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The Edwardian Class System

Class, what is it?

In today's modern world its hard to comprehend a society so dependent on a class structure. If you were born within the last 20 years in the western world, you may not even be aware of the class system; but it still exists in some form. You could be forgiven in thinking its just paying more for a bit of luxurious comfort when you travel. But the class system is so much more complicated that that.

Its often confused on Titanic with how much money a passenger has, If a passenger could afford first class, they traveled first class, or if a passenger could save up money to travel first class then they would. This could not be further from the truth!

In the UK in 1912, they were three prominent class tiers that everyone were divided into.

Upper Class - Inherited wealth

Middle Class - Acquired wealth through ones own means

Lower Class (Working Class) - no wealth and live hand to mouth

These classes were worlds apart from each other and formed distinct separations. Everything from how they lived, what they ate, and how they spoke were characteristics of someones class.

In Britain, social class was not necessarily to do with wealth (and to talk of wealth was considered vulgar) it was your breeding that mattered, who your "people" were.

Money could help you move up from one class to another but it would usually take a generation or two to be accepted by the class you'd moved up into.

Social Hierarchy

  • The upper class made up 5% of Britain, they were the wealthiest people with power, influence and position. Usually of nobility, or aristocratic land owners with titles.

  • The middle class made up 15% of Britain and were people that were doing well in life with education and having a good job that supported them and their families as well as being able to afford small luxuries and comforts.

  • The lower working class were the remainder 80% of Britain that didn't have much money if any at all. These people worked hard for the little money they had, in more labour intensive jobs like factories, shops, and building.

The Beehive illustration explaining the English class system pyramid

Social class was all about hierarchy and where someone belonged within the order of precedence. Everyone born into this system had their place within it depending on their parents position, their occupation and their social standing. For example, if a persons parents were working class factory workers, then their children too would be working class. If a persons parents were an aristocrat (upper class) then the child will also start life as upper class.

However, it was possible (although difficult) to change rank and position depending on what happens through life. It was equally possible to lower ranks and fall into a different class tier and nobody wanted to fall into a lower class, it was the social faux pas of the day.

Everybody strived to stay in their class or to achieve to progress into the next class tier. This was part of the Edwardian life that taught education, morality, and reputation was the grounds for success.

People were only allowed to socialise within their social class and therefore lived amongst each other, developing areas in towns and cities for different tiers of class. If someone did socialise with another class, it would have been a scandal and lowered the higher ranker's position. In upper class circles, books and magazines would print Order of Precedence and it became gossip and competition of who has risen or fallen.

Even on Titanic, passengers lists were issued with an Order of Precedence in the form of passengers lists, so passengers knew who was onboard and whom to be seen with.

People could be extremely wealthy but if they did not attend the right parties, or know the right people, live life without scandal or marry someone with higher precedence, their rankings in society would not improve.


Women in all classes lived with the most rules, they were seen as gentle and demure as a result they were treated like children in the sense of being seen and not heard. This pushed women into the home, and were required to follow strict etiquette and laws. Their job was to get married and have children, then bring up the children and satisfy their husbands. In the lower classes, they were also required to do housework and were not required to work a paid job unless absolutely necessary. Young women were required to have a basic education then the lower class women were allowed to work until they got married.

'A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages … ; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions'

Jane Austen's, Pride and Prejudice.

Women from all classes were not allowed to own property, or to vote. But in 1912 the suffragette movement started, a national women's protest fighting for women's right to vote.

The fact that women had such great influence at home was used as an argument against giving them the vote.

Women protesting for their right to vote 1912

A young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband. Being ‘forward’ in the company of men suggested a worrying sexual appetite. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction. One doctor, William Acton, famously declared that ‘The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’.

Girls usually married in their early to mid-20s. Typically, the groom would be five years older. Not only did this reinforce the ‘natural’ hierarchy between the sexes, but it also made sound financial sense. A young man needed to be able to show that he earned enough money to support a wife and any future children before the girl’s father would give his permission. Some unfortunate couples were obliged to endure an engagement lasting decades before they could afford to marry.

