England saw a number of changes under the reign of Queen Victoria. One of those was the development of a new class system. In this lesson, we'll look at this system and see what it meant for English society.
In 1837, an 18-year old woman named Victoria was facing a world in which her grandfather, her father, and all three of her uncles had died. This was especially complicated because her grandfather was King George III, monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. With Victoria as Queen, England stretched its empire across the entire world. British industry redefined global technology, and British society became the standard for the Western world. In fact, we call the era of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself became an icon of proper civility, and English society in this time became obsessed with propriety. This meant different things for different people since English society also developed a strict system of social hierarchy, or the levels of power people had in society. In this class-based structure, everybody had their place, and mobility between classes was a practical impossibility. Let's take a look at these classes and see what life in Victorian England meant to people throughout society.
The Upper Class
The class system that was adopted under Queen Victoria was very strict, and designed to keep certain people in power. The upper class was at the very top of the social pyramid. In the previous systems of power, these were the aristocrats and land-owning elites. In Victorian England, the upper class had absolute political and economic power. Since the right to vote in the 19th century was dependent on owning property, members of the upper class were practically the only ones who could either vote or hold political office. They were also the only group with guaranteed access to education, which was exclusive and expensive. What really defined the upper class, however, was the fact that they did not work. Members of the upper class owned land and property, inherited from their families, and made their money through investments in business or the profits gained from their lands.
The upper class was almost entirely exclusive - one had to be born into it. It was extremely difficult to gain the wealth needed to gain this sort of social power, but even within this group, there were impermeable divisions. At the very top were royalty, those with genetically inherited royal titles. Below them were middle and lower members of the upper class, people whose families had more recently gained access to membership at the top of society, generally through military or business acumen in the expanding, industrial empire.
The Middle Class
Below the upper class was the middle class, made up of people who worked, but not with their hands. They were white-collar managers or administrators. Some were owners of factories, and others were middle-management, but these people had more financial stability and access to things like education than the average factory worker. Industry grew immensely in Victorian England, allowing for the first real expansion of a middle class in England's history. However, it was still a very small group of people by modern standards. Most people in Britain were either on the very top or the very bottom. Only a few managed to occupy this middle ground.
The Working Class
Moving down the social ladder, we come upon the working class. These were the people who worked with their hands. In the traditional British system a century earlier, these people would have been called peasants. They had little to no political rights except what the British legislature decided on their behalf, and they had little access to education or anything else that would allow them to move up the social ladder. Their grandparents were agricultural peasants, they were laborers in the industrial cities of the 19th century, and their children could expect to be the same thing. They rented their homes, worked for very little pay and no benefits, and their lives depended entirely on the mercy of their bosses.
There was a slight distinction made between the skilled and unskilled laborers of the working class in Victorian England. Skilled laborers were trained craftsmen or artisans who were taught by a master to perfect their craft. They weren't well paid, but they did receive a level of respect. Unskilled laborers were essentially factory workers who often did little more than crank a lever for hours upon hours. As the Industrial Revolution expanded, the demand for unskilled laborers grew, although their salaries and rights did not.
At the very bottom of the Victorian social hierarchy, we find the underclass, those who were even less financially stable than the working class, including the impoverished, the homeless, and the street criminals and prostitutes. Basically, people who begged for money on the streets were in this group. In an era of economic competition with no unemployment benefits or welfare systems of any kind, getting out of the underclass was difficult to impossible. However, an unskilled laborer who got fired could find himself and his family demoted to this position very easily. Following the strict moral standards of Queen Victoria, the upper class fiercely debated what they should do about the underclass. Should they use their wealth to help the unemployed, or would charity make these people lazy and discontent? Should prostitution be allowed so that these women could feed themselves, or was it immoral in a Christian society? It took over a century for England to answer these questions, and the class system remained a rigid reality of Victorian life.
The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 is remembered as the Victorian era. One of its defining features was a strict class system, consisting of a social hierarchy with very little room for mobility. At the top were the upper class, the royals and land-owning elites who did not work but lived off of their family wealth and new investments. Below them were the middle class, a small group of people who worked their way into administrative and managerial positions. However, most of society was composed of the working class, those who performed manual labor throughout the industrial cities. At the very bottom were the under class, or the completely impoverished. It wasn't an easy world to live in, but for nearly a century this was English life.