Class then and now

ED: How much has this notion of class changed, from the England of then versus today?

Britain’s class system was (and is) by no means monolithic. Rankings and gradations existed which were finely and acutely observed and class snobbery, often morally charged, could be found both within and across classes. Among the working class, this ranged from skilled workers and their families who lived comfortably, discreetly and ‘respectably,’ to the rough and tumble of casual and unemployed workers in sub-let rooms. The Poor Law (abolished in 1932) classified the working class into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving.’ The Trade Unions, on the other hand, helped to instill pride in the working class and their institutions, to secure a living wage, and to ferment the demand for, and the practice of, democracy.

Social disadvantage still exists, but ‘class’ as a concept has lost its political potency and its conceptual clarity. The discourse has changed, but attitudes remain morally charged. The ‘deserving’ or ‘respectable’ working-class are now lauded in the political rhetoric as ‘hard-working families’; the undeserving as ‘benefits scroungers.’ The reality is very different: low wages mean ‘in-work’ poverty. Many of those hard-working families rely on benefits to survive. The Trade Unions have been decimated. The so-called ‘scroungers’ are often mentally, physically or socially disabled, or live in regions where unemployment is endemic. Class, as a term or a concept, is rarely used either by politicians or social analysts, least of all as a banner of pride. Poverty still hits women the hardest and the social world seems a harsher, more cynical place.

A small extract from Charles Booth ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty’ (1897), showing the area where my character, Ada Vaughan, grew up. Charles Booth was a social reformer and colour coded his maps so that, at a glance, it was possible to see the class composition of a neighbourhood. Light blue was ‘poor’, dark blue ‘very poor’, purple – the colour of Theed Street – was mixed, some poor, some more comfortably off – but all a far cry from ‘yellow’ which was the colour of the upper class neighbourhoods. This extract came from the LSE. See (and for further details)

Ways forward

ED: For a woman like Ada, growing up in that era, were there many career options available to her? Was dressmaking a way to transcend class divisions, or would they ultimately have constrained her?

Lack of education constrained most working class women and men from social advancement. A few won scholarships to high school which offered one route to social mobility but most working class children had an elementary education only, and left school at fourteen – the school leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1936. There was a real hunger for further education and Ada was typical in her desire for self-improvement. Institutions arose to satisfy this desire providing evening classes in a range of vocational, academic and recreational classes. Career avenues for working class girls were limited to service, shop work, or the factory floor. A few acquired skills such as typing or shorthand which brought them into clerical work. Ada was lucky. She had a trade and secured a job with a ‘modiste’ which elevated her above the sweatshops of the East End. She was ambitious, talented, and hard-working. Perhaps, with luck and financial patronage, she could have fulfilled her dream of owning her own atelier but opportunities would have been limited and the chances are she would have married, started a family and perhaps, to make ends meet, bought a sewing machine on hire-purchase and ran up the odd garment for a friend or family member. She did, after all, dream of marrying Stanislaus…

Wells Literary Festival.003
The Borough Polytechnic Institute (now part of South Bank University) opened in 1892, offering training in trades, as well as classes in arts and sciences, literature and general knowledge. Elocution was also included in the syllabus.