or they went to private schools with set curriculums. The middle classes were predominantl churchgoing and most professional classes attended the Church of England.
The idealization of family life and togetherness were characteristic of the middle class because they had the opportunity to be together. The working class sent their children to work at a fairly young age, and upper class children were raised by servants and saw little of their parents. Other virtues included sobriety, thrift, ambition, punctuality, and constructive use of their leisure time. Middle class men did not marry until the age of 27 or 30 because of the importance of being financially stable.
A man’s status depended mostly on his occupation and the family he was born into. A married woman’s status came from her husband. The clergymen of the Church of England in minor parishes might have had very small incomes, but they were still considered gentlemen because of their education, values ,and community position.
The Elite Class
The hereditary land-owning class was made up of aristocrats and the gentry. In the case of the aristocrats, the title and land usually went to the oldest son. With nineteenth century moral reforms coming to the forefront, the upper-class life of leisure and enjoyment lost favor. During this period, when the oldest son received the land, he was expected to actually do something besides just mulling about. He was expected to sit in Parliament, have a hand in local affairs, and use his influence in a charitable cause, even though he did not do any paid work. The younger sons might have inherited some of the estate, but they were prepared to enter a profession, especially as military officers, clergymen, or colonial administrators. As a whole, the aristocracy formed a separate class under law. The children of aristocrats were also aristocrats with special rights.
Aristocrats made a lot of money off of their land. The wealthiest aristocrats made about 30,000 pounds per year. Others made about 10,000 pounds per year. To put this into perspective, people in the lower classes such as farm laborers and soldiers only made about twenty five pounds per year. The aristocrat put aside 150 pounds per year for his sons from the day that they were born in order to send them to Eton to become gentlemen. Likewise, he put away 100 pounds per year for his daughters so that their social expenses could be accounted for.
Upper class incomes were stated in terms of land, rather than money. Usually, land brought one pound per acre, per year. Estates were most often protected by wills and deeds requiring them to be passed to the oldest son. This sytem was known as primogeniture. Also, there were further deeds which restricted what a landowner could do with his inherited property. This assured that the estate would be passed on properly to the next generation.
The head of a titled family had responsibilities and privileges. He couldn’t be arrested for debt, and if he was charged with a criminal offense, he would be tried by a “jury of his peers”, made up of other noblemen, in a special court held in Westminster Hall rather than in an ordinary criminal court.
Aristocrats spent half the year in London attending to business in the Parliament, and were nationally important. Most important however, were the landed gentry. A landed estate included a hall or manor house, a home farm that was managed by a bailiff, several farms that were occupied by tenants, and a village or two in which farm laborers lived. The landed gentleman usually did not have a house in town. He spent most of the year on his estate, taking an active position on local issues. Generally, he was called “Squire”, which is a customary term for the most influential local landowner. During this time period, there were about two thousand squires with estates of between one thousand and three thousand acres. They were expected to be a justice of the peace and to take interest in the countryside, and also to promote local charities.