Thursday, 16 November 2017

For My Grandfather: Respectable and Not-Respectable

Something which tends to be ignored or overlooked in modern socio-political discussion is the profound division in late-Victorian times between the respectable and not-respectable working classes. The respectable working classes (which meant primarily, though not exclusively, the skilled workers), clung obsessively to their status, and were always painfully aware that they could so easily slip from it. Districts of cities, and even individual streets, would be dismissed as definitely not-respectable. My grandparents lived in Keighley, in Yorkshire, in a part of the town that was respectable working-class, but if I dressed scruffily my grandmother would say I looked like "A top-o'-town kid"; that being where the poor Irish lived. Certain types of behaviour from children would lead to a family's respectable status being called into question; such things as spitting, swearing or, far worse, getting in trouble with the law or giving birth to illegitimate children being definitely low-class. Boys from respectable backgrounds read books and worked hard at school instead of playing games in the street, and joined the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade; but joining the army was definitely not for the respectable; army pay being too low to attract anyone except unskilled workers, farm labourers from the countryside, and of course the Irish. The respectable working classes attended church or chapel on Sundays, dressed in their best clothes for the occasion. Getting drunk in public was irredeemably not-respectable; and the skilled workers were the backbone of the Temperance or Prohibition movements. It was difficult for children from the not-respectable classes to break free from the stigma, though schools tried hard (often by means of brutal punishments) to outlaw non-respectable behaviour. But for a youth to be taken on to be trained for a skilled craft, he had to be "spoken for" by a family member or friend, and those from non-respectable families simply did not have these contacts.  
   Karl Marx famously dismissed the unrespectable working classes as the "Lumpenproletariat", useless from a revolutionary viewpoint because they had no economic muscle and could not be educated in socialist ideas. It was to the skilled working classes that he looked; and indeed until very late in the 19th century only the skilled workers were formed into Trades Unions. One of the great political shifts in British history occurred in the twenty years before the First World War, as the Trades Unions were taken over by socialists and the working classes transferred their allegiance from the Liberals to the new Labour Party.

(The finest book on the question of working-class respectability is Robert Roberts's autobiography, "The Classic Slum", about his upbringing in Salford before the First World War. Kellow Chesney's "The Victorian Underworld" is a splendid read, and Arthur Morrison's novel "A Child of the Jago" shows the obstacles facing a boy brought up in a semi-criminal slum)


My grandfather and grandmother came from the respectable working class. I wrote this poem in my granfather's memory:- 

I never knew him
he died when I was five
but I have his watch and chain,
silver, made by a local firm 
in Keighley, where he lived his entire life,
"Presented to Thomas Midgley
on his 21st birthday
Oct. 25th 1903"

He was, I'm told
a man of the highest moral standards;
he disapproved of pubs
and scruffy dress;
he played the piccolo in the town orchestra,
he had a windup gramophone
and some good books
(Dickens, Walter Scott, Dumas),
he was an early member of the
Independent Labour Party,
he knew Philip Snowden,
the first-ever Labour Chancellor,
and he read the "Daily Herald"
the Trades Union paper 
(now defunct)

His wife, my grandmother, was
a mill-worker, very houseproud,
and a vegetarian (unusual in those days).
Before getting married they
saved up for years
in order to buy good furniture.

He would have described himself as
proud to be
working-class, Yorkshire, 
and respectable.
Do people like him exist today?

I found a recent picture of his house
(terraced, outside loo, near the railway)
It looked sadly run-down.

The watch runs erratically.
Nowadays it would be valued
solely by its bullion content.


  1. Somewhere in his writings, George Orwell distinguishes between working-class women who wore shawls to cover their heads, and those, fewer in number, who wore hats. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it chimes with what you've written here.

  2. Great blog. An interesting piece. I recall form GK Chesterton's autobiography that his father always insisted that "there are many things people may call my family, but I hope respectable is not one of them". He was of course a catholic dissident.
    The Daily Herald, as I remember (b. 1956) changed its name in 1964 to ... The Sun.
    [I was at NHS 1968-75)