Adventures in Research: Class in Post-War England

Having ‘finished’ a new book1, I’m now thinking about writing a series set in 1960s England, so I’ve started doing some research. At this stage, my reading is fairly broad-ranging, but I do have a few specific questions in mind. One of them is whether England’s class system changed much after the Second World War. Did conscription, rationing and the Blitz break down social barriers and make England more egalitarian? Did ordinary working people become less deferential and aristocrats less arrogant as a result of their shared experiences during the war? And what about the middle classes – did they end up with more money and power, or less? I am currently reading a serious, statistic-laden sociological history about the period2, but I started off with something that looked a bit more entertaining – Class by Jilly Cooper.

Published in 1979, this is an “unashamedly middle class” description of the differences between aristocrats (“about 0.2% of the population”), the middle classes (divided into upper, middle and lower) and working class people (including the nouveau riche). Jilly Cooper acknowledges that the subject is extremely complex, so that even trying to determine which class an individual belongs to can be very difficult. The Census, for example, used a person’s occupation (or their husband’s occupation, in the case of women) to determine social class, but this put Princess Anne (“athletes including horseback riders”) in the same class as bus-drivers and butchers and ranked the aristocratic Guinness family (“brewers”) even lower, alongside bus conductors and milkmen. Income could also be an unreliable indicator of class, with a lot of aristocrats “desperately broke” due to death duties and capital transfer tax, and some working-class men earning more than self-employed middle-class men. A more useful classification system, this author argues, involves examining a person’s education, house, clothes, language and food, as well as the person’s beliefs about the arts, sport, religion, marriage, child-rearing and death. Accordingly, she devotes a chapter to each of these topics. For example, death rituals of the various classes are described in detail, with the author noting that,

“Although it is more upper-class to be buried than cremated, it is frightfully smart to have to be cremated because your family tomb is so full of your ancestors going back to the year dot that there is no room for you.”

The author has made some attempt to consult a range of written sources, but mostly seems to rely on personal anecdotes of dubious reliability. For example,

“My favourite mini-cab driver has a theory that tall people are good in bed because only they can reach the sex books that librarians insist on putting on the top shelves. But this doesn’t explain why aristocrats, who are generally tall, tend to be so hopeless – maybe they never go into public libraries, or don’t read anything except ‘The Sporting Life’ and Dick Francis.”

'Class' by Jilly CooperSome of the descriptions, particularly of clothes and food, have dated badly (I doubt that respectable lower-middle-class women wear “a navy crimplene two-piece trimmed with lemon” to weddings nowadays or that they decorate their food with radish flowerets) but I suspect quite a lot of the observations still hold true, especially regarding attitudes to schools and universities. There are sweeping generalisations, especially about the working classes, and a lot of terrible, terrible puns, but I found this to be a very entertaining (and occasionally informative) read. I should also note that the edition I read had a very strange cover photograph (see above), depicting what appeared to be a palette knife with some green lumps (olives? uncut emeralds?) balanced on the end of it, but this was explained in an early chapter:

“Not answerable to other people, the aristocrat is often unimaginative, spoilt, easily irritated and doesn’t flinch from showing it. If he wants to eat his peas with his knife, he does so.”3

A more serious and thoroughly researched perspective of 1960s England was provided by Richard Davenport in his book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. This described the various people involved in the Profumo scandal of 1963, including the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, certain English aristocrats, slum landlords and property developers, ‘good-time girls’, spies, journalists and corrupt policemen. Old Etonians still ran the country, but there were indications that a new class of rich, ruthless businessmen from impoverished backgrounds (many of them refugees who’d fled Hitler or Stalin) were beginning their rise to power. It was really depressing to read about the status of women, who seemingly had the choice of being a Christine Keeler (forced by lack of other options into working as a stripper and prostitute) or a Valerie Profumo (forced by her husband to end her successful acting career once they married, then required to play the role of adoring wife while he had numerous extra-marital affairs). It was also depressing to see how corrupt and racist the police were and how hypocritical politicians and journalists were about Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler (who, according to this book, was not the mistress of a Russian spy and in any case, would never have known any important state secrets). Mostly, though, I wondered how England had ever managed to establish an empire when everyone in power was obsessed with such trivia as which old school tie their colleague was wearing and the correct method for eating peas. To this colonial, the English class system appears utterly bonkers – but also full of potential for novel-writing, which is the important thing.

Next in Adventures in Research: An American in 1950s England.

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  1. that is, having sent a manuscript to my agent and asked him to see if anyone might possibly be interested in publishing it
  2. Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston
  3. The FitzOsbornes don’t. They use a fork or, in the case of certain junior FitzOsbornes, their fingers. But then, they’re not English.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Research: Class in Post-War England”

  1. In context Jilly Cooper was writing in 1979 – the year Margaret Thatcher was elected and ended the middle class/upper class sense of retreat and loss of status that parts of it perceived they had suffered since 1945. In reality the situation was extremely complex and nuanced. 35 years on we have a war on the poor and rule by millionaire Etonians. The 1970s are worth looking at too – good popular histories by Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett are well worth reading. Good luck with your research.

    1. I’m reading Dominic Sandbrook’s Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles right now! It’s great – both thoughtful and entertaining.

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