The Differences In The Social Classes Of Mid-Victorian England I. Introduction In the Mid-Victorian period in English history there were distinct class differences in its society. There were three classes in England. These were the Aristocracy, the Middle-Class (or Factory owners) and the working class. Each class had specific characteristics that defined its behavior.
These characteristics were best seen in four areas of British society. During the time-period known by most historians as the Industrial Revolution, a great change overtook British culture. Aside from the political and economic change which occurred, a profound social alteration transpired. The populace seeking to better their lives, sought employment in newly-formed industries. Many of the workers which included women and children, labored through 12 hour work shifts, with poor nutrition, poor living conditions and completing tedious tasks1.
These factors, accompanied by various ideological precepts by Britain’s intellectual community, and those concepts imported from France, provoke a crucial social evolution. Though no government was overthrown, a distinct transformation took place causing rebellious behavior to erupt among the working class. This essay will address the questions of how and why this behavior was expressed by the lower order of British society. It will also discuss methods the ruling class used in suppressing and controlling the rebellious behavior exhibited by the working class. The middle class held to two basic ideologies that served in the exploitation of the lower order of the British society.
Richard Atlick identified them as Utilitarianism (or Benthamism) and Evangelicalism. Both served the self-interested inclinations of the middle class. Utilitarianism created the need to fulfill a principle of pleasure while minimalization pain. In the context of the “industrial revolution” this meant that the pleasure extracted from life would be at the working classes’ expense. This provided a perfect justification for the middle class to capitalize on. The working class of Britain, throughout the industrial revolution and through the Victorian age, acted in a defiant manner toward both the aristocracy and middle class. This behavior extended from the everyday activities of the workers to radical anarchist movements that categorized the underground.
The middle class seemed to be just as familiar with the inverse of Benthamism as they were with its normal application. The pleasure principle was measured in terms of minimalization of pain. If the sum of pain, in a given situation, is less than the sum of pleasure, than it should be deemed pleasurable. The inverse principle applied to the working class was how pain (work) can be inflicted, with the absolute minimum distribution of pleasure (wages), without creating an uprising. This was seen in Andrew Ure’s article. He eloquently defended the industrial system and dismissed the infractions as conjecture.
However, the argument made by Ure clearly pointed to the existence of disciplinary actions being performed by the industrialist and how these were allowed by the government. His argument stated that no employer wished to beat their young employees and, if it occurred, then it was on a small level. The argument did not condemn the use of physical discipline. It did not directly acknowledge its occurrence, but neatly circumvented the issue by saying it was not the “wishes” of the employer. This was an example of the beliefs of the middle class to take disciplinary and suppressive actions taken against the working class.
The second, Evangelicalism, was considered to be selfish because of its inflexibility toward actions outside of its moral realm. The Church at that time would help the poor only to pacify its conscience. Andrew Mearns, in his article ” The Bitter Cry of Outcast London”, investigated the misery of the working class and exhorted the church for inactivity on the working classes behalf. He stated that “whilst we have been building our churches and solacing ourselves with our religion . .
. the poor have been growing poorer, the wretched more miserable, and the immoral more corrupt.” He continued, listing detailed accounts of how the lower class survived and suffered. It was written to evoke a reaction from the church attending middle class. Isolated by these ideologies and rigid social class distinctions, the lower class began to resent the industrialists that employed them. There were basically two types of radicals that followed a more active part in expressing their disdain for the system that imprisoned them; as discussed in the book Radical Underworld.
The first group of radicals engaged in carousing, pamphleteering and the proliferation of pornography. This printing and distribution of resistant and even seditious material toward the system was frowned upon by the government. The carousing and debauched behavior was a rebellious social statement emphasizing the lower classes’ rejection of the hypocritical social restraint the middle class attained to. A second group of radicals pursued their anarchist agendas to the point of destroying machinery in an unbeseeming manner. These extremists performed any act that would disrupt the system and discredit the government by making it appear inept at stopping the social unrest.
This was a direct reaction to the isolation caused by the difference in social class. The behavior of the working class was termed rebellious by the middle class and aristocracy of British society. The expression “rebellious” characterized their deviation from the conservative norms established by the middle-class. James Phillips Kay argued that the environment industrialization created in Britain was responsible for the cultivation of this immoral behavior. He continued by pointing out the “ceaseless drudgery” of the work that the person must perform; “in squalid wretchedness, on meagre food and expends his superfluous gains on debauchery.” This allowed the working class to justify their departure from the illusionary “traditional” values the middle class promoted and their adoption of a system fitting to their social environment.
Adam Smith justified the oppressive environment that the working class was subjected to was in his work “Wealth of Nations”. He introduced the concept of “Laisser – faire” to government and its role in the economy. By adopting the “hands off ” policy, the British government created an environment which was conducive to a pure state of capitalism. In this mode, the industries were given a blank check for the exploitation of the working class. The result was large-scale urbanization and industrialization that produced hideous living and working conditions.
Various ideologies arose from intellectuals and radicals of England, Ireland and the ensuing French revolution. These ideas of liberty, rights, equality and revolution were introduced to the masses and prompted the motivation for change. However, revolution never occurred as the government allowed the working class opportunities to vent its social frustrations. These “opportunities” were found in the lower classes leisure time. Spending time in pubs, theaters, music halls and sporting activities created an outlet for the miserable and unhappy.
Thus, the rebellious behavior exhibited by the working class of the British society was demonstrated in everyday life and justified by both the living and working conditions of workers. The issue of the disciplinary and suppressive actions initiated by the middle and ruling class was deliberate and calculated. This discipline was used in culling the behavior of the working class and maximizing its productivity. Industrialization and urbanization took a toll on the British lower social order, but, consequently, did not push it into a revolution. This is to the credit of a society that had the ability to express itself in coping with social inconsistencies and change.