Class Differences in the Victorian Era

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Class differences in Victorian times were clearly marked and relatively immobile. While modern class differences are based primarily on how much money a person makes, Victorian class differences were based on what you did for a living, if anything. Most people were born into a class and never left it; if they did, they only moved one degree: Upper to upper middle, or upper working to lower middle, for instance. Women were assigned the class of their husbands when they married, so there were social strictures against marrying "beneath yourself."

Upper Class

The British upper classes in the Victorian era were titled and usually very wealthy. American Victorians were simply wealthy, usually making their money in manufacturing, transportation or investments. The upper class did not work -- they ruled. Politicians, magistrates, priests and the owners of companies were typical upper class members. The women of the upper class never worked, even in the home, but rather spent their days socialising or shopping. They employed numerous members of the working class as servants.

Young men of the upper class were educated at home by tutors, then sent to Eton, Harrow or a school of equivalent stature, and later to Oxford or Cambridge. Young American men went to Harvard or Yale for college, or were shipped to England to attend Oxford. Young women were educated in the arts and languages, but were rarely taught the more demanding subjects like higher mathematics. They might have been sent to finishing schools or boarding schools to perfect their French, but never to college. They were expected to become wives and mothers, not leaders.

Middle Class

The Victorian middle class would be referred to as the professional class in modern times. The upper middle class included physicians -- who prescribed, but did not touch patients or perform surgery, attorneys, higher-level clerks and some members of the clergy. A young man born to the upper class but financially unable to maintain that status could go into one of these professions, or become a military officer with only a small loss of stature. The lower middle class was made up of respectable bourgeois like shopkeepers, teachers and journalists. A very successful member of the lower middle class, like Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, could become acceptable in the upper middle class. He would never be able to belong to the upper class; its ranks were closed to all who were not born to it or who were not fabulously wealthy.

Working Class

The working class, like the middle class, was divided into two categories. In the upper category were skilled labourers who worked with their hands, like carpenters and blacksmiths. The lower category held the masses of working men and women who provided unskilled paid labour to factories, farms and shops, or who did the dirtier jobs like fishing and butchery. This was the highest class in which women were allowed to work without social repercussions. Servants were lumped into this category, but at different levels; servants to aristocratic houses or higher-level servants were accorded more respect.

The Underclass

At the bottom of the Victorian classes was the underclass, a destitute and often homeless collection of vagabonds, thieves, penny prostitutes, beggars and single mothers. The underclass was generally unskilled and often ill. Some would be placed in the workhouse, where they would be given food, shelter and a tedious and menial job to do for 12 hours or more a day. Others obtained illegal income, enough for surviving and purchasing "blue ruin," a cheap gin flavoured with juniper berry and turpentine, which may have contributed to the high death rates in London at the time. Members of the underclass existed without hope and usually without a way out of their terrible social and economic position, unless they managed to go to America or Australia and create a new life on the frontier.

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