English Class System in the 19th Century

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

For much of the 19th century in Britain, social class was extremely important. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the social classes of that period, also referred to as the Victorian era.

A Stratified System

When you read about class systems, chances are you think back to the ancients. People often think about the division of people in an unfair class structure as something that happened thousands of years ago. However, class systems have existed in the Western world relatively recently, and one of the most stratified class systems in human history existed just a couple of centuries ago.

Let's look back to Victorian Britain, the era that comprises much of the 19th century in Britain and is named in honor of Queen Victoria. In Victorian Britain, the class system was strictly enforced and very much a rule of life. In this lesson, we're going to look at the four main social classes of Victorian Britain.

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  • 0:04 A Stratified System
  • 0:43 The Upper Class
  • 1:21 The Middle Class
  • 1:53 The Working Class
  • 2:17 The Underclass
  • 2:48 Lesson Summary
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The Upper Class

At the top of British Victorian society were the royal family and nobility, and they did not have to work since their money came from inheritance, land, and investments. But this top tier of the class system wasn't composed only of people born into their status. The Victorian period was a time of great advances in industry and commerce, which meant great advances in wealth. Much of this wealth was concentrated into the hands of a few very successful people. These ultra-rich tycoons became a class of their own that rivaled the kings and dukes for preeminence.

So, there were two routes to the upper class in the Victorian era: be born into it or make enough money to buy into it.

The Middle Class

Many of us used to modern luxuries would actually be quite comfortable in the Victorian middle class. After all, most families that called themselves middle class would have a maid and a gardener, and perhaps a butler and even a cook. To be part of the middle class showed that you had determination. You were almost certainly college educated or at least very quick-witted in order to please your higher bosses. The middle class strived the hardest to maintain the Victorian ideals of propriety, and when we read many Victorian works, they are usually set in various strata of the middle class.

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