Thursday, 14 April 2011 11:29
Descended from coal miners, the family of royal bride-to-be Kate Middleton is held up in class-obsessed Britain as a shining example of social mobility.
Kate may have attended one of the most elite schools in England before going on to Scotland's most prestigious university, but the origins of the woman who will marry Prince William on April 29 are decidedly humble.
"The Middletons are really, really interesting because they offer an example of social mobility across the generations," said Professor Diane Reay, a sociologist at Cambridge University.
The Middletons' rise through the social ranks began in the mining village of Hetton-le-Hole, near Sunderland in northeast England.
Life was not easy for Kate's great-great-great-great-grandfather, James, who moved to the village from the nearby city of Newcastle in 1821 seeking work and found himself toiling underground in perilous conditions.
In 1918, Kate's great-grandfather on her maternal side, Thomas Harrison, made the decisive break, deciding he would never go down the pit. Instead, he trained as a carpenter and eventually settled in Southall, west London.
Her father's side of the family were solid citizens of 19th-century England: drapers, legal clerks and bank workers before, finally, in the mid-20th century, her grandfather Peter became first a Royal Air Force pilot and then flew airliners.
Kate's mother Carole met her father Michael while working as an air hostess. He worked for an airline's ground staff as, among other things, a dispatcher of aircraft.
Earlier in her relationship with the prince, it was rumoured that his aristocratic friends would whisper "doors to manual" when she entered the room -- the instruction a pilot gives to his crew after landing, and intended as a derogatory comment on her mother's former job.
Carole has had to contend with class-related barbs from the British press.
When she chewed gum at William's passing-out, or graduation, ceremony at the Sandhurst army officers' college four years ago, it was seized on as proof that her daughter was not "posh" enough to marry a prince.
Carole is also said to have asked for "the toilet" at a royal function, when an upper-class person would describe it as "the loo".
Together, Kate's parents founded a company, "Party Pieces", selling novelty items for weddings and children's parties by mail order.
Through hard work, they became pound millionaires and they chose to send Kate, her sister Pippa and brother James to an upmarket private primary, or prep, school and then to Marlborough College, one of the most exclusive schools in Britain with annual fees of £30,000 (34,000 euros, $49,000) a year.
Professor Reay says: "What Kate Middleton's parents did was to send her to very exclusive private schools.
"She moved from Downe House to Marlborough, which is even more exclusive, and really I think it's the private school system which unlike any other European country epitomises class and privilege."
While just seven percent of pupils in Britain attend private schools, 70 percent of the ministers in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government went to one.
That is why, when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg -- himself privately educated -- launched a government initiative on Tuesday to promote social mobility and the breaking down of class barriers, it was derided by the opposition Labour Party.
Attending a top private school "is the entree into our political and business elite. And it's the same as it was at the beginning of the century," Reay said.
But as Kate gazes down from the balcony at Buckingham Palace on to the thronged wellwishers on April 29, she can reflect that the journey her family made has got arguably harder for others, not easier.
"The Middletons did succeed very well in social mobility. Today it would be far more difficult," Reay said. (AFP)
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