Class System in Victorian England

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  • 0:02 Victorian England
  • 1:12 The Upper Class
  • 2:40 The Middle Class
  • 3:17 The Working Class
  • 4:29 The Underclass
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.

Victorian England

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.

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