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Social Structure, Class, and Gender, 1770–1832

Abstract and Keywords

This essay deals with the perceived emergence of a three-class social structure in the period. Between the aristocracy and the working class contemporaries observed the growth of a middle class especially in the rapidly expanding towns where urbanization gave rise to an urban bourgeoisie. These developments also affected the role of women in society, though the thesis that they created ‘separate spheres’ has been exaggerated. The creation of a bourgeois ideology of respectability was assisted by the Evangelical Revival. Increasing industrialization, though not as revolutionary as was once thought, affected the relative standards of living of the different classes. It also had an impact on the birth rate and relations between the sexes.

Keywords: class, gender, industrialization, religion, urbanization

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are generally seen as witnessing the emergence of the modern three-class society in Britain. It was during these decades that the traditional hierarchical model of social structure, based on a vertical scale of ranks, degrees, and other specifications of status, was gradually superseded by a horizontal model of different layers comprising classes. This transition was as much a political as a social process. From the French Revolution to the Reform Act of 1832 politics came to be perceived more and more in terms of class struggle. Some posited a simple contest between two classes, the rich and the poor, or the patricians and the plebs. Increasingly, however, a political role was assigned to what was perceived as the middle class between the two, which was eventually to be enfranchised with the Reform Act of 1832. Thus ‘it was not so much the “rising middle class” that was the crucial factor in bringing about the Reform Bill of 1832; rather, it was more the Reform Bill of 1832 that was the crucial factor in cementing the invention of the ever-rising “middle class” ’.1

The ruling elite was seen as forming an aristocracy which could be regarded as the upper class. Below them there had long been a rural middle class made up largely of freehold and tenant farmers, while increasing urbanization brought into existence an urban bourgeoisie. The years 1770 to 1832 also witnessed, according to E. P. Thompson’s classic thesis, ‘the making of the English working class’. This came about, in his view, largely because the issues raised by the French Revolution politicized those who were previously regarded as comprising ‘the lower orders’, giving them a class consciousness which created a mass movement for reform. Thompson’s work set the agenda for studies of social structure and class, inspiring research which criticized and modified the model he had set up. Recently there have been objections that Thompson only examined working-class men, leaving women out of the account. He himself claimed to have (p. 340) written ‘a biography of the English working class from its adolescence until its early manhood’.2 There have been several attempts of late ‘to infuse gender … into the analysis of class’.3

The ruling class by 1800 consisted of the titled nobility—the 300 or so peers who attended the House of Lords—and the 14,000 or so landed gentry. Legally and socially they were distinct, for the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons who were summoned to the upper house had privileges which distinguished them even from baronets and knights, let alone the mere gentlemen below them. However, economically they were mostly indistinguishable, almost all deriving their incomes from rents paid by tenant farmers. This landowning elite formed an aristocracy which was at the apex of society. It was their status rather than their wealth which made them aristocrats, as their incomes extended over a vast range. Patrick Colquhoun calculated the average income of peers in the opening years of the nineteenth century at £8,000, but this average conceals great discrepancies.4 Some peers were fabulously wealthy. The Dukes of Bedford, Devonshire, and Westminster were probably the richest men in England, worth fortunes. At his death in 1811 the fifth Duke of Devonshire had an income of about £125,000 a year. By contrast some lesser peers were in receipt of incomes way below the average. When Lord Byron sold Newstead Abbey in 1817 to clear off his debts the rents paid by tenants on the estate came to £1807. 14s.5

There was an overlap between the incomes of the peerage and those enjoyed by the landed gentry. Colquhoun estimated the average annual incomes of baronets at £3,000 and of knights and esquires at £1,500. He did not have a category of country gentlemen below that, for his ‘Gentlemen and Ladies living on income’ who earned £700 a year could include all those with investments in stock as well as in land. But if we assume that £1,000 per annum would be the cut-off point for landed incomes which divided the landed gentry from those beneath them we would probably not be far out. The heroes and heroines of Jane Austen’s novels fall well within this range, as Alan Downie rightly observes. ‘It is certainly true that Austen’s central characters are not members of the nobility’ he readily acknowledges, ‘but Sir Thomas Bertram and Sir Walter Elliot are baronets, Darcy is the owner of an extensive estate in Derbyshire, and many of her other characters own sizeable landed estates.’ He establishes that the social world of Austen’s novels is genteel rather than bourgeois.6

Jane Austen herself was the daughter of a clergyman, the rector of Deane and Steventon in Hampshire. The clergy were members of one of the polite professions entered by graduation from Oxford or Cambridge, which gave them the status of (p. 341) gentlemen. The Reverend George Austen was one of about 18,000 Anglican clergymen, ranging from the twenty-six bishops of the Established Church who sat in the House of Lords to impoverished curates. Colquhoun divided those below the bishops into eminent clergymen, whose annual incomes he estimated at £500, and lesser clergymen whose livings were worth only £150. Nevertheless they would all be regarded as gentlemen. Their counterparts in the Roman Catholic and Nonconformist churches, however, especially the lowly preachers among the Baptists and Methodists, would not automatically qualify for that status. Barristers and physicians certainly did, whereas attorneys and apothecaries were marginal. Those who obtained commissions in the army and navy were known as ‘officers and gentlemen’. Commercial as well as professional men could also aspire to gentility. The business elite of eighteenth-century Leeds, for instance, were known as ‘gentlemen merchants’. In rural areas freeholders below the level of the gentry could aspire to the status of ‘gentlemen farmers’.

