Upper class life in the Industrial Era

Wealthy Victorians dancing, hunting and travelling by boat.
  • Birth mattered more than income. A lazy, impoverished cousin of a duke would be acceptable in high society. A self-made millionaire mill-owner might not.
  • A rich baby boy had male tutors and nannies, then went to a public school such as Eton or Harrow. He would likely finish his education at Oxford or Cambridge. They were expected to gain the experience necessary to take a leading role in society.
  • Girls were usually educated at home by a governess, learning about literature, languages, music and art and embroidery but their studies were intended to prepare them to support their husbands when they were married.
  • The eldest son inherited his father's estates and hereditary titles. Many younger sons went into the army where they would pay a sum of money to receive an officer rank. Other younger sons went into the Church.
  • Some lords had a large house in the country and a town house in London. They would be waited on by lots of servants, who worked 'below stairs' and slept in the attic.
  • At the start of the 19th century, the aristocracy dominated government. With wealth came responsibility, and there was an expectation that the rich would seek a role in local or national politics.

Victorian upper class entertainment and fashions

There was an expectation that the rich would uphold moral values for those on their estates over whom they had influence. However, some aristocratic Victorians didn't always behave according to the values of the time. Victoria's son Edward had at least 55 lovers, even after he got married. Occasionally, there would be a great scandal in the newspapers. May to July was 'the season', when the family moved to London for the social life – theatre, dances and parties. August to November was the shooting season, when lords moved to their country homes to shoot grouse or stags, and go fox-hunting. In the winter, many rich families went abroad. For the more adventurous younger adults of a richer family, there was the 'Grand Tour' of European sites and cities.

As the century wore on, the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 meant that the aristocracy started to lose their political power. In 1865 half the MPs came from landed backgrounds. By 1885, only a quarter came from landed backgrounds. Some girls from richer families went to boarding school. By the end of the 19th century, a small number of girls were able to go to university.The most common form of education for girls from wealthy families was to be taught by a governess. A young aristocratic lady who was eligible for marriage would 'come out' as a debutante, when she was presented to Queen Victoria. On this special occasion she wore a white dress and a headdress with three feathers.

A debutante is presented to Queen Victoria in a drawing room in 1861.
Debutante being presented to Queen Victoria

In the 1850s and 1860s, rich ladies wore a crinoline made with layers of fabrics hung over a huge wire frame. Four women could fill a room! After 1870, the crinoline gave way to the bustle, a large bag of straw hung over the bottom to create an 'S' shape. A tiny waist as little as 30 centimetres was fashionable. Women wore a whale-bone corset laced tight. This damaged their internal organs, and explains why Victorian ladies fainted so easily. Upper-class Victorian men wore huge top hats, ascots (a kind of formal tie) and very tight trousers.