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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: August 2012

32 - The middle classes


Class is a notoriously vexed concept, its definition and utility routinely questioned. Theorists have long debated whether it should be described as an economic category or a social formation, and whether the salient criteria used to sort populations ought to be wealth, income or living standards; occupation or profession; consciousness, status, or power; identity, outlook, or interests; or some combination of these. Despite the dissension and uncertainty, ‘class’ continues to be used as a shorthand to mark the divisions between, most broadly, the aristocracy or upper class, the middle class and the lower or working class. As with ‘class’, so with the three-class model: critiques of it are legion, yet it persists as a handy heuristic. For the period under consideration, the three-class model divides the landscape such that the Victorian middle class includes, at the very least, manufacturers, bankers and lawyers; professionals, small property holders and landlords; tradesmen, retailers and shopkeepers; clerks and clergymen, military and naval officers. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall note that included in the middle class were those whose incomes ranged from £100 to £1,000 per annum. The numbers in this income bracket varied regionally, but across the nation at mid century about 8 to 10 per cent of the population belonged in it. The spectrum is broad – too wide and unwieldy for some – and it should not be a surprise that a Cadbury of Birmingham would have little in common with a London grocer or Cornish schoolmaster.