John Saville (Hull University)

This present essay considers only one of the main themes of Anderson’s analysis: that being the nature and character of the British state in the nineteenth century, and in particular his emphasis upon the hegemonic role of the landed interests. All page references in the text are to Anderson’s 1987 article. Anderson’s characterisation of the British state remains that established in the 1964 article: ‘... landowner predominance was a political and cultural reality from the Civil War onward’ (p.26). Specifically, in the nineteenth century: The most important economic fact for understanding the role of the agrarian elite of Victorian society was, however, not so much its strength in comparison with a range of estate-owners abroad, as its elevation over the run of manufacturers at home. The fortunes of the greatest aristocrats towered over those of the most successful industrialists. There were also many more of them (p.31).

Anderson summed up the nineteenth century as a period in British history when there was ‘a fundamentally unaltered ascendency ... industrialists remained junior partners in the natural order of things, without compelling economic motives or collective social resources to transform it’ (pp.39-40). The industrial bourgeoisie, that is, was a cadet grouping within the British propertied classes. We may begin our critique of Anderson with his exegesis of the writings of Marx and Engels on the Victorian state. Most of the relevant comments, mainly from the journalistic writings of Marx, were published in the 1850s, and there is little to be quoted from subsequent decades. Anderson makes a good deal – a good deal too much, it can be argued – of what he calls the ‘recurring slippage’ between the various theoretical positions he identifies in the writings of Marx and Engels. He suggests that there can be found in their commentaries on the British state ‘three distinct and disparate evaluations’ of the position of the English bourgeoisie. The first, that the bourgeoisie ‘was itself directly in command of Victorian state and society’; the second, that the bourgeoisie ‘was mediately dominant, through the representation of its interests by fractions of the aristocracy’; and third, that the bourgeoisie was ‘self-limiting and subordinate in its actions and aspirations’, and it was towards this last position that Marx and Engels ‘unmistakeably shifted’ as they lived through the 1860s and 70s (p.24).

Of course, some statements of Marx and Engels, and especially of the former, that can be quoted to illustrate their views on the nature and character of the British state, are either wrong or are in contradiction with previous or later writings. But if the corpus of Marx’s journalism in the 1850s is not picked upon selectively but read as a whole, there is a clear theoretical position that emerges, and which to modern historians is fully acceptable. The quotation that is given below was first published in the Neue Oder Zeitung of 6 March 1855, and in a somewhat revised version in the New York Daily Tribune of 24 March 1855. It is the former which is given here:

   The British Constitution is, in fact, only an antiquated and obsolete compromise made between the bourgeoisie, which rules in actual practice, although not officially, in all the decisive spheres of bourgeois society, and the landed aristocracy, which forms the official government. After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 only one section of the bourgeoisie. the financial aristocracy, was originally included in the compromise. The Reform Bill of 1831 opened the door to another group – the millocracy, as they are called in England: the high dignitaries of the industrial bourgeoisie. Legislative history since 1831 is the history of concessions made to the industrial bourgeoisie, from the Poor Law Amendment Act to the repeal of the Corn Laws, and from the repeal of the Corn Laws to the Succession Duty in landed property.

   Although the bourgeoisie –itself only the highest social stratum of the middle classes– thus also gained general political recognition as the ruling class, this only happened on one condition; namely that the whole business of government in all its details – including even the executive branch of the legislature, that is, the actual making of laws in both Houses of Parliament – remained the guaranteed domain of the landed aristocracy. In 1830 the bourgeoisie preferred a renewal of the compromise with the landed aristocracy to a compromise with the mass of the English people. Now subject to certain principles laid down by the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy (which enjoys exclusive power in the Cabinet, in Parliament, in the Civil Service, in the Army and the Navy and which is thus one half, and comparatively the most important one, of the British nation) is being forced at this moment to sign its own death warrant and to admit before the whole world that it is no longer destined to govern England.[1]

The opening statement of this quotation concerning the ‘antiquated and obsolete’ nature of the bourgeois-landlord compromise is obviously not acceptable, for the landed interest was to continue to increase its wealth for many decades, and the implantation of the traditional ruling class in British society was pervasive as well as deep-rooted. Nor can the closing remarks be approved, for here Marx was confusing the realignments of party politics that occupied the mid and late 1850s with the elimination of the aristocracy from the political scene. There are also some ambiguities in the phrasing of certain comments, but we must remember that this was a piece of journalism and not a laboriously worked over thesis. What is much more important is that Marx had brilliantly summed up the meaning of what he properly termed the ‘compromise’. The bourgeoisie, he says, ‘rules in actual practice ... in all the decisive spheres of bourgeois society’. But what are the decisive spheres of bourgeois society’? What did the Victorian bourgeois demand of the society in which he lived and worked’? Security, of course, for person and property; an adequate system of commercial law which would uphold the sanctity of contracts; a central administration that would make only the minimal demands in taxation consonant with the proper defence of the realm and for very little else; economic policies underwritten by the state which prevented obstructions and hindrances to the pursuit of profit. For that free markets were required, and it was in this crucial area of policy that the bourgeoisie expected and demanded that the state, and those in political control of the state. conformed to the requirements of a capitalist order.

