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Top of the Campops: 60 things you didn't know about family, marriage, work, and death since the middle ages

Top of the Campops: 60 things you didn't know about family, marriage, work, and death since the middle ages

Why was high family size in the British past so low?

July 18th, 2024

Alice Reid

Today most of the world’s population lives in places where, on average, women have fewer than two children over their lifetime, but this level of childbearing is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Before the demographic transition the change from high and variable birth and death rates to low birth and death rates (usually taken as 1870-1930 in the UK) women had higher numbers of children, and it is generally accepted that they did not deliberately restrict the numbers of children they had.

Given that before the demographic transition in other parts of the world, women had an average of around six or seven children, it is surprising that British women have never had more than five children, on average, over the course of their lifetime.  

Sir Thomas Remington of Lund in the East Riding of the County of York, Knight, Dame Hannah his wife, daughter of Sir William Gee of Bishop Burton, Knight, and their issue. 1647. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust. Public Domain.

How high is high fertility? 

Theoretically a woman could fit in over 30 children during a roughly 30-year reproductive period between menarche and menopause. Although there are instances of individual women having between 20 and 30 children – for example Sir Thomas and Lady Remmington of Lund in Yorkshire, illustrated in the image above with their 20 children – this is very unusual, and there are very few societies, past or present, where the average number of children per woman exceeds eight. The highest documented fertility of any community is associated with the Hutterites, a small North American religious sect, where in the mid-20th century women had an average of 8.9 children.  

There are a number of physiological and behavioural factors which can reduce the number of children born to each woman. These include miscarriage and stillbirth (which are generally not included in calculations of birth rates); the fact that some women lose the ability to conceive earlier than average through birth complications, disease, or early menopause; the fact that new mothers generally do not ovulate for some months after the birth of a child, and the longer and more intensively they breastfeed, the longer it takes for ovulation to return; and the fact that if the timing of sexual intercourse is random, couples might miss their fertile window in some months.

These factors together tend to reduce the number of children an average woman might have even if she was in a sexual relationship throughout her childbearing years, and not using any form of contraception, to around eight children.

Marriage patterns reduced fertility in historic Britain 

Time spent outside sexual relationships reduces fertility still further in populations where no or few couples were trying to prevent conception, and this is the major factor reducing fertility levels in historic Britain. Before the demographic transition, when mortality was still relatively high, the death of either a woman or her husband would curtail her opportunity to have children.

More important for reducing numbers of children born in England and Wales to levels lower than many other parts of the world, however, were late ages at marriage and substantial proportions of women who never married. 

Although sexual intercourse outside marriage did happen in the British past, most children were born to married couples until well into the last quarter of the 20th century (watch out for future blogs on this topic).

Photo from E. W. Hope, Report on the physical welfare of mothers and children (Liverpool, The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1917), volume 1.

Both late ages at marriage and a substantial portion of the population who never married have the ability to considerably reduce the number of children born to a woman. We saw in a previous blog that the age of first marriage in England ranged between 24 and 26 until the post-2WW marriage boom, when women married younger than ever before. Given that the chance of conceiving reduces with age, particularly beyond the age of 30 or so, relatively late age at marriage means that women spent many of the most fertile years of their life unmarried and therefore with little chance of becoming pregnant. 

In addition, a relatively high percentage of women (on average 13.5 percent) remained unmarried throughout their childbearing lives. When age at marriage was higher, more women never married at all, with as many of 27 percent of women born in the mid17th century remaining single at age 50. There were very few time periods when less than five percent of women remained unmarried, and this occurred when age at marriage was low, for example among women born in the mid 18th century.  

In contrast in most South Asian countries (e.g. India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan) until the 1980s women married before age 20 and only one or two percent remained unmarried at age 50. These differences in marriage patterns are the main reason for considerably higher average numbers of children per woman before the demographic transition in South Asia than in Britain (and other parts of North-West Europe where marriage patterns were similar). 

Fertility levels and population growth 

Populations grow when there are more births than deaths (not counting the influence of migration). The relationship between fertility in terms of the number of children per woman and the number of births per 1,000 people is not a simple one, as it also depends on the age structure of the population. High fertility in the recent past can produce large cohorts of women in the childbearing ages, and these can contribute to a high number of births in relation to deaths even if the number of children each woman has is low.  