The middle class became increasingly significant with the growth of towns. London, with a population of roughly one million in 1800, was the largest city in Britain if not in Europe. Only four English cities contained more than 50,000 inhabitants in that year—Liverpool with 82,000, Manchester with 75,000, Birmingham with 71,000, and Bristol with 61,000. The next fifty years, however, were to see unprecedented urban growth. By 1851 Liverpool’s population had increased to 376,000, Manchester’s to 303,000, Birmingham’s to 233,000. The most phenomenal increases occurred in the woollen textile area of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where Bradford grew from 13,000 in 1801 to 104,000 in 1851.

Urbanization brought into being a provincial middle class which provided the main readership for newspapers and periodicals. Most big towns had at least one local newspaper, while some had two or even three. The press emerged as yet another profession in English society. Boyd Hilton sees the development of a distinct class consciousness, at least among the more substantial business and professional men of the period. In the 1780s, he claims, ‘such people began to identify themselves as like-minded, or presumed to formulate public opinion independently of … aristocratic norms’. What contemporaries came to call ‘the public mind’ was formed largely, according to Hilton, by ‘new periodicals such as The Quarterly, Edinburgh, London, Westminster, and British and Foreign’.7

Davidoff and Hall’s seminal study of the middle class between 1780 and 1850, Family Fortunes, claims that it too developed a collective consciousness in those years which took the form of a domestic ideology summed up by the word ‘respectability’. This distinguished members of the middle class from what they perceived as the raffish aristocracy above it and the disreputable working class below. Those between who strove to be respectable placed the family at the heart of society. Extolling family values led to the emergence of the ideal of separate spheres for men and women. The husband as ‘head of the household’ was ideally the ‘breadwinner’ who went out to work while his wife, ‘the (p. 342) angel of the house’, stayed at home. The growth of ‘respectable’ suburbs, like Edgbaston in Birmingham, which separated middle-class families not only from the workplace but also from working-class neighbourhoods, was a sign of this trend. Davidoff and Hall do not confine their study to the urban middle class but extend it to rural areas of Essex and Suffolk, showing how the evangelical movement influenced them too. Thus they investigate the Congregational Church at Witham in Essex, where ‘the congregation comprised the families of shopkeepers, maltsters, millers, schoolmasters, farmers, some doctors, an exciseman and even the master of the workhouse’.8

The membership of a church or chapel was a significant element in the development of middle-class ideology, according to Davidoff and Hall, since it was largely inspired by the Evangelical Revival. Their emphasis on the Revival’s appeal to the professional and business classes, however, has been questioned. As G. M. Ditchfield observes, ‘a high proportion of Methodist adherents were skilled artisans and tradesmen, with more than a sprinkling of the labouring classes. The aristocratic and gentry involvement in evangelical endeavour, though very much a minority affair, cannot be ignored either.’9 Family Fortunes stresses the influence of such evangelicals as the poet William Cowper and the propagandist Hannah More on the middle classes. According to Davidoff and Hall, Cowper’s poem The Task was a favourite with evangelicals in Edgbaston and East Anglia. Although Hannah More’s target audience in her cheap repository tracts was the working class, her novel Cœlebs in Search of a Wife (1807) targeted a more affluent readership. Indeed the protagonist, ‘of an ancient and respectable family, and considerable estate’ in Westmorland, is clearly a member of the upper rather than the middle class. He gives Sir John Belfield a description of Lucilla Stanley, the woman he has singled out to be his ideal wife:

‘First,’ replied I, ‘I will, as you desire, define her by negatives—she is not a professed beauty, she is not a professed genius, she is not a professed philosopher, she is not a professed wit, she is not a professed any thing; and I thank my stars she is not an artist!’—‘Bravo, Charles: now as to what she is!’—‘She is,’ replied I, ‘from nature—a woman, gentle, feeling, animated, modest.—She is, by education, elegant, informed, enlightened.—She is, from religion, pious, humble, candid, charitable.’

