Portonian Respectability: Working-Class Attitudes to Respectability in Port Adelaide through Material Culture, 1840–1900

01st June 2006

Susan Briggs

PhD, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, August 2005

During the nineteenth century the working class in Australia and Britain developed an ideology of respectability. At its core respectability was about dignity and the value of productive labour and as a bare minimum a man had to be able to independently support his wife and children without recourse to charity. From this basis other components could be added: temperance in the consumption of alcohol and tobacco and being able to keep a wife at home are two examples. Respectability can also be seen as the negotiation of others’ good moral opinion through one’s interpretation of the necessary displays of behaviour and material culture. In this respect the concept is not far removed from middle class gentility and indeed some of the displays were similar, the woman’s place in the home, for example. Despite these similarities historians have argued that respectability and gentility were not the same and that the former was not an emulation of the latter, a viewpoint taken by the current research. Of further consideration in the formulation of this study was the concern historians, in particular Peter Bailey (1979), have regarding the consistency with which the working class displayed respectability. Bailey believes that respectability was a ploy used by the working class to enhance their position during interclass encounters. This study was therefore interested in whether evidence for respectability could be found in the home. By examining the private domain, rather than the public, a sense of how integrated respectability was in the lives of Port Adelaide’s working class can be achieved.

As a means of determining whether or not respectability was being displayed in Port Adelaide’s homes four themes were chosen. These themes were selected as being indicative of attempts to conform to the ideology of respectability, while also having the potential to leave archaeological evidence one way or the other. The first theme selected was temperance to be viewed through the alcohol- and tobacco-related artefacts. The second theme was the role of the wife in the home, her formulation of the home environment through ornaments and whether there was evidence for her participating in paid labour within the home through sewing-related objects. The third theme was attitudes towards children, as viewed through the toys and ceramics for children. The fourth and final theme selected was attitudes towards meal times as viewed through the faunal remains, condiment bottles and ceramics. Analysis of these themes was applied to artefact assemblages retrieved from two excavations. The first investigated tenanted cottages on Quebec Street. For a comparison the second excavation focused on two cottages on Jane Street, owned and occupied by the Farrow and McKay families.

This analysis has revealed that residents from each of the three sites chose to participate in the ideology of respectability to different extents. For the residents of Quebec Street such displays had little meaning, while for the McKay and Farrow families the evidence suggests they were conforming to the ideology to a large extent. The application of the ideology, however, was not a smooth process and this thesis identifies and explores areas where the ideology of respectability came into conflict with previously held views.


Bailey, P. 1979 Will the real Bill Blanks please stand up?: Towards a role analysis of mid-Victorian working-class respectability. Journal of Social History 12(3):336-353.

Susan Briggs
Portonian Respectability: Working-Class Attitudes to Respectability in Port Adelaide through Material Culture, 1840–1900
June 2002
Thesis Abstracts
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