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The Differences In the Social Classes of Mid-Victorian


I. Introduction In the Mid-Victorian period in English
history there were distinct class differences in its
society. There were three classes in England. These were
the Aristocracy, the Middle-Class (or Factory owners) and
the working class. Each class had specific characteristics
that defined its behavior. These characteristics were best
seen in four areas of British society.
During the time-period known by most historians as the
Industrial Revolution, a great change overtook British
culture. Aside from the political and economic change which
occurred, a profound social alteration transpired. The
populace seeking to better their lives, sought employment
in newly-formed industries. Many of the workers which
included women and children, labored through 12 hour work
shifts, with poor nutrition, poor living conditions and
completing tedious tasks1. These factors, accompanied by
various ideological precepts by Britain's intellectual
community, and those concepts imported from France, provoke
a crucial social evolution. Though no government was
overthrown, a distinct transformation took place causing
rebellious behavior to erupt among the working class. This
essay will address the questions of how and why this
behavior was expressed by the lower order of British
society. It will also discuss methods the ruling class used
in suppressing and controlling the rebellious behavior
exhibited by the working class.
The middle class held to two basic ideologies that served
in the exploitation of the lower order of the British
Richard Atlick identified them as Utilitarianism (or
Benthamism) and Evangelicalism. Both served the
self-interested inclinations of the middle class.
Utilitarianism created the need to fulfill a principle of
pleasure while minimalization pain. In the context of the
"industrial revolution" this meant that the pleasure
extracted from life would be at the working classes'
expense. This provided a perfect justification for the
middle class to capitalize on. The working class of
Britain, throughout the industrial revolution and through
the Victorian age, acted in a defiant manner toward both
the aristocracy and middle class. This behavior extended
from the everyday activities of the workers to radical
anarchist movements that categorized the underground.
The middle class seemed to be just as familiar with the
inverse of Benthamism as they were with its normal
application. The pleasure principle was measured in terms
of minimalization of pain. If the sum of pain, in a given
situation, is less than the sum of pleasure, than it should
be deemed pleasurable. The inverse principle applied to the
working class was how pain (work) can be inflicted, with
the absolute minimum distribution of pleasure (wages),
without creating an uprising.
This was seen in Andrew Ure's article. He eloquently
defended the industrial system and dismissed the
infractions as conjecture. However, the argument made by
Ure clearly pointed to the existence of disciplinary
actions being performed by the industrialist and how these
were allowed by the government. His argument stated that no
employer wished to beat their young employees and, if it
occurred, then it was on a small level. The argument did
not condemn the use of physical discipline. It did not
directly acknowledge its occurrence, but neatly
circumvented the issue by saying it was not the "wishes" of
the employer. This was an example of the beliefs of the
middle class to take disciplinary and suppressive actions
taken against the working class.
The second, Evangelicalism, was considered to be selfish
because of its inflexibility toward actions outside of its
moral realm. The Church at that time would help the poor
only to pacify its conscience. Andrew Mearns, in his
article " The Bitter Cry of Outcast London", investigated
the misery of the working class and exhorted the church for
inactivity on the working classes behalf. He stated that
"whilst we have been building our churches and solacing
ourselves with our religion . . . the poor have been
growing poorer, the wretched more miserable, and the
immoral more corrupt." He continued, listing detailed
accounts of how the lower class survived and suffered. It
was written to evoke a reaction from the church attending
middle class.
Isolated by these ideologies and rigid social class
distinctions, the lower class began to resent the
industrialists that employed them. There were basically two
types of radicals that followed a more active part in
expressing their disdain for the system that imprisoned
them; as discussed in the book Radical Underworld. The
first group of radicals engaged in carousing,
pamphleteering and the proliferation of pornography. This
printing and distribution of resistant and even seditious
material toward the system was frowned upon by the
government. The carousing and debauched behavior was a
rebellious social statement emphasizing the lower classes'
rejection of the hypocritical social restraint the middle
class attained to. A second group of radicals pursued their
anarchist agendas to the point of destroying machinery in
an unbeseeming manner. These extremists performed any act
that would disrupt the system and discredit the government
by making it appear inept at stopping the social unrest.
This was a direct reaction to the isolation caused by the
difference in social class.
The behavior of the working class was termed rebellious by
the middle class and aristocracy of British society. The
expression "rebellious" characterized their deviation from
the conservative norms established by the middle-class.
James Phillips Kay argued that the environment
industrialization created in Britain was responsible for
the cultivation of this immoral behavior. He continued by
pointing out the "ceaseless drudgery" of the work that the
person must perform; "in squalid wretchedness, on meagre
food and expends his superfluous gains on debauchery." This
allowed the working class to justify their departure from
the illusionary "traditional" values the middle class
promoted and their adoption of a system fitting to their
social environment.
Adam Smith justified the oppressive environment that the
working class was subjected to was in his work "Wealth of
Nations". He introduced the concept of "Laisser - faire" to
government and its role in the economy. By adopting the
"hands off " policy, the British government created an
environment which was conducive to a pure state of
capitalism. In this mode, the industries were given a blank
check for the exploitation of the working class. The result
was large-scale urbanization and industrialization that
produced hideous living and working conditions.
Various ideologies arose from intellectuals and radicals of
England, Ireland and the ensuing French revolution. These
ideas of liberty, rights, equality and revolution were
introduced to the masses and prompted the motivation for
change. However, revolution never occurred as the
government allowed the working class opportunities to vent
its social frustrations. These "opportunities" were found
in the lower classes leisure time. Spending time in pubs,
theaters, music halls and sporting activities created an
outlet for the miserable and unhappy.
Thus, the rebellious behavior exhibited by the working
class of the British society was demonstrated in everyday
life and justified by both the living and working
conditions of workers. The issue of the disciplinary and
suppressive actions initiated by the middle and ruling
class was deliberate and calculated. This discipline was
used in culling the behavior of the working class and
maximizing its productivity. Industrialization and
urbanization took a toll on the British lower social order,
but, consequently, did not push it into a revolution. This
is to the credit of a society that had the ability to
express itself in coping with social inconsistencies and


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