Nevertheless, there is a widely used measure – the ‘replacement rate’ – that indicates the number of children a woman needs to have to ‘replace herself’ and therefore keep the population from either growing or shrinking. Globally, today, this number is around 2.1; just over two because although around half of all children born are female, slightly more children born are male, and also because not all children reach adulthood.  

In the past, however, this number was considerably higher, principally because mortality was higher, so more children needed to be born in order to ensure that one female born survived to childbearing age. Therefore although women had between four and five children each in Britain, this did not mean the population grew rapidly. For most of the pre-industrial period, the British population grew slowly, if at all, because fertility and mortality were more or less in balance.  

Painting of five children.

Unknown artist, Five Children of the Pigott Family (1740). Courtesy York Museums Trust.

Moderate fertility as part of a low-pressure regime 

In other pre-demographic transition populations with low population growth, higher fertility levels were accompanied by higher mortality levels. When Tony Wrigley and Roger Schofield at Campop produced the long-run series of fertility and mortality for England, they suggested that this was part of a ‘lowpressure’ demographic regime. Such a regime was characterised by moderate levels of both fertility and mortality, with low fertility achieved through marriage as described above. In contrast, ‘highpressure’ regimes were characterised by higher levels of both fertility and mortality

How do we know?

Fertility, or birth rates, can be measured in a number of different ways. The simplest measure is the crude birth rate, the number of births in the population in a year, per 1000 people. This is easy to calculate, particularly since the state started to register births (1837 in England and Wales and 1855 in Scotland).  

However, this blog has talked mainly about a different measure, the total fertility rate, which is defined as the number of children each woman could expect to have over the course of her childbearing life. We can measure this for actual cohorts of women (women born in particular years) by waiting until they reach the age of around 50, when further childbearing is unlikely, and counting the numbers of their children.

However, this means it is necessary to wait until a cohort has reached the age of 50, as it is not possible to derive this information from birth certificates. Instead most total fertility rates are ‘period’ rates, calculated by calculating fertility rates for age groups of women (numbers of children born to women in a particular age group and dividing by the number of women) and assuming that women go through their childbearing life experiencing those rates in sequence.  

Period total fertility rates can be calculated for England and Wales since 1938, when the age of the mother started to be recorded on birth certificates. Between 1851 and 1938 they have to be estimated. Here we have estimated them from census data by working out the age at childbirth of women living with their children and making various adjustments for children who died or were not living with their mother (this technique is called the own children method). 

For the pre-industrial period, total fertility can be estimated from parish registers which recorded baptisms, marriages and burials. Linking the births to different women, and to her own baptism, allows agespecific fertility rates to be constructed, and the numbers of births to women across their lives can be counted 

Photograph taken 1900 © Reproduced by permission of Oxfordshire County Council

Further reading

Bongaarts, J. (1975) Why High Birth Rates Are So Low. Population and Development Review, 1(2): 289-296. 

Wrigley, E.A. and R.S. Schofield (1989) The Population History of England 1541-1871. CUP. 

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How modern is the modern family?

July 11th, 2024

Kevin Schürer & Simon Szreter

Today the small nuclear family dominates across much of the world. Following World War II this prevailing family form was associated with modernity – the product of a post-industrial society. But just how modern is the modern nuclear family?  

George Cruikshank, Taking the Census (1851), plate 3 from The Comic Almanack for 1851, published by David Bogue, London. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Whilst the scene of George Cruikshank’s cartoon Taking the Census” (1851) is exaggerated for comic effect, the underlying message is still clear. Taking the census in mid-19th-century England was wrought with difficulties, not only because of the potential size of the families being enumerated, but also their complexity.  

The family depicted here is not only multigenerational, but also extended by the presence of co-residing aunts, uncles and cousins. The family is far removed from ‘modern’ nuclear families consisting of just parents and unmarried children which have dominated most of Europe and North America since the mid-20th century. 

The nuclear family was once believed to be a product of the post-industrial age, and this is an assumption still held by many people. However, one of the earliest and most significant revolutionary findings of Campop was the discovery that the nuclear family household existed as the predominant pattern throughout English society for many centuries in the past long before the modern, post-industrial era. 

