"Most people are more bothered about actual economic survival to worry about their place in Britain’s complex class system"

Noel Coward described the British as ‘Being in a class of their own, old bean!’ Isn’t it funny how so many people take pride in opposing the old class system yet enjoy the period dramas on television.

Monday, 2nd September 2019, 12:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 5th September 2019, 3:14 pm
A view of Earl Fitzwilliam's Estate at Wentworth Woodhouse when it was first thrown open to the public on July 3, 1949
A view of Earl Fitzwilliam's Estate at Wentworth Woodhouse when it was first thrown open to the public on July 3, 1949

Is it genuine interest in the way people used to live from a historical perspective, sheer nosiness or to be able to express disgust at the gulf between rich and poor?

A popular pursuit with pensioners has been membership of the National Trust. For a nominal amount of money, you can do what proper pensioners do, take a flask and sandwiches and immerse yourselves in the history of your country through the great houses and other places which have been saved from dereliction.

Opening homes like Highclere Castle, used to depict Downton Abbey in the TV series, means a vast amount of people can get an insight into our nation’s past. And the soon to be released film will prove to be equally as popular.

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In the case of this castle, it includes an exhibition of Egyptian artefacts collected by the Earl of Carnarvon who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen together with his friend Howard Carter, although there are many who say they should be given back to Egypt, together with the Elgin Marbles.

The gulf between the aristocracy and ‘the rest’ has always been considerable, and I don’t for one moment think that it will ever change, but I am indignant that much of the wealth was dirty money with many great houses in the UK built on the profits of the slave trade.

Not far from where I live in South Yorkshire we have the wonderful Wentworth Woodhouse, the subject of a fascinating book by Catherine Bailey called ‘Black Diamonds’ referring to local coal mines which made the aristocracy rich. This house was built to a standard of luxury one could only dream about at a time when 88 per cent of the population were worth nothing and its owner the 6th Earl of Fitzwilliam was worth £2.8 million. The pit villages around were described as ‘hell on earth’.

In 1912, the King and Queen of England were invited to Wentworth where they were entertained by the great dancer Anna Pavlova and enjoyed a 13 course dinner. The poor of the area waited at the back door with buckets to receive a mixture of leftover food.

People in the UK are obsessed with differences in accent, background, school and university, although we are told that the class system today is not easily defined.

But times are a changing in the aristocrats’ world with the wedding a few years ago of Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth and heir to the great stately home Longleat, and Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a Nigerian oil tycoon. However, she has encountered racism and snobbery from many of the upper classes.

And with a refusal to attend the wedding from the groom’s father, the Marquis of Bath, who was certainly no better than he ought to be, having a reputed 75 mistresses or ‘wifelets’ over the years! And from his wife who is banned from seeing her two young grandchildren after her racist remarks about her daughter-in-law. Emma, who is to be a contestant on the next ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and who will eventually be the first black marchioness in British history, has certainly altered the face of aristocracy, although to be fair, British Royalty has long been a mixture of different nationalities and cultures.

The British class system has always been complex. So much so that most people don’t understand it and what’s more, most don’t care! The debate about what class you might fall into could cause as much heated debate as religion or politics, but is now not as simple as the upper, middle and lower classes we grew up with.

The BBC Labs UK Great British Class System survey has decided the UK is now divided into seven social categories with the elite class at the top who make up just six per cent of the population, down to the bottom precariat class who are quite poor and don’t enjoy much in the way of cultural enlightenment.

In-between comes emergent services workers who are relatively poor, the traditional working class and the new affluent workers. There are others but I’ve lost the will to live by now.

Definitions of social class in the UK vary and are highly controversial, with most influenced by factors of wealth, occupation and education. You can go up a notch, not only by the value of your home but also if you actually visit stately homes.

By doing an online survey which tells you to which class you belong, I found that I actually nudged into a couple depending on whether I ever visited the ballet or knew anyone who was a teacher. It could get terribly confusing for a lottery winner who lives in a council house but enjoys a visit to the theatre. You always knew your place in the old days didn’t you?

When you were young everyone more or less fell into the category of white working class, with this category prospering hugely since the war. They have experienced great growth in disposable income and today are better off than their parents and grandparents could ever have imagined. And it seems today’s children’s eventual position in Britain’s class system is closely linked due to the passing on of savings, pensions and property.

Of course many people are more bothered about actual economic survival to worry about their place in Britain’s class system.

As Oscar Wilde said ‘There is only one class that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else!’