The British Bee Hive

Great Britain

I first became properly aware of this image when I saw it used as an enormous front-cloth in ‘Sweeney Todd’ on Broadway. George Cruikshank’s etching was designed in 1840 and was brought up to date by him in 1867. I’d like to have included a much larger image but it’s readily available online. The political and social stratification remained identical in the later version, with the Royal Family, Parliament, the law and the church at the top, the professions in the middle and trade and labour at the bottom. The whole edifice rests on the Bank of England, supported by the army and the navy.

In spite – or rather because – of its cast-iron class stratifications, Victoria’s England was remarkably stable. Slum conditions, exploited labour and poverty troubled some of the middle classes, but there was very little radical challenge or agitation from below.

A fair example of someone at the top of the hive would be Lady Randolph Churchill (seen here in a portrait that flatteringly narrows her chin) who became pregnant with Winston Churchill one month after being married.

As for parliament, Gladstone was re-elected Prime Minister for the fourth time at the age of 84. Stability was born of economic supremacy and the order prevailed. Somewhere in the upper middle section of the hive we get Dickens, Tennyson, Burne-Jones, Morris and the rest of the higher arts. The free press, ‘honest and independent’, were held in esteem, but quickly changed as mechanical technology replaced hand methods of printing, and everything sped up.

The inventors, engineers and mechanics of iron and steam championed ‘the upward progress of industrial civilisation’. Their apprentices ran factories and workshops, butchers, bakers, boats and cabs, and provided plentiful staff to the point where those on lower middle class incomes were still able to afford a housemaid, a habit that largely remains today as armies of cleaners, many from overseas.

Masons, bricklayers, ‘paviors’ (roadmen) and sweeps were lower but often had financial sidelines, although I’m not sure that a sweep selling his soot as a pesticide is quite the same as the local electrician selling cocaine on the side.

Finally, the nation’s bedrock, its military services, included these recruiting sergeants setting out to persuade Westminster’s drinkers to enlist (a relatively good time to do so, as there was not much happening after the Crimean War and before the 2nd Boer War unless you were Ottoman). New recruits were allowed four days to reconsider their decision to take the Queen’s Shilling (and presumably return it).

Supporting it all was the Bank of England, a visible symbol of richesse and solidity. Everyone understood that banks were the key to success and all feared the collapse of private institutions. Sir John Soane’s beautiful domed banking halls were outrageously and thoughtlessly demolished in the 1920s.

The hive’s cells and layers were made partially porous in postwar Britain but retain all their key features. In the last ten years the barriers have returned with a vengeance and Cruikshank’s drawing largely prevails.

19 comments on “The British Bee Hive”

  1. Roger says:

    “In spite – or rather because – of its cast-iron class stratifications”
    …except that they weren’t cast-iron. It was possible for people to move up or down the class structure and increasing wealth and new kinds of jobs meant there were more vacancies at higher levels – not much higher, usually – lower middle class rather than wotking class and middle class rather than lower middle class – but things did look better, whereas today for people without inherited wealth and property the future looks more and more narrow.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    My ancestors were mostly cabmen or did other types of work with horses. One was an ostler in the royal household at Kensington palace, where his family had a room in the servants’ quarters in a nearby street.
    A 3 bedroom apartment converted from said quarters is currently available for purchase at the bargain price of £2,500,000. If you prefer, you can rent another for £4,225 pcm.
    I’m not sure what that says about social mobility. Rich people are living in the servants’ quarters, but where do the cabmen and ostler equivalents live now?

  3. Brooke says:

    Are there not several layers below , or what is the BofE and military resting on?

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    The worst stratification was that between the ‘return to Camelot’ romanticism of the public school educated ruling class and science, engineering and manufacturing.

    “Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die,
    But leave us still our old Nobility.”

    And who rules us today? Old Etonian, scientifically illiterate money traders, of course.

