Borthwick Paper 128 - Respectability and Popular Movements in Early Victorian York, by Charles Walter Masters - is now available to purchase.

Posted on 16 May 2018

The latest Borthwick paper examines the social attitudes of the population of York in the early Victorian period, and challenges the assumption that the peaceful nature of the city suggested social harmony between the classes.

A narrative emerged from the city authorities that any trouble that occurred was brought in from the outside, and there was a belief amongst York’s wealthier citizens, such as Joseph Rowntree, that the good order in York was attributable to their awareness of, and support for, the needs of the poor, via various charitable and philanthropic initiatives.

Masters explores the changing attitudes of society in York, at a time of rapid change in the physical, economic, technological, and intellectual, landscape with a particular focus on the idea of ‘Respectability’  - the goal of financial security, a decent home, a role in the wider community - and how it was seen, particularly amongst York’s poor and working class populations, as an essential pursuit for the purposes of self improvement and social mobility.

The main focus of the paper relates to the role of popular movements and activism in providing a sense of respectability and as vehicle for social mobility by providing networking opportunities between social classes. The movements were rarely mutually exclusive and varied in their function and scope:

  • Religious - such as Wesleyan Methodism, a revived Anglican Church and the popularity of Sunday Schools;

  • Trade societies and trade Unions - these were never hugely popular or powerful in York, and could be seen as the antithesis of facilitating respectability, although this very much depended on the society.

  • Friendly societies - attracted the masses, and gained widespread public acceptance. They were the most popular institution among ordinary workers and provided many benefits, such as for sickness and death,  whilst promoting respectability. An investigation in 1844 found 40 societies in York, 26 being associated with national orders.The combination of economic security and a public image extolling members respectability, was an attractive proposition to many of York’s residents from all backgrounds.

  • Teetotalism - expressed publicly by memberships of the York Temperance Society, and the Quaker backed ‘Moderation Society’ was also a popular, if sometimes controversial, movement that many in the working classes saw as a way to elevate their status. The movement had a radical side in both its political and social influence and aspirations, and was often associated with other organisations such as the non-conformist Churches.

The paper contrasts the popularity of these societies with York’s engagement with national movements, such as Chartism, that never gained the same presence as they did in other more industrialised towns.

‘Respectability and Popular Movements in Early Victorian York’, by Charles Walter Masters, Borthwick Paper 128, is available to purchase for £5.00 (+ postage and package) through the University of York Online Shop.

A full list of available Borthwick Papers is available on the Borthwick Institute's website.