Above all, since the production of surplus value is central to the dynamics of the capitalist system, there must be a labour market that would respond as effectively as possible to the demands of the owners of capital. Labour markets in the history of capitalism the world over have always developed imperfections; there have always been some barriers, institutional or the powerful influence of traditional values, which have prevented those with labour power responding immediately or fully to the incentives of the market. But, in Britain, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there was developed a labour market which, with some qualifications, came reasonably close to being as effective as most owners of property in a bourgeois society can expect. This is where Marx’s phrase in the quotation above comes into the argument: ‘Legislative history since 1831 is the history of concessions made to the industrial bourgeoisie, from the Poor Law Amendment Act to the repeal of the Corn Laws ....’ The first major piece of legislation of the Reformed Parliament was the passing of the New Poor Law Amendment Act, the most important item of social legislation in the whole of the nineteenth century, although it is rarely discussed in these terms. What the New Poor Law Act did was to establish the institutional complement to what Marx called the ‘dull compulsion’ of labour for the propertyless; the fact that, in a bourgeois society, there was work or starvation.

The New Poor Law, whose punitive impact is almost wholly misunderstood in orthodox texts, was central to the creation of a labour market in which the labourer either worked at whatever the prevailing rates of wages were, or could apply for public relief. In England, the struggles of classes over the previous three centuries had ensured that outright starvation could not be accepted, but the terms on which public relief were provided were to be worse than those on which the worst-paid labourer in work existed. There were in practice, of course, variations in the application of the New Poor Law in different parts of the country, especially in the industrial North where opposition to its implementation was violent, but what is important to emphasise are not the variations, upon which the orthodox texts so happily dwell, but the success of the system of poor relief established in 1834. And success was not just a matter of successful practice, but even more of the degree to which the ‘shame’ of applying for relief or of having to enter the workhouse or the dread of a pauper’s funeral had become part of the sensibilities of working people. The impact upon the social consciousness of working people was a necessary part of the social-psychological domination to which they were subjected.

But the New Poor Law was only the first part, important though it was, of the general requirements of a bourgeois labour market. A second was the prohibition or, if that could not be achieved, the restriction upon the growth of combinations among working people. Such combinations in England went back a long way into the eighteenth century[2] and had been prohibited outright in 1799-1800. The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825 left combinations, or trade unions as they were becoming called, in a still very fragile legal position, and it was only skill in the long run that permitted small groups of organised workers to remain in existence. In the years after 1832 the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the 1837 Cotton Spinners’ strike in Glasgow exhibited the many problems of working-class combination. There were always the general laws of conspiracy that could be, and were, invoked; but probably the most widely used, outside the factory sector, were the Master and Servants Acts. These were Acts both of a specific nature and of a general character, but their provisions were the same. Under the Acts, whether they applied to a specific industry or more generally, a labourer could be sent to prison for three months on a summary conviction (i.e. before a local magistrate) while the employer, if found guilty, was subject only to a fine.[3] There are no statistics before 1850 – this is a much under-researched subject – but, for the ten years before the Acts were abolished in 1875, there were on average 10,000 prosecutions a year.

There was a further problem – one of massive dimensions – that had to be solved, or significantly alleviated, before a reasonably smooth-running bourgeois order could come into existence before 1850. Class consciousness of a radical kind was widening its impact and deepening its sense of opposition in the years after 1832; and the many strands of working class and artisan resistance to contemporary society came together in the great movement of Chartism. Until that movement could be broken, or its activities sharply curtailed and controlled, there could be no sense of permanent security for property and the propertied classes. They had been living with this general problem since the 1790s when many among them felt that they were sitting on a powder keg capable of exploding beneath them, with the forces of law and order often weakly organised and indecisive. By the 1840s, however, the machinery of government in respect of the mobilisation of its coercive power had greatly improved; and it continued to improve during the mass insurgency of the Chartist period. In three major confrontations: 1839-40, 1842 and 1848, the Chartist movement in different parts of Britain was defeated. Hundreds of Chartists were imprisoned, dozens transported, and by the end of the year 1848 the movement had been physically destroyed with the courts of law completing the process of liquidation. It was also an historical moment – especially true of the year 1848 – when bourgeois and aristocrat stood together in common defence of the rights of property.[4]

