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The occupational context of family formation in England, c.1600-1850

The occupational context of family formation in England, c.1600-1850

Peter Kitson

This ongoing research project seeks to deepen our understanding of demographic change in pre- and early industrial England, by exploring the relationships between male occupation and family formation using information from parish registers, probate inventories and census material for a series of English communities before and during the Industrial Revolution. To date, it has been funded through an ESRC postgraduate studentship (2000-3), and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (2005-8).


The broad outlines of the demographic history of pre- and early industrial England is now well established, thanks to the pioneering work of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. Between 1541 and 1851 the population of England grew six fold, from 2.8 to 16.7 million. At the same time, there were profound changes in both her population geography and the patterns of economic activity within English households. Population growth during the eighteenth century was most rapid in the industrialising regions of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands. At the same time the household increasingly became solely a unit of consumption and reproduction, as it lost its productive functions to the factory and the workshop. It is generally accepted that increasing fertility was primarily responsible for population change, caused largely by declining female age at marriage and a complementary increase in the rate at which new households were formed. However, there is a paucity of direct empirical research into how the courtship and marriage behaviour of individuals were related to their own economic circumstances, or to the changing nature of the household economy. There is even less research into any possible divergences between different regions, or for different socio-economic groups within particular communities. For instance, did labourers marry earlier than farmers? Were the wives of shoemakers more prone to be pregnant at marriage than those of merchants? And to what extent did families engaged in one form of economic activity vary across the different parts of England?

My research aims to address these issues by first studying the structures and processes of household formation, and to investigate the changing patterns of economic activity within the household, in a number of English communities from the late sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. By studying these issues in tandem, it will be possible to evaluate the impact of the changing economic role of households upon the decisions that underlay their creation. By contrasting the experiences of communities with differing local economies and social structures, the extent of regional variation can also be assessed. Finally, by placing family formation within its socio-economic context, it will be possible to explore the extent of variability in demographic behaviour between different socio-economic groups within each community.

These issues can be approached by carrying out a series of directly comparable case studies using similar sources for each selected community and methodologies developed from those utilised by my doctoral research. Forming the core of each study is the reconstruction of family life histories using the technique of family reconstitution, utilising parish registers which record occupational information for grooms at marriage and for fathers at the baptism of their children during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This information may be used to assess the relationships between male occupation, socio-economic status and family formation. Probate inventories – records of the household goods of the deceased, which survive in plentiful numbers from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries – may be used to study the economic activities of households during this period. Although these sources are biased towards the wealthier elements of society and to the terminal phase of the lifecycle, their linkage with reconstructed family histories will permit the study of how the productive aspects of the household economy were related to household structure, and to explore the gendered division of labour within households. The linkage of these separate sources will also allow the meaning of occupational titles to be explored by evaluating them in the light of the evidence of economic activity within households from probate inventories. Lastly, the mid-nineteenth century census enumerators’ books will provide a terminal point for all the case studies. This particular source may also be used to examine the relationships between household structure and economic activity.

The selected communities

The four case studies are based upon communities possessing parish registers that extensively record occupational information within their pages. Such registers, although rare, exist in larger numbers than hitherto realised. The communities selected for further analysis are chosen on the basis of varying local economies and social structures in order to explore the range of possible experiences of change in England. Four case studies form the empirical core of this research. The market towns of Banbury (Oxfordshire) and Gainsborough (Lincolnshire) will be compared with a group of coterminous villages from rural Bedfordshire to compare experiences between rural and urban southern and midland England. In addition to their marketing functions, both Banbury and Gainsborough engaged in other spheres of economic activity. The former possessed an important niche within the textile industry, namely in the production of plush. Gainsborough became an increasingly important river port throughout the eighteenth century, as the volume of goods transhipped down the River Trent increased.

The fourth case study is the parish of Sedgley (Staffordshire), itself an agglomeration of nine villages in the Black Country. This was an area of precociously early industrialization, with significant numbers employed in the metal trades from the sixteenth century onwards, and where population grew consistently throughout the early modern period. However, a massive growth took place from the final quarter of the eighteenth century, which in turn was associated with the introduction of iron production based upon the use of coke rather than charcoal as fuel. This ensured even greater rapidity of economic, social and demographic change from this time through to the first half of the nineteenth century.

