Life in 18th Century Britain

Social Class

Daru Rooke, Curator with Bradford Museums and Galleries reveals the gulf between rich and poor in the 18th Century:

The contrast between the poor, rich and super rich was as great as it is today. Industry trade and a growing Empire made 18th century Britain a financially exciting place. The development of interests in India, Canada and the West Indies, a burgeoning...slave trade, coupled with the...Industrial Revolution unlocked a new prosperity for many.

The super rich:

For the old aristocracy, growing land values and rents brought luxury. In this dynamic climate the Duke of Newcastle could have an annual income of £32,000, (worth over two million pounds today). Losing money became a pastime for the super-rich who could build up enormous gambling debts or bankrupt themselves buying art.

The middle classes and social mobility:

More exciting still were the opportunities for the growing 'middle ranks'. Robert Cliveís humble beginnings were transformed by his time working in India. He returned to England with a fortune of £300,000, enough to buy estates in Ireland and England. 

Paper manufacturer James Whatman of Turkey Mills built up a fortune large enough to buy a manor house, retire from the business and marry his daughter to a baronet. Anything was possible.


Assembly Rooms and resorts such as Bath or Scarborough provided glamorous places for this new mix of gentry, professionals and industrial wealth to mix with the old aristocracy. Surgeonís daughter Caroline Girle was impressed by the Duke of Devonshire in his role of Master of Ceremonies at the Chesterfield Assembly Room Ball. She went on to have tea with him at the races. In a previous century she would not have been permitted to sit in his presence.

The working classes:

Not everyone was so fortunate. Foreign visitors might comment on how much better dressed and housed British labourers were than those on the continent but the reality was less attractive. As Jonas Hanway noted in 1766, the mass of people lived on less than £5 a year.  A London labourerís wages were £2. 

Lavish dinners with expensive foods such as cauliflowers or pineapples were for the wealthy. A working manís diet consisted of bread, cheese and turnips with meat only when it was cheap.  For the very poor the workhouses were opening their doors from 1772. They welcomed 15,000 people in London alone. 

(Text © Daru Rooke)

Objects associated with social class:

This small doll was created in 1770 and was sent out by a city fashion house as an advertisement. The dress is a tiny version of one which would be re-modelled for a wealthy customer. This was necessary as women might only visit a large city once or twice a year to have their clothes made.

This doll of 1810 would have been owned by a rich child, as only very wealthy parents could afford toys bought in shops. The doll is dressed like a rich young lady. Poor children had to make do with toys carved from wood or bones by their parents or made from rags and scraps.


Aristocracy - a group of wealthy and powerful people
Assembly rooms - fashionable location for upper class social gatherings and dances 
Burgeoning - rapidly growing
Coupled with - added to
Dynamic - a time of change and energy
Empire - a group of nations ruled by a single authority or monarch
Estate - a large area of property that includes a big house
Gulf - large gap or difference between two groups of people or things
Promote - to publicise something to people

Document icon Learning article provided by: Bolling Hall Museum | 
Text © Daru Rooke

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