Recent research on social capital has explored trends in membership in voluntary organizations. However, there is currently little robust evidence on such trends in the UK since the 1970s, nor is there any analysis of whether participation bridges social divisions or accentuates them. This paper explores trends in participation in England and Wales since 1972 using data from the Social Mobility Inquiry of 1972 and the British Household Panel Survey of 1992 and 1999. We are concerned with social exclusion mechanisms in social capital generation in Britain over the three decades. Using binomial and multinomial models to 'unpack' the effects of socio-cultural factors on civic participation and on different types of associational membership, we test the thesis of across-the-board decline in social capital by Putnam (2000) and that of rising levels of middle-class social capital versus consistent low levels of working-class social capital by Hall (1999). The results show significant socio-cultural-gender differences, a relative stability of middle-class participation, and a rapid decline in the working-class access to social capital. We challenge the established accounts of both theses.