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Identifying the Victorian middle class

2013 September 23
by lucinda matthews-jones

By Guy Woolnough

At BAVS this year, Lucinda Matthews-Jones raised an interesting point about how we define class. How useful or sound is it to typify a person as ‘middle class’? What could that mean, when the individuals who might be so described are such a diverse group in every respect? Education, income, profession, respectability are so subjective and variable that they must be of poor value in any attempt to construct an objective assessment of the middle class status of any group, or even of any individual. The term ‘middle class’ becomes even more protean when one factors in mobility across time, and respectability which cuts across all class boundaries. In this essay, I shall examine one upper middle class gentleman and show that he was not quite the gentleman he claimed to be.

Some people and categories appear to be safely, solidly and respectably upper middle class. Take for example Victorian chief constables, a new career in Victorian Britain that nonetheless fitted seamlessly into the existing county hierarchies. The secondary sources report that chief constables were almost invariably from a ‘gentry’ background, or had had successful careers in senior command in the army or navy.[i] Sir John Dunne fitted the stereotype. Dunne was chief Constable of the Cumberland and Westmorland Constabulary from its inception in 1857 until his retirement in 1902. He stated that he came from a good and ancient Irish family, which included generals, MPs, bishops and high sheriffs. He had been educated in France and Dublin University.[ii] In 1868 Dunne married the wealthy heiress Mary Barnes, granddaughter of John Ismay of the White Star line, which made Dunne himself wealthy. Dunne was typical of high office holders: a good marriage, more than comfortably wealthy, knighted in 1897 and Deputy Lieutenant of Cumberland when he retired.[iii] He had the status deemed necessary for the holder of the office of Chief Constable and Dunne was able to describe himself as ‘Senior Chief Constable in the Kingdom’ because, at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, Dunne made a presentation to the Queen on behalf of the police of England and Wales. Not only was he the longest serving chief constable, he was very highly regarded, for he was pre-eminent in many of the important debates on policing. His methods and opinions were generally regarded as effective and successful.

Dunne was a great self-publicist. When he was appointed, the Directory of the two counties published a lengthy report on the new Constabulary. Such was the detail included in this report that I believe it was written by Dunne himself, for his appointment was explained in these terms:

eighty two candidates offered themselves, including officers of the army and navy, civil officers and private gentlemen. J. Dunne, Esq. was unanimously elected, and subsequently appointed by the secretary of state.[iv]

In this paragraph Dunne has linked himself with the eminent middle classes and has subtly suggested that he is their social equal. Many of the gentry who held the post of chief constable were ‘little more than “gifted amateurs” and in some case not so gifted’[v] but Dunne did not just appear to be from the right social stratum, he was also a highly successful professional.

However, despite his claims, Dunne had not come from a good middle class background. His family was not affluent; his father had owned a small woollen mill in Ireland. He was Catholic and not university educated. Dunne left Ireland aged fourteen, and started his police career in that year as a constable in Manchester in 1840.[vi] This places the teenage Dunne firmly in the working classes, doing a menial job with pay well under a pound a week. There can be no doubt that he was talented for he rose rapidly in his career.

Table: John Dunne’s police career[vii]
Manchester 1840-1841 Constable
Essex 1841-1848 Constable and Inspector
Bath 1848-1850 Inspector
Kent 1850-1851 Superintending Constable
Norwich 1851-1854 Chief Constable
Newcastle upon Tyne 1854-1856 Superintendent (chief)
Cumberland & Westmorland 1856-1902 Chief Constable

I have been able to find just one clue to his humble origins in his work as Chief Constable. On several occasions, Dunne ordered his men not to arrest the drunk and disorderly, but to issue a summons instead in order to avoid aggravating the disturbance and the risk of injury.[viii] I link this order to the experience of the teenage Dunne who would have often dealt with difficult drunks in Manchester and Essex. He must have been rare amongst chief constables in knowing what it was like to police the streets at night.

