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Past research

Past research

The Cambridge Group was founded in 1964 by Peter Laslett and Tony Wrigley, to undertake quantitative research in family history and demographic history. Together, they pioneered both fields. The work by Laslett and others led to the establishment of the history of family forms as a major international field of enquiry supporting a number of scholarly journals. Generations of undergraduates are familiar with Laslett's and Richard Wall's Household and Family in Past Time (1972) and Family Forms in Historic Europe, ed. R. Wall with P. Laslett and J. Robin (1982).

At the same time, the application of sophisticated historical demographic techniques to English parish register data transformed England's population history with E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England: A Reconstruction (1981, 1989) and E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen and R.S. Schofield, English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837 (1997). Through their innovative combination of the techniques of both inverse population projection and family reconstitution we know a great deal more about the history of the English population than we do of any other national population. In particular, it has become clear that the major changes in the population growth rate that signalled the onset of the demographic transition in Britain were more influenced by changes in fertility than in mortality, and that the fertility changes in turn reflected changes in age at marriage and in the proportions marrying. Since the opportunity to marry depended heavily on prevailing economic circumstances, this demonstration of the feedback between economic and demographic trends opened a new light on the background to the industrial revolution.

The Cambridge Group has also made major contributions to the understanding of the later phases of the demographic transition in Britain. Peter Laslett was instrumental in gaining unprecedented access to individual-level anonymised records for the 1881-1921 censuses during the period of their hundred year closure. His endeavours ultimately resulted in the first large-scale analysis of elements of the demographic transition using individual-level data, published as Eilidh Garrett, Alice Reid, Kevin Schürer & Simon Szreter, Changing Family Size in England and Wales: Place, Class and Demography: 1891-1911 (2001). Eilidh Garrett and Alice Reid were subsequently funded by a major ESRC grant and a Wellcome Trust grant to investigate the initiation of secular fertility and mortality decline through the creation of longitudinal data linking individual-level census enumerators' books and vital registration for urban and rural Scottish communities. Building on research into the influences on spatial and social differentials and trends in infant mortality in Britain over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they have also, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, examined the influence of housing and short term residential mobility on infant and child mortality in Belfast in the early twentieth century.

Historical demography continues to be central to the Group's research interests. Despite the scale of the work undertaken by Wrigley, Davies, Oeppen and Schofield on the parish register period (1538-1838), much remains to be done. In particular, the historical demography of urban areas, and the complex interactions between urban and rural populations, remain under-researched, despite the huge importance of urbanisation to economic development. Urban historical demography is the subject of two Group projects: a major collaborative study by Gill Newton and Richard Smith, on early modern London (funded by the AHRC 2003-2006 and by the ESRC 2008-2011); and a collaboration between Romola Davenport and Jeremy Boulton (Newcastle) on the parochial records of the London parish of St. Martin-in-the Fields, 1750-1825, and Manchester, 1750-1850, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC. In an earlier period, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow Rebecca Oakes recently investigated medieval mortality. The Wellcome Trust has also funded a pilot study to explore the impacts of the progressive integration of the English economy on rural and urban mortality patterns (Richard Smith, Gill Newton and Peter Kitson).

The interdependence of family structure, demographic rates and welfare systems has been a major strand of research within the Group, encompassing work on bastardy, Poor Law provision and ageing. The history of illegitimacy has been central to the Group's research, from Laslett's Bastardy and its Comparative History (1981) through to Illegitimacy in Britain 1700-1920 (2005), edited by Samantha Williams, Alysa Levene and Tom Nutt. Welfare is represented in the work of Richard Smith on ageing in medieval and early modern Europe. Smith recently stepped down as director of the Group after seventeen years. A conference was held in his honour in 2011. The range of papers presented there reflect the extraordinary breadth of his interests which engage with every area of the Group's research from the medieval period right through to the twentieth century and cover the whole range of traditional historical expertise as well as social science and demographic methods of description and analysis. The forthcoming volume arising from that conference, C. D. Briggs, P. M. Kitson, and S. J. Thompson (eds.), Population, Welfare and Economic Change in Britain, c.1270-c.1834 (forthcoming 2014), is a tribute both to Richard and to the Group.

Tony Wrigley and Paul Warde are members of an international group of scholars organised at a Prato Economic History Conference on Energy and the Economy in 2002, which seeks to secure comparative data about the history of energy use in a large number of European countries. Publications include P. Warde, Energy Consumption in England and Wales 1560-2000 (Rome, 2007), P. Malanima, Energy Consumption in Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries (Rome, 2006), and E.A. Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 2010).

The newest and now largest strand of Group research is the Occupational Structure of Britain 1379-1911 programme. Under the direction of Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley, this programme has been awarded over £2 million of funding since 2003, and has been designated a British Academy research project since 2007. This research has shown that the growth in secondary sector (manufacturing and construction) employment took place far earlier than was once supposed. The secondary sector was employing nearly 40 per cent of the male workforce as early as the 1710s. It is important to note that the surge of growth in this sector long preceded the technological transformation of major industries which occurred in the later eighteenth century and the onset of modern rates of general economic growth in the early nineteenth century. A further major finding is that across the nineteenth century it was the tertiary (service) sector which experienced a marked growth in its share of overall male employment, while the share of the secondary sector changed very little. Amy Erickson is conducting an investigation into women's employment between c.1500 and 1800. The Occupational Structure research programme is radically rewriting the traditional story of the industrial revolution. With the output to date, and a new Leverhulme Trust funded project, Transport, Urbanization and Economic Development c.1670-1911, this area of research is building up a national and international impact comparable with the Group's earlier work on population history and household structure.

In recent years spatial analysis and the use of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) have becoming increasingly central to the Group's work on both demographic history and the history of occupational structure. This has been facilitated by the creation of a parish level GIS (building on work of Roger Kain and Richard Oliver and others) by Max Satchell as part of the Occupational Structure programme. Mapping is key to planned projects such as the 1798 land tax (John Broad and Leigh Shaw-Taylor), and a historical atlas of population geography c.1379-2011 (Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Max Satchell and Tony Wrigley).

The Group's legacy of demographic achievement is combined with a pool of technical skills in nominal linkage techniques, in the analysis of occupational data, in demographic reconstitution and in advanced statistical techniques. The methods developed by the Group for historical work have been effectively applied to contemporary demography, as seen in the post-doctoral work of Shane Doyle and Sarah Walters' 2008 PhD thesis at the Group: where state data collection in the recent past has been inadequate, reconstitution methodologies have shed entirely new light on recent African population change. The Group's long tradition in the analysis of nineteenth and early twentieth-century census enumerators' books (CEBs) has built up the largest pool of researchers using British CEBs anywhere. The availability of digitised versions of all the censuses from 1851 to 1911, through the ICeM project run by Kevin Schurer (Leicester) and Eddy Higgs (Essex), presents a range of opportunities for research in demographic, economic and social history.