More’s insufferably smug and sanctimonious novel emphasizes that of all these feminine virtues that of modesty was paramount. Thus of Mrs. Carlton she observes: ‘her natural modesty prevented her from introducing any subject herself, yet when any thing useful was brought forward by others, she promoted it by a look compounded of pleasure and intelligence’.10

(p. 343) The use of such sources to document middle-class marriages has been criticized on the grounds that they are, like conduct books, prescriptive rather than descriptive.11 They advocate a domestic ideal which was not necessarily realized in practice. Even Cowper and More did not realize it, since neither of them married. Family Fortunes, however, investigates the reality as well as the ideal. Thus the authors point out how ‘some enterprises were premised on the steady use of female family labour’. The wives of shopkeepers assisted in the shop. Lawyers employed their female relatives as clerks. Farmers’ wives could be responsible for preparing refreshments for agricultural labourers and taking it out to the fields for them. Some took farm produce to market. However, according to Family Fortunes, ‘as the period reached mid century, teaching became the only profession in which middle-class women could preserve something of their status’.12

Employment opportunities were more abundant for lower-class women. Even for these, however, claims have been made that they were confined to separate spheres from their menfolk. For agricultural labourers this had always been the case, except at times like haymaking and harvest where there was a temporary demand for unskilled labour which was sometimes met by women. Otherwise the scene conjured up by William Cobbett in his Cottage Economy (1822) was timeless, as he imagines ‘the labourer, after his return from the toils of a cold winter day, sitting with his wife and children round a cheerful fire’.13 In this period, however, it is asserted that working men found employment in factories while their wives worked at home. This is even more of a myth than the concept of separate spheres is for the middle classes. ‘The creation of a cultural identity of men as worker and breadwinner’, maintains Katrina Honeyman, ‘occurred despite the prevalence of women’s employment.’14 It also rested on an assumption that an industrial revolution took place in this period which replaced domestic manufacturing with factories, and brought into being a coherent working class.

Although The Making of the English Working Class took the form of a political narrative, constructed round the alleged development of class consciousness, it at least implicitly assumed that industrialization was creating a mainly urban proletariat. Thompson wrote when the idea of an industrial revolution was largely taken for granted by historians. They also engaged in the so-called ‘standard of living controversy’.15 This was a debate about the impact of the revolution on the lives of industrial workers and (p. 344) whether or not it adversely affected them. The protagonists were very roughly divided into pessimists, who claimed that the effect was to depress their standard of living, and optimists, who argued that it brought about increased prosperity. The debate became entangled in data on prices and wages and arguments about the relative impact of seasonal and cyclical unemployment on rural and urban workers. The outcome, though far from conclusive, rather upheld the view of the optimists who maintained that real wages were higher for industrial workers than they were for farm labourers. Though there was no increase in real wages for industrial workers in the years 1825 to 1850, those of agricultural labourers actually declined. While the optimists were apparently winning the statistical argument, the pessimists had the edge when it came to evaluating the relative qualities of life in villages and towns. Although the optimists accused them of painting a Christmas-card view of the countryside, comparing idyllic villages with unsanitary towns like Manchester, it was indisputable that living conditions in the latter were worse than they were in the former. For instance, urban death rates were much higher than those in rural areas. The latest conclusion on the statistics seems to be a consensus that, while the onset of industrialization increased the overall wealth of the country, it did not distribute it evenly between the classes, so that the gap between rich and poor widened rather than narrowed between 1780 and 1850.16

Robert Southey can be said to have anticipated this pessimistic assessment when he wrote of the effects of industrialization that ‘wealth flows into the country, but how does it circulate there? Not equally and healthfully through the whole system; it sprouts into wens and tumours, and collects in aneurisms which starve and palsy the extremities.’17 In a way Southey was the first pessimist and Thomas Babington Macaulay the first optimist. Southey’s view of the manufacturing system was summed up by Macaulay thus: ‘there is nothing which he hates so bitterly. It is according to him, a system more tyrannical than that of the feudal ages, a system of actual servitude, a system which destroys the bodies and degrades the minds of those who are engaged in it.’18 Macaulay was referring to Southey’s criticism of the impact of industrialization in his Sir Thomas More: or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829). He had previously published his condemnation of it in the description of Manchester he put into the mouth of his fictitious Spaniard, Don Manuel Espriella in 1807: ‘Here in Manchester a great proportion of the poor lodge in cellars, damp and dark, where every kind of filth is suffered to accumulate, because no exertions of domestic care can ever make such homes decent.’19 Macaulay dismissed contrasts between the living conditions of industrial workers and those of agricultural workers. ‘Does Mr Southey think that the body of the English peasantry live, or ever lived, in substantial or ornamented cottages, (p. 345) with box-hedges, flower-gardens, bee-hives and orchards?’ He went on to assert that ‘it is a matter about which scarcely any doubt can exist in the most perverse mind that the improvements of machinery have lowered the price of manufactured articles and have brought within the reach of the poorest some conveniences which Sir Thomas More or his master [Henry VIII] could not have obtained at any price’.20 Despite Macaulay’s confident assertion, enough doubt existed to keep a controversy on the subject alive for two centuries.

