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.

Victorian England 101, Lesson 1: The Titled

Americans in particular can find the British status system and titles of nobility confusing, and they were much more important in the days of Sherlock Holmes. So let’s take a quick look at British titles, precedence, and correct forms of address.

Immediately below the royal family came the peerage (aka the nobility), who, with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, composed the House of Lords. They were dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons, in descending order of rank. In the case of two peers with the same title, the one whose title was older took precedence.

When someone referred to a “lord,” they always meant a peer or one of his children. Apart from social precedence, huge wealth, and giant estates, their only significant legal privilege was the right, if charged with a felony, to be tried by the House of Lords rather than by a court. Since the Canon never follows cases beyond the arrest of the perpetrator, Watson had no opportunity to report on such a trial.

For extremely formal ceremonial occasions, such as a coronation, peers would wear coronets (whether or not they were ornamented with beryls). Each rank of the peerage had a distinctive coronet.

Titles were always hereditary, except for a very few “life peerages” created in the late 1800s, which died with those receiving the honor. (Today, no new hereditary peerages are created; those honored with titles, such as Baroness Thatcher, receive only life peerages.) The title generally passed to the peer’s eldest son, or, if he was no longer living, to his heir, then to a brother, then to another male direct descendant of the original title-holder, no matter how distant. In most cases, whoever inherited the title also inherited the manor. The complete lack of any qualified male heir would usually mean the end of that peerage.

Note that in each generation, only one child, the heir, was ennobled; the others were legally commoners, though generally given the courtesy title Lord or Lady (a famous recent example was Lady Diana Spencer). These relatives of peers ranked below the titled nobility, though they had higher status than other commoners.

A lady marrying a peer acquired his noble status. The well-known phenomenon of a lord marrying an heiress with no title—perhaps even an American—arose because most estates were “entailed,” meaning that the peer was unable to sell any of the land to raise funds, whether to pay the not insignificant costs attached to maintaining the estate or the expenses of keeping up social appearances.

While some titles were very old, a great many peerages were not. They were frequently awarded for service to the political party in power. (While titles were and are officially bestowed by the monarch, he or she often did so at the behest of the Prime Minister.) In addition, very wealthy lawyers, lord chancellors, and—oddly—brewers became peers, as did military heroes like the Duke of Wellington. Brand-new peerages were considered tacky; in the 1880s, a lord chancellor requested that the title be granted to his father so that he himself would be the second Lord whatever.

Peers could receive promotions, with previous titles trailing after the current one. A character in “The Priory School,” for example, was the Duke of Holdernesse, Earl of Carston, Baron Beverley.

Significantly below the peerage were baronets and knights. (Then came gentlemen and lesser folk, whom we’ll discuss another time.) Holders of these titles were not peers and had much less influence in society, though they might be prominent in their local area, as was Sir Charles Baskerville, a baronet. Like a peerage, a baronetcy was hereditary, but baronets didn’t sit in the House of Lords; they were considered the upper reaches of the gentry (whom, along with lesser folk, we’ll discuss another time). Knighthoods were not hereditary, and thus much less prestigious. While distinguished doctors or lawyers might be made baronets, knighthoods might be bestowed even on people who were—horrors!—“in trade.”

Titles and Forms of Address

RankRank OF WifeReferred to asDirect ADDRESS
dukeduchessthe Duke/Duchess of HoldernesseDuke/Duchess, if you’re in the nobility or gentry; Your Grace, otherwise
marchionessthe Marquess/Marchioness of MontalvaLord/Lady Montalva; my Lord/Lady
earlcountess2the Earl/Countess of Blackwater OR Earl/Countess d’Albert3Lord/Lady Blackwater; my Lord/Lady
viscountviscountessViscount/Viscountess GreystokeLord/Lady Greystoke; my Lord/Lady
baronbaronessBaron/Baroness Gruner4Lord/Lady Gruner; my Lord/Lady
baronetlady5Sir Eustace Brackenstall, Sir Eustace/Lady BrackenstallSir Eustace/Lady Brackenstall
knightlady5Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur/Lady DoyleSir Arthur/Lady Doyle
1Both forms were used.
2The title earl derives from Anglo-Saxon and is equivalent to the European title count.
3Depending on whether the title included a geographic location or simply a name.
4A baron was almost never spoken of or addressed as Baron; a famous example is the poet Lord Tennyson, who was created a baron.
5The female peerage found the use of the title lady by the lower ranks annoying; some apparently wished the wives of knights would resume their old title of dame.

The widow of a peer retained her title until the heir to the peerage married and his wife assumed his rank; after that, the previous peer’s widow would be referred to as either the Dowager Viscountess Greystoke or the more modern Jane, Viscountess Greystoke, with the first name differentiating her from the current Viscount’s wife. A peer who wished to distinguish himself from previous holders of the title would use the similar form Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

All children of peers were commoners, including the eldest son, until inheriting the title or being granted a peerage himself. They (and, if male, their wives) were given courtesy titles to distinguish them socially.

  • The eldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl was called, e.g., Lord St Simon, and his wife would be Lady Robert St Simon, addressed as Lady Robert. In some cases the eldest son would use an inferior title of his father’s—e.g., the son of the Duke of Holdernesse might be the Earl of Carston—but this was still a courtesy title, and he remained a commoner.
  • A younger son of a duke or marquess was called Lord, and any daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl was called Lady; in both cases, the courtesy title would be followed by the first and last name, as in Lady Frances Carfax.
  • The younger sons of earls and all children of viscounts and barons were called the Honourable; e.g., the second son of the Earl of Maynooth was the Honourable Ronald Adair.

When addressing royalty, the monarch was Your Majesty, and the monarch’s spouse, children, and siblings were Your Royal Highness. Nephews, nieces, and cousins of the monarch were Your Highness.

Helpfully, given this disorganized mess of titles, the overly ostentatious use of formal titles was frowned on. The Queen herself was often addressed as Ma’am. Only servants were expected to frequently use My Lord and My Lady. A contemporary etiquette book noted:

It is, however, well to show that you remember the station of your interlocutor, by now and then introducing some such phrases as, “I think your Grace was observing,” or, “I believe, madam, I was pointing out to you —”

Among themselves, or with relatives and close friends, the nobility would even drop the Lord; for example, friends would call Lord Blackwater simply “Blackwater.” This did not, of course, apply to servants, tradespeople, and other lower orders.

This writer is personally extremely glad that Americans may not bear titles of nobility. It makes etiquette much simpler.

Thanks to Daniel Pool for his useful reference, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.