Britain: the first middle-class nation?
In British history, the 1840s to the 1860s have been perceived as a kind of “Golden Age” as the economy flourished considerably. In this period, however, we see a group; the middle class and its values emerge politically and socially in full. The ‘Middle class’ as a group and terminology existed long before this period, however, during the 1840s to the 1860s we see a group of educated, affluent members of society engaging in business, trade and professionalism ever-more prominently. Britain itself can be considered as the first country in Europe where increasing social mobility became a within-reach target for members of the working class, whereas previously this was not possible due to government policy and societal values.
Government and politics in Britain helped created the so-called “Golden Age”. Emerging after Peel’s gradual repeal of the Corn Laws, food was made cheaper for the working and under class. As food became cheaper, the income of the poor stretched further than before. An improved diet meant improved health, living standards increased and so did the quality and length of life. Income and increased living standards of those in the working class helped increase social mobility and so members could ‘merge’ into the middle class (or ‘act’ like they were in the middle class to increase social standing). We had a new range of people and values which were respected in society.
This middle class was also created through the increase in transport infrastructure and the 1840s “Railway Mania”. Russell’s 1846 government saw various new railway companies and newly proposed railway routes. Along with the improving economy and with lasting results of the industrial revolution, we saw the middle class invest in railways; with investments moving away from banks alone (which were limited to those with mass amounts of wealth). Linking trading cities, especially Liverpool and Manchester, allowed for the urbanisation and the growth of towns and cities in which the middle class were based in or around.
The factory system in Britain remained the dominating form of production, Industrial manufacturing of cotton, coal and iron/steel surrounded the new transport infrastructure, making trade and exporting around the country much easier and cheaper, this, in turn, allowed the upper-working class to produce and capitalise. What were once luxuries could be afforded by the everyday consumer. The working class could afford the same goods as the middle class, thereby changing their appearance and in everyday life.
This went hand in hand with the financial services of Britain changing, the Bank of England lowered interest rates which made borrowing and investing more attractive to those who never could invest before. Economic theories too helped people begin to ‘feel’ wealthier. Standing out is the Quantity Theory of Money which proposed that prices are influenced by the amount of money in circulation, so prices will increase if more money is in circulation. During the 1840s-1860s, there was a steady upward rise in real wages against prices, so in turn, people began to feel wealthier as wages matched the price of goods.
Parliament, government and society had a strong belief of extending Britain’s influence around the world through building and expanding the Empire. Ideas based on free trade and free markets in which Britain could export products cheaply and steadily dominated the system of trading. These ideas transferred to society in Britain and so Liberal capitalist ideas of strong networking and laissez-faire economics became internalised by this educated middle-class sector who engaged in business.
The middle-class nation surrounded the social changes enforced by the government. Liberal Whig and Peelite governments during the 1840s to the 1860s (Peel, Russell, Gladstone, Aberdeen) increased health and sanitation, along with continuous education improvements (including pushing middle-class girls into higher education). These were the foundations in which the working class had increased standards of life so engaged in Liberal ideas of ‘self-help’. This virtue of ‘self-help’ predicated middle-class values, spreading around the country and into the western world considerably.
Considering Britain as the first middle-class nation is seen through the values which were held by society at the time and Britain being the first to hold on to and endorse these beliefs. Values in Britain which today we hold about education, health, trade and networking are well based upon ‘middle class’ notions of the nineteenth century. So a Western world based on British economic values of this period formed, resulting in high levels of social mobility, and human capital; beliefs held at the heart of a hard-working middle class.
By Tammara Lesko