This re-ordering of British society to the requirements of industrial capitalism – it had begun, of course, long before 1832 – was completed by 1850; and henceforth there were no obstacles of any significance to the pursuit of profit by the owners of capital. Factory legislation, thought by contemporaries to offer a serious barrier to accumulation, proved in practice, as Blaug[5] has shown, to be no impediment to increasing levels of profitability. There were, after 1850, still many aspects of British society which the middle classes, up to the haute bourgeoisie, their highest stratum, vigorously disliked and detested. It could not be otherwise in a society with a traditional ruling class which continued to occupy the major positions in government and administration. The Established Church, the continuing mal-distribution of parliamentary seats, the House of Lords, the restricted market in land, the entrenched interests in so many parts of British life, including the not insignificant areas of Old Corruption that still remained: all provided many opportunities for debate and often bitter controversy. But – and it is the crucial point – the manufacturing interests did not feel themselves in any respect deprived or hampered or thwarted in their central concerns: the making of money. There was free trade abroad at a time when Britain’s manufacturing exports were increasing at the fastest rate of the century;[6] there was a responsive labour force in a labour market which was not free from strikes but which, in historical terms, can only be described as docile; and there were governments which exercised economy in the national accounts. A low level of income tax was acceptable, but the middle-class agitation over the income tax in 1848 and 1859-60 showed very clearly the financial limits within which aristocratic Cabinets might operate.

The industrial bourgeoisie after 1850 lived in an economic world of their own making. Free trade abroad and at home meant as near a laissez-faire state as it has been possible to achieve. When Europe was threatened with cheap American wheat in the 1870s the only country that did not set up protectionist barriers to sustain their own farming populations was Britain, because neither the commercial nor the industrial bourgeoisie would have tolerated a tariff. When the Fair Trade movement in the 1880s began to win some support, it was submerged by the opposition of the traditional exporting manufacturing industries.[7] When, therefore, Anderson refers to the hegemonic domination of the landed aristocracy in the nineteenth century, is he denying Marx’s general conclusion that, in spite of the aristocratic control of the political structures of the country, economic policies after 1832 were those which suited the interests of the manufacturing and mercantile classes, and that the basic agreement on economic affairs between the different fractions of the bourgeoisie lasted, for the majority, until at least the end of the nineteenth century?

It is necessary to examine further what Anderson describes as ‘a fundamentally unaltered aristocratic ascendency in British politics’ (p.39) in the nineteenth century. We begin again with 1832, the date when the upper ranks of the middle classes, with some additions lower down the income scale, broke into the political system. This description is normally limited to the changes in the Reform Bill which abolished a large number of corrupt boroughs and gave some 67 seats to the industrial towns of England. 1832, it may be noted in passing, represented a strengthening not a weakening of the landed interests in the House of Commons. As Lord John Russell said in the Commons on 21 November 1837 (Hansard, col. 107): ‘... at the time the Reform Bill passed, I stated my belief that it must necessarily give a preponderance to the landed interest; and although it may be deemed that such a preponderance has been somewhat unduly given, I still think that a preponderance in favour of that interest tends to the general stability of the general institutions of the country’.[8] But there was a middle-class side to the political compromise of 1832 in addition to the terms of the 1832 Act; and that was the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, a measure which went quite a long way to qualify the landowning classes’ domination at Westminster.

The Corporations Act of 1835 is usually written down as an addendum to the Reform Bill of 1832, and its significance is normally devalued. It was, in fact, a radical measure, whose meaning was well understood by contemporary Tories and Whigs. The original Report, upon which the parliamentary legislation was based although in a much-weakened version, was produced by two serious Radicals, Joseph Parkes and John Blackburne, and their recommendations included household suffrage and no property qualifications for voters. All existing freemen – who had belonged to the old corrupt boroughs– were to be deprived of their right to vote and engage in exclusive trading. The debates in both Houses upon the Bill were extremely vigorous and for many Tories the provisions of the 1835 legislation were potentially more subversive than those of 1832. Although Robert Peel failed in the Commons to attach a property qualification to the position of councillor, the Bill was considerably amended in a markedly conservative direction in its passage through the Lords. A property qualification for representatives was successfully inserted into the Bill, and one third of the councillors were to be styled aldermen and hold office for six years instead of the three years for ordinary councillors: thereby, it was hoped, imparting a conservative bias to the council’s discussions. Nevertheless, the middle classes were now in control of their own cities.[9]

