When Did Britain’s Age of Deference End – and Why?

An old-fashioned feature of a fusty, inegalitarian past, when did the British stop knowing their place?

Queen Mary being cheered by a crowd of workers at William Doxford & Sons Ltd, Sunderland, 15 June 1917. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Public Domain.

‘We need to ask how much deference there actually was’

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University

I have my own tale of deference. My great-aunt May, the daughter of a train driver, was once proposed to by a member of the Herefordshire gentry. She turned him down, on the grounds that he was out of her class. Told this as a child, I was astounded. Even then, this sort of response seemed out of date. Yet I have subsequently wondered whether more complexities were involved in this episode than appeared. My great-aunt had worked as a hospital sister with the army, coping easily it seems with crowded wards and intemperate officers. Was it just the prospect of landed acres and cut-glass accents that sapped her considerable confidence? Or, as one of a family of nine, did she perhaps not want to marry at all?

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