It was important for a well-educated girl to soften her erudition with a graceful and feminine manner. No-one wanted to be called a ‘blue-stocking’, the name given to women who had devoted themselves too enthusiastically to intellectual pursuits.

Blue-stockings were considered unfeminine and off-putting in the way that they attempted to usurp men’s ‘natural’ intellectual superiority. Some doctors reported that too much study actually had a damaging effect on the ovaries, turning attractive young women into dried-up prunes. When Oxford and Cambridge opened their doors to women, many families refused to let their clever daughters attend for fear that they would make themselves unmarriageable.

Gender Separation

It was common practice for genders to be separated. Only needing to come together at breakfast and dinner.

The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life.

Single men and women were not allowed to be alone with each other unless they were married. Women were not even allowed to speak to men unless there was a married woman present as a chaperone. This was the same on Titanic throughout the classes. Even third class single men and women were separated and slept at opposite ends of the ship.

Gentleman Clubs

As they were strict gender separation rules men would spend their time in pubs or clubs. These were places within all classes for men to relax and create friendships with one another. These places were essential in the lives of men, networking and socialising. The working class would have certain parts of pubs, called Tap rooms for only men. This would be a place for men to meet, talk about their day and relax after work.

The middle and upper class had Gentleman clubs and institutes that were invitation or members only. usually these specialised in a subject of interest or occupation. This was a staple of class to be a member of an elite club. Here, men would help each other to succeed and network amongst each-other.

Mens fashion 1910

New Money

New money refers to wealth that had recently been acquired. Typically that which a person has earned rather than inherited. This was a category that was quickly becoming more populated with wealthy business tycoons and industrialists. These people made large fortunes, sometimes even more than the land gentry, but with rapid social climbing were still treated as a lesser person. This created a separation within the upper class, with 'Old money' being the more elite with birth right and 'New money' being able to afford to be there, but having to learn the ways of the upper classes. This left many new money people feeling ostracized and misplaced in society.

On Titanic this was the same, 'new money' wealth could afford to be in first class but were lesser than their inherited counterparts. This would have made life onboard a little difficult for them and often separated them. Some choosing second class instead to avoid the strict formality and pomp. This is another reason why the middle classes did not buy first class tickets even when affordable and it being more about knowing ones position in society with wealth and etiquette but also knowing the rules and behaving to them.


Depending on what someones occupation was, determined their position in society. They were distinct jobs within the different tiers on class, all on a ladder of that class. Even today certain job titles determines someones status and many people aim for certain high status positions.

Every class had various jobs with different pay grades and requiring different physical abilities. Usually the more labour intensive jobs were less paid, and the more academic were more paid.

It could be a way to change someones class if they worked their way up and had the intelligence to progress.

Typical jobs according to class:

  • Upper class professions: Politics, Law, Brokers, Medicine, Clergy, Military, Investor, Business owners/Tycoons

  • Middle class professions: Teachers/Professors, Doctors/Nurses, Solicitors, Salesmen, Small Businessmen, Journalist, Writer/Arts, Office workers, Banker, Surgeon, Merchant

  • Lower class professions: Labourer, Domestic servants, Farmers, Carpenters, Builders, Cleaners/Sweepers, Dustmen/Chimney sweeps, Tradesmen.

Job opportunities were not possible outside someones class, it would take generations to achieve social gains through occupation. A working class person could not dream of becoming an upper class lawyer, but if they got into that industry starting from the bottom, then their children would have a 'foot in the door' for them to progress further.

Workhouses - was an institution for those who could not support themselves financially, were offered accommodation and employment. Usually had terrible conditions, forced child labour, and long hours.

The prostitute was the shadow that haunted the well-run middle class home. She serviced the needs of the men of the house, not just before marriage but sometimes during it too. Just like the men she slept with, but unlike their wives, the prostitute was a worker in the economic market place, exchanging services for cash.

This however, was the lowest a woman could fall and was a profession that would still tarnish someones reputation even after moving away from it. The age of consent was raised in 1885 from 12 to 16, but children continued to fall pray to this profession and finding it hard to escape in later life. If sex workers were caught they could be charged with 6 months in prison and a £5 fine (£400 today)

Brothels were big business as prostitutes shared accommodations and worked together to protect each other and splitting the proceeds.