The greater part of the industrial bourgeoisie lived outside London, and in, or on the outskirts of the growing towns. The middle classes, however wealthy, were rarely incorporated into the gentry society of the rural counties until at least a generation or two had passed, although the very wealthy bourgeoisie often acquired or built large mansions, surrounded by small estates, mostly in the 1,000 to 5,000-acre range. The matter is discussed further below, but their focus of power, until Westminster was reached, remained within their own cities. The political significance of middle-class control of the main industrial and commercial centres lay in the peculiarities of the British constitution whereby all power resided in parliament at Westminster, but was devolved locally mainly by the Private Bill procedure. Any town wishing to introduce a service or amenity would apply for the relevant powers under a Private Bill, including, as was usually the case, the dispensation to levy a local rate. In the nineteenth century it became the custom either to include compulsory services in a given Bill, as in the Municipal Corporations Act whereby all Boroughs under the Act were obliged to establish a police force and a watch committee; or, as in the Public Library Acts of 1850 and 1855, the decision to establish a free library was permissive and rested upon a majority vote of the ratepayers. Since it was understood that it was not the province of the central government to legislate services for the whole country – although the practice grew slowly, unevenly but steadily during the second half of the century – it fell to those who controlled the cities to provide the services and amenities which the increasing density of population demanded and which the spirit of the age slowly – often very slowly – came to accept as necessary or desirable. The larger the town and the wealthier the bourgeoisie were, usually, the more enlightened was the policy. Manchester almost immediately adopted the Public Libraries Act in the 1850s, while Hull, with no really wealthy families to dominate town politics until the end of the century, had a permanent majority among its ratepayers of mean-minded grocers and their daughters and consistently refused a free public library until after 1890.

The great expansion of municipal buildings came after 1850 – libraries, museums, parks, and above all town halls – and these, together with their own increasing personal wealth, provided the local bourgeoisie with a growing sense of pride and achievement. Local government had its full panoply of pomp and mummery; the offices of councillor, alderman, magistrate and above all Lord Mayor were much sought after; and the exclusive club for the haute bourgeoisie offered a discrete and well-appointed sanctuary. Their own leaders were celebrated mostly after their death with the erection of statues, and the naming of parks and art galleries; and this rich local life offered a distinction and a status that was not to be obtained until Westminster was reached. Joseph Chamberlain’s period of office as Mayor of Birmingham was only the most spectacular illustration of a political process that was happening all over urban society. Political power was shared; and in times of crisis both parties to the compromise of 1832 could rely upon the support of the other. In 1848, the Mayor of Bradford, a town that witnessed a degree of insurgency equalled only by Liverpool, was a self-made merchant who marched at the head of the police with their drawn cutlasses, followed by a thousand special constables of the middle class and backed by infantry and Dragoons. Alongside Robert Milligan, a chapel-goer and a Liberal, marched Joshua Pollard, one of the largest landowners of the West Riding, manager of an iron works and a Tory in politics. In Manchester in 1848 the Lord Mayor was a bedding manufacturer who developed a close and sympathetic rapport with Sir Thomas Arbuthnot, a Waterloo veteran, who was commander-in-chief of the Northern district, the most important military district outside London.[10]

When the politics of mid-Victorian society are analysed it is not quite the picture of a hegemonic landed aristocracy that Anderson suggests. Who among the bourgeois, except a small minority of Radicals, cared about aristocratic direction of foreign policy? For most of the middle class the extension of empire, formal and informal, was certainly not a matter for disagreement. The barbarous practices used for the subjugation of the Indian Mutiny were warmly applauded, and there was no movement of any real political significance among the Lancashire cotton masters in support of the North in the American Civil War.

