An­drew Chap­man ex­plores a study of wealth and so­cial mo­bil­ity across the last 150 years

Your Family History - - Contents -

An­drew Chap­man looks at the haves and have-nots of his­tory – are our an­ces­tors to blame for our wealth, or lack of it?

Last month we men­tioned the Fam­i­lies of Eng­land web­site (‘Have You Seen?, YFH Au­gust 2017, p9), and I couldn’t re­sist hav­ing a deeper poke around (see www. fam­i­liesofeng­land.com). The site is the work of aca­demics Greg Clark and Neil Cum­mins, and pri­mar­ily pro­vides a home for var­i­ous re­search pa­pers on the themes of wealth and so­cial mo­bil­ity.

Given that the higher ech­e­lons of gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety to­day are per­me­ated by Oxbridge grad­u­ates and old Eto­ni­ans, these re­main is­sues as per­ti­nent as ever. When Clark and Cum­mins started pub­lish­ing the re­sults of their re­search, from 2012 on­wards, the me­dia have been be­side them­selves to stir up the so­cial di­vide be­tween the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. ‘How hav­ing the right sur­name STILL sets you up for life,’ the Daily Mail cried in 2014, for ex­am­ple. So let’s look at the actual re­search.

In their pa­per ‘Is most wealth in­her­ited or cre­ated?’, the au­thors fo­cus on Eng­land from 1858 to 2012. They be­gin with the work of econ­o­mist Thomas Piketty, whose work has fo­cused on sim­i­lar is­sues in France, and con­cluded (in Clark and Cum­mins’ words) that wealth in­creas­ingly de­rives not from in­di­vid­ual choice and ini­tia­tive ‘but through the blind forces of in­her­i­tance’. So much for the Amer­i­can Dream, per­haps.

Their method was to cre­ate a sam­ple of English fam­i­lies with rare sur­names (ie eas­ier to trace), cov­er­ing 57,000 births and deaths be­tween 1858 and 2012. Of these, 23,000 peo­ple were de­scended from fam­i­lies which were very wealthy be­tween 1858 and 1887, and 34,000 from ‘av­er­age or poor’ fam­i­lies in the same era.

Their def­i­ni­tion of rare is sur­names held by 40 or fewer peo­ple in 1881 and with at least one adult death be­tween 1858 and 1887. Ea­gle- eyed fam­ily his­to­ri­ans will have al­ready spot­ted that the post-1858 date means the Na­tional Pro­bate Calendar pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about wealth at death – the fig­ure used by the au­thors is for ‘per­son­alty’, ie all prop­erty other than real es­tate. In­ci­den­tally, it was in­ter­est­ing to learn from this pa­per that only 15 per cent of adults in this late-19th cen­tury pe­riod had their es­tates val­ued for pro­bate – the other 85 per cent owned less than the pre­scribed £10 es­tate thresh­old. And, in­deed, that the pro­bate calendar only cov­ered per­son­alty orig­i­nally, and the value of the whole es­tate was only cal­cu­lated from 1894 on­wards.

The list of rich fam­i­lies (com­piled with the help of a book by Wil­liam Ru­bin­stein, Who Were the Rich?, which pro­vides bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about fam­i­lies be­tween 1809 and 1839) even sounds wealthy, and I’d love to hear Rowan Atkin­son read­ing it out in the man­ner of his school­mas­ter char­ac­ter. It be­gins: Agace, Agar-El­lis, Aglen, Ah­muty, Al­le­cock, Aloof, Al­sager, Anger­stein… Their av­er­age es­tate wealth at death was £21,578 (the Mea­sur­ing Worth web­site I men­tioned in this col­umn two months ago sug­gests this is the equiv­a­lent of at least £1.9m to­day – and, re­mem­ber, this doesn’t in­clude prop­erty).

One thing the re­search re­vealed was that the per­cent­age of na­tional in­come rep­re­sented by be­quests was a great deal higher in the past than it is to­day – it has de­clined from more than a fifth in the late 19th cen­tury to as lit­tle as four per cent in the 1980s. But the au­thors’ main con­clu­sion is about the ‘strong in­her­i­tance of wealth across gen­er­a­tions’. The av­er­age cor­re­la­tion of wealth to sur­name in the rich group is 83 per cent for 1999-2012. Truly, the rich are al­ways with us.

That said, the wealth of these mod­ern de­scen­dents is em­phat­i­cally not be­cause the actual money keeps pass­ing down the fam­ily tree: it is what the wealth cre­ates around it. Only 43 per cent at most of cur­rent wealth de­rives from di­rect in­her­i­tance. The au­thors con­clude: ‘wealth cor­re­lates strongly across gen­er­a­tions mainly be­cause of the in­her­i­tance of ed­u­ca­tional and oc­cu­pa­tional sta­tus, and not be­cause of wealth trans­fers them­selves’.

All this is de­spite the enor­mous so­cial changes of the last cen­tury, in­clud­ing uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion and the wel­fare sys­tem. Clark and Cum­mins are gloomy about the likely suc­cess of ‘so­cial mo­bil­ity’ pro­grammes – al­though that’s hardly rea­son enough not to try to lift peo­ple out of poverty.

Is it too late to save up for Eton?

Sir Joseph Bazal­gette, master­mind of Lon­don’s sewer net­work, and his great-great-grand­son Sir Peter Bazal­gette, the arts and broad­cast­ing lu­mi­nary who is cur­rently ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of ITV. The sur­name Bazal­gette is one of those stud­ied by Greg Clark and Neil Cum­mins in terms of its in­ter­gen­er­a­tional as­so­ci­a­tion with wealth

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