Women working in a factory 1900


Unfortunately, ethnicity did play apart in where someone ranked on the class system. The British at the time ruled over a quarter of the earths land area with the British Empire. This introduced new cultures and ethnicities into the British system. If someone was a colonial native, they would automatically be of a lesser class in society than their counterparts within Europe. Even the Europeans were of lesser class than the British, and other European countries felt the same towards the British.

Depending on the colour of someones skin, in part, would also influence a persons class. Pale skin being more accepted in upper class circles, as it symbolised purity, and virtue. This however, could be changed through marriage, lifestyle, wealth and adaption. They are many diverse ethicities that rose through the class system and were respected for doing so.

World map of the British Empire 1907


In the English language, how someone spoke and what words they chose could differentiate between classes. This is based on education, being well-read and the social circles someones associate with. The upper class would choose to say words with French or European origin over Anglo-saxon words used commonly.

Having thoughts and expressing them with educated formal words and sentences, was seen as more respectful and they would be more likely be listened to in upper class circles.

Accents were seen as lesser, depending on what someones accent was. Someone can quickly work out where someone was from by their accent and associate a class to that area.

Many people with regional accents were encouraged to delete their accent in favour of a more neutral central London accent often refereed to as 'The Queens English' or 'Posh'.

Swearing/cursing words were seemed lower class due to being coarse, blasphemous, and used in anger or to express strong emotion. It was seen that if someone cannot find another word to express their point or used purposely to offend, then they were a lesser person.

If a woman swore, it was seen as worse than a man and would insinuate at her virtuous state.

Even today swearing can determine reaction to someones position and their upbringing, and knowing when its unacceptable to use in certain situations.


'You either have it, or you don't' is the famous saying that still resonates today. Wealth doesn't make someone stylish but to the Edwardian, only the wealthy could afford to experiment with style.

Style with fashion/trends, image and tastes showed people someones status and thinking. With women not having the right to express opinions, their style and tastes reflected their agenda instead. If someone was stylish, they were seen as fashionable with worldly inspirations and possible interests in art and culture. Not to be confused with beauty, although beauty can be favoured, it didn't represent class.

Women posing the latest fashions 1900

  • An upper class person would dress to impress and to be noticed, expressing wealth with materials and trends. They'd be expected to be with the current fashions and to have different outfits for different occasions. If someone could not dress the part for a certain occasion, then that person did not belong within the upper class.

  • Middle class people dressed much more reservedly but still had style, sophistication and elegance. They were not allowed to wear certain materials reserved for the upper class, and usually wore less fashionable styles. Middle class people were expected to change for different occasions and have appropriate clothes for any formal events.

  • The lower class usually had limited materials and wore similar cuts of suits/dresses. many people wore work clothing as everyday wear and were seen as less stylish as other classes. Often wearing second hand clothes of much older fashions.

Style with manners and charisma was something that was more natural throughout all classes. If someone had etiquette they were more stylish. Being polite, and gracious was much more stylish than being vulgar and ostentatious. There is a fine line between showing off to impress and impressing without the need to show off.

Black Tie, White Tie. On Titanic, this was especially important to know the difference in first class. Both formal dress codes for men, white tie was the pinnacle of dress and was to be worn at events with calibre of guests such as titled, royal, or high standing. A white bow tie must be worn with no deviations allowed, as well as a white waist coat and tails.

Black tie was considered much more relaxed and known as evening dress. This consisted of a formal black suite or tuxedo with a black bow tie. This however, would have been too informal for dinner in first class on Titanic .

Titanic Class System

Because of the social hierarchy, Titanic and almost all transport was divided into class. This was for health reasons, immigration laws and social preferences. Titanic was divided into three classes.

  • First Class - for the upper class in society as well as rich new money socialites.

  • Second Class - for the middle classes and professionals

  • Third Class - for the working class and immigrants starting a new life.

These classes were separated by clever design so that neither class were in the same area at any one time. How the ship was designed was solely on this class system, with walls and doors, odd corridors and stairwells separating the classes. Only place two classes could meet were on deck where they were separated by gates.

