Class Consciousness in Early Victorian Britain: Samuel Smiles, Leeds Politics, and the Self-Help Creed Academic Article uri icon


  • “During the late 1830's and 40's two forms of class consciousness were being forged in Britain, not one — middle-class consciousness and working-class consciousness.” Asa Briggs's belief is shared in all its starkness by many students of early Victorian Britain, including R. K. Webb, who has even referred to “the working class point of view,” which middle-class men could adopt only by becoming “traitors to their class.” Such statements have been severely taken to task by various historians, and from the beginning Briggs has seen the need to admit important qualifications. Quoting the nineteenth-century economist W. T. Thornton, he has agreed that “the labouring population … spoken of as if it formed only one class” was “really divided into several,” each distinguished from the other by wage rates, social security, regularity of earnings, climate of industrial relations, status in the local community, prospects of future advancement, and sophistication of political attitudes.Unfortunately these qualifications are productive of confusion: it is by no means obvious why Briggs's readers should believe that only one form of working-class consciousness existed in such conditions of diversity. Nor is it obvious why similar qualifications should not be made concerning the middle classes. Was the gulf between William Lovett and those whom he called the “vicious many” not similar in extent to that between most members of the Leeds middle classes and their fellow citizen J. G. Marshall, “a millionaire mill-owner, a man aristocratically allied, and the manager of the largest factory in the world”? Nor is it necessary to rely on such an extreme example, if one believes Gibbon Wakefield, who detected the existence of an “uneasy class,” the product of a division within the ranks of the professionally qualified:The learning, skill and reputation, united, of a professional man may be called his capital.

publication date

  • May 1970

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