The Middle Class

The middle class home, 1885
The middle class home, 1885

A junior clerk in a City firm might have earned less than £100 a year. The chairman of the Board might have been paid £1,000. But they shared one vital distinction; they were both members of the 'great middle class'. They worked with letters and figures, wore morning coats, stiff white collars and top hats. A skilled engineering workman might earn more than a clerk, but he worked with his hands – he was irredeemably a member of the lower classes.

Clerks in their offices, 1848
Clerks in their offices, 1848

The lowest rung of the ladder

The boom in trade and the new sophistication of banking methods meant that every business and factory needed a small army of clerks. Every invoice, every letter, every ledger entry had to be accurately, quickly and legibly written by hand. It was estimated that the 44,000 clerks, accountants and bankers who had dispatched business in 1851 had swollen to 119,000 twenty years later. Anthony Trollope, who became famous as a writer, began as a junior clerk in the Post Office, at £90 a year. Seven years later he had risen to £140.

Listen to George Sala's description of city clerks

A description of city clerks, by G. Sala, 1895
A description of city clerks, by G. Sala, 1895

 

But living could be cheap. The £100 - a - year clerk and his wife could find a cottage to rent, in a suburb within walking distance of his work; three miles was thought to be reasonable, to cover on foot twice a day. He must have sometimes longed to board an omnibus as it splashed past him on a rainy day, but for his careful budget the fare – perhaps as much as 6 pence – was just not affordable except in a crisis. 

 

Travelling on public transport, Image from the Graphic Newspaper, 1895
Travelling on public transport, Image from the Graphic Newspaper, 1895

Their suburban cottage could be furnished for less than £20. His wife might employ a ‘slavey’ or maid-of-all-work, for only £6 a year. Barring accidents, his employment was safe. The hundreds of clerks in the Bank of England could stay until they dropped dead; there was no compulsory retiring age for them.

Middle class suburban life as described in the Pall Mall Gazette, 1886
Middle class suburban life as described in the Pall Mall Gazette, 1886

Domestic servants

Listen to Mrs Beeton's instructions on the Duties of the Housemaid

Mrs Beeton's Duties of the Housemaid, 1859
Mrs Beeton's Duties of the Housemaid, 1859

A middle class woman was entirely dependent on a supply of domestic servants, ranging from the untrained ‘slavey’ to a staff of several highly trained specialists.A young wife newly elevated to her husband’s status in the middle class might not have the accumulated knowledge of an old-established household. Here was a huge market for Advice Books, such as Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861 [and still in print, updated]. 

Listen to Mrs Beeton's instructions on the Duties of the Lady's-Maid

Detail of Duties of the Lady's Maid
Beetons Book of Household Management - Duties of the Ladys Maid

Its usefulness in a middle class home was not so much in teaching the servants themselves, many of whom would be illiterate, but in enabling the mistress, after a quick look at the relevant pages, to pretend to an encyclopedic and impressive knowledge herself.

Title page and illustration from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management
Title page and illustration from Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management

 

Mrs Beeton, Illustration of crockery
Mrs Beeton, Illustration of crockery

 

Retail therapy

A Victorian high street, 1894
A Victorian high street, 1894

Having set the maid to clean all the silver, and the cook to prepare for that night’s dinner party, and kissed her husband as he left for the City, the prosperous housewife had the day before her. She might briefly interview her children before returning them to their governess or nursery maid.  She was not concerned with buying food, much of which was delivered on a daily basis, nor with the wine for the evening, which her husband would have ordered, perhaps with the collaboration of the butler. (The germ of supermarkets was sprouting even then, in Mr. Harrod’s grocery store, opened in 1849, and William Whiteley’s department store in Bayswater, proudly titled The Universal Provider, in 1863.)

Listen to fashion advice in Mrs Beeton's Englishwoman's domestic magazine

Illustration of Ladies' Fashions, 1860
Illustration of Ladies' Fashions, from The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1860

 

Illustration of Ladies' Fashions, 1860
Illustration of Ladies' Fashions, from The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, 1860

The housewife could take a hansom cab, or perhaps their own carriage, to visit her friends, or sample the fashionable new emporia in the town centre. The modest establishments sheltering behind uninformative façades had long gone.  The glory of plate glass, and the brilliance of gas lighting, enabled the retailer to entice his clientele into his premises, where male and female staff waited to serve them. The motto of the up-and-coming shopkeeper was ‘the customer is always right’, and the sales staff had to bow, in every sense, to the customer.

Advertisement for lady's hats, 1884
Advertisement for lady's hats, 1884

If she could afford to, she would have her clothes made for her in one of the fashionable – and very expensive - salons. The London ‘season’ lasted only a few months, from Easter until August, when Parliament rose and everyone who mattered could retire to their grouse moors with sighs of relief. But during the season a rich woman expected to be able to order from her dressmaker an elaborate gown to be delivered the next day.

Advertisement for dress fabrics, 1880
Advertisement for dress fabrics, 1880

A lady in less exalted circles might buy a dress ready-made, or buy a ready-made bodice, which was complicated to make, with a length of the same fabric to make the skirt herself. She, or her dressmaker, might use one of the paper patterns distributed free by fashion magazines such as The World of Fashion, from 1850.

Dress patterns, 1860
Dress patterns, 1860

 

Dress patterns, 1860
Dress patterns, 1860

 

Dress patterns, 1860
Dress patterns, 1860

The middle class standard of living

The Victorian era was a golden age, for the middle class. The huge army of clerks worked from nine to four, or ten to five. For those without a grouse moor, a family seaside holiday in Brighton or Margate could be just as refreshing. 

Francis Frith, 'Hastings from the beach', 1864
Francis Frith, 'Hastings from the beach', 1864

The days of paid annual leave had not yet arrived, but the family could take lodgings in Brighton or Margate, both easily accessible by steam boat or train, and the husband could lead a bachelor life during the week and join his family by ‘the husbands’ boat’ for the weekend.

Seaside hotel, advertisement, 1886
Seaside hotel, advertisement, 1886

For those at the top of the pile, life was very comfortable. A man earning the very comfortable income of, say, £1,000 paid just under £30 income tax. He ruled his household with a rod of iron, since his wife knew that she had little chance of divorcing him no matter what he did. His children were brought up to respect and obey him. If the domestic scene became too noisy or boring for him, he could always escape to his club. It seems, in retrospect, an enviable existence.

Mrs Beeton's rules on dinner table etiquette
Mrs Beeton's rules on dinner table etiquette