Why was this so significant? Put simply, because it completely over-turned a central assumption of ‘modernisation theory’.  

Modernisation theory

During the immediate post-war decades of the Cold War era, modernisation theory provided a crucial conceptual underpinning which justified the US-led west in believing it had a self-appointed mission to bring liberal democracy and its capitalist version of development to the world’s new postcolonial nations.           

Modernisation theory envisaged a tight relationship between family forms and economic change. American sociologist Talcott Parsons saw the family as the crucial mechanism forming and transmitting cultural values from one generation to the next. According to Parsons, small nuclear families were the quintessential ‘modern’ form which inculcated the liberal, capitalist, democratic and economically dynamic values of individualism, independence, aspiration and social mobility.  

These ‘modern’ families resided in households containing just the one or two adults, their own pre-adult children, and no other kin. The contrast was with extended family households in the ‘traditional’ (non-modern) past, and apparently still visible in the mid-20th century in various forms around the ‘undeveloped’ world. These were typically vertically or horizontally extended in kinship terms: three-or even four-generational households; with wider lateral kin (brothers and sisters and their partners and children) co-resident together or in adjacent housing.

These households were thought to transmit the anti-individualist values of respect for the authority of elders and for tradition, collective solidarity, mutual support and social stasis.  

Parsons saw his theory as ‘structural functionalist’, combining Emile Durkheim’s insistence that societies were like organisms composed of interacting parts, with Max Weber’s idea that there could nevertheless be a source of structural change in this self-sustaining system. For Weber, the prime mover of this change was the rise of Protestantism, from which individualist values emerged, and consequently the legitimacy and spread of the capitalist system.

A demographic transition from the traditional to the modern family?  

Parsonian modernisation theory quickly came to be understood by influential policymakers in the Cold War era as a justification for the anti-communist development economics project of the post-war liberal west. It demonstrated that all the postcolonial undeveloped peasant societies around the world needed to be transformed from their traditional extended family households into modernized nuclear family households.  

Leading US demographers Frank Notestein, Kingsley Davis and A.J. Coale all came fully on board with this project through their adaptation of the theory of demographic transition, a general historical and policy-relevant model of demographic change in line with modernisation theory    

L. S. Lowry, Family Group, 1958. Image credit: Colleges in the University of Cambridge. CC BY-NC-ND.

Due to the relative absence of much serious scholarly attention in the Anglophone world to investigating what actually were the family household forms found in the pre-industrial past, it was not difficult for this representation of the ‘traditional’ west – as being essentially similar to the contemporary ‘traditional’ east and south – to be accepted as fact. 

The nuclear family household in the English past 

However, these ideas were about to change. Prior to the foundation of Campop in 1964, Peter Laslett, one of the Group’s co-founders, was already an acknowledged authority on the history of 17th-century political philosophy and political thought. His interest in patriarchal systems led him to consult the late-17th-century Rector’s Book for the Nottinghamshire village of Clayworth. The book contains two census-type listings of the 400 or so inhabitants of the village, for 1676 and 1688, compiled by the parish priest. The impact of these two short listings on Laslett’s thinking and subsequent writing was phenomenal. It was a genuine eureka moment.  

As he scanned the pages Laslett was puzzled that he could see no evidence for the sorts of large multigenerational patriarchal families that he expected to be present in 17th-century England. In his own words, it was an intellectual shock’ that he could see no sign whatever of the extended co-resident domestic group.  

Rather than being large and extended, the households of Clayworth were small, simple and predominantly nuclear. Could this be right? Could the so-called ‘modern’ nuclear family have been present in such large numbers in pre-industrial England With these questions in mind, Laslett immediately felt the need to search out similar sources in order to discover if the picture sketched by the Clayworth documents were representative or atypical.

Illustration from the 1563 Whole Book of Psalms published by John Day. Source: Wikimedia

Laslett therefore devised a project to collect as much evidence as possible – no small feat given that in the 1960s such materials tended to be available only from county record offices. 

Aided by a new recruit to Campop, Richard Wall, Laslett established that the English evidence showed a consistent pattern of nuclear household formation, both spatially and temporally. In Laslett’s words:the present state of evidence forces us to assume that its [the family’s] organisation was always and invariably nuclear unless the contrary can be proven’.