The debate still rumbles on, but it has to a large extent been superseded by a radical re-evaluation of the whole concept of an industrial revolution. The notion of rapid industrialization assuming revolutionary proportions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has been seriously undermined. Econometric historians have established that growth rates were insufficiently spectacular to justify the claim.21 Industrial output increased at less than 3 per cent per annum until 1830. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in the economy is now stressed. There had been changes in the agricultural, financial, and transport sectors in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries which laid the foundations for industrialization. While some forms of manufacturing did see mass production in factories during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most notably in textiles, many industries retained their traditional forms of production. Some had been concentrated in large units long before, such as brewing, glassmaking, and shipbuilding. Others remained largely confined to households. Even where industrialization did occur domestic industry continued to exist side by side with factories. The metal industry was organized around the family rather than the factory until well into the nineteenth century. Crowley’s ironworks at Winlaton in the North-East, which employed ‘several hundred hands’ in 1770 according to Arthur Young, and Boulton and Watt’s Soho Manufactory in Birmingham which in the same year employed a thousand, were exceptional. Domestic production persisted even in the textile industry. Thus spinning was mechanized before weaving, which led to a boom in hand loom weaving before power looms dealt it a death blow. The survival of household manufacturing meant that most work was still done in the family, which in turn meant that the perception by workers of being involved in a collective class enterprise was limited to certain industries and regions.22

It also meant that the concept of separate spheres, however much it influenced the middle class, scarcely affected the working class. Even where mass production in factories occurred there were jobs for women. In Lancashire, ‘38 per cent of women were (p. 346) employed in the cotton industry’—a slight majority of the workforce. ‘In the Yorkshire woollen industry separate spheres worked in reverse as the men wove at home while women and children carded, spun and finished in the mills.’23 By and large most jobs for women in factories were unskilled or semi-skilled. This has led to another myth, that the system of domestic industry before the alleged Revolution was a ‘golden age’ for women. In fact ‘men’s work was central and women’s less specialized. Women performed a variety of tasks which consigned them to the position of “eternal amateurs”.’24 Where feminist historians have insisted that this was due to the perpetuation of patriarchy, which sought to keep women subordinate to men, others have argued that it was due to the market. Men could command a higher wage on the job market than women.

One reason for this, perhaps, is that employers were wary of employing women because their employment could become sporadic due to childbearing and raising. Though most children were born to married mothers, nuptiality rates were high. ‘Bachelors and spinsters went out of fashion in eighteenth-century England,’ Martin Daunton observes. ‘The proportion of people unmarried in their early 40s slumped to about 7 per cent in 1801.’25 Moreover the numbers of children per couple were rising as the age of marriage for brides fell significantly, from an average of 26.9 at the beginning of the eighteenth century to 23.7 at the end. This was a much more potent motor of the unprecedented population increase that occurred during these years than any decrease in the death rate. Between 1781 and 1831 the population of England rose from 7,050,000 to 13,300,000. In the sample of middle-class marriages analysed by Davidoff and Hall ‘the average of seven plus children borne [sic] to a family absorbed the married woman’s life span from her late 20s (average age at birth of first child was 27.3) to her 40s (average age at birth of last child was 40.6), with birth intervals of fourteen to twenty months’.26 Given no effective birth control beyond abstinence (though breastfeeding might have lengthened the gap between births), ‘most wives spent almost their entire married lives pregnant or caring for children. Women bore on average 6–7 live children.’27 Moreover, despite Malthus’s gloomy predictions that this would lead to catastrophe, people still obeyed the biblical exhortation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Childbearing on this scale was almost bound to confine most young wives to the matrimonial home. This was just the kind of wife idealized by Hannah More in 1818: ‘a woman sees the world, as it were, from a little elevation in her own garden, whence she makes an exact survey of home scenes, but takes not in that wider range of distant prospects which he, who stands on a loftier eminence, commands’.28

(p. 347) That ideal was criticized by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In it she had denounced the kind of relationship between a husband and wife advocated by Rousseau in Émile (1762), wherein Rousseau outlined a plan of education for Émile and his future wife Sophie. By the time he reached the age of 15 Émile had been taught, in addition to geography, history, and physics, subjects which were essentially useful, like astronomy. He had also been introduced to commercial concerns which would be advantageous when he started a career. By contrast Sophie at the same age had acquired knowledge of subjects which were more agreeable than useful, such as the arts, singing, and dancing. This is because her sole raison d’être is to be agreeable to her future husband. Sophie is almost a fantasy of male desire, a beautiful, docile, submissive sexual playmate, a kind of eighteenth-century Stepford wife. Wollstonecraft was utterly opposed to this model of femininity, which treated women as children. She wanted wives to have the same education as their husbands in order to be intellectual companions to them. This was scarcely feminist in the sense of advocating separate careers for women, although she came close to this when she took equality between the sexes as far as stipulating that women should be economically independent of men. It was nevertheless regarded as a radical agenda, part of the debate over the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft had been among the first to respond to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France with A Vindication of the Rights of Men. The Vindication of the Rights of Woman was another contribution to the debate. In it she proclaimed that ‘the divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger’. The fact was that she made very few converts in the Revolutionary era. Her views were held to be too subversive, an opinion that was reinforced when her husband, William Godwin, published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman following her death in 1797. This revealed her infatuation with the artist Fuseli, a married man, and her affair with Gilbert Imlay, which had produced an illegitimate daughter. Even admirers of Mary reacted adversely to this revelation, while it was grist to the mill of those who regarded her, wrongly, as an immoral libertine. Though she herself was in fact very religious the revelations in the Memoirs led to her being widely condemned for immorality and irreligion.

