Past, Present and Future of the Middle Classes

T. H. S. Escott in Fortnightly Review October 1 1907

Past, Present and Future of the Middle Classes

T. H. S. Escott in Fortnightly Review October 1 1907

Past, Present and Future of the Middle Classes


T. H. S. Escott in Fortnightly Review

THE social problem of the unemployed is perceived by Mr. John Burns, as well as by many others not of cabinet rank, and outside the labor group, to include a wider area and to be charged with deeper issues than may be sometimes associated with the familiar phrase. The difficulty of-the proletariate has long been, and really in a far acuter degree, that of the middle class, as indeed of every section of the community, except the plutocratic order. The difference between the better and the viler sort of out-of-work is that the latter grumblingly parade their difficulties in the public thoroughfares, resent the imposition of any sort of labor test as a condition of relief, and spice their importunate mendicity with a contemptuously irresponsible indifference to physical or mental efort, unless they happen to be in the vein for it. Their companions in unemployment, of the better kind, slave uncomplainingly at anything they can get and keep their troubles to themselves. In pre-competitive-examination days there used to be a short and simple way of providing the well-born, unemployed with a selfsupporting industry whose exercise implied no professional training, or, indeed, qualifications, educational, moral, or physical, of any sort. This device consisted in creating jobs out of nothing and financing them out of taxation.

When the State ceased to be, after this good old fashion, the nursing mother of her children, boys of gentle birth, breeding, and of liberal education turned their eyes to “something in the city.” Fiere was another step towards the fusion of classes so often talked about, whose real commencement, by the by, dates from the remote epoch when the inhabitants of these islands first became a commercial people. To-day the “something in the city,” at a decent living wage, is more difficult of access, and implies the

exercise of greater influence than did a couple of generations since, a nomination to a foreign office or a treasury clerkship. New court remains the centre, both of wealth and power, and of widely reaching beneficence, as well as of national and personal service. But the applications for a clerkship in the Rothchilds’ has even a more slender chance of success than for a desk at Coutts’ Bank. In the same way even a foothold in any of the middle class professions implies a combination of merit and luck that, if not unique, grows every day more exceptional.

What, then, are we'to do with our boys? To that question hangs another, less pressing, perhaps, but of equal, if not greater social significance: What is to become of that most artificial creation of human progress, the middle classes? It sounds a paradox. It is a demonstrably historical truth that the English middle classes are, to a large extent, the product of foreign agencies. The most conspicuous instance of this is, of course, the industrial and commercial settlements founded in England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by the Huguenots. These quickly assimilated themselves to the native population of their adopted country. Thus the Oiseaux originated the great business house of the Birds. The Bouchers and the Laboucheres both merged themselves in the Anglo-Irish Butchers, except in a well-known case in which a Labouchere rose to be Colonial Secretary of State, and, preserving his original patronymic, to found an ennobled house. Before this, during 150 years, Englishmen had remained the subjects of Norman or Angevin kings. That severe and steady pressure of the regnant alien crushed out of existence local and tribal differences. It moulded and confirmed national unity. The rulers, given by Normany and Anjou to this island, assured it a long term

of practically unbroken peace. The first Henry founded administrative stability. The second based that gift upon a foundation of law. Long years indeed were wanted to build up the new legal order. Here, again, the enterprise of English sovereigns, outside the land they governed, had its domestic and peaceful uses. The twelfth century opened with the disuse of the ancient practice converting prisoners of war into bondsmen. Already the humanizing agencies of Christianity had produced a sentiment against that slavery which was still an English institution. Feudal lords, at the instance of their ghostly confessors, were constantly enfranchising their slaves. To prove themselves consistent, the clergy, in whose hands was the administration of justice, showed special indulgence to the villians, borders, and cottars, degraded by misfortune into human chattels. Not till the reign of Charles II. was there any statutory abolition of English slavery. So late as George III. Scotch colliers received servile treatment, and if they quitted their original place, were liable to be brought back by summary procedure before a magistrate. Only in 1775, by the Act 15 Geo. III., cap. 28, were the colliers of North Britain placed on the same footing as other servants. The system, of course, was not so bad in its working as in its principle. Between 1272 and 1307 the villians had obtained a substantial degree of emancipation. Legal effect had already been given to the custom of paying wages, and permitting those serfs who possessed necessary means, to provide a substitute in the fulfilment of their lord’s command, to reap his corn, to cleans** his fish-ponds, or to cart his timber. It is, therefore, clear, that on the eve of the middle ages in this country was coming into existence a class of free laborers, at liberty to engage their services to the best bidder. Here, then, are the premediaeval germs of the English middle class. With the right of holding property, with the immunities of free men, the vassals received the power of unlimited acquisition by industry or by bar-

