Urban History

Studying the middle class in nineteenth-century urban Britain

Division and cohesion in the nineteenth-century middle class: the case of Ipswich, 1830–1870

Philip Hillsa1

a1 University of Essex

For a long time historians saw the increased wealth, numbers and power of British manufacturers, merchants and professionals as simply an inevitable part of the process of industrialization. As a result the formation of the class seemed to require no further exploration. More recently interest in the middle class has increased and much closer attention has been given to specific dimensions. It seems evident from this work that any analysis of the middle class faces a number of problems. Firstly, that of definition. There was a wide range of status and income groups within the middle class. What criteria of wealth and occupation should be used, how important is it to fix upper and lower boundaries for the class, how are questions of lifestyle and attitudes to be gauged? Secondly, there were certain divisions within groups who can reasonably be considered middle class by any criteria. Above all, we must note that there was no distinctive middle-class political party and differences were as deeply felt in politics as were antagonisms between Anglicans and Nonconformists in religion. In view of such diversities is it possible to speak of the middle class and, if so, what does class formation and unity consist of? What levels of unity allow or inhibit class power? This is the subject of my overall research, of which only a glimpse can be given here.