The British Bee Hive
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.