gain. Their food would have borne comparison with that of the same class to-day. Mutton and cheese were reserved for festivals, such as harvesthomes. Fish, especially herrings, were abundant. Unadulterated beer flowed into the hedger’s and ditcher’s can. As yet traffic in the necessities of life was managed without the commercial middlemen, who have become the symbols of modern middleclass prosperity. Farmers sold their crops immediately after harvest to the most handy buyers. Nor did corn become really clear till the winter months.

The industrial community participated in the beneficent results of the progress of manufacturing industry, and the growth of urban populations. The establishment of woolen manufacture in England was due to the Plantagenets. The chief seats of that industry had, of course, always been in the boroughs and townships. The trade existed in 1275. By 1331 it had developed into a considerable industry, stimulated and expanded by John Kempe’s invention of the weaving process in that year. Such were the contributory conditions under which during the fourteenth century, rather earlier, that is, than the conventional beginning of the middle age epoch, England first became a generally civilized country, humanized by some degree of material well-being, quickened by a general circulation of political ideas.

On the establishment of William the Conquerer’s line, the soil of England had been parcelled out among the Norman nobility. It was, therefore, in the hands of a comparatively small number. Those owners lived on their estates. For the most part they kept their management to themselves. In that task they were helped by a host of retainers and dependants. Those magnates had often been pressed for funds with which to sustain their feudal estate. They now discovered, in the new developments of English commerce, a remunerative motive for reducing their overgrown establishments. If they did not themselves directly engage in trade, they financed

those who did so. Their old troops of retainers had been dismissed; their estates were rented out. In that way they secured the funds for their commercial investments. At the same time these territorial classes adopted a more costly style of living, and indulged a taste for jewel ornaments, shared by them with the negro savage. (Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, book 3, ch. 4, speaks of the cost of the early support of i,ooo men, as going to purchase diamond buckles, and of the moral weight and authority that come from the possession of capital.) The new capitalist or landlord now wore woolen and fine linen clothes, instead of coarse canvas and a leather jerkin. The stone walls of his mansion began to be covered with whitewash, or even with wall hangings ; the floor, at a later date, with carpets in the place of rushes. Through the glass of his latticed windows the owner of the soil looked out on a cultivated garden, or an ordered park. Those innovations steadily reacted on the class of the great man’s dependants. Villians exchanged the subjection of their livery for the liberty of trade. Wealth, formerly concentrated within the narrowest limits, ceased to be the monopoly of a class. As feudal lords transformed themselves into modern merchants, their serfs grew into shopkeepers. A generally prosperous people was substituted for an opulent and despotic aristocracy. The historic and documentary proof of the change now described is seen in the complaints of the Commons (1406) against the growing competition between rural and urban industry. Sometimes during the fourteenth century children brought up to the plough were forbidden by statute to quit at any time the pursuit of husbandry. To evade that law, agricultural labourers sent their children into towns, and bound them as apprentices to traders from their earliest years. To counteract that practice was now passed the law prescribing that no person not possessed of a rental of twenty shillings should send his child into any trade or mystery in any city, but that the coun-

try father should train his son only to his own industry. No legislation could check the advance of the new middle class. When Henry VII. came to the throne in 1485 the old villians had been gradually absorbed into a new and superior order. Bricklayers in the Statute of Labor (1496), are called artificers, and in conventional parlance are spoken of as gentry. In the next reign, the most thriving among the new class had to be prohibited by legislation from wearing the fur-decorated coat, or the peaked boots, distinctive of gentlemen.

