Thurgarton Priory
Nottingham Elites and Civil Society 1900-1950
Status, Engagement & Lifestyle

Housing, Lifestyle and Status
Appropriating Rateable Value as a Proxy for Class.

Summary The Meaning of Home Using Rateable Value A Visual Morphology Further Reading


  • Home, house and personal urban identity are intrinsically linked
  • Your house/neighbourhood stands as a visual and economic statement of your status, income and aspiration
  • The British housing market in the first half of the Twentieth Century was richly layered and differentiated, which reflected and catered for social standing
  • Expenditure on housing rentals was highly income elastic, varying directly at all levels of the income scale
  • The value of domestic property (captured by its rateable value) stands as an excellent proxy for income, making it a practical and accessible indicator of personal status
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    The Meaning of Home

    The twentieth-century English city was richly gradated socially and economically, with layer upon layer of subclasses, each keenly aware of their subtle grades of distinction (Burnett, 1978; Thompson, 1988). House and home, and the character and reputation of the neighbourhood, ‘mirrored these gradations’, defining and reinforcing them, so that, as Savage argues, ‘place and attachment to place’ became ‘crucial factors in class formation’ (Savage, 1993). House and home was a visual key symbol of a family’s social and financial standing and aspiration. Indeed, your house was the most visible social guide to a family’s level of income; moving house – ‘up’ or ‘down’ – the surest indicator of changing aspiration or financial circumstance, and for most the single most important expression of their position in society (Tosh, 1999; Pooley, 2000). It thus acted as a paradigm for consumption; it became synonymous with ‘life style’, an assembly point for ‘cultural and financial capital (Bachlard, 1964; Shurmer-Smith and. Hannan, 1994)’

    Forest Road East, Nottingham, c 1905
    (courtesy Bernard Beilby)

    As Lewis and Maude noted in 1950, occupying a middle-class house made you feel middle class, and had had cultural meaning since the mid nineteenth century (Lewis and Maude, 1950). Nor was this simply a middle-class trait. All urban social collective identities were increasingly defined and redefined through the vista of each’s physical environment. Importantly, buildings both segregate and unify. As streets and landmarks they mark urban boundaries, whilst at the same time generating points of social connection, providing common social and spatial identities. Classes have a need to make a particular place their own (Lefebvre, 1991; Savage, 1993). Moreover, families brought with them specific sets of cultural values, an associated identity planted into urban spaces, so that ‘social types’ became embedded into local understandings of the urban social landscape (Cannadine, 1993; Edwards, 1973).

    Kirkewhite Street, The Meadows, Nottingham, c 1915
    (courtesy Nottingham City Council)
    An aversion to different life styles also divided communities, not simply between classes but within (between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’, for example), where quality of housing stood as a reasonable proxy for the neighbourhood’s ‘general sense of well-being’ and income level. A key reason for wanting to move was to reinforce this divide; to live with those who were of similar social status or better (McKibbin, 1998; Chapman, 1955). As Weber noted before 1914, ‘only the resident of a certain street (‘the Street’) is considered as belonging to “society”’, talked to, visited or invited (Weber, 1948).
    This link between environment and social status was never far from the consciousness of property developers, where imagery that signified social aspiration and desirability was central to marketing strategies (Gold, 1990).

    Robin Hood Chase, St Ann's, Nottingham 1905
    (courtesy Nottingham City Council)

    The architectural critic J. M. Richards, writing in 1946, noted that: ‘An elaborate code has grown up, instinctively understood by those whom it concerns, by means of which the family circumstances are depicted and achievements recorded in [this] architectural language, almost in the fashion of heraldry’ (Richards, 1946) Around this, identity through ‘distinction’ was built through such embellishments as bay windows, stone lintels, stained-glass doors –emblems of different shades of respectability - the scale of which, even in rented accommodation, was practically an index, as Dyos noted, of value of the house (Dyos,1961; Whitehand and Carr, 2001).

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    Using Rateable Value

    For the historian the existence of a richly differentiated housing market potentially offers a valuable tool in the plotting of social status for large samples. Most quantitative research on social class uses aggregates of occupation. Yet at best this likely offers only a crude measure (consider the ambiguous label builder, or even solicitor, some of whom were very wealthy indeed, but most of whom were not). Little empirical evidence exists to support the claim that census groupings by occupation were homogeneous with regard to social standing (Savage et al, 1992; Brewer, 1986). Moreover, contemporaries disagreed as to what constituted hierarchy through occupation. The government census at the end of our period ranked professionals (by prestige) above those in business. Others saw professionals as part of a ‘service class’, below employers but on a par with managers and administrators in terms of authority, or, alternatively, placed higher professionals and company directors on an equal footing, and above managers and executives (General Register Office, 1956; Dahrendorf, 1959; . Hall and Caradog Jones, 1950).

