Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Joining the Gentry

by Maria Grace

The Regency era gentleman was a fairly rare bird. During the era, the gentry class only made up about one and one half percent of the British population. When the rising merchant class had the means to join the elite group, they jumped at the chance. Still, the process was not as easy as simply buying their way in. The transition into the gentry class could take several generations to complete since inherited wealth, especially that related to land ownership, still offered higher social standing than earned wealth.

The Pathway to Gentry Standing

For those not gently born, the pathway to gentry status began with earning money, ideally a very great deal of it. However, wealth alone did not offer real status. It had to be turned into the trappings of the gentry: land, education, and connections.

Arguably, the most significant of these was the purchase of land. And by land, not just a small parcel would do. A yeoman farmer’s plot of fifty acres or so would only grant the status of a “respectable farmer”, not a gentleman. To be part of the gentry, a man needed at least three hundred acres, preferably already fashioned into an estate.

Photo credit: amandabhslater via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

What is an Estate?

Through the Georgian era, estates were largely self-sustaining economic entities. The most obvious feature of an estate was the grand house where the master of the estate and his family lived and conducted their business. Houses might stand for generations, but changes in fashion, architecture, and gardening meant an estate owner might spend a great deal on bringing the house and grounds up to modern, fashionable standards.

While the house might be the most obvious feature, the more significant ones were those that provided income and sustenance to the owner. A home farm provided food and necessities for the family in residence, as well as the servants who lived with them. Tenant farms and rental properties provided the majority of a gentleman’s income. Natural land resources like trees (lumber), coal, fishing, etc. could supplement incomes. These passive forms of income separated the gentleman from the working class whose hands were soiled by paid work.

Acquiring an Estate

Large land owners were a very exclusive group. By the end of the eighteenth century, half the farm land of Britain belonged to only about five thousand families. (Lane, 2005)

How much did it take to acquire an estate?

In 1801, a one hundred acre estate (not enough to make one part of the gentry, though) in Sussex sold for £3,500. (Donnelly, 2012). In general, an estate would be priced at about thirty times the income it produced. So, an estate producing £1000 a year would sell for approximately £30,000.

To put these numbers in perspective, during the era, the edge of poverty was approximately £50 a year. A shopkeeper might make £150 a year. A comfortable middle class income was £250 while just a quarter million families made a very comfortable £700 pounds or more per year. In 1801, only the top one percent of the population made more than £800 a year. (Morris, 2014)So, it was just a very small fragment of the population who could aspire to land ownership.

Land Ownership was not Enough

Simply owning an estate was not sufficient to grant entry into the upper classes. A family was not part of the gentry until members of the gentry accepted them as part of their social equals. Socializing together was important, but intermarriage was the surest sign of acceptance. Before that could happen, all financial ties with the business that brought in the wealth—commerce, colonial endeavors, manufacturing, military, finance—had to be severed and the family seen to live in a “good sort of way.”

A man aspiring to the gentry class would ensure his sons, especially the eldest, received a gentleman’s education. At Cambridge or Oxford he would be taught the classics, at the not insubstantial sum of £300 a year. Perhaps more significant, the exposure to his social betters would allow him to develop the necessary social graces to mingle with the upper crust.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

While his expensive education would not actually provide useful instruction in how to manage an estate, it would afford him the opportunity to rub shoulders with others sons of the gentry, establishing connections that could serve him well throughout his life.

Not surprisingly, a daughter’s education was secondary, but if there was money available, she might be sent to a “finishing school,”  or girl’s seminary, to complete the education her mother would have begun at home. Training in French and Italian, dance, music, and deportment would be aimed at making her a “social asset” for her future husband—a man whom she might well meet through a brother’s connections. For a daughter, good manners and an excellent dowry were even more important than a pretty face and figure for social mobility.

Once the next generation was sufficiently acceptable to be marriageable to the gentry class, and an estate (and hopefully fortune to go with it) were inherited, the transition to gentry class could be considered complete.

The Importance of Owning Land

To the modern perspective, the emphasis on land over actual wealth seems perplexing. What made land so significant?

In the centuries leading up to the Regency era, people existed in a largely subsistence economy. Crops were difficult to grow and, for most, producing enough for personal use was an achievement. To grow more than one needed was truly a show of success and required a significant amount of land.

Growing crops for market helped shift the economy from a subsistence to a market economy, and helped solidify the mystique of land ownership. Land ownership became a prerequisite for social power. Only land owners could vote. Masters of large estates often served as local magistrates, presiding over civil and certain criminal complaints. They also frequently served as church wardens managing tithes to the local rector and maintaining the parish church.

Thus, land afforded not only economic power, but social standing and influence as well, making it the natural vehicle of the upwardly mobile nouveaux riche to make their impact upon society.

References

Colburn, Henry. A new system of practical domestic economy: founded on modern discoveries and the private communications of persons of experience. London: Printed for Henry Colburn and Co., 1823.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Donnelly, Shannon. "Regency Coin — What Did it Cost?" Shannon Donnelly's Fresh Ink. January 14, 2012. Accessed March 2, 2017. https://shannondonnelly.com/2012/01/14/regency-coin-what-did-it-cost/.

Jones, Chris. "Land Ownership." In Jane Austen in Context , 269-77. Cambridge: University Press, 2005.

Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen's World: The Life and times of England's Most Popular Novelist. 2nd ed. London: Carlton Books, 2005.

Morris, Diane. "Mr. Darcy Was a Second-Class Citizen." Moorgate Books. August 10, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.moorgatebooks.com/08/mr-darcy-was-a-second-class-citizen/.

Savage, William. "The Path to Landed Gentry Status." Pen and Pension. October 05, 2016. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://penandpension.com/2016/10/05/the-path-to-landed-gentry-status/.

Sullivan, Margaret C., and Kathryn Rathke. The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2007.

Wilson, Richard, and Alan Mackley. "Founding a landed dynasty, building a country house: the Rolfes of Heacham in the eighteenth century." In Counties and Communities: Essays on East Anglian History: Presented to Hassell Smith. University of East Anglia: Norwich: Centre of East Anglian Studies, 1996.

~~~~~~~~~~

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.




2 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Thank you .

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for this interesting read. It is easy to forget how much of a minority the gentry and indeed the wealthy were during the Regency period, given that the overwhelming mass of history and fiction is devoted to them and their concerns.

    ReplyDelete