One of the ‘divine rights’ of husbands, that his wife’s property became his on marriage, was not successfully contested in this period. The only concession to women that occurred was in 1790, when they were allowed to manage a separate business provided their husbands consented. Otherwise the legal principle of coverture, by which wives had no independent legal status, continued to operate. As Margot Finn observes, ‘references to William Blackstone’s celebrated assertion that “by marriage the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended” have become a historiographical commonplace’.29 However, as she also demonstrates, there were ways round it. One way for affluent women was the creation of a trust to manage their own finances when they married, which was based on equity rather than common law. Another was a prenuptial (p. 348) agreement, which women below the level of the elite could and did employ. Even when there was no overt arrangement, the ‘law of necessaries’ recognized women as their husbands’ agents for purposes of purchasing goods and services for the matrimonial home. Thus Lady Westmeath’s estranged husband was actually imprisoned for debts she had run up during the 1820s.

The only legal way out of a broken marriage was divorce, an option which very few could choose since it required an Act of Parliament. The double standard was another constant of these decades. A husband had only to prove his wife’s adultery to be granted a divorce, and could sue her lover for ‘criminal conversation’ into the bargain. By contrast a wife had to prove not only infidelity, but some other breach of the marriage vows, such as cruelty or desertion. Otherwise separation was the only legal choice available to the aristocracy and middle class, though the sale of wives was resorted to, apparently on an increasing scale, by the working class. Although the practice seems to have demonstrated male hegemony it appears to have been accepted by at least some of the women involved, many of whom were ‘sold’ to their lovers. In 1795 a receipt was produced in a magistrates’ court in Westminster for a guinea ‘received of James Clark … for Joseph Chipman’s wife’.30

Another way out of wedlock was by the death of a spouse. The death rate was so high in all classes in this period that it effected for married couples then what the divorce rate does today. Many women died in childbirth, while those who survived stood a fair chance of becoming widows. There might have been relatively few single people in their forties in the early nineteenth century; but there were relatively many widowed. Both single women and widows enjoyed an independence which raises the question of why so many became wives. Many widows even married for a second time. One who did to great advantage was surely the most upwardly mobile woman of the age, Harriot Mellon. She was born in 1777, the illegitimate daughter of an Irish wardrobe keeper in a company of strolling players, ‘the lowest level of the theatrical world’, as Joan Perkin puts it, ‘regarded in law as rogues and vagabonds’. At the age of 10 Harriot played a part in a farce put on in a barn. By 1795 she was an actress at Drury Lane and a popular player until 1815. She then married the 79-year-old banker Thomas Coutts. ‘The pre-marriage contract specified that Harriot should retain control of her own estates and properties.’ Coutts died in 1822, leaving everything to her. ‘Harriot Coutts proved to be an excellent businesswoman and banker, taking an active role in investments and management decisions.’ In 1827 at the age of 49 she married again, this time to the 26-year-old Duke of St Albans, thereby becoming a duchess. When she died in 1837 she was worth £1,800,000.

Harriot thus climbed up the social ladder from one of the lowest rungs to the highest below the royal family. How far she encountered different roles for women between the working, middle, and upper classes is still a question that provokes dispute. As an actress she can scarcely be said to have occupied a separate sphere. But then she was unmarried. There were thousands of single women, for instance domestic servants who were not (p. 349) allowed to marry, and who formed the single biggest occupational category until recent times, for whom the whole concept of separate spheres was irrelevant. As the wife of a prosperous banker Harriot wisely took care of her own independent business interests with a specific prenuptial agreement. Most middle-class wives did not make such arrangements. Nevertheless the notion that they came to inhabit separate spheres from their husbands has been disputed. Some gender historians observe no significant difference emerging in the lifestyles of middle-class men and women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from earlier periods. Conduct books such as The Whole Duty of Man, which went through sixty-four editions between 1659 and 1842, reiterated the same message about the relative roles of the two sexes. Their precepts were more honoured in the breach than in the observance at all times. Middle-class men did not abandon their domestic duties but played a role in the upbringing of their children, paying special attention to the education of their eldest sons. Middle-class wives continued to take part in the world outside their front doors, for instance in the social activities of their churches or chapels.

