Negotiating Lower-Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain: The Leicester Young Men's Christian Association, 1870-1914

Article excerpt

Young male office and shop clerks occupied a precarious social and economic position on the margins of respectable middle-class Victorian society. Their status was compromised by the reality of their occupational experience; frequently subject to the paternalistic control of their employers some clerks came to question their claim to masculinity. H.G. Wells never forgot his early experiences as a shop assistant, recalling with horror his loss of independence and dignity. (1) In fact, manipulative paternalism stripped them of their identity and denied them full adulthood. (2) Even married clerks' masculinity was undermined by their "complicity in suburban domesticity." (3) "Born a man, died a clerk" was a cruel but effective insult directed at a vulnerable occupational and social set. Certainly there is much evidence in the middle-class fiction of the late-nineteenth century to support the stereotype of the pathetic, emasculated shop assistant as, for example, a "counter-jumper." However, as A. James Hammerton suggests in his work on the lower-middle-class companionate marriage, such strident criticism of the lower-middle-class husband reflects as much about middle-class fears as it explains lower-middle-class life. (4)

This paper reconstructs the lower-middle-class experience by examining its members as social agents, as participants in daily cultural life, rather than by assessing society's perceptions and representations of them. Through a discussion of lower-middle-class men's efforts to regulate their own leisure experience it can be demonstrated that they were not always as meek and dependent, and unmanly, as has been assumed. Specifically, by examining the development of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in one provincial city, Leicester, and by focusing in particular on the conflict between the YMCA's patrons and its members, it is possible to conclude that young men were engaged in a struggle to construct their own masculine identity. Ironically, young lower-middle-class men, often represented in the popular press and in the popular imagination as effeminate, employed consumerism, popularly known to compromise masculinity, to shape a voluntary association more to their liking. (5) This suggests that the role of the male as consumer was contested and multi-form, not monolithic. (6) While some forms of shopping could be particularly damaging to a man's masculinity, men could consume leisure opportunities in order to reinvent their public masculine identity.

The YMCA was arguably the most important and visible of institutions catering to the spiritual, physical, and mental needs of young men. (7) According to its benefactors the YMCA saved young clerks from indolence, selfishness, gambling, drink, and impurity. (8) The YMCA served to help young men resist these temptations in a brotherhood of manliness; the association trained young men to be "strong, manly, true, good, upright, trying to help the younger or weaker chaps, and keep them in the right way." (9) This transformation in the role of the YMCA is generally well-known, the forces promoting it less so. This study focuses on the checkered history of the Leicester YMCA and argues that its ultimate popularity was the result of a process of negotiation between the middle-class patrons who were responsible for establishing and operating the association, and those young office and shop employees the association was attempting to instruct. Significantly, these young men learned, through such associational politics, that as consumers they were in a position to influence their terms of engagement in associational activity and exercise some degree of social authority. In Leicester the struggle culminated in a heated confrontation between rival YMCA factions over a motion to purchase a billiard-table. This "affair of the billiard-table" symbolized the victory of the "reformers" within the Leicester YMCA general committee, the association's executive body; the reformers accepted the members' calls for the delivery of enhanced recreational opportunities. …