Social class and social status in yesteryear UK and today

social class and snobs

Social class seems to have different meanings for individuals and social scientists. For social scientists, it is a way of categorising people for purposes of research and analysis, whereas for ordinary people, it seems to be how they implicitly view their status. This page is about the latter in the UK and how it has changed over the years. The views and conclusions expressed are based on the webmaster's observations of modes of address and titles, behaviour to perceived different social classes and suitable marriage partners.


By the webmaster, based on many years of observations and additional research

Working class, middle class, upper class and snobs: attitudes to social standing

At one extreme, people seem to me to implicitly accept their social class as the one they were born into or that of their social group. They learn early on how to act with members of those classes, how to treat members of different classes and how they expect to be treated by them.

At the other extreme, activists aggressively fight against any form of class distinction. Most people are somewhere in the middle. If pushed, they would probably say that they were middle class or working class, while those in the upper echelons of society would think it demeaning to be labelled with a class because their social standing should be obvious. The remainder would probably use descriptors for themselves, like "I'm just an ordinary person".

There are of course people trying to climb the social ladder. In my experience, they go to considerable trouble to hide their social roots from those around them and I give examples below.

Social standing, modes of address and titles

Face-to-face and in public

Before WW2, only immediate family and children could be addressed by their first or given name. My mother, for example, would even introduce herself as 'Mrs Clarke' omitting her first name, and she always referred to and addressed all her acquaintances as 'Mr This' or 'Mrs That'. This was the norm for the time.

As a child, I had to address regular visitors to the family by courtesy titles such as Aunt and Uncle even though they weren't related.

Delivery men were addressed by their job. For example, my mother would address the coalman as 'Coalman', the baker as 'Baker', the milkman as 'Milkman', etc. She didn't regard this a demeaning. Some people might address some tradesmen by their first name if they were well-known and long-standing, but it was clear class distinction because the tradesman would never, never, never, address a paying customer by their first name. In his work, he acted as deferential working class and he would treat the customer as middle or upper class, irrespective of how valid these labels actually were.

The informality of first names for just about everyone came in gradually from America. An often-quoted reason was that manual workers and the aristocracy had fought side-by-side in World War Two, doing the same work, so later in civvy street, they should still be regarded as equals. It never quite worked out like that among the older generation. In my experience, factory workers still used a polite form of address to management while having somewhat pejorative nicknames for them in private.

Nevertheless, the idea of first names as a form of address slowly caught on and whereas, for example, my mother would still introduce herself as Mrs Clarke, a younger women would say Mary Brown rather than Miss or Mrs Brown.

In letters and on envelopes

You could tell a lot about perceived social status from how envelopes and letters were addressed.

Letters to my father were addressed as Mr. L. G. Clarke, esq. He was very proud of the 'esq' which was short for 'esquire' and - as I was always led to believe - meant that he owned property, albeit just an ordinary semi-detached house on a mortgage. Before he bought the house, he was just plain Mr. L. G. Clarke. (The somewhat excessive use of full stops in his name is nothing to do with status, but was typical of the time.)

The usage of 'esq' was gradually dropped. I never knew of a woman having the title. Did you?

Social class of women and the Miss, Mrs and Ms titles

There was a lot in common between social class and sexism. There were many ways in which women were regarded as inferior to men, as elaborated on the sexism page. To some extent, this was alleviated by marriage. A married woman, having the nominal protection of a man, was treated respectfully, at least in public.

When I was growing up, unmarried women were addressed to their face as Miss, whatever their age, although I clearly remember the 'old maid' designation in general chat where the woman herself was past normal marrying age and was not present. The manner of the conversation seemed to imply that this designation was normal and not intended to be impolite.

In some countries, unmarried women were addressed as Mrs as a mark of respect if they had reached some indeterminate age regarded as maturity. In the UK, only married women were addressed as Mrs. In contrast, men had the Mr designation all their lives. In other words, a man knew immediately if a woman was married by how she was addressed, but women had to wait for other signals to find out if a man was married.

The Mrs title had another associated complication in polite society. A woman with a live husband was addressed as Mrs 'husband's first name' and 'husband's surname', but if she became a widow or was divorced she was addressed as Mrs 'her own first name' and 'husband's surname'. So, for example, a woman would be addressed as Mrs John Smith while her husband was alive, but as Mrs Mary Smith if he had died or if - Horror of Horors! - she was divorced. This usage was already on its way out when I was growing up and I never paid much attention to it, but the older generation certainly did.

Needless to say, such use of Mrs was blatant sexual discrimination, but when you grow up with something like that, it takes a long time to realise it for what it is. At the time it was just etiquette.

The term Ms which does not indicate a woman's maritial status was unheard of in everyday life until much later.

The Sir and Madam titles

Today, it is probably impossible to distinguish simple normal practice from class distinction in the usage or Sir and Madam titles. Tradesmen would always address customers as Sir or Madam, and this probably owed its origins to how the lower classes addressed the upper classes.

What I particularly remember was my father's attitude when I got a Saturday job in a shop while still at school. He seemed quite proud of the fact that I would have to use deferential language when serving a customer because it was a sign of my employment status.

Looking back, I think that my father was very conscious of social status He was always fond of quoting:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

How the upper class saw the lower class and working class

In the past, those who considered themselves at the top of the social scale implicitly believed that those below them had to know their place and keep to it.

In the early-mid 20th Century, people were invariably regarded as working class or even lower working class by those who paid them, even though these terms would seldom have been used. I am thinking particularly of servants, shop assistants and live-in companions. I could tell them at a glance because of their excessive politeness and often downcast eyes. Their employers often thought it normal practice to use belittling language to them and expect them to do unpleasant tasks and work long hours. All this has almost entirely gone today in the UK because good help is hard to get and needs to be treated well in order to stay.

Social class and marriage partners

One situation where social class did seem to be much in people's minds was where a family member was contemplating marriage. Even where families genuinely wanted their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters to be happy in marriage, comments like, "She's marrying beneath her" kept popping up in conversation. Or for the social climber, "It's a good marriage" along with how the partner concerned was related to someone of importance or had a high position or money.

Social class today

British society has not yet become classless in spite of Government protestations of levelling up. Today, perceived class seems to be a matter of where one lives, one's education, profession or employment or how much money one is perceived to have. Social status has not gone away; it has simply changed.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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