This null hypothesis was to become one of the most commented-on features of the book Household and Family in Past Time, and one which was often subsequently misinterpreted and taken to mean that the nuclear family was the only form of residential unit across all societies, something which was never intended.  

A. Devis, Family Group, 1756. Image credit: The Courtauld. CC BY-NC-ND.

Despite this, or maybe even in part because of it, Household and Family in Past Time became a landmark publication for the study of historical social structures. It became, in a sense, a manifesto 

Due to the pioneering work on household structures led by Laslett and Wall, the previously held notion that the nuclear family was the product of forces shaped only in the post-industrial age has been consigned, as it were, to history. 

Further reading

P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost (Routledge Classics edition, London and New York, 2021) – especially chapter 4.

W. Coster, Family and Kinship in England, 1450-1800 (Longman, Harlow, 2001).

M. Abbott, Family Ties: English families 1540-1920 (Routledge, London and New York, 1993).

K. Schürer, E. M. Garrett, H. Jaadla, and A. Reid, ‘Household and family structure in England and Wales (1851–1911): continuities and change’, in Continuity and Change vol. 33 no. 3 (2018), pp. 365-411.

S. Szreter, ‘The idea of demographic transition and the study of fertility change: A critical intellectual history’, in Population and Development Review, vol. 19, no. 4 (Dec. 1993), pp. 659-701.

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What age did people marry in the British past?

July 11th, 2024

Alice Reid

Famous examples suggest that people married at very young ages in the European past. Shakespeare’s Juliet was ‘not [yet] fourteen’ and Romeo probably not much older. Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, was either 12 or 14 when she married Edmund Tudor, and gave birth to Henry not much more than a year later. The marriage age for British nobles increased over time, but members of the royal family were still marrying fairly young in the 19th century. Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were 20 when they married in 1840, and Victoria’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII, and his bride Princess Alexandra of Denmark, were 21 and 18 respectively when they married in 1863. Such examples encourage people to think that young ages at marriage must have been the norm. 

Sleeping Beauty tile panel, designed by Edward Burne-Jones for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Earthenware. England, 1860s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In fact, the majority of women and men married considerably older than this in the past. The graph below shows the average age at marriage over the long sweep of English and Welsh history. Apart from a few decades in the early 1800s, the only time since 1550 that the average age of first marriage for women fell below age 24 was during the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Why didn’t people marry younger?

Relatively late marriage in Britain and across a swath of North-West Europe is linked to something called the ‘European Marriage Pattern’. The key characteristic of this is that young couples usually set up a new household on marriage. 

Establishing a new household involved the considerable expense of purchasing the cooking pots, blankets and tools they would need to equip their new home, and consequently both men and women would spend their late teens and early twenties earning money and saving some of it in preparation for marriage. Sometimes they would continue to live with their parents while doing this, but it was quite common to take a position as a domestic or farm servant which involved lodging with their employer.  

Albert de Belleroche, “The Servant“; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries.

This process of working and saving pushed marriage ages into the mid-twenties for both men and women. It also had the effect of making marriage responsive to the economy, as when wages were low it took longer to save for marriage, but when wages were high people were able to marry a bit earlier. In this way the long fluctuations in marriage age until about 1750 have been attributed to extended economic cycles.  

The period referred to as the industrial revolution was characterised by a large increase in factory labour, and the comparatively high wages of factory work, together with the security it offered, meant that people could afford to marry at younger ages.

After not much more than 100 years of relatively low marriage ages, the fertility and marriage phase of the demographic transition started in Britain. The demographic transition is a concept used to describe the change from relatively high to relatively low birth rates (fertility) and death rates (mortality).

Fertility in Britain declined consistently between about 1870 and 1930, and increasing ages of marriage contributed to this by delaying the effective start of a woman’s childbearing career and reducing the number of children she had time to fit in. 

The Baby Boom and beyond 

The big spike in births which began during, and continued after, the second world war across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand is generally referred to as ‘the baby boom’. A large part of the baby boom was driven by an increase in the percentage of people marrying and having at least one or two children, and it was accompanied by a fall in the age at which people married, to levels which for Britain were unprecedently low.  