The approaches outlined above will permit the study of the relationships between economic and demographic change throughout the Industrial Revolution and through much of the early modern period. They will also allow the identification of different patterns of behaviour between communities, and the constituent elements of these communities. Accordingly, this research would represent a major contribution to the demographic and economic histories of England during this period.

Techniques employed

This project makes intensive use of databases and statistical packages to facilitate the generation and analysis of demographic datasets. Both the Banbury and Gainsborough case studies are based upon ‘re-engineered’ versions of earlier family reconstitution studies. However, the Sedgley reconstitution makes use of innovative automated record linkage techniques to identify both possible links between the same individual in different records, as well as to eliminate less satisfactory connections in favour of stronger ones.

Other technical innovations have also been utilised as well for the analysis of the resulting family reconstitution datasets. Family reconstitution studies usually discard illegitimate birth events, on the basis that it is the date of marriage that provides the necessary information for identifying when women enter the risk of conception. By identifying the mothers of illegitimate children that can be linked to a subsequent marriage, as well as comparing the levels of mortality for illegitimate children with those who were born within wedlock, it is possible to study the place of illegitimate fertility within the life cycle.

Event history analysis has also been used to study the relationships between occupational change, marriage and migration. Reconstructed family histories based upon parish registers that extensively record occupational information for the father at the baptism or burial of his children, or at his own death, permit the reconstruction of how the risk of changing occupation for an individual changed over time. Additionally, similar techniques can be used to identify patterns of migration for families within a particular community. Family reconstitution essentially functions as a series of rules determining when a family is held to be in observation for the purpose of calculating age-specific rates of vital demographic events. However, these rules can also be used to identify the relationship between families who did subsequently migrate and other social, economic or demographic variables that might be at hand.

Preliminary results

The research findings that have so far emerged from this ongoing research are striking, and have significant implications for our understanding of demographic change during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Key amongst these is that the use of age at marriage statistics calculated for any given community to infer aggregate population change for that community can be seriously misleading since there is no necessary relationship between falling age at marriage and rapid population growth. Additionally, different socio-economic groups within particular communities possessed broadly similar patterns of demographic behaviour concerning marriage. In both the completed case studies of Banbury and Gainsborough, the most important determinant of population trends was changing patterns of out-migration, as economic development created more employment opportunities and hence niches for new households to be formed. In fact, trends in age at marriage in both Banbury and Gainsborough bore little relationship with the overall trends in population for these two towns. Additionally, long-term trends in demographic behaviour for different socio–economic groups were broadly similar, while it is very difficult to identify systematic variation in age at marriage for either sex or bridal pregnancy according to male occupation. Women from labouring backgrounds were disproportionately at risk of giving birth to illegitimate children; apart from this sole exception, the demographic experiences of labouring families – the most proletarianised element of eighteenth century society – was broadly similar to the other constituent elements of the two communities under study.

Instead, my research provides evidence to suggest the existence of an intimate relationship between marriage, migration and occupational change that served to promote economic development. Variations in migration patterns for different socio–economic groups were more marked than for ages at marriage or pre-marital sexual activity, while migration to and from individual communities was concentrated within the lifecycle stages most closely associated with family formation. Moreover, the statistical analysis of the risk of occupational change over time suggests that male family heads were most likely to change occupation at the same time as marriage. Through these related mechanisms, the family formation processes functioning in both Banbury and Gainsborough served to redistribute labour resources between the different sectors of the local economy. By acting as a relatively efficient means of redistributing labour resources between different sectors of the local economy, these relationships facilitated the division of labour, the creation of economic niches for new households and thus a virtuous circle of controlled demographic and economic growth.

The research for the Sedgley case study is still ongoing. However, it is clear that the patterns found here were different from the other case studies. The nine villages of Sedgley acted as a sponge, absorbing families who migrated into observation after marriage, who then tended to be less likely to move out of the parish than was the case in either Banbury or Gainsborough. Additionally, while age at marriage does seem to have been low in Sedgley, this does not seem to have been the key determinant of population growth. The mortality environment became increasingly prone to violent fluctuations throughout the eighteenth century as population increased, and instead sustained in-migration seems to have been the dynamic motor of population growth here. Finally, the patterns of occupation change over the male life course seem to have been broadly similar in all three locations, once differences in marriage and migration patterns have been accounted for.