To argue that there was more continuity than change in the spheres in which men and women operated between 1700 and 1850 seems to have been generally agreed. But to insist that there was no change at all is to go too far. The ‘two spheres’ thesis does not merely draw a distinction between home and work; it also posits a dichotomy between the private and the public. The idea of a public sphere is associated with the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. He put forward a Marxist thesis of a victorious commercial and industrial bourgeoisie triumphing over a feudal aristocracy in the Civil Wars and Revolution of seventeenth-century England. Thereafter the financial and manufacturing interests came into conflict with each other. While no historian today would agree with his interpretation of the political struggles of Stuart England, a corollary which he advanced, that a bourgeois public sphere emerged as a result, has been surprisingly widely accepted, with modifications. For example his stress on the importance of new public meeting places such as coffee houses is now almost universally acknowledged, though their appearance has been put back to earlier in the seventeenth century. If one includes taverns, inns, and the significantly named public houses, then an even earlier dating is possible. However, the essence of the public sphere was not just a site for assembling groups of people but for providing them with opportunities for discourse about newsworthy events. This only became permanently possible after the expiry of the Printing or Licensing Act in 1695 was followed by the proliferation of newspapers and other mass-produced printed materials. Women were to some extent precluded from the public sphere so defined since, although some were proprietors of coffee houses and even licensed premises, they did not frequent them as customers. At least middle-class ladies, though they might appear in coffee houses, were rarely seen in public houses, though alehouses and gin shops in the East End of London were frequented by working-class women. During the eighteenth century the public sphere expanded with the establishment of clubs and societies of all kinds. Many were exclusively male, such as the Freemasons who made their appearance in Hanoverian England with membership confined to men (p. 350) only. Agricultural societies and mechanics’ institutes were also confined to men. So were on the whole the literary and philosophical societies which proliferated in England towards the close of the eighteenth century. Association for charitable, philanthropic, and religious purposes, on the other hand, provided increasing opportunities for women to participate in public ventures as the period progressed. ‘By the 1840s,’ according to Robert Shoemaker, ‘most charities which sought nationwide support set up female branches.’31

Women from all walks of life, from peeresses to paupers, also took an active part in religious affairs. The most prominent peeress among them was the redoubtable Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. She led a strictly Calvinist Methodist connection which seceded from the Church of England in 1782 and established its own Dissenting chapels, twenty-three of which still exist. She also spent a fortune founding Trevecca College for her ministers in Breconshire, and Bethesda, an orphanage in Georgia which did not survive American Independence. Joanna Southcott, though not quite a pauper, was born in poverty in Devon and at one time worked as a farm labourer. She achieved notoriety with her practice of ‘sealing’ at least 20,000 disciples into her following. Although she did not begin publishing until she was 50 she produced twenty-six pamphlets, her writings being mixtures of everyday stories and mystic prophecies. Her womanhood was at the very centre of her prophesying that, as a woman whose ‘seed would bruise the serpent’ (Genesis) had brought sin into the world, so one ‘clothed in the sun’ (Revelation) would redeem it. In 1814 she astounded her followers, and earned ridicule from her many, mostly male, detractors, by announcing that, at the age of 64, she was pregnant with the redeemer Shiloh. Her lying-in became a nine-day wonder, which ended when Joanna unexpectedly died. Between Selina and Joanna were a host of more obscure women, mostly of humble origins, who became lay preachers in the Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, and other religious organizations. One such was Mary Porteous, the daughter of a Tyneside joiner, who worked in a factory at the age of 11. Previously a Presbyterian, she became a Wesleyan Methodist in 1807. Although the Wesleyans had banned women preachers in 1803 unless in exceptional circumstances, Mary’s case was regarded as such, and she went on to serve as a local preacher in several towns in the north of England between 1824 and 1839.

When Harriot Mellon became duchess of St Albans she joined an exclusive society where women even exercised political influence. The most celebrated exponent of this in the period was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who acquired notoriety for her canvassing exploits on behalf of Charles James Fox in his campaign at Westminster during the general election of 1784. Below the level of peeress few women had any political clout. They could not vote in parliamentary elections, a fact finally recognized by statute in the Reform Act of 1832 which limited the right to ‘male persons’. They were even deprived of the right to vote in local elections by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. Although the reform agitation of the period did not advocate extending the franchise to (p. 351) them, seeking at most manhood suffrage, women did become involved in it. There was a brigade of working-class females at Peterloo in 1819.

The Queen Caroline affair of 1820 galvanized their middle-class sisters into action on behalf of their heroine. Caroline’s female supporters organized petitions on her behalf all over the country, over 11,000 signing in Bristol and 7,800 in Nottingham, while a petition from the ‘married ladies of the metropolis’ obtained 17,652 signatures. The political campaign which really engaged the middle class of both sexes was that for the abolition of slavery. The agitation for the ending of the slave trade, which culminated in an Act banning it in 1807, had not involved a significant number of women. However, the launching of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions, usually known as the Anti-Slavery Society, in 1823 started a campaign which was to be spearheaded by them. William Wilberforce, the main promoter of the society, disapproved of women taking an active part in its activities as being ‘unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture’. Nevertheless their involvement began in 1825 with the foundation of the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves. By the end of the decade one-third of all such societies were organized by women, contributing more to the national society than did those run by men. In December 1832, the American William Lloyd Garrison wrote in The Liberator that ‘the ladies of Great Britain are moving the sympathies of the whole nation in behalf of the perishing slaves in the British Colonies’.32 A national petition against slavery in 1833 was an exclusively female affair, generating 187,157 signatures. The participation of women in the anti-slavery campaign played a significant part in obtaining an Act abolishing it in the British Empire in 1833. As Clare Midgley points out, ‘female petitioning represented the first large-scale intervention by women in Parliamentary politics’.33 There were many other political arenas in which women played a significant part. A review of their activities concluded that ‘women at all levels of society took part in politics’. They became involved in food riots, machine breaking, protests against the New Poor Law, even in elections. ‘Francis Lady Irwin maintained her hold upon the borough of Horsham in East Sussex from 1787 until her death in 1807.’ The redoubtable Anne Lister of Shibden Hall Halifax canvassed for Tory candidates in 1835 and 1837.34

