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Future plans: Regions and Industries 1418-1911

Future plans: Regions and Industries 1418-1911

Earlier work on the Occupational Structure of Britain c.1379-1911 has made it clear that in England and Wales the critical shift to secondary-sector employment took place not, as assumed in over a century of scholarship, during the classic Industrial Revolution period 1750-1850 but during the period c.1550-1700. The eighteenth century was in fact a period of very modest aggregate change (figure 1) but sharply divergent regional patterns of deindustrialization and industrialization. However, we still know nothing about many regions and have only a crude and rather approximate national picture of the trajectory of change between 1381 and 1600.[i] We are applying for further funding for a project that would change that, providing, for the first time, an overall quantitative account of this fundamental aspect of the changing structure of the English economy from the whole period from the late middle ages to the early twentieth century at multiple geographical scales.

Figure 1 Sectoral male labour shares 1381-1901

This application builds on earlier projects directed by Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Professor Sir Tony Wrigley since 2003 as part of the Occupational Structure of Britain c.1379-1911 research programme.[ii] From two ESRC-funded projects we now have parish level datasets of population and male occupational structure over the period 1801-1911 (with female occupations from 1851 onwards).[iii] As a result of a previous Leverhulme Trust project and subsequent work by Dr Sebastian Keibek, we now have robust national estimates of male occupational structure at twenty-year intervals from 1600-1800. Moreover, for most of the country, we have data at unprecedented spatial resolution allowing us, for the first time, to quantify the rise and fall of local industries with both spatial and temporal precision.[iv] The nature and scope of the data, which derive from indexes of wills and other testamentary documents, can be seen by looking at figures 2-4. No other country in the world has data on historical occupational structure that remotely approach these in terms of temporal span, geographical resolution, and sub-sectoral detail (though projects inspired by our project are now underway in continental Europe, Asia, Africa and North America).[v] However, as is apparent in figures 2-4, there are currently some significant gaps in our spatial coverage before 1800.

Figure 2 Estimated share of adult male labour force in secondary sector 1600-1911

Figure 3 Estimated share of adult male labour force in textile sub-sector 1600-1911

Figure 4 Estimated share of adult male labour force in metal working sub-sector 1600-1911


Systematic observation and the collection of empirical material often needs to be undertaken before testable hypotheses can usefully be specified, and that is the case here. Two key questions can be identified here. Firstly, when between 1381 and 1600 did the share of the labour-force outside agriculture rise to the levels we now know were obtained by 1600? Secondly, during what periods and at what pace did the regional economic specializations that had become so marked by the mid-eighteenth century, develop? Read more about further questions and hypotheses.


  1. To complete data collection on male occupations 1600-1800, fill in the gaps shown in figures 2-4 and achieve near complete local/regional data coverage 1600-1911.
  2. To begin to put our knowledge of the period 1381-1600 on a similar footing to the later period.
  3. To publish definitive accounts of our work in three monographs on the cumulative results of the longer-term research program.

Figure 5 Number of observations of textile workers in Court of Common Pleas' records 1399-1500

Methods and Empirical Objectives

These first two overarching objectives will be achieved via four empirical objectives:

(1) Testamentary Data

We plan to collect further occupational data from testamentary documents. Wills and probate inventories typically report the occupations and place of residence of deceased adult males across the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Published, digital and card indexes usually record decedents' occupation, date and place of residence. The Leverhulme funded project The Occupational Structure of England and Wales c.1379-c.1729 generated a database of 3m occupational descriptors which was subsequently extend by Sebastian Keibek to 3.9m observations. This dataset, derived from digital indexes, underlies figures 2-4.

We plan to complete work already begun to fill in the great bulk of the gaps 1600-1800, shown in figures 2-4, by digitising further available testamentary indices from card catalogues and published indices. The social bias towards the relatively wealthy are well known. However, we have a proven methodology for correcting the underlying biases in the probate data to produce estimates of representative male occupational structure. Read more about this and other methodological issues.

