The Summer Newsletter of the Kent Branch of the Jane Austen Society contains a summary of a talk given on by Professor Alan Downie on 20 March 2014 on the subject of ‘Jane Austen’s Property Plots’. In the talk Professor Downie rightly notes the error of describing Elizabeth Bennet as ‘middle class’ and in doing so highlights the common confusion on the subject of class in the late-Georgian period. The landed gentry and the upper middle classes often mixed socially and they frequently intermarried: Mr Bennet, a landowner, marries the daughter of an attorney. However, they did not belong to the same social grouping and their sources of income were different. Elizabeth Bennet’s modest fortune is derived from the rent from her father’s tenant farmers. Her uncle Gardiner (her mother’s brother) derives his from trade.
With this distinction in mind, most members of the Clapham Sect have to be seen as firmly middle class, the exceptions being the Midlands landowners, Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Babington. On his father’s side, William Wilberforce was the heir to a mercantile dynasty, while his mother Elizabeth (née Bird) was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. His birthplace in Hull testifies to his status. The Dutch-style house was large and comfortable and following young William’s birth, his father, Robert, put in a marble floor and a Venetian window. However, the counting house was next to the grand entrance and the back garden, which led to the waterfront, housed bulky hoists and wooden-framed cranes. Wilberforce was born above the shop, and he professed to be proud of his mercantile background. The income from trade enabled him to study at Cambridge and to stand for Parliament, first for Hull, where every vote was reputed to cost two guineas, and then for Yorkshire, where he took on the aristocratic landed interests and became the first merchant’s son to represent the county, the largest constituency in the country.
Wilberforce’s second cousin, Henry Thornton, was from an almost identical background in the Hull mercantile elite. His father, John Thornton, was so wealthy that he was able to give away £150,000 in his lifetime, and though Henry was a younger son, he inherited enough money to enable him to extend his house, Battersea Rise, in Clapham, and to build on either side two substantial new houses. His wife, Marianne Sykes, the daughter of a Hull iron importer, grew up in a substantial manor house in the model village of West Ella, built by her father as a retreat from the noise and smells of the dockside. On his death his family erected an elaborate tomb in the church.
A glance at some of the other members of the Clapham Sect shows that the term middle-classes (a description which by the 1790s was rapidly replacing the older ‘middling sort’) covered a wide range of incomes and status. Zachary Macaulay and Charles Grant were both Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, but there the resemblance ended. Macaulay was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister with a very modest income, Charles Grant’s father had been a dispossessed Jacobite Highlander. I speculate in my book that if Grant senior had met Macaulay senior, he might have killed him! James Stephen, who became Wilberforce’s brother-in-law, was the son of a failed trader, and young James spent part of his childhood in the King’s Bench Prison alongside his debtor father. (However, unlike all the other Clapham Sect men apart from Wilberforce, he attended university – in his case a brief spell at Aberdeen.) Hannah More, the daughter of an impoverished and apparently incompetent charity-school master, grew up in a tiny four-roomed cottage which she shared with her parents and four sisters. This is discussed here.
Such was the flexibility of the period that the members of the Clapham Sect, though undoubtedly middle-class, had aristocratic connections, in part because of the Younger Pitt’s policy of awarding peerages to his political friends. Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce’s wife, came from a family of industrialists, but on her mother’s side she was descended from the gentry, and her mother’s brother was ennobled as the first Baron Calthorpe. Wilberforce’s cousin, Bob Smith, became the first Lord Carrington. The Clapham resident John Shore, a former governor-general of India, became the first Lord Teignmouth. Henry Thornton’s sister, Jane, married into more established nobility, becoming the wife of the Scottish peer, the Earl of Leven. Hannah More became a close friend of Maria, Duchess of Gloucester, George III’s sister-in-law, and her daughter, Lady Waldegrave. Such a mixing of the aristocracy and the middle classes would have been unthinkable in most continental countries.
Although he was critical of his father for his lack of the graces of polite society, Henry Thornton was proud of his middle-class status and planned for his eldest son to follow him into his bank – which he did. (After many mergers and transformations, the Thornton bank of Down, Thornton and Free, became part of the Royal Bank of Scotland.) However, I argue in my book that Wilberforce was ambivalent about his background, and towards the end of his life nearly bankrupted himself in an attempt to raise his status. When he purchased the 140-acre HIghwood Hill estate in 1825 he was trying to turn himself into a country gentleman. He was forced to leave it in 1831 and was without a permanent home for the last two years of his life.
The story of the rising middle class remains part of the historiography of the period, though this theme has to be fitted in with the continuing political power of the landed interest – the aristocracy and the country gentry – that continued until the end of the nineteenth century. The culture of politeness was a factor that brought them together. Another unifying factor, particularly strong in the case of the Clapham Sect, was the sharing of philanthropic projects, which were often nominally headed by aristocrats, but in fact run by the middle classes. This is why so many historians have linked the emerging middle-class identity with the rise of Evangelicalism. (The plebeian brands of Methodism are another story.) A study of the backgrounds of the men and women of the Clapham Sect therefore can enrich our understanding of the complexity of the interaction between those whose income derived from land and those who had made their money through trade or the professions. It forms a useful complement to the description of society found in Jane Austen’s novels.