Anne Lister is now better known for her lesbian than for her political activities. The decoding of her diaries has revealed that she had physical relationships with other women in early nineteenth-century Yorkshire. How widespread lesbianism was in this period is impossible to say. Companionate relations between women were commonplace. Widows were well known for them. Mary Wollstonecraft accepted the position of companion to Mrs. Dawson, a widow in Bath in 1778 and held it for two years. This was (p. 352) despite the fact that Mrs. Dawson ‘had had a variety of companions in succession, and that no one had found it practicable to continue with her’.35 Two women living together could therefore be for nothing more than companionship. This appears to have been the case, despite rumours to the contrary, with Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, who lived together in Wales for over fifty years and became celebrated as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. While women could keep same-sex partnerships private under the guise of being female companions, however, it was more difficult for men. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence, because men could be prosecuted for sodomy, which theoretically carried the death penalty. Byron, facing a charge of buggery, not to mention incest, wisely fled abroad in 1816. Despite the legal risks, a homosexual subculture existed, especially in London, although it is doubtful whether many men were prepared to risk their lives by practising as male prostitutes.

By contrast female prostitution flourished in broad daylight. There was a hierarchy among whores, headed by the courtesans and mistresses of the aristocracy. Below them came, according to the experienced James Boswell, ‘the splendid Madam at fifty guineas a night, down to the civil nymph with white-thread stockings who tramps along the Strand and will resign her engaging person to your honour for a pint of wine and a shilling’. He himself went lower than that, negotiating sex with a streetwalker for a mere sixpence.36 How many streetwalkers there were in London cannot be calculated. Reformers claimed that there were many thousands, though they probably exaggerated. That they could be a public nuisance is undoubted. A German visitor in 1773 complained that he was accosted in Fleet Street every ten yards by ‘lewd females’.37 By the 1830s there were nearly 1,000 brothels in London. Nor was prostitution confined to the capital. Most urban centres would cater to the sex trade. Again there was a great social gulf between the brothels which provided sexual partners for the upper classes in such leisure towns as Bath and other spas, and working women who sold their bodies to supplement low wages.

There was a myth about the harlot’s progress, one perpetuated by Hogarth’s series of prints on the subject. ‘Moll Hackabout’, the harlot in the series, treads a well-worn path from being a young girl arrived in London fresh from the country to be intercepted by a brothel keeper who hires her services. She then becomes the kept mistress of a merchant until she cheats on him with a lover and is cast out on to the streets. From there it is but a short steep descent into degradation, disease, and death. The moral was clear—the first step from virtue to vice was one which led inexorably to a dreadful fate. It was to interfere in this life cycle that the Magdalen hospital for penitent prostitutes was founded in 1758, the aim being to get them out of the clutches of brothel keepers by providing a safe haven. A prestigious list of subscribers, headed by the royal family, launched the scheme.38

(p. 353) The phenomenon of downward social mobility experienced by whores was by no means confined to the oldest profession. Movement up and down the social ladder was a common occurrence at all times. It might even have been more marked in these years, however, which witnessed more than the usual economic, political, and social upheavals. The strains of the long wars against France, with scarcely a respite from 1793 to 1815, distorted the country’s finances, necessitating high taxation and a degree of unprecedented borrowing. Revenues rose from £18 million to £80 million. Expenditure far exceeded this income, which caused the national debt to increase from £243 million to £750 million. It continued rising during the peace, peaking at £845 million in 1819. There were commercial crises in 1793, 1803, 1807–8, 1810–11, 1816, and 1819. The value of shares fell in 1793 and 1797, while in the latter year the Bank of England suspended cash payments. All these trends combined to make many winners and losers in the lottery of state finances. Among the winners was Nathan Mayer Rothschild. He was sent to England in 1798 by the family firm, a leading financial house in Frankfurt, to take care of its English cotton interests in Manchester, which had been disrupted by the war. Nathan set up a business in Manchester trading in cotton and other goods which flourished enough to enable him to move to London in 1808. There he established a financial enterprise which also made enough, particularly in the bullion trade, for the business in Manchester to be wound up in 1811. The House of Rothschild became so prosperous that the British government commissioned it to supply coins to pay its army and its allies, with a 2 per cent commission. At the end of the war his financial dealings with the state had earned Nathan over £1,000,000. His clout in the City was such that in 1826 when the Bank of England was threatened by another run on its assets he staved off the threat.