When Anderson illustrates his thesis by referring to the political subordination of the middle class as evidenced by its ‘inability, rather than its ability, to achieve free trade in land’ (p.26), he reveals a lack of understanding of the land question. The remarkable monopoly in land holding in Britain was largely the result of complicated legal procedures which carried ownership through several generations: the legal practice of strict settlement.[11] But there was no unanimity on the land question among the richer middle classes after the repeal of the Corn Laws, and tampering with property rights in land could offer an unpleasant precedent for other kinds of ownership. This is a point made by F.M.L. Thompson, from whose book Anderson quotes.[12] But, when the most vigorous campaign for free trade in land got under way – from the middle 1860s to the end of the seventies – it was largely a campaign by Radicals who were pursuing ideas of no concern at all to the rich bourgeois, including the ludicrous belief that a free market in land would help to re-establish a community of peasant farmers. The Economist, the mouthpiece of bourgeois interests, was insistent through the middle decades of the century that free trade in land was not, and would not, become a major political issue. There were, of course, sound economic reasons why wealthy bourgeois would not wish to purchase large areas of farm land even had these become available; for it is doubtful if the return on their capital would have been better than that on consols; and that was hardly the level of return expected from industry or commerce.

The Anderson argument concerning the hegemony of the landed aristocracy in the nineteenth century was buttressed by an emphasis upon the immense financial wealth of the landed classes compared with that of the manufacturing sector; and he used W.D. Rubinstein as his source of documentation. In a series of articles and books – the result of impressive research which has altered our understanding of economic change in the period of British industrialisation – Rubinstein examined the top wealth-holders in Britain between 1809 and 1939, and compiled full lists of all persons leaving estates of £100,000 or more, with biographical detail on those who died worth £500,000 or more.

Rubinstein used the probate records which have a number of deficiencies in their compilations and which he set out carefully for his readers. He could, however, have used the Death Duty Registers for the earlier years of his study, and these Registers, from 1982, have now become open until the end of the series in 1903. While it would be otiose in this present article to discuss the advantages of the Death Registers over the probate records – the debate on these matters is just beginning[13] – let it just be noted that while the Death Registers are a somewhat superior source of information on wealth left at death, work on the 8,000 volumes, plus 805 volumes of index, is unlikely to modify the broad lines of Rubinstein’s researches: the odd millionaire here and there will be discovered but the general pattern of wealth-holding is not likely seriously to be altered.

Anderson, following Rubinstein, noted that aristocratic fortunes ‘towered’ over those of the industrialists, and that until about the 1880s landed aristocrats made up more than half the very wealthy. It followed that:

The unfaltering succession of aristocratic Cabinets and landlord Parliaments which dominated British politics for a full century after the advent of Industrialisation was thus no mere cultural quirk or institutional anachronism. (p.31.)

It is, of course, not at all surprising that the estates at death of the great aristocrats should be larger, much larger, than those of other social groups, for we are referring to the wealth of the traditional ruling class who had acquired a very high concentration of land ownership, and who had greatly benefitted, especially in the eighteenth century, from positions of political power in the administration of the state. Moreover, rising agricultural productivity had meant increasing rent rolls, and the capital value of their estates grew steadily. As Edward Thompson emphasised in his 1965 polemic against Anderson, the landed classes, aristocrats and gentry, increasingly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit, and full advantage was taken of the widening opportunities for money making. Industrialisation proved to be of major financial benefit to the landed classes. In English law, those who owned the soil also owned everything beneath it, and the growth of mining, above all coal mining, from the late eighteenth century on, proved exceedingly profitable to landowners, either in the direct working of minerals or in their leasing. There was a tendency, over time, for landowners to withdraw from direct mining operations, and to take their growing profits in royalties and wayleave rents.[14] But until the end, or nearly the end, of the nineteenth century there remained some great coal empires based upon landed families: the Devonshires, Bridgewater Trustees, and Londonderrys among them. Whatever the timing of the transition from direct entrepreneur to rentier, coal meant substantial increases in landowning income. As did the railways. Many landowners, including those in rural areas without benefit of coal, made substantial capital gains from the compensation paid for railway building over their lands. Coal had many financial side-effects. Harbours were developed for export and iron-works were often associated with coal production. But the most important source for the growth of income during the second half of the nineteenth century was probably urban rents. The increase in populations of the great urban agglomerations meant vastly increasing wealth to those who owned land in and around the great towns, of which London was only the most spectacular example. And this also applied to quite small towns: Eastbourne, for example, belonged largely to the Devonshires, and even Reigate provided Lord Monson with around £1,000 a year from ground rents.’[15]

Ireland must not be left out of the analysis. Although the Union of 1801 made Ireland part of the United Kingdom, it had been a colony for centuries, and it retained many of its colonial characteristics through the nineteenth century. The Irish land system was different from that of the rest of Britain, and the peasantry were severely exploited. Much of Ireland’s land was owned by English landlords, and the flow of rents, incomes from sinecures – such as the Church of Ireland – and a very long pension list, added substantially to English incomes, mainly among the aristocracy but also among some of the gentry. In the Whig government of 1846 two of the three leading ministers were Irish landlords. The Marquis of Lansdowne, leader of the House of Lords, owned 122,000 acres in Ireland with another 21,000 in the rest of Britain; and probably half of Palmerston’s income for most of his life came from Irish rents. Only Lord John Russell had no direct Irish connection. In the nineteenth century the upper classes benefitted in many ways from the expansion of the colonial empire, but Ireland’s exploitation went back centuries and the Irish connection was of a different order from any other.

