The phrase the great unwashed is a pejorative appellation of the lower classes by the middle and upper classes.
However, in the Preface to The Great Unwashed (London, 1868), “a book treating of life among the working classes”, the English historian and antiquarian Thomas Wright (1810-77) wrote that, at the very least, the lower classes appropriated this appellation:
I am not sufficiently well versed in the history of stock phrases to know who invented the one of “the great unwashed.” But however it originated, or in whatever spirit it was first applied as a description of the working classes, certain it is that it is a most expressive one—one the aptness of which none recognise more readily than the working classes themselves; and, indeed, it is just possible that it may be a paraphrase of their own saying, that a working man is one who has black hands to earn white money. It exactly embodies the working-class idea of themselves, excluding, as it does, not only the “counter-skipper”1 class, whom the great unwashed regard (unjustly perhaps) as their inferiors, but also professional men, merchants, M.P.s, and others who, though claiming to be, and in the literal sense really being, working men, are by the unwashed workers looked upon as “swells.”
1 The word counter-skipper (literally one who skips over a counter) is a pejorative appellation of a shopman or shopkeeper’s assistant.
The earliest instance of the great unwashed that I have found is from several English and Irish newspapers, which, on Thursday 22nd January 1829, reprinted an article first published the previous Monday in The Dublin Evening Mail (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland), about the departure of Henry William Paget (1768-1854), 1st Marquess of Anglesey, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from February 1828 to January 1829—the following, for example, is from The Standard (London, England):
Dublin. Jan. 19.—[…] The departure, and the necessity of at least a numerous attendance, was yesterday preached at all the mass houses in the metropolis and its neighbourhood; while ostentatious placards were posted along the roads in every direction around the city, calling upon the friends of “civil and religious liberty,” […] to aid, by their presence, and grace by their numbers, the procession intended to accompany the Most Noble the Marquis of Anglesey from the Castle of Dublin to the water side! Notwithstanding all these incitements the appearance up to the hour at which we write is miserable beyond our capability of expression.
We have just returned from a walk through part of Dame-street, and such a congregation of foul and fœtid smell—such a composition of the “great unwashed” has not been exhibited in this metropolis within our recollection. If it were possible to have brought together all the rabble and nastiness of Ireland into one spot, we did not imagine such a set could be found as at this time occupied Dame-street, and all the lanes and avenues leading thereto. The comparison between them and the regiment of scarecrows with which Falstaff flatly refused to “march through Coventry,”2 would be infinitely to the disadvantage of the fat knight’s troops. Indeed we heard many respectable gentlemen declare their pity of his excellency that he should, by this last of parting indiscretion, have contributed to the collecting together of such an assemblage, to the disgrace of the metropolis.
To any one acquainted with the composition of an Irish mob, it was easy to see that this was one of the most filthy ever congregated.
2 This is an allusion to Act 4, scene 2, of The History of Henry the Fourth, Part One, by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616); Falstaff dislikes the idea of marching through Coventry with his newly-enlisted company of soldiers in their rags and tatters:
No eye hath seen such scarecrows. I’ll not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.
The second-earliest occurrence of the great unwashed that I have found is from the Inverness Courier (Inverness, Inverness-shire, Scotland) of Wednesday 30th September 1829:
Loch Lomond.—A man of taste, to have enjoyed the beauties of Loch Lomond in their virginity, should have paid it a visit at least a century bygone. At that time its solitudes were inviolate. The shepherd and the hunter alone were familiar with them, but now they are explored diurnally by shoals of weavers, and tailors, and cobblers, from the Saltmarket and the Gorbals, and the very water of the lake has become common and unclean. We stated, on a loose calculation, that the Lady the Lake had about five hundred things wearing the semblance of humanity, compressed together within her bulwarks. How many of these were weavers, and tailors, and cobblers, we had no means of ascertaining; but certainly four hundred and ninety-eight of them had a very greasy and unwashed aspect. […] The Lady of the Lake carried us swiftly up the Loch, and swiftly down again; and notwithstanding the motley multitude into which we were so completely compressed as to have lost all sense of individuality, we greatly enjoyed the magnificence that nature had spread around us. It was truly edifying to hear the sagacious comments of our fellow voyagers, many of whom, though belonging to the “great unwashed,” had really a taste for the picturesque, and were all topographers, or naturalists, or politicians, or philosophers, after their kind. It is in Scotland alone that we find intelligent and deep-thinking men seated at the loom, or on the shop board, or weilding the awl. The whole race of our artisans are a cogitating and intellectual people.