    The other indictor frequently used to place individuals hierarchically is probate (that is the wealth of an individual on death). Probate returns always undervalued the estates of women and industrialists. Moreover, they became increasingly unreliable indicators generally through the twentieth century as large scale tax avoidance took hold across the wealth range after death duty levels rose dramatically (from a top rate 15 per cent before 1914, to 40-50 per cent after 1918, and to 80 per cent after 1945) (Daunton, 2002; Horsman, 1975). Most people, too, owned too little for their ‘wealth’ to be captured by probate. Moreover, establishing a date of death for those not firmly in the public eye remains problematic.

    By contrast, domestic rates as a property tax was universally levied, easily traced and can be readily attributed to individuals as householders. As such a rateable valuation enables us to place occupiers into the city’s social hierarchy. Indeed, if we so wish, we can use the valuation as an ordinal numeric index rather a monetary enumerator. Within this data set valuations have been standardised at 1934 rates: convenient because by then the rent controls originating 1914-18 that distorted markets had largely been relaxed. Yet, if we simply think of the value as an index, the date of standardisation is largely irrelevant. On this scale, only some 1.5 per cent of city households then lived in properties with rateable value of £51 p.a. or over. By contrast, 59 per cent of all houses within the city boundary were valued at £10 p.a. or less (Figure 1), and a further 15 percent in properties valued at £11 or £12 p.a. (values at or below this level commonly equating to working-class housing at the time). The rateable value of a house related directly to the value of the property, it being its gross estimated rental, less an allowance for maintenance, repairs and insurance. Valuations took into account physical appearance – that is this distinction of embellishment beyond cost - as well as the size of house and its area location (salubriousness, amenities) (Hicks et al, 1944).

    Financially, expenditure on housing rentals or purchase was ‘highly income elastic’, varying directly at all levels of the income scale (Rubinstein, 1981). Nationally, total expenditure on housing at constant prices as a proportion of total consumer expenditure ran at stable levels from 1900 onwards (transwar periods excluded), rising from a little over eight per cent to nine per cent before the Great War, and settling at slightly over ten per cent in the1920s and 1930s. Allowing for adjustments for qualitative improvements in housing standards, in all but the short term a constant and self-correcting ratio existed between average house prices and average earnings (Bowley, 1937; Feinstein, 1972; Holmans, 1990).

    Levels of spending reflected life-style choices and occupational couplings. For the status driven middle-classes, say in the mid-1920s, housing expenditure typically accounted for a not inconsiderable 12½-17½ per cent of family consumption (Caradog Jones, 1927). The lower-middle class spent proportionately more of its income on housing – its principal symbol of respectability - than did those above or below, as it sought actively to differentiate itself from blue-collar workers. That home owners within the same income range spent a slightly larger proportion on their home than did renters should also be viewed as aspirant consumption, and as a physical investment in maintaining and improving their property and status.

    Table 1: Rateable Value against Class Nottingham, 1900-50 (1934 constant prices)
      Upper-Middle Class Middle-Middle Class Lower-Middle Class Skilled Working Class
     Mean  £103  £48  £19  £11
     Std Dev  £37.2  £14.9  £5.9  £4.1
     Highest Decile  £147  £68  £26  £16
     Upper Quartile  £117  £60  £22  £12
     Median  £97  £48  £20  £10
     Lower Quartile  £80  £36  £15  £9
     Lower Decile  £68  £30  £12  £8

    Table 1 offers a tabular representation of the relationship between class and housing in Nottingham, setting tentative boundaries between housing value and class membership. Thus for the upper-middle classes, who constituted say one per cent of the city’s population, occupied at the lower end properties valued at around the £70-80 pa mark, or roughly a large detached villa in the city’s exclusive Park enclave.

    The Park, Park Terrace, Nottingham, 1900-1910s
    (courtesy A. P. Knighton)

    The upper limit of lower-middle class housing occupation would similarly stand at around the £26-£28 pa mark, a small detached inter-war house, or more likely joining the ranks renting or owning a modest semi-detached Victorian villa or as likely mock-Tudor inter-war semi that increasingly surrounded British cities. Only in the upper/lower reaches of the class divides between skilled workers and the lower middle class do we see overlap and blur. That this occurs is not really surprising, reflecting as it did, the relative earning capacity of each group at its perimeters.