Meanwhile, ever since the Norman Conquest, there had been in progress another and entirely different movement, whose results were equally favorable to the social order that is the subject of these remarks. In the Norman days a great wrong had been done through the degradation of the free man into a feudal satellite. On the other hand, by way of compensation, the English lords, elbowed out of their place by the Norman peers, had been depressed to an ignoble level. They now fused themselves with the well-to-do representatives of the new commerce. The middle class, in fact, became organized by a process that is curiously prophetic of what has so often happened since, and is still going on, in the relations between the ancient territorial order and the continually growing number of rich men outside it, who by intelligence, by taste, and by wealth, qualify themselves by identification with it. Only when such amalgamation not merely of orders, but of interests, opinions, and ideals, was complete could the Commons with the slightest prospects of success have challenged the Stuarts to a deadly duel, or for that matter, could the Commons’ House of Parliament have come into effective existence at Westmintser. The English middle class is, indeed, a monument of an union between the different forces inherent in separate social strata.

In 1830 a great economic crisis was reached. The masses had begun to move when the price of bread first rose. But neither the sanctioned as-

sociations nor the vitality of the denounced and legally forbidden caucus (the term, as M. Ostrogorski shows, was known in England even earlier than this) could hasten constitutional change by a single day. Its achievements in industry and mechanical science had made the middle class the arbiter of the nation’s affairs. It now took the political field. In 1830 was introduced at Birmingham the political union between the lower and middle classes, which soon extended to all the great centres throughout the country. The new alliance disclaimed any idea of intimidation. It revealed the existence of an organized moral power, whose political significance was not to be “despised or disregarded.” Only when the lords talked of continual opposition to the Bill did the Midland corporation threaten to march on London. At last the victory was won. The unions were not disbanded, but the middle class left them ; they ceased to be a power. The Whig chiefs had rallied their party on the basis of electoral reform. They could fiow affect contempt of their indispensable allies, the “Birmingham fellows.” The working classes had not really come into the measure. In some places, as in Preston, their political estate was less satisfactory than it had been before, for the Whig act had abolished certain of the old historic franchises without giving anything in their place. The material miseries of the masses had become acute. The consequent political unrest found expression in a revival of the Birmingham Union. That, in 1839, culminated in Chartism. Of this, too, the midland metropolis became the headquarters. The middle classes, however, now held aloof. Disraeli and one or two political philanthropists, who eventually became Conservatives, supported the Chartist petition on the ground that the working classes were under a specific grievance calling for Parliamentary enquiry. Public opinion remained indifferent. The proletariate, deprived of its old allies, laid down its arms. A little later the Conservatives themselves were practically to concede all

the “points of the charter.” But for the moment the trading and professional order remained unsympathetic. As a consequence the whole affair collapsed. The old Chartist machinery, the household suffrage societies, and so forth, if they still lingered on, were merely names. No pressure that these could apply was wanted to make Disraeli in 1867 and the fourteenth Lord Derby the founders of English democracy. In that year the middle classes thought the suffrage discussion had been open long enough, that it should be closed once and for ever. The moment for a final solution had come. The Conservative Reform Bill passed substantially as it had been introduced, because it reflected the popular feeling in favor of getting a political nuisance out of the Parliamentary way.

