In the Victorian era, there was a distinct division among the populace of Great Britain: a working-class and a middle class. The working class held jobs that were menial and labour-intensive, such as running machinery, street sweeping, or mining. Many members of the working class lived in poverty with few employment opportunities available to them. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this situation is vividly illustrated by Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. In the novel, young orphaned boys are forced into gruelling factory work for meagre pay—if they’re lucky enough to receive any money at all.
In contrast to those who belonged to the working class, there was also a sizable population from which many identified as part of the middle class. These individuals were typically clerical or commercial workers, professionals, and members of the gentry.
As imperialism expanded across the globe, more opportunities arose for those within the middle class to contribute to society in ways other than clerical work. The British Empire sought out foreign lands and peoples to expand its territory and power throughout Europe and Asia. To do so, Great Britain required a vast army of individuals who were capable of performing all types of tasks: from highly skilled occupations such as engineering and medicine to menial work such as manual labour and supply distribution. This led to an influx of employment prospects that were not available before—the average working-class individual could no longer compete with this new availability of jobs that paid well enough for many middle-class citizens to leave their professions and join the ranks of the working class. This created a new dynamic: middle-class citizens had more employment opportunities and were able to work in an array of roles, whereas the working class was reduced to only those jobs that were necessary for supporting Great Britain’s expansive empire.
This phenomenon led to increased social mobility for some members of British society while marginalizing others. Young men who would otherwise have been forced into gruelling factory work managed to earn dignified, respectable positions within Great Britain’s imperialistic system. On the other hand, some individuals from the working class experienced downward social mobility as they were unable to compete with middle-class citizens who sought out these lucrative job opportunities. Thus ensued a vast division between members of the working and middle class, as the latter consolidated their power and opportunities for social mobility while the former was reduced to performing only menial labour.