The causes of the baby boom and this drop in marriage age are not well understood, but they have been attributed to a catching-up of births delayed due to the depression and war, a period of economic prosperity, and the coming of the sexual revolution which, in the absence of reliable contraception, meant that more young couples were rushed into marriage by an unplanned pregnancy. 

Since the 1970s, ages at first marriage have increased rapidly, attributed to an increase in education which delays the start of partnership formation, a rise in cohabitation before or instead of marriage, and the declining cultural relevance of the institution of marriage. The average age of first cohabiting partnership, however, has risen much more slowly than the average age at marriage.   

Why is it so tempting to think people think married younger than they did? 

The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, Courtesy British Library, 11764.s.1

Given that people married late in the British past – so late that it’s only in the last few decades that the average age at first marriage has exceeded the historic norm why is it so common to think that people married young in the British past? 

One possible reason relates to the examples from literature, drama, and Europe’s real noble families mentioned at the start of this blog. The marriage patterns of the elite were far from typical of society in general, but there are very few literary examples or details of ordinary weddings to inform the popular imagination. 

Another reason is the use of misleading starting points for comparisons over time. Demographic time series often start no further back than the mid-20th century, and even when longer term time series are available, many historic comparisons take a relatively short time span.

It is very common, here in the UK, to start historic time series in the 1960s or 1970s when age at marriage was unusually young (see, for example, this blog from the Office for National Statistics). This creates an impression of a constant increase, even before the time series began. 

Reading history sideways

These factors contribute to a tendency to ‘read history sideways’, a phrase coined by the sociologist and demographer Arland Thornton.

This practice involves looking at contemporary societies across the world and assuming they are all at different stages on the same developmental trajectory, from ‘less-developed’ places with early marriage, to ‘more-developed’ places with late marriage. This leads to an assumption that marriage in the European past must have been as young as in parts of Africa and Asia in the mid-late 20th century.

Thornton argued that not only does this practice lead to a misconception of the history of demographic change, but contributes to a ‘developmental idealism which encourages ethnocentric ideas that the ‘western’ family is some sort of ideal. In this case, age at marriage for the majority of the population in the British past does not map onto that seen in late-20th or early-21st-century ‘less developed’ countries, so a better knowledge of history can be an important corrective to reading history sideways. 

Note on sources: How do we know?

Working backwards from the present, today every marriage – whether it takes place in a registry office, church, or other venue in the UK – is recorded in the civil register of marriages. The age of both parties is recorded, as is their civil status – i.e. whether they are single, widowed or divorced.

A young couple are being married in church. Stipple engraving by R.M. Meadows, 1806, after R. Westall. Source: Wellcome Collection 28863i.

This system began in 1837 in England and Wales, and the data in the graph above are generated from calculations done at the time using the average (mean) ages of all the marriages of unmarried men and women in opposite sex marriages. We don’t include same-sex marriages here because these are so recent, and the ages of participants may be influenced by ‘catch-up’ marriages by people who would have married earlier if it had been legal.  

Between 1538 and 1837, the data on marriages are derived from the parish registers kept by the Church of England. For most of the period the majority of the population were C of E, so these registers are considered quite representative of the general population.

However, parish registers are not easy to use – to be useful they must be consistently recorded, and the surviving series must cover a long time period with no or few gaps. Transcribing them can be challenging and time-consuming (today much transcription has been done and is available on platforms such as Ancestry, FindMyPast, and FreeReg).  

Crucially, however, parish registers rarely recorded ages at marriage, so to find out ages of marriage, the researcher needs to link the bride and groom in a marriage register to their entries in a baptism register. This linking, part of a process called family reconstitution, is complicated and time-consuming, and careful attention has to be paid to the influence of out-migration on the averages. Therefore only a relatively small number of parishes contribute to this data, but careful comparisons suggest that they are a good representation of England as a whole. 

None of the reconstitution parishes were located in Wales, so the early data only cover England. On the other hand, the older civil register data are only available for England and Wales combined. This is unlikely to make much difference to overall averages, however, as the population of Wales has always been very small compared to that of England.

Similarly the parish register set used here don’t include any Scottish parishes. However we do know that in the second half of the 19th century, Scottish men were about a year older at marriage than English and Welsh men, and Scottish women were about half a year older than the English and Welsh (see 

Data on cohabitation come from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, a sample survey which ask interviews the same people every few years and asks about dates of entry into cohabitation and marriage.  

