Class: For Sammy the difference between being working class and middle class was a university degree. For Mike, the difference was a few million quid. They discuss the experience of moving up a class with Beverley Hopwood

Beverley Hopwood
Wednesday 17 April 1996 23:02

Sammy Palfrey, 46, is a project development worker in the voluntary sector and lives with her husband, Michael, in Perivale, London. She was brought up in a council house with her two brothers and two sisters.

Sammy now lives on a boat in Perivale. They're there temporarily after selling their four-bedroomed Victorian semi in Acton and will shortly be moving to their cottage in Yorkshire.

My problems began when I won a scholarship at 11 to a private girls' school a few miles away from the council estate in Staines, Middlesex where I lived.

From the start the teachers' attitude towards me was how lucky and privileged I was, even though my brains got me there. Dad, who's dead now, was a lorry driver and didn't earn that much money so some of my uniform was second-hand, which drew comments. The other girls' lives were a world apart from mine - things like a couple of skiing holidays a year and private ice-skating lessons.

We had deportment and elocution lessons, and I was encouraged to have extra elocution because of my Cockney accent. It was very alienating and I couldn't work out at 11 what the point of it was. The kids on my estate called me a snob, so I was cut off from my past really. On top of this was the terrible guilt that Mum had to work every day as a cleaner to pay for school stuff like my hockey stick. Mum was the ambitious one for me. I felt I let her down when I left the school at 15 to go to a Secondary Modern, but I was desperately unhappy. I was ridiculed there as a snob because of my better education and I sat on my backside until I left because it was going over the work I'd done in the first and second year. I left with three 0-levels.

Nursing was seen as a very good job for a working-class girl and I trained at 18. When I was 20, I met Michael, my husband, who was at college and now owns a graphic design business. I was very in love with him but in some ways marriage was an escape route. His father has a working-class background and had become a millionaire during the war developing dry- cleaning outlets. They had a huge house in the country and were always away on their yacht. Michael held wonderful weekend parties and his lifestyle represented a freedom I'd never known. We had our wedding reception in my parents' council house with food like pineapple and cheese on cocktail sticks and I remember feeling very awkward.

Until my late thirties I suffered on and off with depression, related I think to my sense of not belonging and low self-esteem. Because I was brought up at school to know success depended on how you spoke and behaved, and that it made it harder to get on without this, with my own children Anna, 19, and Ben, 21, I did things like always pulling them up on their grammar. They both had piano and violin lessons and I shopped around for a good comprehensive. I'm ashamed to admit I wasn't as accepting of their friends from working-class homes because I didn't want them to be drawn away from wanting to go on to university. It was ridiculous panic on my part, a feeling of inferiority and thinking, "I'm still working class, therefore my kids are too". I just wanted them to have an easier time than I'd had.

I changed a lot after I went to West London Poly, now Thames University, at 37. It was three wonderful years of learning and I got a first-class English Honours. It gave me an enormous confidence. People might say a degree is a meaningless piece of paper, but it's easier to say when you have one. I had my silly photo done with my graduation hat for my mum, a way of saying "I'm sorry but I did it in the end - for you and for me".

Education has widened the gap between me and my mum and brothers and sisters. They're a bit in awe because they think - wrongly - that I'm brighter than them and I do relate better intellectually to my more middle- class friends. But I feel more myself when I'm with my family. There are things I grew up with that I still love - pub life, darts, egg and chips, and my background has helped me in my work.

I've turned full circle now and sometimes I'm accused of the Working- Class-And-Proud-Of-It mentality. In a way I had to become "middle class" - to get my degree and a job with social standing - to feel proud of my roots.

Mike Norton, a 37-year-old businessman, grew up in a two-up, two-down terrace in Hull but now lives with his partner in a pounds 250,000, eight-bedroomed house a few miles away.

I can't think of a time class had an impact on my life. It never occurred to me that I couldn't do what I wanted in life. It's all about vision and ability. I grew up in a terraced house in Hessle [Humberside] with my younger brother, Peter, who's now a plumber, and my parents, Ted and Pam. Dad always wanted to be a cabinet maker but his parents didn't have the money to pay for his apprenticeship. He later took up lorry driving, which he loved, but he used to come home exhausted. I do, too, these days - and jetlagged - but the difference is I can put money in the bank and I don't intend working until I'm 65.

Thinking back, Mum and Dad made lots of sacrifices, even for simple things like camping holidays in Bridlington. We never went abroad. I remember feeling resentful once when they couldn't afford the racer bike I wanted and Dad got loads of spare parts, painted them and built me this bike. God knows how much work he put in, but I was annoyed it was second-hand. At the comprehensive I went to there was a real cross-section of pupils. I was aware friends had better cars, bigger houses, but it didn't worry me. Not for one minute did I think I wouldn't have these things in the future. To me there was this whole world waiting.

I did four A-levels and was the first in the family to stay on after 16. Mum and Dad always encouraged me but I know I made it hard on them because I wasn't earning full-time. My first job was a solid white-collar job in an insurance company but it was mind-numbing. I then went to work for Mars in sales, selling canned meat and instant mashed potato, which was great because I learnt a lot. At 25, I was earning pounds 26,000 - more money than I knew how to spend.

But what motivates me isn't money, it's a new challenge. In 1987, I opened a fresh pasta factory with two friends. It grew very quickly and as we undercapitalised there wasn't the money for the pounds 7m new factory we needed. We got bought out in 1991 by Geest. Geest asked me to build up a new pineapple business in Costa Rica, which is what I am doing now.

At the time of the pasta factory opening there was a royal tour in Hull and we were invited for drinks on board the royal yacht Britannia. Mum and Dad came and my Auntie Nora. I've got a photo of them talking to Prince Philip who was a seriously nice man, no airs and graces. They were so, so proud.

Two years ago I bought a three-storey, eight-bedroomed house with an acre of garden, a few miles from my parents. In marketing terms I suppose I'm middle to upper-middle class, but personally I feel classless.

I can happily mix with people from different backgrounds and I find the idea of me at an elocution lesson laughable. Some of my friends are very wealthy, some aren't. Most are from school. One, for instance, is an electrician and another is a former ship's pipe fitter. I don't think the traditional class boundaries exist now - we're more tribal and mix with people with similar likes and dislikes, lifestyles and principles.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in