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