Thomas Falcon Marshall, “The Young Squire’s Wedding” (1845). Lytham Art Collection of Fylde Borough Council.

Further reading

Chao S., Blom N., Berrington A., Perelli-Harris B., (2020) How partnerships have changed in the UK over the last 30 years. Centre for Population Change Policy Briefing 50. 

Hajnal, J. (1982) Two kinds of preindustrial household formation system, Population and Development Review 8(3): 449-494 [An early formulation of the European Marriage Pattern] 

Thornton, A. (2001) The developmental paradigm, reading history sideways, and family change, Demography 38(4): 449–465.  

Van Bavel, J. and D. Reher (2013) The baby boom and its causes: what we know and what we need to know. Population and Development Review 39: 257-288.

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What was the size of the English population before the first census in 1801 – and how do we know?

July 11th, 2024

Jim Oeppen

Campop’s estimated series of population totals for England from 1541 to 1871 are the longest and most detailed available for any country. The associated age-structures have been used to provide summary measures of fertility and mortality, such as replacement rates and life expectancyThe opportunity they present for extending per capita analysis into the past means that they have become a standard reference for historical demography and economic history, and have been cited in over 1,500 academic publications. 

Why do we need to calculate population size?  

Expressing data “per capita” is an essential part of how we understand social and economic statistics today, but this kind of calculation relies on knowing the population total.  Before 1860, the term “per capita” was extremely rare(Try typing “per capita” or “per person” into Google Books Ngram Viewer.)  

This is not surprising when you consider that there was no census of England and Wales before 1801, and age-breakdowns only began in 1821. Part of the rationale for taking the first census was that politicians couldn’t decide whether the population was increasing or decreasingIt is surprising that they didn’t know, as we now know that the population was increasing very rapidly! 

So how do we calculate historical population size without a census? 

In the absence of census data before 1801, Campop’s population estimates are derived from annual counts of baptisms and burials. After adjustment, these can be used as proxies for births and deathsOfficial registration of births, deaths, and marriages began in 1837, but the established Church in England had been registering baptisms, marriages, and burials since 1538.   

Ascension parish burial ground Cambridge. Source: Wikimedia.

Campop encouraged their army of volunteers to find local parish registers and count the events in each month. The initial aim was not to estimate the population, but to find registers without gaps that might be suitable for Family Reconstitution (a technique for the detailed analysis of family demography).  

However, once the counts started coming in, it became apparent that they were an important resource in their own right. It was decided that they could be used as a sample that could be inflated to represent national estimates of births, marriages and deaths. 

A total of 404 parishes were identified that satisfied a suite of criteria for accuracy and completeness. These represent a four percent sample of the 10,000 ancient English parishes. They provide 3.7 million baptisms, marriages, and burials in monthly totals.  

Problems and adjustments 

These 404 parishes were not a random sample. The biggest issues were that large parishes were over-represented; there were no London parishes; and the series started and stopped at different dates.  For example, between 1662 and 1811 all 404 parishes were in observation, but in earlier and later years the number declined. 

Going from baptisms and burials to “national” totals of births and deaths involved a long series of adjustments. These included inflating the births to allow for deaths before baptism; and adding under-counted non-Conformist births and events for London. Finally, the sample was re-weighted so that the large parishes lost their dominance in the counts.    

Validating the estimation method 

Sweden has records of deaths by age, censuses, and life tables from 1751It also has high levels of net-outmigration in the 19th centuryWe can pretend we don’t know about the censuses, and only use the totals of births and deaths with the 1901 census as targets. The estimation method was able to satisfactorily match the observed censuses from 1751 onwards, and the net-migration rates. 

The estimated values for English life expectancy derived from totals of births and deaths are remarkably consistent with those derived from subsequent research on individual life histories in Campop’s English Family Reconstitution studies.  

Figure 1 (below) shows Campop’s estimates of the population of England from 1536 to 1796, together with the decadal Census counts for England from 1801. The period from 1541 to 1651 exhibits rapid exponential growth, followed by a period of stagnation, before exponential growth returns in the 19th century, but with a slower rate after 1901. The population doubling time was about a century in the first growth period, but became even more rapid in the 19th century, shortening to 50 years. 


