Britain's social structure developed much like the social structure in other European nations. In the past, most people inherited their class because there was limited social mobility until modern times. Those with incomes from rents and property payments were considered in the upper class; those who dealt with paper, either in business or in a profession, were middle class; and those who did manual labor, such as carpentry and factory work, were in the working class.
Upper, landed classes that controlled most of the agricultural land and wealth emerged during the Middle Ages. Families from these upper classes became the nobility, or aristocracy, and played key political roles on the monarch's councils, in the House of Lords in Parliament, and in local government. Often members of the House of Lords from the nobility had politically conservative views. England's upper-class social structure differed from that of the rest of Europe in three important ways. In addition to a landowning nobility with the right to sit in the House of Lords, a lower upper class developed that, while still landed, didn't have the same privileges as the nobility. Secondly, the aristocracy did not lose its status during Britain's revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries as the Continental aristocracy did during revolutions in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lastly, inheritance arrangements based on primogeniture, a system in which the first-born son is the prime inheritor, encouraged a degree of social mobility.
The lower upper class has been called knights, squires, gentry, or country gentlemen. Members of this class were elected to the House of Commons and played a major role in asserting control over monarchs through their positions in Parliament during the revolutions of the 17th century. Many present-day members of the House of Commons are still drawn from this class, and they continue to play significant roles in local politics and as leaders in society.
Because Britain was spared the wave of revolutions that began in France in 1789, its noble families did not have their estates or wealth confiscated. These families increased their wealth during the Industrial Revolution, because they owned much of the land from which natural resources were taken. Several families can trace their enormous wealth and significant involvement in politics at the highest levels back hundreds of years. In recent centuries steep inheritance taxes have accomplished what revolutions failed to do earlier. Nevertheless, most of Britain's nobles have found ways to retain their land and resources and, in most cases, their prestige.
The principle of primogeniture has had significant consequences for social structure in Britain. In noble families the first-born son, as the prime inheritor, gains the title while his siblings have only courtesy titles. These siblings were likely to do something off of the estate, such as governing a colony, serving as a general in the army, or playing a part in politics. The younger sons could not sit in the House of Lords, but they could have political careers in the House of Commons. Many younger sons of aristocrats also followed religious careers, becoming bishops and archbishops. For the gentry, or lower upper classes, primogeniture usually meant the first-born son inherited the estate and the younger sons sought other occupations, perhaps as doctors, lawyers, or writers. Many went into professions in which they studied and worked with members of the middle class. This made for an element of social mobility in the class structure, although for the gentry it could mean downward social mobility.
Marriages were extremely important to the nobility, as they could provide alliances with other families to increase a family's prestige or influence. Families usually took a strong hand in arranging marriages. Women were expected to marry within their rank, but a woman with a large dowry could often marry someone with a higher social status-an eligible young nobleman or a gentleman-whose income fell far short of his expenditures.
The rise of a middle class has been a running theme in the history of Western civilization since the 14th century. By the 17th century, a "middling order" existed that included farmers, merchants, clergy, and military officers. The middle class evolved rapidly in the 18th century as more and more people became involved in businesses and professions and became wealthier. As towns and cities grew, particularly with the sudden and massive growth experienced during the Industrial Revolution, this class expanded further-people in the middle class ranged from humble clerks to bankers and factory owners. The middle classes placed great emphasis on education, social advancement, economic gain, and accumulating material wealth.
Until the Industrial Revolution, the working class included predominantly agricultural laborers. The general population increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, prompting the need for new ways to survive. As jobs became plentiful in new industries, the working class shifted from agriculture to mining and factory jobs. Thereafter most workers labored in industrial production and mining. In recent decades the number of working-class employees in service industries has risen dramatically.