Notice to second class passengers to not cross. Artwork by RMSTitanic.Design

At no point during the voyage were classes allowed to mingle or cross into another. Second were not allowed into First and vise versa.

However, on Titanic in Southampton, Second class passengers could tour First class before departing but were asked to return to second class before sailing. This was more likely because Titanic was a new ship and people were curious. This likely didn't happen on other ships or later in Olympics career.

First class and Third class were strictly forbidden to cross paths and procedures were implemented to keep them separated. Nor would either want to venture into each others spaces. First class would not have ventured into third in fear of damaging reputations and health. Third class would not have wished to go into first class as they knew their place and felt uncomfortable in that environment. Second class may have wished to go into first class and possibly strived to do that, but the formality and gossip might have swayed them away. For being discovered as a different class in the wrong class was more devastating and embarrassing, as well as socially unacceptable.

Third Class separation in the sinking - Its widely believed that Third class were locked behind grill gates below decks as the Titanic sank, as they waited for their turn to board the lifeboats. This was simply not true. There is no evidence, photographic, or from the wreck that show these gates. No survivor records describe these gates either but it has become accepted as fact through film and media. The reason third class had a hard time getting to the boat deck was because of the Titanic's class design. There was no direct route for third class to get to the boat deck, instead they were having to wander the labyrinth of corridors and passageways often to realise they were going the wrong way. Even when a third class passenger was faced with crossing classes to escape, many didn't and found it difficult to cross that class boundary. It was so ingrained into them to not cross that even in danger they refused to pass often trying to find alternative routes and evidently failing.

Third class single men and women were separated according to etiquette at the time. Men were kept in the bow part of the ship and the women in the stern. Only coming together at meal times when together with married passengers. This prevented any unwanted sexual activity onboard as well as keeping the men from speaking to the women.

A Section of Titanic showing class locations

Class Today

In western cultures the old class system has broken down or has merged into a more inclusive system. After the world wars, class seemed less important as men of all classes were brought together to fight for the same cause. Survivors returning home to vast labour shortages and people of all classes having to fill essential roles. This drastically altered the class dynamic and blurred the lines of categories. New possibilities opened up to the lower classes and the upper classes were becoming more inclusive. As well as better employment laws and human rights.

Britain however, does still have some sort of class system today although unrecognisable from the Edwardian one, there was a report recently that mentioned the UK had over 8 categories of class based on income, education, birthing, and lifestyle. But far easier for people to move between the classes, as well as equal opportunities and open education. However, Etiquette, dress codes and manners are still extremely important in determining class.

India and the Far East still has a class system left to them from the British empire, that mainly consists of wealth, religion, education, birthing and respectability. Its a lot harder to move between the classes and is far more complex depending on region and religion. Some cultures still having gender preferences and less sexuality equalities.

The US has shaken off its British inspired class system in favour of a capitalism system, which promotes an consumerism ideology that can separate different incomes, race, and political views but can allow anyone to better themselves though hard work. Education is extremely important and open to all, and someones occupation can determine status.

Europe has a much more relaxed system that focuses more on education and knowledge through travel and experience over wealth and status. Ones education level and travel experience is considered more prestige. Eastern Europe can be more separated by historic differences, race, politics and gender.

Snobbery - a trait that stems from the old class system of thinking oneself is better than someone else because of wealth, education/schooling, upbringing, or just self delusion. Not a very attractive trait, but seems to still exist in many circles today.

First Class Travel - most aircraft and trains are classed in some way to separate people who can afford more luxury from those who cannot. This type of classism is consumer based and any other factors are usually irrelevant. If someone can afford First class, they are welcome regardless of status, occupation, race, or birthing.

Its safe to say that some elements of classism still remains today, many are ingrained into us at a young age, and some still influences our views and opinions.

In 1912, class was the basis of civilisation and the structure which everyone lived by.

Whether you agree or disagree with it, Its important to understand the class system to really understand life around Titanic, the history of it, its builders and design, and to understand the passengers of the Titanic.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Written by Chris Walker from RMSTitanic.Design

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