It is one of the weaknesses of the Anderson thesis concerning the supposed hegemony of the landed classes that we have, in separate economic slots, the aristocracy on one side and the manufacturing interests on the other. We have seen that those owning land diversified their economic activities as a result of industrialisation; but industrialists also diversified, not only into commercial activities of one kind or another but also into land. John Fielden the great radical cotton master of the second quarter of the century – at one time the largest cotton-spinner in Lancashire – had total capital assets around 1840 of some half a million pounds: divided between £l00,000 in his cotton mills, £100,000 in land, £30,00 in warehouse stocks, and £270,000 in foreign securities. His son Samuel, who took over the business in 1869, and was a philanthropist on a large scale, died in 1889 leaving just over a million pounds. The history of the other two sons is instructive. Samuel’s brother John, using cotton profits of course, built himself a castle on a hill overlooking the Calder valley; then bought an estate, Grimston Park near Tadcaster in the West Riding which had belonged to Lord Londesborough, became crippled in a hunting accident and at his death owned 3,500 acres in Lancashire and Yorkshire with an annual rental of £9,000. The third son, Joshua, was a prominent Unitarian, served as Conservative M.P. for part of the West Riding, and then retired to Nutfield Priory, his country estate in Surrey. The cotton firm continued to flourish until the First World War when it was still the largest in the Calder valley, with 100,000 spindles and 1,600 looms.[16]

No one would gather from Anderson’s essay that there has been a major debate for many years on social mobility and the English landed elite. The latest stage of the discussion, which is by no means concluded, has been encouraged by the publication of Lawrence and Jeanne Stone’s An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 – quoted once by Anderson with no indication that its conclusions have come under searching criticism. The argument in the volume by the Stones is that the ‘open elite’ is a myth that applies to the three centuries between the mid-sixteenth to around 1880. W.D. Rubinstein came to the same conclusion: ‘The British landed aristocracy of the nineteenth century was a self-contained, largely self-demarcated group’, and elsewhere he emphasised that the landed elite had ‘the appearance of a closed caste-like group’,[17] and elsewhere he emphasised that the landed elite had ‘the appearance of a close caste-like group’.[18]

The critique of this basic proposition, that the landed interest in the nineteenth century was a closed social group which neither welcomed nor witnessed the entry of new members from outside has been satisfactorily demolished by several commentators. F.M.L. Thompson, in his important pioneering study of 1963, was not primarily concerned with this particular theme but his almost incidental comments make it clear that he did not consider the landed elite as a closed group; and he noted that it was open at the bottom end of the range which is, of course, what one expects of new entrants. As the Springs say: ‘An elite open at the bottom is open to upward movement’. The most recent writings on this important subject include a long review of the whole of the Stones’ book by the Springs in Albion, 17 (1985) with a reply by Stone and a rejoinder, all in the same volume; a very interesting review, especially when read between the lines, by F.M.L. Thompson in the Times Literary Supplement for 7 September 1984; a critical review of the general thesis by Harold Perkin in the Journal of British Studies, 24 (1985); and a critique specifically concerned only with the nineteenth century, by David and Eileen Spring, ‘Social Nobility and the English Landed Elite’ in the Canadian Journal of History 21 (December, 1986). There is also Jill Franklin’s The Gentleman’s Country House and its Plan, 1835-1914 (1981), which the Springs quote to great effect, for Franklin, who paid serious attention to social background, provided figures which showed that between 1835 and 1875 manufacturers built more country houses than all other new entrants put together, a statistic which among other things destroys the Stones’ argument that somewhere around 1880 there was a watershed, after which business interests built country houses on a much larger scale than ever before. There was no such watershed, according to Franklin, although the proportion of houses built by business as against the landed interest naturally increased, but not at any dramatic rate. The ‘natural’ increase was of course partly the result of the growth in size and wealth of individual business enterprises, partly the decline in agricultural land values.