Although Dunne was not born into the middle classes, his effectiveness as a leader is clear from the letters and orders he sent out, from the evidence he gave to Parliament and from his contribution to national debates. He first spoke at the national level in 1852 when, aged 27, he gave evidence to Select Committee on Police.[ix] One notices that whenever Parliament requested information from Chief Constables, Dunne invariably was the one of the greatest contributors in length, and in quality always amongst the best. He spoke well in public and was considered an expert on issues such as vagrancy. Ribton-Turner, who wrote a lengthy volume on the history of vagrancy praised what he called the Cumberland system of appointing constables as relieving officer, which Turner said Dunne had originated.[x] This was not true for the system had been in use in many places long before Dunne started his police career, but such was Dunne’s skill at self-promotion that Turner gave him the credit. When foot and mouth struck in the 1860s, Dunne pioneered the system that was used as recently as 2001 to eliminate the disease in the UK. This was also termed the Cumberland and Westmorland system.[xi]

Dunne was keen to associate himself with the county elite. One of the only letters in the archives written in his own hand was to Lord Lonsdale in 1872 and was signed off with the words:

Believe me to be, my Dear Lord, Keeping my time for your service J Dunne[xii]

In 1895, the next Lord Lonsdale, the premier aristocrat of Cumbria, invited the Kaiser to his estate at Lowther Castle. After this politically controversial visit was over, Dunne wrote to his men a congratulatory order. There is one word that strikes me as particularly significant: ‘personal’.

On the occasion of my personal interview with His Majesty [the Kaiser] at Lowther…[xiii]

The Kaiser visited Lowther again, as did the Prince of Wales and the Tsar, and every visit occasioned personal thanks from the great man to Chief Constable Dunne. Not only did he puff himself up, Dunne was so keen to associate himself with Lord Lonsdale that he spoke publicly in 1900 to endorse Claude Lowther, the Conservative election candidate and a junior member of the family. Following this act, which contravened the rules on police political neutrality, Dunne was heavily censured, and not only by Lowther’s Liberal opponents.[xiv]

John Dunne was a talented high-flyer whose success was recognised and who merited the honours he received. What is interesting is that he concealed his humble origins and presented himself as middle class by carefully constructing an appropriate family background and education. Dunne’s career shows the ambiguities of class: although he was able to rise from a humble working class background to achieve high office, rank and reputation, he covered up his origins and cultivated the acquaintance of the aristocracy. He aspired to be middle class and to rub shoulders with the ‘great and the good’, but was unable to celebrate his ability and achievement allowed him to reach that status from a humble beginning.


[i] Hart, J., 1956. The County and Borough Police Act, 1856. Public Administration, 34(4), pp. 405-417; Philips, D., 1977. Crime and authority in Victorian England : the Black Country, 1835-1860,p.64; Reiner, R., 1991. Chief constables: bobbies, bosses or bureaucrats. OUP., pp.47-8; Steedman, C., 1984. Policing the Victorian community : the formation of English provincial police forces, 1856-80, p15.

[ii] Bryant, A., 2013. John Dunne, Chief Constable Xtraordianire. Police History Society Journal, 27 (June 2013).

[iii] Black, A. and Black, C., 1916. Who was who. 8 vols…vol 2 a companion to Who’s who, containing the biographies of those who died 1897-1915, p.215

[iv] Whellan, W., 1860. The history and topography of the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland. Pontefract: Whellan.

[v] Wall, D.S., 1998. The chief constables of England and Wales the socio-legal history of a criminal justice elite. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp4 &108-17.

[vi] Dunne’s year of birth according to the census and Who’s Who was 1825. There is some doubt about this. (Bryant 2013)

[vii] Parliamentary Papers, 1852a. First report from the Select Committee on Police; with the minutes of evidence. 1852b. Second report from the Select Committee on Police; together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, and appendix; Newcastle Courant: 18 Aug 1854 p4

[viii] SCons 1/4 & 114, 1857-1897. General Orders from the Chief Constable.

[ix] Parliamentary Papers, 1852a. 1852b.

[x] Ribton-Turner, C.J., 1972; (first published 1887). A history of vagrants and vagrancy, and beggars and begging. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith.

[xi] The Times, 7th June 1866. Carlisle Patriot, 16th February 1877, p. 6. The Times, 30th October 1880. Newcastle Courant, 15th February, 1884, p. 7.

[xii] DLons/L 1/2/129/59 Lowther correspondence, Dunne to Lord Lowther, 4 Nov 1872

[xiii] SCons 1/4 & 114, 1857-1897. General Orders from the Chief Constable.

[xiv] Emsley, C., 1996. The English police a political and social history, pp.110-1. Ironically, Hugh Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, was a reprobate who squandered the family wealth and was in no way a person to emulate. I need say nothing of the Kaiser’s reputation. Sutherland, D., 1965. The yellow earl; the life of Hugh Lowther, 5th earl of Lonsdale, K. G., G. C. V. O., 1857-1944.

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