The early nineteenth century was a period of profound social change in England, one in which social relationships were changing profoundly as new work practices were ushered in by the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. Increased urbanization and a move away from traditional agricultural work practices was clearly going to change the way people thought about themselves and the fabric of their society. Political radicalisation – either by conservative Tories, 'radical' Whig aristocrats or genuine Painite Radicals – was intensified by the French Revolution and continued until the mid-Victorian period. Politicians and pundits on both sides of the divide used a variety of social models to describe how their society was structured, but in most cases there was an ulterior motive behind their characterisation – rarely did the sociological and statistical data exist to back up their interpretations. Social reality was very complex and each particular model may rightly be esteemed insofar as it acknowledges this complexity: the Manichean bipolar view of rich vs. poor or the tripartite notion of "upper", "middling" and "lower" classes serving political purposes rather than describing the social reality. The hierarchical model of society can thus be seen as the most useful, because it is the most complex – no class was clearly delineated nor did any appear to act in a cohesive way as a 'class for-itself', i.e. acting towards its own interests. Significant gradations of status within classes support the hierarchical concept.
Prior to the French Revolution, the hierarchical model of society had been very widely accepted in England – but the egalitarian notions of the Revolution challenged this. It thus became necessary for the established order to vociferously defend itself in the face of new – and, to it, dangerous – ideas. Battle was joined with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790. Burke was convinced of the existence of a hierarchical structure in society, one which was not only divinely-ordained but necessary to Civilization – he thought that any change should be organic and based on the old system, rather than seeking to sweep it away. A reply came in the form of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, which demanded manhood suffrage and criticised the old society down to its very core: it was social description that encouraged political revolution. Paine split society into two, mutually hostile, parts – tax-payers and tax-receivers. He believed that the tax-payers were the industrious part of society who should overthrow the government and establish themselves as part of it. This dichotomous view of society was, of course, far too stark – it served a purpose only as political rhetoric. Not only were the 'working classes' not a strictly defined group, nor was the establishment it opposed – did this include the 'middling classes', or just the aristocracy? If Paine had posited his work on a more complex social order, such as the sort that actually existed, he would have had to have answered this question. The situation was confused because Burke had also demonstrated his ability to move between different models of society – he claimed that the 'lower classes' consisted of a 'mob' and a 'rabble', but again it was not clear exactly who these 'lower classes' were. The very fact the term is plural is telling.
As people portrayed the hierarchical vision of society in increasingly idealised terms, they began to insist on its virtues. The Reverend William Otter says a society such as this was a "harmonious whole", because each 'layer' of it felt better off than those below it and only a little worse off than those above. There is a lot of evidence that the hierarchical model of society was indeed the most applicable – and it was certainly the landed aristocracy that pushed its interests most resolutely through Parliament in this period. Both the Reform Bill of 1832 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – which were portrayed by many contemporaries as middle-class victories – were supposed to re-assert the dominance of the established order. Whigs in the period 1830 – 32 feared that rotten boroughs were de-legitimising the Parliamentary system as a whole, and that only a concession could save it. In doing so they mostly fell back on the tripartite model of society, one which split it into a 'lower' or 'labouring' class, a 'middle' class and an 'upper' class. The concept of a "middle class" was fostered between the 1780s and the 1820s because it served a political purpose to both Whigs and Radicals.
But this recourse to the tripartite model of society by the Whigs was done largely in an attempt to save the actual hierarchical one. There existed no sociological evidence that a "middle class" was indeed forming – especially not one which so starkly demonstrated the virtues the Whigs praised it for, namely industry, intelligence and patriotism. The fact Whigs used such vague concepts in defining the middle-class shows how much it was a rhetorical construction – there is no evidence of a coherent body in this period that acted in the favour of 'middle-class' interests. The middle classes were split by many different occupational, regional and religious differences – R. J. Morris suggests that if there was any unified middle-class consciousness, it unified behind evangelical religion. Evangelical religion, though, placed much importance on ideas of social hierarchy and paternalism – thus the main efforts of the middle classes with regard to society seem to have gone into philanthropic organisations that aimed to help the "lower orders". This sort of philanthropy establishes a dichotomy between the receiver and the giver – or between rich and poor – but the distinction may not have been so great. F.M.L. Thompson stresses that the working classes were not just passive receptacles into which the middle-class poured their philanthropy and bourgeois virtues: they had their own culture that developed along its own lines. Rather than seeing the "reformation of manners" of the proletariat as a product of embourgeoisment, there was rather a system of subtle gradations at work: the working classes were able to develop the more desirable qualities of the upper classes on their own. This suggests they were not as radically different from their 'betters' as a dichotomous view of society might suggest.
