The Middle Class in Regency England

Middle Class, Regency, England, shoppe, trade, history

Middle Class, Regency, England, shoppe, trade, historyThe plot of my novel, A Debt Paid in Marriage, book #1 in my Business of Marriage series, involves the daily lives of the middle class of London. The middle class consisted of prosperous tradesmen, merchants, bankers, solicitors, shop owners and anyone else who wasn’t among the laboring classes, the poor or the aristocracy. It wasn’t easy doing research, or uncovering the details of their everyday lives. The public’s fascination with the rich and titled, which hasn’t changed much in the two hundred years since the Regency, meant the scandals and habits of the ton were well documented in letters, newspaper articles, diaries and biographies. The newspapers weren’t as interested in the lives of drapers, unless there was something scandalous going on, which wasn’t usually the case. Teasing out the details of how the merchants of London spent their days was difficult but fun.

Middle Class, Regency, England, shoppe, trade, historyIn many ways, the habits of the upper echelons of the middle class mimicked those of the wealthy. They had nice houses, they sent their sons to school, owned fancy coaches, and employed servants including footmen, cooks and a butler. It wasn’t just the manners of the upper class they mimicked but their vices too. Prosperous merchants were known to frequent the gambling house of George Smith, George Po and Co in St. James’ Street. Here they could spend their hard earned money and risk landing themselves in debtor’s prison. In a time when ruin could mean a severe drop in the quality of life, or death by jail fever, and without the great manor houses, land and titles to prop up their fortunes, gambling was a risky habit for a merchant to acquire. Another expensive pastime was keeping a mistress, which men of the upper middle class, and sometimes even a solicitor’s apprentice, sometimes did.
Middle Class, Regency, England, shoppe, trade, history
While the above pastimes were enjoyed by those of the middle class who possessed a great deal of money, the more middling sort lived much simpler lives. They worked for a living and had to concern themselves with matters of business if they wanted to remain in the middle class and not slip into poverty. Women played a much larger role in the merchant class, helping their husbands at the counters of shops and often running the business in the event of his death. The famous wine merchant Berry Bros. and Rudd was not only founded by a woman, but her daughter, Elizabeth Pickering, ran the business after her husband’s death. Men who owned and ran inns expected their wives and daughters to help, as the famed country beauty Mary Butterworth in the North of England did before she fell prey to the charms of a bigamist.

A merchant’s life could be an arduous one. Those in trade often began their careers at a young age, somewhere between eleven and fourteen, through an apprenticeship which could last up to seven years. This wasn’t an idyllic time, but one of hard work and toil where they not only learned the business but did most of the menial dirty work. The tradesmen who took in apprentices had to look after them and provide room and board. These duties were on top of their numerous other responsibilities and worries, and they had a lot to worry about. Clients often failed to pay their bills, thieves were a constant problem and bankruptcy an ever present threat. Even if all went well where bills and shoplifters were concerned, the merchant’s day was a long one. Shops often opened early and might remain open until nearly ten o’clock at night. It wasn’t an easy life, but it offered more prosperity than those in previous generations had known. Industrious people in the middle class could do well for themselves and their families, provide opportunities for women, and if they made enough money, allow them to live like the other half.

If you are interested in the middle class in Regency England, check out my novels A Debt Paid in Marriage or A Too Convenient Marriage.

1 comment:

Jenny Benfield said...

Have you read Family Fortune by Davidoff. Very academic but thorough study on the middle classes in eighteenth and nineteenth century? It was the set book for my MA. Like you, my current book (in draft) is Regency England. But mine deals with working class weavers and a wanna be French emigre who wants to be part of aristocratic England.