Victorian England 101, Lesson 2: The Gentry and Lesser Folk

In Lesson 1, we learned about the titled; in this lesson, we’ll discuss gentlefolk and the middle class.

A Private View at the Royal Academy, William Powell Frith, 1881

While the largest division in English society was between the nobility and the commoners, the latter maintained many important distinctions of rank. Below the nobles and other distinguished landholders were the gentry—squires, clergy, baronets, and knights—whose income traditionally came from the tenants on their land. Then came professionals such as bishops and barristers, followed by independent landholders and bankers. Below them were the lesser tradesmen and artisans, followed by the working poor and farm laborers.

The 19th century saw this ancient order shaken up. The industrial revolution created new sources of wealth that could compete with land. No matter how wealthy a man was, though, to be accepted into society he had to own a country estate; land remained the key to status. (A character in Jane Austen’s Persuasion says, “You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property.”) And “new money” would never be as well regarded as old wealth; in Britain, the term “self-made man” kept its disparaging tone well into the 20th century, in contrast to its connotations in the United States.

Societal changes also raised the stature of the professions: For example, doctors such as Watson acquired some genuine scientific training (even if they continued to treat nearly everything with brandy). This new class of professionals began to insist on social acceptance. The middle class grew in size and importance, its members working in banks and counting houses and government bureaucracies.

Increasingly, the status of a commoner was what he could make it. He might convince people to treat him as a solid member of the middle class, or even as a gentleman. That involved mastering the proper social rituals and speech patterns, as well as spending like the class you aspired to. It also meant avoiding anything that smacked of manual labor; to quote Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, “the resolute display of a hopeless inability to do anything oneself became increasingly the distinguishing mark of a lady or gentleman as the century wore on.” Which, of course, meant that one needed servants.

Any household with pretensions to middle-class status—such as the home of Dr. and Mrs. Watson—had at least one housemaid or maid-of-all-work. Climbing to the highest ranks demanded an even larger staff, which sometimes provided opportunities for a clever consulting detective, as in “Charles Augustus Milverton.” What with the impressive house, the staff, and the necessary free spending, becoming and staying a gentleman was immensely expensive. On top of that, to be in the gentry one had to have a carriage; though the vehicle itself wasn’t prohibitively costly, maintaining the needed horses (which had to be fed and stabled), coachman, outriders, and groom required an astronomical amount of money.

Being a gentleman or a lady meant not having to earn one’s living. Those who were “in trade,” no matter how wealthy or accomplished, were never accepted by the ton. Distinctions had to be maintained. For example, a barrister’s wife could be presented at court, but a solicitor’s could not; a solicitor, you see, took fees directly, while a barrister acted as a consultant and was engaged and paid by the solicitor, not the client. (There were, of course, other differencess between the two types of attorney, such as education.) Because of this bias against earning money, doctors rarely rose to the peerage; for all his middle-class accoutrements, John H. Watson was still regarded as a tradesman.

Given the depressing state of the world as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, we’ll save discussing the working class and the type of grim poverty that gave us the adjective Dickensian—not to mention those beloved “street urchins” who made up the Baker Street Irregulars—for some future date.

The Shocking Case of the Unknown Sherlock Holmes

Today we’ve found something truly obscure to share with you: A profile of the Master that ran in the Times of London on April 1, 1980, headlined just as this post is titled. The intriguing, and frequently unflattering, revelations in the piece were drawn from the papers of Dr. Moore Agar, Holmes’s personal physician for many years. (In “The Devil’s Foot,” when Dr. Watson mentioned Agar, he included the tantalizing note, “whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may some day recount.” Unfortunately, if he ever wrote it up, he chose not to publish it.)

Dr. Agar agreed with other scholars of Holmes’s cases—such as Mr. Nicholas Meyer—that Professor Moriarty was merely a fantasy conjured up by the great detective’s imagination. The article contains many convincing details, but the failure of any further information to emerge from the doctor’s papers in the last 40 years is puzzling. Perhaps greater scholarly minds than we will be able to confirm or debunk the account.

Agar was sympathetic to a fellow medical man, writing, “Poor old Watson! He did his best to help Holmes and merely succeeded in making himself look foolish. There’s friendship for you.”

The article can be found only as a JPEG image in the Times’s archives (there is an option to view its text, but the results of the OCR scan seem to have been victimized by someone who wished, perhaps, to protect the memory of the Master). We present it here so that you may download it, enlarge the image, and peruse it at your leisure.

The Shocking Case of the Unknown Sherlock Holmes, a profile from the April 1, 1980, issue of the Times of London
Page 17 of the April 1, 1980 issue of the Times

Potato Soup to Hunker Down With

Christine Ellis served this scrumptious soup at our March meeting. Now we’re sharing the recipe with all of you. Enjoy!

Mrs. Hudson’s Spring New Potato and Garlic Soup

as shared with Betty Rosbottom for her Sunday Soup cookbook
prepared by Mrs. Hudson’s committee for the March 2020 meeting of the NMSOBC


12 oz new red potatoes

2 tsp salt

2 cups half and half (Christine used whole milk)

1 5 oz package Boursin cheese with garlic and herbs (crumbled into small pieces)

ground white pepper to taste

crumbled bacon for garnish

  1. Wash and slice the potatoes about ⅛” thick and boil in water with the salt for 5 or 6 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  2. Combine milk and crumbled cheese in a quart-size pot. Cook over medium heat until the cheese melts. Don’t let it come to a boil.
  3. Add the potatoes and cook another minute or two. (Christine smashed the potatoes for a smoother soup.)
  4. Serve in soup bowls with bacon bits.

Serve with assorted fresh vegetables and warm bread.