Our Leaders Seem Hell-Bent on Crushing Social Mobility. Thank God the Middletons of This World Refuse to Be Kept Down; SATURDAY ESSAY

Daily Mail (London), November 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Our Leaders Seem Hell-Bent on Crushing Social Mobility. Thank God the Middletons of This World Refuse to Be Kept Down; SATURDAY ESSAY


Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook

KATE MIDDLETON makes an unlikely symbol of social mobility. Born to millionaire parents, sent to a private school charging almost [pounds sterling]30,000 a year and educated at Scotland's most prestigious university, Prince William's fiancee has wanted for little during her charmed time on earth.

And yet, despite the expensive clothes and rich friends, Kate's background tells a compelling story about the growth of social mobility over the past century.

And while the House of Windsor may command the glamour and prestige, it is the rather more modest House of Middleton that really reflects what has happened to Britain during the democratic age.

The story of Kate's family should cheer the spirits of those of us who believe Britain should be a land of opportunity, where individual merit and hard work matter more than birth and breeding.

It begins a long way from the gilded rooms of Buckingham Palace, in the humble mining village of Hetton-le-Hole, near Sunderland. It was there, in 1820, that the Hetton Coal Company sank its first mineshaft, hoping to profit from the Industrial Revolution's craving for coal.

A year later, a young man called James Harrison arrived in Hetton from Newcastle looking for work. He was Kate Middleton's great-great-great-great-grandfather.

At that moment in 1821, Prince William's regal ancestors were enjoying a rather different lifestyle. For while James Harrison spent his life toiling underground in the horrifically dark and dangerous conditions of the pit, William's great-great-great-great-great-uncle George IV was spending the equivalent of [pounds sterling]4million a year on wine and mistresses, becoming so fat he could barely stand.

Had anyone told George that one day a future monarch would be engaged to James Harrison's direct descendant, the King would certainly have needed a drink.

For those were the days when royalty married only its own: to most people, a royal union with hoi polloi would have been unthinkable.

Kate's ancestors were not all miners, of course. Some were bakers, joiners, hatters and charwomen -- the quiet, unsung, industrious people who were the backbone of Victorian Britain, ordinary working-class people who never had a welfare state to support them, who lived in terror of illness or accident, but were proud of their efforts and their place in society.

In the meantime, though, the Harrisons remained a mining family. Both James's son John and his grandson, also John, were miners, their horizons circumscribed by their tiny terrace house, the pit, the pub and the chapel -- familiar landmarks of working-class industrial England.

But in 1918, Kate's greatgrandfather, Thomas Harrison, did something unexpected. He determined that he would never go down the pit.

Instead, he moved up the professional ladder and became an apprentice carpenter -- and the Harrisons' rise to middleclass respectability began. Thomas Harrison's decision could hardly be more representative of the changes sweeping over 20th-century Britain.

As the product of Co. Durham mining stock, he would have been familiar with the rise of trades unions and the advent of the Labour Party as a major political force.

Just six years after the end of World War I, Britain even had its first Labour prime minister in Ramsay MacDonald.

As the illegitimate son of a Scottish farm labourer and a housemaid, MacDonald was a compelling symbol of social mobility in his own right.

AS THE old Victorian establishment began to break up, middleclass ranks were swelled with hard-working and self-consciously respectable new arrivals from the supposedly lower orders.

New suburbs, with their neat rows of semi-detached houses, testified to the expansion of Middle England.

Indeed, it was in one of those suburbs -- Ealing, West London -- that Thomas Harrison settled with his wife Elizabeth ten years later. …

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