Throughout his essay Anderson leans heavily upon the works of W.D. Rubinstein and G. Ingham. Both authors develop quite specifically an anti-Marxist thesis. Ingham, for example, writes that his analysis:

‘entails a rejection of the general proposition of the absolute dominance of the “economic” in processes of social change and, especially the centrality of the mode of production’;[19] and Rubinstein, whose statistical researches showed the much greater wealth of the landed classes and the commercial bourgeoisie, concluded:

The direct impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the British wealth structure was thus rather limited and tentative, whatever its direct impact upon the population as a whole. Nathan Rothschild and Lord Overstone were both more ‘typical’ and wealthier examples of nineteenth century British capitalism than Arkwright and Peel; the City of London much more typical than Manchester, however greater the impact of Manchester upon the consciousness of the economic and social historian may have been. And neither Rothschild was as typical or wealthy a figure within the British wealth structure as the Duke of Devonshire or the Earl of Derby. These peculiarities of the British wealth structure must, clearly, have had the most profound implications for the development of British society, and for the relationship between the British elite structure and the rest of society.[20]

In an earlier essay in Past and Present he had written:

The notion of the pre-eminent importance of industrialism and the Industrial Revolution has, moreover, affected our view of nineteenth-century British history totally, and in so insidious a way as to be virtually accepted without thought.[21]

All this is not to argue that Anderson was wrong to use, for his own purposes, the statistical data and argument provided by Ingham and Rubinstein. Marxists have been proved wrong many times, and we are rather beyond the stage where a faithful adherence to every comma or argument that Marx and Engels wrote is to be considered sacrosanct. But it might have been expected that Anderson would at least have directed his readers’ attention to the deductions made by these two authors from their own data, not least because of Anderson’s fulsome encomia of their respective volumes.

We begin a summing up with the proposition, denied by Ingham and Rubinstein, that Britain was an industrialising society in the nineteenth century, and that the production of commodities was at the centre of economic change and growth. It follows that such production, including of course agricultural commodities, was the source of surplus value. Total manufacturing production increased by fifteen times between the beginning and the end of the nineteenth century, with the major emphasis upon the staple industries of coal, textiles, iron and steel, and some sectors of engineering (particularly shipbuilding, prime movers, railway components, and machine building). These staple industries dominated the economy; at the beginning of the twentieth century the four groups noted above accounted for 40 per cent of all output, three quarters of all exports, and one quarter of all employment. The proportion of mining, building and manufacturing in the National Income rose from 23 per cent in 1801 to 40 per cent in 1901, while agriculture, forestry and fishing fell from 32 per cent in 1801 to 6 per cent in 1901.


            Percentage            Great Britain

                Agriculture,              Mining,                     Trade,                 Total Gross

                Forestry,                  Building,                   Transport            N/Income

                Fishing                    Manufacturing                                      in £000,000’s

1801          32                              23                            18 (73)                   232.0

1851          20                              34                            19 (73)                   523.3

1871         14                               38                            22 (74)                   916.6

1901           6                               40                            23 (69)                   1,642.9

As the first industrial nation, it was Britain’s historical role to assist the development of industrialisation in Western Europe and North America: by the export of basic engineering tools and machines, railway materials of all kinds, capital, much of which went into the always capital-absorbing infrastructure, and by the export of skilled workers and entrepreneurs. As already remarked the greater part of British commodity exports were in the staple trades, and these were the products of the first main stage of industrialisation which went back to the late eighteenth century. Statistical data have always a wide margin of error for the nineteenth century, especially on a global scale, but it is probable that around 1850 Britain had about 20 per cent of world trade, and 40 per cent, perhaps more, of the trade in manufactured goods. Even in 1870 it has been estimated that Britain had about one-third of the world’s manufacturing capacity.

We must end with a firm denial of the Anderson thesis concerning ‘the fundamentally unaltered aristocratic ascendency’ during the nineteenth century. It is a formula which simplifies a complicated structure of relationships among the propertied classes, but the main point of disagreement must be an insistence upon the centrality of the capitalist mode of production, and the ways in which the traditional ruling class of the eighteenth century, whose political power continued throughout the nineteenth, was obliged to mould its policies to suit the owners of capital. As the British ambassador to Paris told Palmerston of a conversation he had with Lamartine, Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government that followed the revolution of February 1848: ‘... in a country like England its complicated interests were all bound together by the security derived from the protection of capital and its free employment’.[23] The whole letter in which these words occurred was an interesting indication of the Whig understanding of the nature and the characteristics of bourgeois society. We ought not to lag behind in that understanding.

[1] ‘The British Constitution in K. Marx, Surveys from Exile. Political Writings Vol.2 (ed. D. Fernbach, 1971), pp. 281-2.

