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Affirmation in the ‘Other’: Middle-Class Identity and Nineteenth-Century Poverty Studies

David Johnson | Newcastle University

	 A family group of women and children sitting listening to a man telling a story. Wood engraving by Dalziel after J.E. Millais.
A family group of women and children sitting listening to a man telling a story. Wood engraving by Dalziel after J.E. Millais.

In 1849, a writer named Henry Mayhew, who was increasingly concerned about the working poor in London, visited the home of an impoverished woman and noted, ‘The room in which the family lived, though more destitute of every article of furniture and comfort than any I had yet visited, was at least untainted by the atmosphere of poverty. I was no longer sickened with that overpowering smell that always hangs about the dwellings of the very poor.’ The reason this particular room was ‘untainted’ was that it was occupied by not a street seller or manual labourer, but by a distressed gentlewoman who had been compelled to take up needlework to survive. Within that class contrast is found the core problem with the many poverty studies undertaken during the later nineteenth century: they were written by middle-class authors for a middle-class audience, reproducing not so much the experiences of poverty as the middle-class expectations of what poverty was supposed to be. This problem is not new for those who research different poverty studies. Since the middle of the twentieth century, historians have attempted to assess author biases and re-evaluate empirical data from these works in an effort to more accurately position them in the larger history of the working class. However, the field of emotions history allows for a fresh take on the material by taking that potential problem and turning it into an asset. Rather than reading the material with an eye to what the economically disadvantaged experienced in the nineteenth century, the material can instead be read for the way the middle class sought to affirm its own sense of identity through the use of a very specific set of ideas and vocabulary. In the example from Mayhew, no matter how barren or comfortless the room, it could never be ‘tainted’ by poverty due to the influence of the gentlewoman, simply because that was the power a gentlewoman had within a home according to middle-class ideology.

Members of the British middle class during the nineteenth century were keenly aware of the tenuous nature of their social position, situated as they were between the gentry and nobility on one side, and the working classes on the other. While the markers that set apart the upper classes were well defined, the distinctions between the working class and middle class were far less clear. This lack of a clear distinction meant there was often anxiety about whether those in the middle class truly measured up to class-appropriate standards. One of the consistent markers of true middle-class status was a particular type of home space in which the family was expected to live. Literally hundreds of domestic economy guides were written between 1800 and 1914 by a very wide range of male and female authors, all of which sought to define not just the physical conditions of the home, but also the emotional space. A lexicon of emotions words compiled from an extensive sample of these guides demonstrates some clear trends in the language being used. Overwhelmingly, various phrases describing comfort, happiness and cheer dominate the desirable emotional traits for a middle-class home. There is more variety in the vocabulary used for undesirable elements, but discomfort, misery and vexation are consistently used to describe those elements middle-class families should avoid in their homes. Tellingly, these exact same terms are also used by poverty study authors and their legion of surveyors when describing the homes of those in the working class.

Henry Mayhew was one of the first British writers to attempt a systemic study of the working class in London in the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, Mayhew wrote accounts for the Morning Chronicle newspaper in 1849 and 1850 before breaking from the paper and devoting his attention to his landmark work London Labour and the London Poor, first published in 1851, and reprinted in various versions over the next decade. Mayhew conducted his research himself, and his approach to writing was narrative in nature, recounting the working lives of those he interviewed more than their home lives. However, when Mayhew did describe homes, comfort and misery were key definitions of the space. Importantly, these emotional attributes were often completely separate from other aspects such as cleanliness or specific objects in the home. In a letter to the Morning Chronicle in 1849, Mayhew described a home he entered as ‘scrupulously neat and clean’, and yet it was also the site of the ‘keenest misery’ due to the extreme poverty the occupant of the room lived in. In contrast, in the first volume of London Labour and the London Poor, he notes a family of street sellers ‘living in a cellar’ that was dark, small, and horribly cramped but still managed to have ‘a look of comfort’ in their home. Likewise, when visiting the home of an Irish street seller, Mayhew was pleased to find ‘an air of comfort’ that was a marked departure from the reports he had heard from Ireland of dilapidated and unpleasant homes there.

In contrast to the narrative approach Mayhew used, the poverty studies of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree took an analytical approach rather than a narrative one. Both authors were writing at the end of the nineteenth century, and like Mayhew, they sought to depict the lives of the working poor. Booth focused on London, while Rowntree was inspired by Booth’s work to see if the same patterns seen in London held true for a smaller town such as York. As with Mayhew, the vocabulary they used strongly corresponded with the emotional language used to describe a middle-class home. In volume one of Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London, he lays out a set of classification groups from Class A, who are the lowest sort of labourers and ‘semi-criminals’ to Class H, which he terms the upper-middle class. More telling than the group labels is the set of descriptors Booth used for these classes. Classes A and B are the ‘Very Poor’, classes C and D are the ‘Poor’, and then classes E and F are ‘Comfortable’, even though they are still considered to be working class. In this system, the middle class categorised as classes G and H are the ‘Well-to-do’. Rowntree uses a similar classification system to Booth, though it was not directly aligned and lacked the descriptors Booth used. Nevertheless, the emotional lexicon is still present, as the majority of those in Rowntree’s class D lived in homes described as ‘comfortable’ even though the income of ‘over 30s a week’ was well below middle-class income in 1901. Both classification systems carry implications for what comfortable means.

