We tend to think of the middle classes as characteristically Victorian, and we assume that middle class conditions and attitudes adequately represent all of Victorian England. Even Queen Victoria, social historians like to remind us, often acted in ways that had more in common with the middle classes of her own time than with the immoral aristocracy of the previous century. But as the historian Eric Hobsbawm forcefully points out,

the genuine middle class was not large, In terms of income it might coincide with the 200,000 English and Welsh assessments over 300 a year for income tax under Schedule D (profits of business, the professions and investments) in 1865-6, of which 7,500 were for incomes of over 5,000 a year — very substantial wealth in those days — and 42,000 for incomes of 1,000-5,000. This relatively small community would include the 17,000-odd merchants and bankers of 1871, the 1,700-odd "ship-owners", the unknown number of factory and mine owners, most of the 15,000 doctors, the 12,000 solicitors and 3,500 barristers, the 7,000 architects and 5,000 engineers . . . It would not contain many of what are today called intellectuals or "creative" occupations. . . . The widest definition of the middle classes or those who aspired to imitate them was that of keeping domestic servants. . . . But in 1871 there were only 90,000 female cooks and not many more housemaids, which gives a more precise — though probably too narrow — measure of the real size of the middle class; and a gauge of the even more affluent, 16,000 private coachmen. [134-135]

References

Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.


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Last modified 22 March 2001