The whole course of its history, the changing ideas and interests, the moulding influence of the associations connected with it, in a word its affinities of all kinds, necessarily impart to the middle class, whether in England or elsewhere, an artificial and a fluctuating character. Its boundaries are being constantly extended. Causes purely accidental in their origin may identify it to-day with views and interests from which it may be estranged to-morrow. Hitherto the story of the English class has been one of progressive assimilation to its neighbors that are, conventionally, a little above it in the social scale. Wealth and education, social as well as literary, are the two great levellers in our civilization. Both of these have in practice conspired quite to obliterate the distinction between the two divisions of the great and growing order, just below the aristocracy. Public schools and universities ceased, like the House of Commons itself, to be the resort of special sections of the community. “Every man,” said the younger Pitt, “with ten thousand a year from land can claim a peerage, if he wishes it.” “Every man,” said Disraeli, “with something like a hundred thousand a year from any source whatever can demand, as a matter of right, a seat in the Lords.” The two remarks

mean the same thing. The time has come when they may be supplemented with a third: “By virtue of her sex, every woman is a lady,” so said Bulwer Lytton. “And every man, too,” was the Irishman’s comment on the chivalrous aphorism. There was really very little of a bull here. In the twentieth century all male citizens, who conform to certain decorous conditions in their conduct and their persons, possess as the Hibernian wished to imply, an indefeasible title to the description of gentleman. While the middle class at one end becomes every year less distinguishable from the aristocracy of birth or wealth, less prosperous middle class sections and individuals are constantly being depressed into what the polite world knows as the inferior orders. These will probably find their permanent place at some time or other, not in the bourgeoisie but in the proletariat.

In the education debate of 1874, when the then Lorn Sandon was vicepresident of the council, the late Henry Fawcett showed that the effect of a certain ministerial proposal would be to confer exceptional benefits on children who were born paupers. The blemish thus indicated was removed as the measure went through committee. But, at the present moment, is not the lot of a boy born in any part of the industrial order practically happier than that belonging to the child, certainly of lower middle class, probably of many upper middle class and professional parents? The order below the middle class pays no income tax, has at its disposal the priceless boon of absolutely free and consummately effective education. Scarcely a rung is now wanting to the national ladder of teaching, from the infant school to the most advanced classes of the university lecture-room, or of the scientific researcher’s workship. To-day nothing but aptitude and application is wanted to qualify any school-board pupil for the highest career that rank or opulence could desire for its favorites. That, of course, specially applies to England, but both in Germany and France the tendency is to improve the prospect

of the multitude out of all proportion to the opportunities enjoyed by the middle class. A professional man belonging to the old establishment order of English gentry probably retrenches his own expenditure, and makes other petty sacrifices, to give his sons the same liberal training as was received by himself some fifty years ago. If the youthful objects of that care make the best use of their advantages, things turn out tolerably well. An Eton boy, with real fitness and talent for any professional employment, will not do worse, máy even do better than the laborer’s son, gratuitously grounded in all necessaries at the Board-school, or the small tradesman’s son who pays a fee not necessarily to learn better or more, but in compliance with the conventions of his class. Suppose, however, the young Etonian not to reveal any special qualifications, to develop into merely a healthy specimen of gentlemanlike youth. Even then, all for the present seems satisfactory. Blit, let there occur one of those vicissitudes that confront our public school lad with the necessity of at once beginning to earn his own livelihood, he will forthwith painfully discover the disadvantage of having been born a “gentleman’s” son.

Not so many years ago there were still in London and elsewhere many managers of commercial houses who appreciated the social products of a public school education. Such persons would strain a point in favor of an Eton or Harrow lad’s admission into their counting-house. That class of employer, if not quite gone, is rapidly disappearing. For successful competition in the lower divisions of the Civil Service the public school boy has less chance than the Board-school pupil. Victory in the higher ordeals of the Service goes generally to the crammer’s crack disciple or a candidate fresh from Aberdeen or Glasgow. The mere fact of having creditably passed through the most famous public school in the land has, in fact, become as commercially valueless as a pass testamur at Oxford or Cambridge. For the mere young gentleman, whatever his exact degree, there

has ceased to be a place in the industrial polity. During the earlier ages of their history, the children, however, highly educated, of all Jews, learned some handicraft. The same habit obtains, to-day, in Canada, probably in other of our colonies. Before many generations have passed the same practice may become universal at home. A few years ago the forester’s occupation, as it has been perfected in Germany, was discovered to yield a decent livelihood to industrious lads. To-day electrical engineering and South African mining attract increasingly the sons of professional fathers, who, too late discover that in place of the years and money expended on the process of acquiring the Eton or the Harrow veneer, they would have done better for their boys by placing them under the tuition of a Birmingham or Manchester artisan.