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    A Visual Morphology

    We can get a better understanding of the rateable index used if we refer to the indicative table of rateable values matching house type to valuation. The table also shows house constructed in the nineteenth and twenties centuries of roughly the same value.

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    Further Reading

    Burnett, J. (1978) A Social History of Housing 1815-1970 (London: Methuen).

    Bachlard, G. (1964) The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places (Boston: Beacon Press Trans).Bourdieu, P. (1986), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (London: Routledge Trans).

    Bowley, A.L. (1937), Wages and Income in the United Kingdom since 1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),

    Brewer, R. (1986), ‘A note on the changing status of the Registrar General’s classification of occupations’, British Journal of Sociology, 37, 131-40.

    Cannadine, D. (1993), ‘Victorian cities: how different?’, in R. Morris and R. Rodger, eds., The Victorian City: 1820-1914 (London: Longman), 114-48.

    Caradog Jones, D. (1928), ‘The cost of living for a sample of middle-class families’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 91, 463-51.

    Chapman, D. (1955), The Home and Social Status (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul).

    Dahrendorf, D. (1959) Class and Class Conflict in an Industrial Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

    Daunton, M. (2002) Just Taxes: The Politics of Taxation in Britain 1914-1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

    Dyos, H.J. (1961) Victorian Suburb: A Study in the Growth of Camberwell (Leicester: Leicester University Press).

    Edwards, K.C. (1977) ‘The Park Estate, Nottingham’, in M.A. Simpson and T.H. Lloyd (eds.), Middle Class Housing in Britain (Newton Abbot: David and Charles),

    Feinstein, C. H (1972) National Income, Expenditure and Output of the United Kingdom 1855-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

    Gold, J. and Gold, M. (1990) ‘‘‘A place of delightful prospects”: promotional imagery and the selling of suburbia,’ in L. Zonn (ed.), Place Images in Media: Portrayal, Experience and Meaning (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield), 159-83.

    Gunn, S. (2004), ‘Class, identity and the urban: the middle class in England, c. 1790-1950’, Urban History 31, 429-47.

    Hall, J. and Caradog Jones, D. (1950), ‘The social grading of occupations’, British Journal of Sociology 1, 31-55.

    Hayes, N. (2009), ‘Calculating Class: Housing, Lifestyle and Status in the Provincial English City, 1900–1950’, Urban History 36, 113-140.

    Hicks, J.R., Hicks, U.K. and Lesser, C.E.V. (1944) The Problem of Valuation for Rating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

    Holmans, A. E. (199) House Prices: Changes Through Time at the National and Sub-National Level (London: Department of the Environment).

    Horsman, E. G. (1975), ‘The avoidance of estate duty by gifts inter vivos: some quantitative evidence’, Economic Journal, 85, 516-30.

    Jackson, A. J. (1991), The Middle Classes 1900-1950 (Nairn: David St John Thomas).

    Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space (London: Blackwell Trans).

    McKibbin, R, (1998), Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press),

    Masey, P (1942), ‘The expenditure of 1,360 British middle-class households in 1938-39,’ Journal of Royal Statistical Society, 105, 159–196.

    Lewis. R. and Maude, A. (1950) The English Middle Classes (London: Pheonix).

    Pooley, C. (2000), ‘Patterns on the ground: urban form, residential structure and the social construction of space’, in M. Daunton (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain Volume III 1840-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 429-66.

    General Register Office (1956), Census 1951: Classification of Occupations (London: HMSO).

    Rubenstein, W. D. (1981) Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial revolution (New Brunswick: Rutgers University press).

    Richards, J.M. (1946), The Castles on the Ground: The Anatomy of Suburbia (London: The Architectural Press).

    Savage, M., Barlow, J. Dickens, P. and Fielding, A(1992) Property, Bureaucracy and Culture: Middle-Class Formation in Contemporary Britain (London: Routledge),

    Savage, M. (1993), ‘Urban history and social class: two paradigms’, Urban History 20, 61-77.

    Shurmer-Smith, P. and Hannan, K. (1994), Worlds of Desire, Realms of Power: A Cultural Geography (London: Edward Arnold).

    Thompson, F.M.L. (1988), The Rise of Respectable Society (London: Fontanna)

    Tosh, J. (1999), A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (Yale: Yale University Press).

    Weber, M. (1948), ‘Class, status, party’, in H. H. Gerth and C Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), 180-95.

    Whitehand J.W.R. and. Carr, C.M.H (2001), Twentieth-Century Suburbs: A Morphological Approach (London: Routledge).

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