Business and social mobility into the British elite 1870-1914

James Foreman-Peck, Julia A. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a business-dominated society entrepreneurship supposedly ensures that the elite is forever changing. As more productive businesses expand and the less productive contract, new business leaders emerge and economic growth is maintained. More rapid economic growth may also be accompanied by greater mobility into the elite. Conversely any failure of business vigour can contribute to social rigidity. Low or falling social elite mobility may lead to a stagnation of ideas and attitudes, a deterioration in the quality of society's leaders, retarding economic growth and development. The British economy between 1870 and 1914 was a unique combination of free enterprise market relations superimposed upon traditional land-owner politics. According to one contested view, a landed class supposedly promoted gentry values throughout society, particularly embracing those upwardly mobile through business, and sapping their economic vitality. At the same time Britain began to experience 'the rise of the professions' in both private and public sectors, where competitive exams rather than preferment became increasingly important. Greater social mobility was possible because of the stronger demand for the services of these people. This paper adjudicates between the opposed views of social mobility into the British elite in the later Victorian and Edwardian periods. In so doing it uncovers some of the sources and constraints upon social success for those not born into the upper echelons of society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)485-518
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of European Economic History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • social mobility
  • upward mobility
  • social classes
  • business community
  • economic history


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