Comfort is tremendously difficult to quantify in concrete terms, and when a middle-class author noted comfort in a working-class home, it was inevitably being assessed in middle-class terms. While Mayhew did his investigations himself, Booth and Rowntree relied on a large number of surveyors to go to each building on a street and gather data. The consistent use of the same language by these anonymous individuals provides robust evidence that in these surveys the middle class was seeking a way to reaffirm its own identity. Those in Booth’s classes E and F were considered to be ‘comfortable’ because their homes closely resembled those of the middle class. In using such an assessment, the middle class reinforced to itself that comfort was the key element of a home, and that the middle-class perception of comfort was the correct one. Working-class homes either in some way tried to imitate this model of comfort or fell into the undesirable emotional state of misery or at least discomfort.

It was not uncommon for the distinction between comfort and misery to depend on the efforts of the mistress of the house, as with Mayhew’s account of the gentlewoman. In the middle-class view, a woman was the source of all comfort in the home, and under the guiding touch of a good woman even a prison cell could take on the emotional feel of a comfortable parlour. For working-class women, their efforts were even more crucial, as Booth noted the comforts of a home for many of the poor depended on ‘a good wife’. Many doing the survey work explicitly noted the efforts of the woman of the house. For example, Rowntree’s surveyors noted more than one widow who was ‘sober and industrious’, and as a result lived in a clean and comfortable home, and described another comfortable home where the wife was a ‘good manager’ that made many little things for the home. On the other hand, in Rowntree’s survey is the brief account of a mother who ‘lacks method, and always apologies’ for the undesirable state of her home and her children. Booth notes a similar issue in volume two of his work, describing a home where the wife was a ‘quiet and steady’ person but had a drunkard husband and had ‘lost all heart’, so the home was lacking in even basic comforts. For the good woman, though, such a lamentable fate was not inevitable, even in a difficult marriage or precarious living situation. Booth relates the tale of a deeply impoverished woman who started out with only a market basket and a ‘bundle of something’ in a corner for a bed, and yet eight years later due to her efforts and good influences, ‘her room is comfortable, and its inmates contended and happy’. In a working-class home, no middle-class author expected to find the ‘Angel in the House’ as she was described in poetry and domestic literature, but angel-like qualities of industry and economy could help foster a middle-class sense of comfort in even the most impoverished working-class homes, as well as reaffirming the importance of women in a domestic setting in middle-class ideology.

On the higher end of the working-class income scale, Rowntree described how a railway employee making a good wage had a good situation in a home which was ‘well planned and convenient’, both clean and comfortable, and had a ‘wallpaper of artistic design and colour’ which created a ‘very cheerful room’. This particular detail might seem odd for a surveyor to mention given that many comments are both brief and generalised to the overall characteristics of a location, but in fact, it is a crucial remark. The language used demonstrates the extent to which the emotions lexicon of the middle class drawn from domestic economy guides was used with exacting precision by poverty study surveyors. A more detailed look at the precise wording demonstrates just how middle-class expectations and ideology were imposed on working-class living conditions.

As noted, comfort is subjective and remarkably difficult to define. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, visual elements of a comfortable space were defined with increasingly specific elements, many of which had an emotional as well as aesthetic descriptions. The colouring of a room was deemed of great importance to its emotional condition, with certain colours causing great discomfort if used too liberally. The role of wallpaper became an integral part of the conversation in many domestic economy guides after the 1850s. It was so important to have the correct wall covering and colours in a space that Florence Nightingale included details about how it impacts the health and comfort of patients in her medical advice book Notes on Nursing, which had a tremendous impact on later advice for home builders and occupants. In sections about wallpaper, two advice writers used particular phrases that the later surveyor that visited the railway engineer would directly echo. In 1878, Lady Barker noted in The Bedroom and Boudoir that there were plenty of wallpapers that were ‘artistically simple enough to please a correct taste’, while in 1898 Mrs Peel wrote in The New Home that if the walls of a room were properly decorated with the right materials, ‘the effect may be cheerful’. In the description of the wallpaper in the railway employee’s house, these exact terms are mapped directly from the middle-class ideal of home onto a working-class home in exactly the same context with the same result. That a surveyor did so demonstrates just how deeply embedded the middle-class language of emotions for the home was for those people conducting and writing the poverty surveys.

Descriptive map of London poverty, 1889 (south- western sheet)
Descriptive map of London poverty, 1889 (south- western sheet)

It has been said that the best way to appreciate being home is to leave it for a while, as anyone returning from holiday to sleep in their own bed will appreciate. For the middle class of the nineteenth century, reading about the lives and homes of the working class, particularly those who were in the direst straits of poverty, had a similar effect. By seeing how certain conditions were present or lacking in working-class homes, members of the middle class were able to confirm their own class standing and ideals. The use of the same emotional vocabulary in both domestic guides and descriptions of working-class homes was a subtle but important way in which the living conditions of the working class were formatted for middle-class consumption. Modern historians can rightly critique the poverty studies of Booth, Rowntree, Mayhew, and others as being manifestations of middle-class expectations of poverty rather than accurate records of it. However, that very fault makes them useful tools for seeing how the middle class sought to affirm its own identity and status.


Further Reading

• Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London and Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life are often available in local libraries, and various reprinted editions are also available for sale.

Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling. Ute Frevert, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

• Jane Hamlett. Material Relations: Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850-1910, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010

• Lawrence James. The Middle Class: A History, London: Abacus, 2008

• Jan Plamper. The History of Emotions: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012

• The emotions lexicon referenced in this article is available as ‘Emotions Lexicon for Nineteenth-Century British Homes’ at

David Johnson is a third-year PhD candidate at Newcastle University, writing on the history of the nineteenth-century British home. His other research interests include the interwar period in Europe, and the history of East Germany. David has a previously-published book, Madman in a Box: The Social History of Doctor Who, released in 2016. His research profile is available at


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