[2] C.R. Dobson, Masters and Journeymen (1980).

[3] Daphne Simon, ‘Master and Servant’ in Democracy and the Labour Movement (ed. J. Saville, 1954), pp. 160-200.

[4] John Saville, 1848. The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge, 1987), passim.

[5] M. Blaug, ‘The Productivity of Capital in the Lancashire Cotton Industry During the Nineteenth Century’, Economic History Review 2nd set. XIII, No.3 (April 1961), pp. 358-381.

[6] A.H. Imlah, Economic Elements of the Pax Britannica (Harvard, 1958), pp. 94-8 and 205-7; reprinted in Abstract of British Historical Statistics (ed. B.R. Mitchell and P. Deane, Cambridge, 1962), pp. 328-9.

[7] The most useful monograph is B.H. Brown, The Tariff Reform Movement in Great Britain, 1881-1895 (New York, 1943); and see also S.H. Zebel, ‘Fair Trade: An English Reaction to the Breakdown of the Cobden Treaty System’, Journal of Modern History XII (1940), pp. 161-185.

[8] For an appraisal of the intentions, and consequences, of the 1832 Reform Act, see two articles by D.C. Moore: ‘Concession or Cure: The Sociological Premises of the First Reform Act’, Historical Journal IX, No.1 (1966), pp. 35-59; ‘Political Morality in Mid-Nineteenth Century England: Concepts, Norms, Violations’, Victorian Studies XIII, No. I (September 1969), pp. 5-36.

[9] For an analysis of the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, see J. Redlich, Local Government in England Vol. 1 (1903), esp. pp, 127-8-, and H.W. Carless Davis, The Age of Grey and Peel (Oxford, 1929), pp. 248-251.

[10] For these details, see Saville, 1848, esp. ch.5.

[11] For an introduction to the complications of strict settlement, see B. English and J. Saville, Strict Settlement. A Guide for Historians (University of Hull, 1983), and see also Eileen Spring, ‘The Settlement of Land in Nineteenth-Century England’, American Journal of Legal History Vol.8 (1964), pp. 209-23.

[12] F.M.L. Thompson, English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (1983). Thompson’s discussion of the agitation over free trade in land is on pp. 283-5.

[13] Settled land was excluded from probate, and it is not possible to obtain a net estate valuation from the probate figures, although there are also difficulties in this regard with the death duty registers: B. English, ‘Probate Valuations and the Death Duty Registers’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research LVII, No. 135 (May 1984), pp. 80-91; and the subsequent discussion between M. Collinge, ‘Probate Valuations and the Death Duty Registers: Some Comments’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research LX, No.142 (June 1987), and the reply by Barbara English, ibid., pp. 246-9.

[14] Thompson, English Landed Society, p. 264 ff.

[15] The business interests of the landed classes have begun to be seriously documented although there is a very large number of estate papers still unresearched. See: D. Spring, ‘The English Landed Estate in the Age of Coal and Iron, 1830-1880’, Journal of Economic History XI (1951), pp. 3-24, and the same author’s The English Landed Estate in the Nineteenth Century: its Administration (Baltimore, 1963); J.T. Ward and R.G. Wilson (eds.), Land and Industry (1971); E. Richards, Leviathan of Wealth: the Sutherland fortune in the Industrial Revolution (1973); G. Mee, Aristocratic Enterprise. The Fitzwilltam Industrial Undertakings, 1795-1857 (1975).

[16] The details of this paragraph are taken from S.A. Weaver, John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism, 1832-1847 (Oxford, 1987), pp, 288-9.

[17] W.D. Rubinstein, ‘New Men of Wealth and the Purchase of Land in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Past and Present 92 (1981), p. 147.

[18] Ibid- p. 143.

[19] G. Ingham, Capitalism Divided? The City and industry in British social development (1984), p. 2.

[20] W.D. Rubinstein, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution (1981), p. 247.

[21] W.D. Rubinstein, ‘Wealth, Elites and the Class Structure of Modern Britain’, Past and Present 76 (1977), p. 126.

[22] B.R. Mitchell and P. Deane, Abstracts of British Historical Statistics (1962), p. 366. Note: the 25 per cent or so not shown in this Table includes government and defence, most services and rents of dwellings.

[23]The letter was dated 3 March 1848 (PRO/FO 146/340). The purpose of the discussion with Lamartine was to convey the anxiety of the British government about the doctrines of Louis Blanc. Lamartine replied that he too much deplored Blanc’s views, but that in the government Blanc ‘was now less injurious than he would be elsewhere’