  5. SteveB says:

    Very very interesting
    As Roger says though it was possible for someone of talent to move up
    Thanks for that

  6. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Ostler’. A job now lost to time, but once an important occupation. An Ostler was a man employed by a Coaching Inn – in the days of horse-drawn coaches, these were essential stops on a long journey, a bit like Way-Stations on the Silk Road, where people and horses could get refreshment and rest. The Ostler stabled the horses, and saw they were fed and watered. An explanation of the odd name was given me by the man who used to live next door, and who was the manager of a large hotel in town (now shops, of course), that had existed since the 1600’s. An Ostler, he told me, was the man who looked after ‘The ‘Osses.’ As he was a highly educated man who had been in the Grenadier Guards, I have no reason to doubt him.

  7. Jan says:

    The point being pethaps that’s the barriers that have returned aren’t exactly the same barriers that were partially broken down in the first place but that some new rules came into play to recreate rather than simply resurrect the first/earlier versions. For example:

    If you were an 18 or 19 years old and perhaps had the chance to be the first person in your family to go into higher education and obtain a degree would it be worth it? Maybe if you were excellent at mathematics and had the chance to go to Oxford or Cambridge or one of a handful of the Redbrick/Russell group unis with distinguished maths departments this would be worth it.( I don’t think there’s many great maths departments mind…. But perhaps your degree would be worth pursuing.)

    However if you were an average student wanting to pursue say an arts degree or a social sciences degree at one of the newest batch of universities – the teacher training colleges/po!ytechnics of a few decades ago? Would it be worth taking on the large amount of debt at not a crippling interest rate but a debt for life you may never pay off? Would it be worth it? Business degrees have rarely been as popular as in the last decades but the shift in say educating nurses to degree level and charging the would be student for her/his degree -would that be worth it? Charging students for nursing degrees has proved to be measure so unsuccessful the Tories have hastily ‘re established bursaries having lost very many good committed mature candidates who took along their NVQs in health studies and joined the ambulance service or pharmaceutical companies instead. Not even the virtual cancellation of the debt by not earning enough to repay it got people through the door fast enough! Now I only mention these facts as it seems to me to be fairly obvious that despite the education, education, education mantra of the last Labour government the working class student seems to be rather less likely to enter higher education now than four or five decades ago. Not simply because of a system bias against working class students but by a combination of factors which redrew the existing boundaries in a way which ultimately did not make the pursuit of higher education any more worth while for a working class youngster. Replacing grants with loans basically.

    Sorry to have spurtelled on at some length you can make the same argument on any range of topics. For example is buying property worth while for today’s young people. I think loads of efforts have been made to improve inclusivity (if that’s a word) and that can only be right but because of a whole range of factors that side against people WHO NEED TO EARN MONEY who cannot afford to be an unpaid intern, whose families don’t have the social connections to get them established in a worthwhile internship – paid or not, then things remain skewed against them.

    How stable is our new beehive? Stable enough I would imagine. For the truly talented, resourceful (and lucky) the cells of the Beehive will always be just permeable enough. There’s still more than needs be falling by the wayside though. Which can’t be right.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    One of the difficulties today is that there is no ‘career path’ in jobs. I worked in company (local newspaper) where every year someone would retire with a gold clock or equivalent after 50 or 60 years employment. These were people who had started work as apprentices shortly after the war. They had opportunities to work their way up to jobs that rewarded their experience and reliability.

    I’ve had some experience of modern firms (call centres, but Im sure lots of others are the same) where there are simple demarcations; Shop floor – where you are expected to to follow a script and be chastised for talking to a customer too long, Management – where you get a bit more pay to be a pain in the arse, or train new people how to read a script and work the computer system, or Owners – who really don’t care about anyone and probably never see the workforce. They just negotiate contracts and ensure that they have plenty of people on minimum wage to fulfil the contract.There is no way for the average Joe to move anywhere up.

    I used to work with people who started as an apprentice bookkeeper, moved through the ranks and ended up as chief accountant or financial director, usually because they knew from years of experience how their particular business worked. Nowadays they wouldn’t even be considered because a man with a degree would be preferred. And often the business would not have survived long enough for anyone to learn real knowledge.

  9. SteveB says:

    It’s the transformation of the workplace into using people as exchangeable work units in defined processes / workflows.
    Combine this with the fact that over 30% of the productive capital of this country is now foreign owned, which as long as the 100bn per year trade deficit with Europe isn’t changed will be up to 50% in 15 years or so – and you have a projected workplace environment in the 2030s that for most people is not so much better than slavery.

