July 22, 2021

It’s racing season in England, with the Goodwood Cup approaching, hot on the heels of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

June and July are when the horse racing calendar reaches its peak, carnivalesque events which illustrate one of the great curiosities of English life: how so many social patterns are U-shaped — popular with the toffs at the top and the plebs at the bottom, with not much interest in between.

The most eventful day in the racing calendar is Ladies Day at Ascot, a term that dates back to an anonymous poem written in 1823 which declared: “Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine.” Although this is the sport of kings, Ladies Day tends to be best known for the various drunken fights between women in expensive dresses, often while their menfolk lie passed out on the grass. This has become so frequent as to be almost part of English culture, like the Friday before Christmas where people are allowed to have a punch-up.

Horse racing sums up the point once made by the great Billy Connolly when he said: “The proper serious upper class are all fucking nuts and they are a great laugh. The working class are all fucking nuts and they are a great laugh. It’s just the middle that sucks. What I found when I was in the pub was the rich and the successful from millionaires’ row mixed very easily with the council house people — and it was the V-necked jumper Volvo mob who had the problem. They wondered why [the upper class] were talking to them fucking scrubbers.”

The Army is the classic example of an institution popular at both ends of the social spectrum, with public school-educated Ruperts in the officers’ mess and squaddies in the ranks, still heavily recruited from poorer areas. Except during two world wars, no one in my family, bred by hundreds of years of reading-related short-sightedness and bourgeoise cowardice, has ever considered the military. It would be almost inconceivable for someone in the middle of the English class system to do so.

But that has always been the case. The late medieval satire Le roman de Renart le contrefait observed that: “When the vassals must go to join the host, the bourgeois rest in their beds; when the vassals go to be massacred in battle, the bourgeois picnic by the river.”

Fighting was the original role of the aristocracy, and it was not until the 14th century that rich merchants like Michael de la Pole — whose father rather vulgarly made his money in wool rather than stabbing someone while riding a horse — began to enter the highest ranks. Even in modern conflict the nobility has made an outsized sacrifice, with the great public schools losing hugely disproportionate numbers in the First World War. (Old Etonians suffered twice the average casualty rate.)

Big families are another marker of class, with those at each end of the socio-demographic index having the highest fertility. True aristocrats, just like true proletariats, are also more likely to spend a great deal of time with family members, and they are both more likely to give their children wacky names, whether it’s Prince, Rara or Zenia.

Their surnames are often hard to tell apart, too. During the recent European Championship, Birmingham MP Jess Philips tweeted: “My youngest’s question for tonight ‘why do footballers never have double-barrelled names?’”

It was interpreted as being a statement on the England heroes’ proletarian origins, yet it was a strange thing to write without checking — because countless English footballers have double-barrelled names, to such an extent that it’s a cliché. Double-barrelled names are a classic example of the class U-curve.

Today horse racing remains the great class uniter, but once upon a time there were a whole variety of “sports” — essentially animal torture — enjoyed both by toffs and peasants. As Ian Mortimer recalls in his entertaining book on the Regency period, the Westminster dog pit, where hounds would rip various other animals to pieces, was tremendously popular with both the upper classes and poor; when Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, the future tsar, came to London he absolutely loved it.

Boxing was also a very upper-and-lower class sport, and fashionable gentleman known as “the Fancy” would attend London pugilist schools alongside scrawny cockneys. Poet Robert Southey said that “a boxing-match settles all disputes among the lower classes, and when it is over they shake hands, and are friends”, while the upper-class went for duelling instead.

Some aristocrats liked fighting so much they sought out the company of rough working men to give them a good scrap, among them Regency rake and eccentric, and Tory MP, “Mad” Jack Mytton. Mytton, a member of the Shropshire squirarchy, had attended Cambridge, where he drank 2,000 bottles of port and failed to graduate, before going on a Grand Tour and joining the Army. The perfect aristo.

Mytton was a great enthusiast of hunting, another popular sport among both ends of the spectrum, and when on one occasion a Welsh miner got in his way while out enjoying his favourite pastime, he dismounted and challenged him to a fight. The two men punched each other continually during 20 rounds of bare-knuckle boxing and when the Welshmen surrendered the Tory gave him 10 shillings for his trouble. A fun day was had by all.