The expansion of England in countries inhabited by inferior races, at this particular imperialist epoch, seems, of course, especially rich in the promise of remunerative employment to parents piteously asking the question, which was never new, “What are we to do with our boys ?” Hence the numbers of those who went out to South Africa as “yeomen” ; of these many remained to ply the plough after the sword had been sheathed.

The mentian of our social polity beyond the four seas suggests a fact that may seriously react upon the future relations of classes in the Mother Country. One of Disraeli’s happiest sallies at colonial success contains a clever picture of the man who finds a nugget, shears a thousand flocks, becomes member for Melbourne one day, and for London the next. A respectable measure of prosperity in our great dependencies is, however, oftener secured on a much lowlier level. A boy goes to Canada, is presented by his friends with a small farm, a wagon, and a team. He wearies of agriculture, sees an opening to embark his little capital in trade. He starts a grocery store. Within a year the Etonian’s teas, the speciality of his establishment, have become the pride of the province. That sort of

thing in some degree or other goes on throughout different parts, of that empire on which the sun never sets. The young gentlemen who start these commercial emporia in due time bring up families of their own. They may have a pedigree reaching beyond the Norman times. The latest generation has, voluntarily, seceded from the patrician, or even the higher middle class. Boys become colonists to obtain a livelihood. If that end be honestly accomplished, friends at home, not being importuned for remittances, are not too critical , as to the means. The social divisions that now exist may not be likely to die out, but the process already noticed of interchange between these orders in an age at once democratic and plutocratic, cannot but continue with increased strength. The depression from above is not less inevitable than the rising from below. With the liberal professions at home gradually closed against the majority of lads who have to look only to their own exertions, the prejudice against the manual industries, or against retail trade, will disappear at home, as it has already died out in the colonies. The middle class of the future may preserve the historic and convenient name, but its composition and character will be something that cannot now easily be forecast. That, of course, must involve changes of political feeling, and of party development, too far reaching and vast for present consideration.

It was a remark of Huxley to the present writer, “The great question seems to me not how to train our sons to rise above their station, but to secure, if possible, that those whom Nature meant, and associations have fitted, to be grooms or music-hall lions, should be insured the career for which they were born.” The eldest son lives on the estate. The younger sons live on the State. That used to be the example set in the highest places and reproduced with much fidelity on the lower grades. It has for some time ceased to be a practicable arrangement. The consequence is that the well-born, well-bred youths formerly provided for by the public revenues,

have gone into the city, some perhaps as company directors, but many more as clerks or touts. The movement, long in progress among the middle classes, is exactly analogous to this. Lord Aberdeen is only one among several noblemen who have given their sons a first life start in a manual industry.

The aspects of our imperial polity as an industrially equalizing and democratizing agency are being progressively felt not only by parents, but by sons.. Classical • Athens and Rome contrived to do very well with no middle class at all. They even conducted on extensive commerce by means of those whom Aristotle calls slaves, but who often corresponded more closely to the bailiffs or factors of our day. Early in the last century the gentlemanly prejudice against engaging in retail trade was not less

strong than it had been with the sages and philosophers of old Hellas. Today it has largely disappeared. Philanthropy prompts some peers to start as publicans. Prudence and hard times forbid their refusing to make a fair profit out of the business. Countesses open book-stores in Dover Street. The daughters of Anglo-Indian officials, or Anglican divines, who take millinery lessons from Piccadilly or Mayfair modistes, have for their fellow students the daughters of bishops and earls. At the south-coast creameries, where special convenience exists for five o’clock tea and small talk, the select host of waitresses may be led by a young lady whose home is the country deanery or the stately mansion just built by retired General FitzPompey, a little inland, but still commanding a view of both the piers and the whole Sussex litoral.