The middle classes and the future of London

November 16, 2001

The gentrification of parts of inner London which began as early as the 1960s is taking on an increasingly diverse pattern as different areas develop an identity of their own and expand choice for the middle classes. This can be seen in areas as different as Docklands and Brixton, London Fields and Battersea, Barnsbury and a part of New Cross.

New research by Dr Tim Butler on the middle classes and the future of London, which is part of the £3m+ Cities Programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), underlines that gentrification is here to stay and that diversity of middle class settlements reflects the growing divisions within the middles classes themselves.

Income and social origin are two factors which give rise to growing identities. In Barnsbury, in the Islington area, and long established in the middle class stakes, residents have the highest incomes and the most elevated backgrounds in the six areas that Dr Butler surveyed. But the main difference between these places is lifestyle and this plays a growing part in the choice of where to live. People pick an area because they want to be with people like themselves when they are going to be living in an area where they are going to be part of a minority. In Brixton, where social groups rub alongside each other, and there is lots of entertainment, the lifestyle is very different to the Telegraph Hill middle class enclave next to the deprivation of New Cross and Deptford.

The research conducted in Brixton, Barnsbury, Battersea, Telegraph Hill, London Fields and Docklands (Isle of Dogs, Surrey Quays, Britannia Village) confirms that the once fragile gentrification of working class areas of inner London has given way to a more permanent, albeit minority, middle class presence.

The single, childless household of the early gentrifiers has given way to the now dominant dual earner household. Nearly 40 per cent of these households have children living at home. Education is naturally a major concern and parents' solutions on secondary schooling in particular are remarkably similar. Children are educated almost entirely in schools outside their catchment area and often in another borough. Their friends are made largely at school, many of the schools being in the private sector. This is a process which underpins the almost complete lack of socialising between middle and working classes in all of the areas.

In Telegraph Hill, parents have a sophisticated strategy for choosing the secondary school which is sustained by very strong social networks within their class and support from the primary school. Private secondary schools are mostly chosen by Telegraph Hill parents which is surprising given that household income here is at the lower end of the gentrified areas' scale and many parents work in the public sector.

Barnsbury, one of the early gentrified areas, has parents who were largely outside the majority secondary schools. About 80 per cent of respondents in this area had attended a fee paying or selective school, and a quarter had gone on to Oxbridge. London Fields, which has a mixed social class background and identifies more with the working class ethic of surrounding Hackney, has the highest proportion of former pupils who went to direct grant schools. London Fields is socially the most similar to Telegraph Hill but very different in that "there is no drawbridge and no huddling together as middle class insiders". Many residents claimed they did not want to move to more established areas even when they could afford such a move. But very few respondents in any of the survey areas were involved in the civic life of their wider communities, as magistrates or councillors, for instance.

Brixton turns out to be the most different in many respects to the others where the middle classes play their part in "the uncertain, unpredictable but socially necessary experiment of coming to terms with the kinds of novel social structure and interactions being thrown up by globalisation processes". It has "a chaotic vibrancy and unpredictable immediacy of its own", where social exclusion is managed in ways which are not so apparent in more obviously gentrified areas.

In other respects, the Docklands areas represent the sharpest differences with other middle class settlements. Here, people want convenient urban living which makes minimum demands on them. For most, convenience to work, minimum maintenance and low social obligation are what matters.
For further information, contact Dr Tim Butler, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, Tel: 0208 223 2768, mobile: 07850 285504 or email

Or contact Julie Robertson, Lesley Lilley or Karen Emerton in ESRC External Relations on 01793 413032, 413119 or 413122.


1. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and government. The ESRC invests more than £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is

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3. 'Mind the Gap', the ESRC's 5th National Social Science Conference will take place at the QEII Conference Centre in London on Wednesday 15 November. The role of social science in policymaking, the democratic deficit, direct action and political parties; the provision of services; the changing role of trade unions and personnel departments will be under the spotlight. Key speakers include broadcasters Jon Snow and Jonathan Freedland, Doug Parr (Greenpeace), Stephen Thornton (NHS Confederation), Tim Martin (Rail Regulator), Professor Julian Le Grand, Professor Betsy Stanko, and Professor John Ermisch. For further information contact David Ridley, External Relations, ESRC. Telephone 01793 413118.

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