Similarly, tattoos have historically been popular among aristocrats and the urban poor. Edward VII had a cross and George V a dragon, which he got while in the Navy, while Winston Churchill’s mother had a snake on her wrist. Tattoos are now ubiquitous and classless, but people’s social status can often still be marked out by fashion, an area where working-class men in their 20s have often aped the aristocratic look; the most famous case of this is Burberry, the brand which went from being a very Sloane Ranger/Country Life outfit to ubiquitous among football hooligans at one point.

But then perhaps the most obvious — and largely forgotten — product of upper-lower class cooperation is football itself. In Beastly Fury, his account of the birth of the national sport, Richard Sanders wrote how the football came about from a mixture of (extremely violent) public-school culture and peasant folk traditions. The game had been popular in medieval England, repeatedly banned as it invariably ended with disorder, until the custom was largely suppressed in the early Victorian period. (Remnants of the old game are still played in a few villages in England, if that’s your kind of thing.)

The aristocracy tolerated these anarchic events but the new industrialists were hostile, as were the trade unions, one union leader denouncing football as “barbarous recklessness and supreme folly”. They especially disliked how upper-class men would stand on the sidelines cheering it on as all great fun, one complaining “Your ‘Betters’ have been foremost in this fête, hallooing you like brute dogs to the strife”. Shrovetide football, often accompanied by widespread violence, was banned by middle-class campaigners who disliked the “barbarous and disgusting play of football”, as one called it.

But the rural poor loved it, as did the toffs, with variations of football surviving in the great public schools where “the ancient folk sport was given a new lease of life in the mid-nineteenth century when it came close to dying out among the common people”.

From the late 1830s there was a football scene at Cambridge University, the only problem being that all the public schools played different rules, some vastly so (Rugby especially). Football came to be pioneered by the likes of former Harrow schoolboys John and Charles Alcock, yet the real hotbed of the game was in Sheffield, home to the world’s oldest surviving football club; Sanders suggests that this was because the local folk game had lingered in this part of Yorkshire in the hill villages of Penistone, Thurlstone and Holmforth. “Association football was now essentially a fusion of the Charterhouse/Westminster-influenced game played in London and the more folk-influenced game that had emerged from Sheffield.”

Eventually football would become a heavily working-class sport, only becoming truly classless from the 1990s, but its origins lie in Connolly horseshoe theory. Unlike rugby, however, football didn’t split along class lines, because the upper-class FA were willing to accept professionalism, whereas the RFA refused, leading northern teams to form the Rugby League. Significantly, Sanders attributes this to the aristocratic confidence of football’s founders. “It may well be that this reflected the newer, lower-status public schools many of the men running rugby had attended,” he wrote, “they were less secure socially than the Eton and Harrow men who ran football and therefore less comfortable compromising.”

And this has always been the case. Aristocrats and poor can act like each other, dress like each other or indulge in the same pastimes, partly because no one is going to mistake them. As Scott Alexander explained in his seminal essay Right is the New Left, most fashions try to signal that someone is a notch above their real status, while avoiding giving the signal of being the status immediately under.

But you’re never going to be mistaken for someone several notches above or below. A few children now have double-barrelled names but one reason it has not proved so popular among progressive middle-class parents may be the signal; if you’re the first person in your family to go to university and you’re now middle class, no one is going to mistake you for a double-barrelled aristocrat who lives on an estate; but they may mistake you for a double-barrelled struggling single mum who lives on an estate.

We also tend to resent or dislike those closest to us in the pecking order. Despite the folksy image, Jess Phillips, like many prominent Labour MPs, comes from the comfortable ranks of the bourgeoisie, her mother having been a senior NHS administrator. Their hereditary class enemies are the traditionally Tory-voting members of the aristocracy and squirearchy just above them — the double-barrelled brigade — and many a political or journalistic worldview was formed by class resentments at Oxford and Cambridge, against those toffs from the Bullingdon Club. 

But while people are more likely to feel hostility to people immediately above or below them on the social spectrum, those more distant may feel either irrelevant or a curiosity. We don’t compare our lives to people unlike us, nor feel our status threatened. That might explain why people across the country continue to vote for the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, almost caricature Old Etonians, because they feel that like them, they are properly fucking nuts.