In a way, the 'middle classes' were here using the triadic version of society to support the hierarchical: they hoped to preserve social discipline by changing the distribution of wealth. The Whig aristocracy hoped to keep the old order stable by enfranchising the ‘middle classes’ and heaping praise upon them. The myths they created – that the middle classes were now in charge of the English nation – had a variety of effects. The working classes felt betrayed by the middle-classes, who they now saw as having in effect 'sold out' to "Old Corruption": the 'Them' of Manichean Radicalism. But 1832 in no way heralded a new era of middle-class dominance, nor a period of working-class recalcitrance. Chartism failed to bring about the political revolution it desired, and the proletarian revolution that Marx predicted was equally conspicuous in its absence. As in the middle-classes, there were many subtle gradations among the 'working classes' – from unskilled manual workers to the so-called 'labour aristocracy' that Marxists would later blame for derailing the consciousness of the working classes. Although Chartism and Radicals like William Cobbet claimed to stand for the interest of the 'labouring class', their demands did not coincide with those of actual trade unions. Whilst trade unions usually focused on gaining higher wages or better working conditions, the Chartists believed that the dichotomy in society was between the enfranchised and those without the vote.
Chartists believed that the socio-economic woes of the working classes stemmed from political problems – and hence their remedy was political. They took for granted the labour theory of value, and logically asked why it was that 'working folk' were so poor when all value stemmed from labour. Their answer was that the ‘upper classes’ expropriated the wealth of the workers through legal and political power. Owenism, which viewed a solution to the problems of the workers within the current civil society, was in the view of the Chartists not practically possible until manhood suffrage – wealth followed from political power, and not vice-versa. Given that the old aristocratic interest still dominated political and social life, and that entry into either of these was mainly through wealth, the binary model of the Chartists seems doubtful. However, it is certainly a true statement to say that society was split between the enfranchised and the disenfranchised – the question is how acutely this split was felt. Chartism did gather many supporters in urban areas, but they came from very different occupational backgrounds and were usually rebelling against particular local interests. It should be noted that rural Chartism was nearly unknown, and yet many rural labourers were disenfranchised. Chartism provided the disenfranchised with a reasonably coherent ideology and a chance to work towards their goal – but failed to bring about a social revolution. Its eventual, almost farcical, fizzling out says something about 'working-class' solidarity during this period.
Maybe Radical agitators had a point when they adopted their binary view of society which opposed 'Them' and 'Us'. It was at least true that the middle and upper classes were starting to gel together in some ways. This, of course, invalidates the triadic view of society, with its strictly-separated upper and middle classes – for there were many subtle gradations in the middle. It is better to see society as a web or a fabric where each subtle chain flows into the next – the idea of massive social gulfs appealed to Radicals because it allowed them to advance their political platform, but in reality was not resonant among the people. Even the facts on the ground in cities disproved the idea of a massively-split society – because peoples' class isn't just defined by their relationship to the means of production, but also by their experiences in leisure and at home. Cities didn't have such clearly defined 'working', 'middle' and 'upper' class districts as might be supposed – and although social enquiry was needed by the Government to find out the true state of the 'residuum', poorer districts were not just the haunt of the "mob". People had many other means of social identity apart from just how they worked – they might support a local football team or frequent a local coffee-house which could cut across the triadic class boundaries. The Owenite belief that the middle classes had inherited the whips of oppression from the aristocracy looks doubtful when we consider how the middle and working classes mingled in the cities – and how subtle was the split between them.
The class language of the day suffers another blow to its credibility when we consider that it frequently only addressed the experience of working men. Child labour was a very important part of working class lives and being a proletarian in their formative years must have had a big effect on many children. Similarly, the experience of women at work is surely very different to the experience of men. Gender affects how people interact with each other, and so we cannot hope to form a social model of the day just by looking at class. Class is gendered – but gender is also classed, because men and women of different classes would perhaps behave differently to men and women of other classes. This is especially applicable if we view class as a 'relationship' as E.P. Thompson suggested we do – if class is disparate people acting concertedly towards their own interests, then surely we must admit that the interests of working class women differed from those of working class men. To form a picture of the 'working classes' we must take into account the experiences of more than just half of them.
There was, then, no massive social gulf between different social classes. The bipolar model may look believable if one compares the richest aristocrat to the lowliest plebeian – but to do so ignores the innumerable gradations of class that existed in-between. The triadic model perhaps does not suffer from this flaw quite so blatantly, but still does not accept the way social status flowed in a fabric – there were no more two gulfs than there were one. It certainly suited the political interests of both aristocratic Whigs and of Radicals to suppose the existence of the middle-class, but there was very little middle-class legislation pushed through Parliament in this period. They pushed for commercial legislation and financial reform, but had little success – the only time anything which was ostensibly in their interests was passed, it was in fact an aristocratic ploy to uphold the old order. The Municipal Corporations Act was supposed to usher in middle-class rule in the towns and free them from aristocratic influence – but this did not always happen, and when it did the boards were often torn by occupational and sectional interest within the middle-classes. There seems to be little evidence of a concerted middle-class conspiracy, nor one of the working-classes. Class consciousness might have existed in the Radical press and in the eyes of Government ministers, but in reality the facts on the ground were much more complex. Social models might have helped people understand the complex situation, but in the final analysis it is only the most complex – that of hierarchy – that offers real insight. Neither the economic starkness of Marxism nor the political starkness of Chartism seem to have had real resonance with people at the time – according to Robert Roberts, the working-classes thought the woes of the "proletarian" were "none of their business".
P. Joyce (ed.), Class
D. Cannadine, Class in Britain
G. Stedman Jones, Languages of Class
S. Szreter, Class, Fertility and Gender
F.M.L. Thompson, 'Social Control in Victorian Britain', Economic History Review, 1981
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class