Using this information, Campop members were able to make a series of discoveries about populations in the past, including:

Dependency ratio 

A historical definition of the working age population is between the ages of 15 and 60, with those older and younger regarded as ‘dependent’.  Although there have been changes as the population grew and stagnated, and these changes had important social and economic consequences, the Dependency Ratio hovered around 70 dependents per 100 providers from 1551 to 2021. This stability masks an important transition. Before 1900 there were five children for every elderly dependent. The 20th century saw this fall to one child for each elderly person.  

Georgios Iakovidis, The Favourite (1890). Source: Wikimedia

Net migration 

The net-migration estimates show consistent out-migration at the low rate of about one to two persons per thousand per annum. It is likely that in-migrants, particularly from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, almost balanced English emigration to the rest of the world. 

Fertility and life expectancy 

The pre-census population estimates can be used to derive demographic measures of fertility and survival from 1551 to 1841.  For example, we found that women who survived to age 50 only had about five births on average, which is very different from typical expectations about the past – look out for a blog post about this next week! 

Life-expectancy at birth derived from these populations was generally between 30 and 40 years, but around 20-25% of people were aged 40+.  If you wonder how this can be possible, it will be discussed in the forthcoming blog “Three Score and Ten”.

Population dynamics 

From these estimates, we can see that the impact of epidemics on England’s population has been minor and transitory. From 1541 to 1851, changes in fertility were more important than changes in survival in determining population growth.  The importance of age at marriage as a factor influencing fertility is discussed in another of today’s blogs

Further reading 

HMD. Human Mortality Database. Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (Germany), University of California, Berkeley (USA), and French Institute for Demographic Studies (France). Available at

R. D. Lee, “Estimating Series of Vital Rates and Age Structures from Baptisms and Burials: A New Technique with Applications to Pre-industrial England,” Population Studies, 28 (1974), pp. 495-512.

E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871: a reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

E. A. Wrigley, R. S. Davies, J. E. Oeppen, and R. S. Schofield, English Population History from Family Reconstitution: 1580-1837 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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Mrs Man: Why do women take their husbands’ surnames?

July 11th, 2024

Amy Erickson

Thomas Gainsborough
Mr and Mrs Andrews
about 1750. Courtesy The National Gallery.

The habit of women taking a husband’s surname is seen by some as reflecting ancient patriarchal control of women, and by others as a romantic custom symbolising unity. But there is nothing either ancient or romantic about it: the practice has a very specific history. 

Surnames were first used in elite noble families, and were applied to more ordinary people in England in the late 14th-century poll taxes. At the same time, English lawyers were developing the rule of ‘coverture’, whereby all of a woman’s assets (with certain limited exceptions) were acquired by her husband upon marriage.

This was distinct from the Roman law of marital property which gave a husband the management but not the ownership of his wife’s property. Variations of the Roman law prevailed throughout the rest of Europe, including Scotland.  

So for 500 years, England was the only European country in which husbands gained (almost) complete control of their wives’ assets, and where women exchanged their birth surnames for their husbands’ surnames when they married. In the image at the top of Mr and Mrs Andrews, the land depicted in the painting was hers, and it has become his with their marriage. 

While unique in Europe, the habit of taking a husband’s surname spread to North America and many other places through England’s extensive colonisation. By around 1900, thanks to the influence of the British Empire and its former colony, the United States, the practice became popular in other parts of Europe and was even made mandatory in a few places.

Mr Wife?

It was never mandatory in England for a woman to take her husband’s surname. There are historic cases of married women retaining their birth name as a professional name. Ann Fisher (1719-78), the daughter of a Northumberland yeoman, wrote books on education. She continued to publish as A. or Ann Fisher after her marriage (age 32) to the printer Thomas Slack (age 28), and throughout their personal and professional partnership of more than a quarter of a century in a Newcastle printing house. 

A new grammar, with exercises of bad English: or, an easy guide to speaking and writing the English language properly and correctly. By A. Fisher (1753).

