At Home with the Lower Middle Class

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At Home With the Lower-Middle Class: Business, Family and Households in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century North West, Professor Hannah Barker, Geoffrey Manton Building, 19th February 2014

Words by Lisa Burns

Sexual politics, family feuds, religious tensions, secret love affairs between master and servant;
it sounds like the stuff of soap operas, but it was all on the agenda for Professor Hannah Barker of the University of Manchester when giving her lecture. The talk covered the living conditions of the lower-middle classes in eighteenth century Manchester, and offered some fascinating insights into a complex world.
Part of a series of talks organised by the Friends of the Manchester Centre for Regional History (MCRH), the evening was set up by MMU’s Dr Fiona Cosson (Cosson is also the Research Associate for the MCRH). A large crowd of historians attended – so many, in fact, that the seminar room was packed to standing room only! It’s not surprising that Professor Barker was able to pull in such a crowd. Her historical expertise, as well as her engaging and humorous delivery, made the lecture a pleasure to listen to. 
Using images taken from Chetham’s Library, Barker vivified the familiar landscapes of the Northern Quarter and Market Street in eighteenth century contexts. Rather than relying solely upon dry inventories, Barker derived a richness and intimacy from the personal testimonies of contemporary diaries. In a bid to avoid the “cultural cringe” that many feel when faced with the lower-middle classes, Barker focused on the experiences of the employees of trading families.
Professor Barker drew upon the diary of George Heywood, which can be found in John Rylands Library. Bringing to life the everyday working and living patterns of this young man, Barker provided a personal account of family, business and living conditions. She demonstrated that the typical apprentice or servant would live in their place of work, alongside the middle class merchants employing them. Heywood’s diary provided insights into how complex personal relationships developed between families and employees living and working in cramped conditions. 
Reading passages aloud from Heywood’s diary, Barker recounted occasions when he experienced disputes with his employer. The causes of tensions ranged from changing religious affiliations, to spending time alone with the employer’s female family members, to washing in the shared sink at odd hours of the day. The painting portrayed was of a world where there were strict ideas regarding sexual propriety, where sharing living spaces resulted in unspoken rules regarding appropriate living patterns. There was also a sense of blurred lines regarding notions of the family. Barker suggested that some employers would welcome apprentices as family members, while others would make clear distinctions.
Professor Barker also highlighted the hugely different attitudes that eighteenth century workers had towards personal privacy and living space. She insisted that we are “not to make presumptions” regarding personal priorities in historical contexts. For instance, workers preferred to share a bed with family members of employers, than to have their own beds. Personal privacy is more of a modern concept, according to Barker. These sorts of insights certainly made for interesting food-for-thought, and challenged some modern preconceptions about eighteenth century life.
The evening ended with a question and answer session, and much lively discussion. Attendees were warmly invited to the next MCRH event, which is to be held on 19th March,
covering the topic of the ‘The Excesses of Pantomime in the Theatres of Late Victorian Manchester’.
Lisa Burns studies History and English at MMU. When she’s not got her nose in a book, she loves having adventures in the great outdoors! Follow her on Twitter: @LittleRobin09

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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