For every Rothschild, however, there were many failed foreign business ventures in early nineteenth-century England. ‘Ninety per cent of London’s Continental houses … were eliminated within twenty years of the battle of Waterloo.’39 The end of the War of American Independence had also led to the bankruptcy of 80 per cent of London merchants. The roller-coaster ride of the decades between the outbreak of that war and the onset of mid-Victorian prosperity symbolized by the Great Exhibition of 1851 was an unnerving one for men and women of all classes.

Select Bibliography

Barker, Hannah, and Elaine Chalus (eds.), Women’s History: Britain, 1700–1850: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).Find this resource:

    Clark, Anna, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1995).Find this resource:

      Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (2nd edn., London: Routledge, 2002).Find this resource:

        (p. 354) Honeyman, Katrina, Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700–1870 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).Find this resource:

          Rendall, Jane, Women in an Industrializing Society: England, 1750–1880 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990).Find this resource:

            Shoemaker, Robert B., Gender in English Society, 1650–1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Longman, 1998).Find this resource:

              Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963).Find this resource:


                (1) Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780–1840 (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 18.

                (2) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963), 11.

                (3) Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1995), 2.

                (4) Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 127.

                (5) J. V. Beckett, Byron and Newstead: The Aristocrat and the Abbey (Newark, DE: Delaware UP, 2001), 283.

                (6) J. A. Downie, ‘Who Says She’s a Bourgeois Writer? Reconsidering the Social and Political Contexts of Jane Austen’s Novels’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 40/1 (2006), 69–84.

                (8) Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (2nd edn., London: Routledge, 2002), 133.

                (9) G. M. Ditchfield, The Evangelical Revival (London: UCL Press, 1998), 105.

                (10) Hannah More, Cœlebs in Search of a Wife, ed. Patricia Demers (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2007), 46, 144, 245.

                (11) Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History’, Historical Journal 36/2 (1993), 383–414. Cf. Jane Rendall, Women in an Industrializing Society: England, 1750–1880 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990), 3: ‘it is too easy to take such prescriptive works as indicating the realities of middle-class women’.

                (13) Robert B. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society, 1650–1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Longman, 1998), 36.

                (14) Katrina Honeyman, Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England, 1700–1870 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 101.

                (15) For an introduction to the debate as it stood when Thompson wrote, see P. A. M. Taylor (ed.), The Industrial Revolution in Britain: Triumph or Disaster? (Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1958).

                (16) For a review of the current state of play on ‘the condition of England’ question see Hilton, Mad, Bad and Dangerous People?, 572–88.

                (17) Robert Southey, Letters from England, ed. Jack Simmons (London: Cresset, 1951), 210.

                (18) Critical and Historical Essays contributed to the Edinburgh Review by Lord Macaulay (London: Methuen, 1903), 1: 215.

                (21) The leading revisionist is N. F. R. Crafts, British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). While his conclusions have been widely adopted there have been dissentient views. See Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson, ‘Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Review 45/1 (1992), 24–50.

                (22) Craig Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982). Calhoun’s conclusions have been questioned, e.g., Tony Clark and Tony Dickson, ‘The Birth of Class?’, in T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison (eds.), People and Society in Scotland, vol. 1: 1760–1830 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1988), 299.

                (25) M. Daunton, ‘The Wealth of the Nation’, in Paul Langford (ed.), Short Oxford History of the British Isles: The Eighteenth Century (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 144.

                (27) Tanya Evans, ‘Women, Marriage and the Family’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (eds.), Women’s History: Britain, 1700–1850: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 70.

                (28) Quoted in Rendall, Women in an Industrialising Society, 2.

                (29) Margot Finn, ‘Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c. 1760–1860’, Historical Journal 39/3 (1996), 705.

                (30) Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth-Century English Society (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 53.

                (31) Shoemaker, Gender in English Society 1650–1850, 246.

                (32) Louis and Ros Billington, ‘ “A Burning Zeal for Righteousness”: Women in the British Anti-Slavery Movement, 1820–1860’, in Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics 1800–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 92.

                (33) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780–1970 (London: Routledge, 1992), 69.

                (34) Elaine Chalus and Fiona Montgomery, ‘Women and Politics’, in Barker and Chalus (eds.), Women’s History, 219, 233.

                (35) William Godwin, Memoirs of the author of A vindication of the rights of woman (London, 1798), 25.

                (36) Boswell’s London Journal 1762–1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle (London: Heinemann, 1950), see index sub ‘casual fruition’.

                (37) Wilfrid R. Prest, Albion Ascendant: English History, 1660–1815 (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 183.

                (38) W. A. Speck, ‘The Harlot’s Progress in Eighteenth-Century England’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 3/2 (1980), 127–39. How successful the Magdalen proved to be cannot be gauged, although it survived until the twentieth century when it was changed into an approved school. The hospital kept records of its inmates which would be a superb source for the history of prostitution if they could be located.