  10. SteveB says:

    Ps we are all Stakhanovites now…

  11. admin says:

    To answer the point ab out what’s below the bank and the army – well, money and might are always at the base of any empire.

  12. Roger says:

    Peter Dixon:
    Robert Graves summed up the modern careeer-path nearly a hundred years ago:

    Let me tell you story of how I began.
    I began as the lift-boy and ended as the lift-man.

    That’s if you are actually on a path at all.

  13. Jan says:

    Yes what Peter says is correct really. Even the public services, in times gone by “jobs for life” have cottoned onto to the fact that the time in which workers produce measurable results is relatively short. Measurable results being the sort of quick fix, tick in the box measuring of an organisation’s success at least at this time. Whether these criteria are valid is quite a different subject. Five to ten years being a more than generous career span so after five or ten years organisations are more than ready to let people go. So the next set of folk who will produce ticks in boxes I.e. measurable results will drift in whilst others drift away. People have become as disposable as any other item in the modern workplace. In the commercial world these time frames are still far less generous.

    Mind you within less than a generation work as we know it will in all probability largely disappear. So we are in a sort of halfway house situation at present with change gathering pace and the sort of skills which defined our places within society necessary but hardly as necessary as they were previously. It’s at this point where people will be unable to define their lives within the sort of framework we are essentially discussing here that social cohesion could breakdown. New ways for people to define their lives, manage their achievements and create stable home environments for themselves and their families will need to be discovered. Perhaps it will be at this point when the work life balance really radically changes the true value of education for all will be found.

  14. SteveB says:

    The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate…

  15. Helen Martin says:

    As my in-house expert has reminded me there still are ostlers, although we spell it with an h at the front. Could that be because we assumed there was a missing h and self righteously replaced it?
    Anyway, the hostler today moves tractors and trailers around a trucking yard or engines and cars around a railway freight yard. They work only on the premises and are only involved in care and positioning of the equipment. I am assuming the same terminology applies in Britain (except for the equipment names).

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – here in the UK, the ‘Hostler’s’ job is given the rather mundane one of ‘Shunter’. They tend to work in docks, and shunt trailers from yards to transhipment areas, or containers from yards to be placed on ships, and vice versa. Most shunters stay in the dock area using special tugs which can drive easily backwards as well as forwards. Some yards immediately outside the dock use older trucks that are not taxed for use on public roads as tugs – most roads in the dock are ‘private’ ie., belong to the dock company, so these vehicles can use them without penalty. I have worked in the port operations area since the early 1990’s.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Ian, that’s it exactly. They do the same thing in trucking yards – moving container/trailers around to freight doors, running tractors up to connect to trailers, etc. but only in the yard.

    I always told elementary students that they should look seriously at the trades rather than professions. A plumber, electrician, brick layer, fully trained carpenter will all make more money than most professionals and you don’t start out with the thousands of dollars/pounds of debt that you may never pay off. There’s been some talk here recently of removing fees but I’ll believe that when I see it. Many people are taking an LPN (licensed practical nurse) certificates rather than a university degree because it’s cheaper, you’re more likely to get a full time job, you don’t have the debt, you do just about the same work and you don’t do all the paper work.

  18. Jan says:

    Helen it’s funny you say that I worked with a lass who had a masters from Oxon or Camb. (Which says something about what a useful qualification that was!) When she fell pregnant and we were talking about the kiddies future she reckoned the offspring would do well to qualify as a plumber. Seemed very sensible option back then and an even better option now.
    The only thing about your L.P.N qualification there was once a similar qualification in the British system the S.E.N enrolled nurse. That career path (and qualification) was abandoned and every qualified nurse now needs to be registered. Our equivalent the job of Health Care Assistant exists but specialist courses are more limited for HCAs and the money is Not good. Registered nurse money is not great but HCA money is pretty dire.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Why is it that medicine is such a dismal choice unless you become a doctor or surgeon. We don’t seem to care about caring for people, perhaps because we think that anyone could do it. We don’t choose to, though, do we? So many of our caring people are from the Philippines or Viet Nam because they come with what are classed as incomplete credentials.

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