(2) Quarter Session Recognizances

We plan to collect occupational data from local court records (Quarter Sessions) for selected counties over the period 1550-1820. The Quarter Sessions had several functions: it was the administrative body for the county or borough and the judicial authority for cases that involved minor crime and misdemeanours, including theft, assault, bastardy, damage to property and livestock. The process of prosecution was both time-consuming and expensive and most charges of assault and theft were settled before they reached court. In consequence, there are many more recognizance records than there are indictments. Although both are rich sources of occupational information, it is the former, therefore, that are particularly valuable in our work. The use of Quarter Session Records in occupational analysis is not a new idea but the records are underexploited and have never been used in any published work either systematically or on a large scale.

The occupational distributions of offenders were far less socially biased than the distributions deriving from testamentary data. Other historians have treated the occupational distributions observed in Quarter Sessions record as broadly indicative of the underlying population, an observation confirmed by our preliminary work (Figures 6 and 7). Recognizances are often available in high temporal frequency and they will enable us to determine the eighteenth ­century occupational structure of most of those counties for which testamentary data are not available, such as Devon, Northamptonshire, Sussex, Worcestershire, and the East, North and West Ridings of Yorkshire. Also, our estimates deriving from testamentary data are at their weakest in relation to our estimates of the proportion of the labour force who were labourers. The recognizances will enable us to cross-check our testamentary estimates in selected counties and, if necessary re-calibrate the testamentary estimates.

Recognizances are also available for some counties before 1600. These will be used both directly to document occupational structure and indirectly to cross-check, and if need be, re-calibrate, the data abstracted from the Court Common Pleas and from Coroners' Inquests.

Figure 6 Adult male occupational shares, parishes recording occupations in baptism registers, Deptford, Kent

Source: James Wells, unpublished B.A. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017.

Figure 7 Adult male occupational shares, parishes recording occupations in baptism registers, Lancashire

Source: Tim Rudnicki, unpublished M.Phil. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2015.

(3) The Court of Common Pleas 1413-1600

We would collect occupational data from central court records, particularly for defendants charged at the Court of Common Pleas, 1413-1600. The Common Pleas was one of two central courts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the other being the King's Bench. It sat four times each year, normally at Westminster Hall, and of the two central courts had exclusive jurisdiction over rights of ownership, debt, and eviction. Jurisdiction over trespass and other breaches of statute was shared with the King's Bench. The cases of trespass are of particular, although not exclusive, interest to us. The records have all been photographed and made available online on the Anglo American Legal Tradition (AALT) website through the University of Houston O'Quinn Law Library. The records have been indexed for a number of sample terms and the indices incorporate the names of all parties to the cases. From 1413, as a consequence of the Statute of Additions virtually all adult male defendants provided an occupation and these, together with the vill/village/parish or town and county of residence are recorded in the indices for the sampled terms. Most cases involved multiple defendants. We estimate that nationally there are over 50,000 defendants with occupations recorded annually in the early fifteenth century (there are around 1,200 for Cambridgeshire alone). These data are an exceptionally rich early source of occupational data by place. Moreover, with the notable exception of very recent work by Nick Amor on the fifteenth century English textile manufacturing industry, the occupational data have not been used by economic historians and even Amor has only used a small fraction of the available data relating to one industry (textiles). Debt was brought to the Court only if it involved a sum of money of 40 shillings or more. To put these amounts into perspective, a craftsman, such as a mason or carpenter, earned around 5-6d per day, at this time. For these men, 40s was the equivalent of over 3 months' work. Debt cases, which are the single largest category are therefore skewed towards the wealthy. Cases relating to trespass (around 25% of the total in 1418) are much more likely to be representative of the underlying population. In the first instance we will confine ourselves to converting a subset of the existing online indices into occupational datasets (which requires considerable case by case re-arrangement of the indices which can only be incompletely automated). Analysis will proceed in two stages. First, we will compare the occupational structure deriving from trespass cases with; (i) poll tax returns from 1381 where these systematically record adult male occupations (ii) the 1522 muster rolls for Baber Hundred and Rutland (iii) data from coroners' inquests. We will use comparisons to assess how representative the occupations deriving from trespass defendants are and to re-calibrate or re-weight the data if necessary. Second, we will repeat the exercise with debt defendants and other smaller groupings. The Common Pleas will be an invaluable source to determine fifteenth and sixteenth century occupational structure. It is inevitable that some re-weighting of the raw data will be required. Methods will be developed to do this, but considerable quantities of data will need to be collected first. Regardless of the degree to which we are successful in producing robust estimates of the shares of make employment in particular sectors, it will be obvious from figure 5 that we will be able to identify the evolving geography of specialized regional industry and much else even with the raw data.

