No doubt you’ve seen it, in my books and in other author’s regency set books –
the moment when a member of an aristocratic family makes a sneering remark
about ‘sullying your hands with trade’. But why did they think about it that
Lets look at how all of the titled and nobly born people got their money. All
of those big country estates weren’t just for looking impressive. The land was farmed, both by tenant farmers, who paid a large tithe of a percentage of their harvest to the Lord, as well as their rent, and by farmers employed by the Lord.
All of that produce was sold, and that was what produced the income from each estate, which, when combined from a number of estates, made for a handsome annual income. Lords might also invest in business ventures – they did not run the businesses themselves, but let others, of the ‘merchant class’ be the ones to do the ‘dirty’ job of actually working. The Lords were just financial partners, who took a large dividend in the form of their share of profits.
A Lord might be involved in planning the management of his estates, but would still have an estate manager to implement his decisions. To the average person of noble birth, working was what servants and farmers did. Professional men (lawyers, professors, doctors etc) were on a thin line between acceptable and not, for, whilst they worked, they were well qualified and reasonably respected.
But anyone else who worked was a person of the lower classes, who could not afford to live without working. This ingrained prejudice began to be severely challenges around 1800, as two things happened – the industrial revolution, and the vast expansion in British colonial trade. Suddenly, there were merchants who were wealthier than some Lords – their businesses, especially import businesses and factories, flourished, and the merchants did not have huge ancestral estates with hundreds of servants, to maintain, so they kept a far larger share of their profits as cash at bank.
The fact that there were merchants with more money than them drastically offended many of the aristocracy. What made it even worse, was that these merchants began to be accepted on the fringes of high society – why? Because the merchants had daughters – daughters whom they could afford to settle very large dowries upon. And desperate, impoverished Lords often decided that a beautiful woman who came with lots of money, was acceptable, even tainted with merchant origins. Those who did marry the merchant’s daughters were sneered at in public, and often envied in private.
Between 1800 and 1840, it became progressively more obvious that, in the world then, it was a rare Lord who could survive at the standard of living he wanted, purely from the income from his estates. And, as more Lords invested in businesses, more of them became, almost by accident, drawn in to the complex and interesting daily workings of successful industry. The lines between high society and the lower classes were blurring.
So, next time you read about a Lord sneering at ‘sullying your hands with trade’ consider his emotional state, consider the rather terrible social trap he was caught in, as the world changed around him.