There were even circumstances where a husband would take his wife’s surname, if her wealth was substantially larger than his. For example:

  • Whenever an estate ‘failed’ in the male line by the circumstances of a landowner producing either no children or only daughters, a name change was likely to be imposed – either on a daughter’s husband or on a male heir who traced descent through the female line and so bore a different surname.
  • Around 15 per cent of marriages produced no sons, and some owners never married to produce legitimate heirs, making surname change accompanying inheritance a relatively regular occurrence. When Anna Scott (1651-1732), sole heiress to the Earl of Buccleuch, married Charles II’s illegitimate son (the future Duke of Monmouth), her widowed mother ensured that he took the Scott surname. It is estimated that every aristocratic family in England has undergone descent through the female line via surname change.
  • Landowners could make mandatory the adoption of an heiress’s surname by her husband through perfectly legal conditions placed on bequests. So Sussex grocer’s daughter Mary Ann Gilbert married Davies Giddy in 1808, shortly after she turned 32. Nine years and five children later, the Giddys became the Gilberts in order to inherit an estate of a thousand acres from Mary Ann’s childless paternal uncle.
  • Any marriage between couples with significant assets involved a marriage settlement, or what would now be called a ‘prenup’. Again, these were perfectly legal ways to avoid the husband’s complete control over the wife’s assets: they established in advance of marriage the property that was to go to the future sons and daughters, and the amount that a wife should have in the event of the couple’s separation and upon her widowhood.
  • Where the wife was heiress to a large fortune, a marriage settlement could require the husband to adopt her name. In the Sussex baronet Webster family, the heavily indebted fourth baronet married the heiress Elizabeth Vassall in 1786 and adopted her surname in order to receive her inheritance of rich holdings in New England and Jamaica. One plantation alone brought the former Webster, now Vassall, an income of over £7,000 a year. 


Even among marrying couples with only small amounts of property, a bride might perceive a need to protect hers legally from coverture. In 1624, Katherine Trusse, the widow of a Lincolnshire ferryman, drew up a bond to ensure that her intended second husband should pay for her four children’s upbringing and each of their £5 portions from their father, with interest. But this type of marriage settlement did not involve a name change for the husband. 

The difference between a husband’s management of his wife’s property in continental Europe and ownership in England had ramifications for marriage beyond the change of surname.

Coverture made divorce impossible because a wife could not extract her assets from the marital household. Separation could be upheld by the English courts, which could order a husband to pay his wife a maintenance (alimony) to live on, where a couple was wealthy enough to afford such an arrangement. But no remarriage was possible. Divorce was possible in Catholic France but not in Protestant England because a French woman’s assets could be extricated from her husband’s.  

Other surname practices and the English addition of a husband’s first name 

Of course the birth surname is itself a patriarchal construct, reflecting paternal ownership. Some cultures give children both the maternal and the paternal surnames conjoined, as in Spain. But these maternal names drop out over time, as that child’s children take the paternal half of each parent’s name.  

The Nordic countries used a patronymic naming system until around 1900, in which each generation’s surname changed with the given name of the father: the children of Eric Jonsson and Maria Andersson (remembering that Nordic married women did not take their husbands’ names) would be surnamed Ericsson and Ericsdotter. In Iceland, this system is still used, but the surname may be matronymic as well as patronymic. 

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her Daughter Sarah. c.1850. Copyright Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

In England, the adoption of a husband’s first name as well as his surname, as in Millais’s portrait of Mrs James Wyatt, began to appear only around 1800. Wherever this phrasing is applied to a woman’s portrait before that time, it has been retrospectively given a title in the 19th or 20th century. So title of the portrait christened ‘Mrs Thomas Talbot’ (1638-1706) would have been unrecognizable to its sitter. In the 17th century, Ann Yate would have been ‘Miss Yate’ or ‘Miss Ann Yate’ as a teenager, ‘Mrs  Yate’ until her marriage, and ‘Mrs Ann Talbot’ after her marriage to Thomas Talbot. 

Pieter Borsseler, Anne Yate (1638-1706), Mrs Thomas Talbot; Copyright National Trust Images.

Further reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for Anna Scott, Duchess of Buccleugh, Webster Family, Mary Ann Gilbert, and Ann Fisher.

A. L. Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1993).

A.L. Erickson, ‘The marital economy in comparative perspective’, in The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain 1400-1900, ed. Maria Ågren and A. L. Erickson (Ashgate, 2005). 

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Francis William Edmonds, Taking the census (1854). Source: Wikimedia.

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