(4) Coroners Inquests 1413-1752

Coroners' inquisitions, that is reports drawn up by coroners summarising findings of inquests held to determine the cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural deaths, are an unexploited and extremely rich source of information about occupational structure in Britain in late medieval and early modern periods.[vi] Based on the existing studies and data collected in the course of ongoing or recently completed research projects that rely on coroners' material (see below) the total number of inquisitions between 1487 and 1752 can be estimated at approximately 100,000. Up to a half of this number contain occupational/status data along with personal information such as name, surname, age, wealth and place of residence of the decedent. Around 60 per cent of these concern adult males so the body of usable material for the period in question is likely to consist of between 20,000 and 30,000 separate inquisitions. The inquisition come from all over England including some of the most remote and least densely populated regions in Cumbria or Cornwall. London and Middlesex are the least well covered – they were anomalous jurisdictions, their inquisitions were treated differently and do not survive in large quantities.

Coroners' reports can be roughly divided into four major categories based on the verdict: homicide (includes most instances of one person killing another without differentiating between murder and manslaughter etcetera, although contemporaries were familiar with and used classifications resembling a modern one), suicide, accidental death and divine visitation (includes deaths from illnesses, diseases and exposure, natural deaths, deaths in gaol). Until the early 1530s there is a preponderance of homicides over other deaths, particularly in the early years, but from that point an average yearly yield for KB9 material is around 100 inquests per each category. Occupational data is provided in about 30 per cent of accidental death inquests, for 60-70 per cent of murder victims and suicides and for 20-30 per cent of divine visitations. Therefore, a yearly file provides just over a hundred inquests with occupational data concerning adult male decedents.

A pilot study by Tomasz Gromelski suggests that each type of inquest was broadly representative of adult male occupational structure, though agriculture appears somewhat over-represented amongst accidental deaths. This probably stems from the frequency of deaths by drowning or from accidents involving horses.

Read more about Coroners' Inquests.


The project would enable us to publish three definitive accounts of our work on the wider research programme:

  1. An Historical Atlas of Occupational Structure and Population Geography in England and Wales 1600-1911
  2. The Occupational Structure of England and Wales 1600-1911
  3. The Rise and Fall of Textile Regions in England and Wales 1413-1911
  4. A series of articles on the period 1381-1600

The historical atlas would be published during year two, initially online only. This has several advantages: there are no artificial restrictions imposed by the expense of colour printing; as new data become available, content can be added or revised; interactive elements allow users to identify any location or feature on any map, and automatically link to the associated texts; the work would be freely accessible to everyone.

With post-1600 data collection completed, work would begin o­­n publications (2) and (3) in year 3. A further monograph and a further atlas on 1381-1600 would follow in due course, though additional funding might be required to bring those to completion.


We are confident that the publications arising from this project would:

  1. transform our understanding of the long-run economic history of this country and the world's first transition to modern economic growth, the British Industrial Revolution.
  2. likely have a transformative effect internationally on the wider fields of economic and social history and historical geography by decisively expanding the boundaries of what is considered possible.

[i] For the earlier view of a rapid structural shift in employment towards the secondary sector during the Industrial Revolution period, see: Crafts, N.F.R., British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (1985). A brief preliminary overview of the new findings for the 1700-1871 period can be found in Shaw-Taylor, L. and Wrigley, E.A., (2014) 'Occupational Structure and Population Change', in: Floud, R., Humphries, J., Johnson, P. (eds.) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Volume I, 1700-1870, 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 53-88. On the 1600-1800 period and on regional developments see Keibek, S., 'The male occupational structure of England and Wales, 1600-1851', unpub. Cambridge Ph.D. thesis. Twenty-three articles and book chapters and one monograph have been published, eight articles and book chapters are forthcoming and many more are in the works. See: and

[iv] An earlier Leverhulme funded project generated a database of 3m occupational descriptors. Sebastian Keibek extended the dataset, which underlies figures 2-4, to 3.9m observations.

[vi] In the modern historiography coroner's inquisition, inquest and report tend to be used interchangeably.