Families of England is a project to reconstruct the economic and social position, and the demography, of a representative set of English families from 1750 to the present. It looks at the determination of social outcomes over multiple generations, and the role of inheritance, family size, geography, and assortative mating.

We employ both individual family histories, but also analysis at the level of surnames, to answer these key questions.

The project thus combines economic logic, historical sources, and big data analytics. Our research papers are downloadable below.

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Our Findings

Social Mobility

Status is inherited with greater strength than height

Family Size

There is no trade-off between the quantity and quality of children


The north of England declined because of outmigration of talent

Family Matters?

Not much in fact

Sources of Wealth

Less than half of all wealth is inherited

And More ...

Research is ongoing

We want your family history

Let's work together: Send us your family trees in Gedcom format

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New Paper

Matriline versus Patriline: Social Mobility in England, 1754-2023✣

If social outcomes have social causation, mothers and fathers in different societies will have different effects on child outcomes. Social mobility rates on the patriline will differ from that on the matriline. From an extensive family lineage of 426,552 persons in England 1650-2023 we estimate the influence of mothers versus fathers on social outcomes 1754-2023. Mothers’ and fathers’ education and social status are equally predictive of most child social outcomes across the entire period, even for the patriarchical society of eighteenth-nineteenth century England. Only for wealth was there a much stronger influence of the patriline.

Assortative Mating and the Industrial Revolution: England, 1754-2021✣

Using a new database of 1.7 million marriage records for England 1837-2021 we estimate assortment by occupational status in marriage, and the intergenerational correlation of occupational status. We find the underlying correlations of status groom-bride, and father-son, are remarkably high: 0.8 and 0.9 respectively. These correlations are unchanged 1837-2021. There is evidence this strong matching extends back to at least 1754. Even before formal education and occupations for women, grooms and brides matched tightly on educational and occupational abilities. We show further that women contributed as much as men to important child outcomes. This implies strong marital sorting substantially increased the variance of social abilities in England. Pre-industrial marital systems typically involved much less marital sorting. Thus the development of assortative marriage may play a role in the location and timing of the Industrial Revolution, through its effect on the supply of those with upper-tail abilities.

The Big Sort: Selective Migration and the Decline of Northern England 1780-2018✣

The North of England is now poorer and less educated than the South. Using complete population data at the surname level 1837-2006, and a large sample of individuals born 1780-1929, this paper shows two things. First an important element in the decline of the North was selective outmigration of those with education and talent. This migration is evident even for the generation born 1780-1809, and continued to those born 1900-1929. There was also selective migration to the South of those with education and talent coming from outside England -, Scottish, Pakistanis and others. However the migration of talent to the South created no significant external benefits to workers in the South, as would be predicted by the doctrines of the New Economic Geography. Surnames concentrated in the North do not show any national disadvantage in education, occupation or wealth. Also for workers of a given education or social background there is at most a very modest locational disadvantage associated with being born in the North. Thus there will be no efficiency gain from facilitating further migration south from the North, or from further efforts to bolster the economy of the North through government aid.

Twins Reveal Absence of Fertility Control in Pre-Industrial Western European Populations✣

with Matt Curtis

Using evidence from the accident of twin births we show that for four Western European pre-industrial population samples – England 1538-1826, England 1730-1879, France 1670-1789 and Quebec, 1621-1835 – there was no evidence of control of fertility within marriage. If a twin was born to a family in any of these populations, average family size increased by 1 compared to families with a singleton birth at the same parity and mother age, with no reduction of subsequent fertility. Twin births also show no differential effect on fertility when they occur at high, as opposed to low, parities. This is in contrast to populations where fertility is known to have been controlled by at least some families, such as England, 1900-49. There a twin birth increased average births per family by significantly less than 1.

Is Most Wealth Inherited or Created? England, 1858-2012

To estimate the share of inherited wealth in total wealth, we employ a sample of English families with rare surnames over the period from 1858 to 2012. By looking at the total wealth of the rare surname families by generation we can estimate an upper bound of the share of inherited wealth relative to all wealth. We find that at maximum only 43% of the capital stock in any generation derived from inheritance, with 57% created de novo.

Surnames and Social Mobility

To what extent do parental characteristics explain child social outcomes? Typically, parent-child correlations in socioeconomic measures are in the range 0.2-0.6. Surname evidence suggests, however, that the intergenerational correlation of overall status is much higher. This paper shows, using educational status in England 1170-2012 as an example, that the true underlying correlation of social status is in the range 0.75-0.85. Social status is more strongly inherited even than height. This correlation is constant over centuries, suggesting an underlying social physics surprisingly immune to government intervention. Social mobility in England in 2012 is little greater than in pre-industrial times. Surname evidence in other countries suggests similarly slow underlying mobility rates

Inter-generational Mobility in England, 1858-2012

This paper uses a panel of 21,618 people with rare surnames whose wealth is observed at death in England and Wales 1858-2012 to measure the intergeneration elasticity of wealth over five generations. We show, using rare surnames to track families, that wealth is much more persistent over generations than standard one generation estimates would suggest. There is still a significant correlation between the wealth of families five generations apart. We show that this finding can be reconciled with standard estimates of wealth mobility by positing an underlying Markov process of wealth inheritance with an intergenerational elasticity of 0.70-0.75 throughout the years 1858-2012. The enormous social and economic changes of this long period had surprisingly little effect on the strength of inheritance of wealth

Surnames: a New Source for the History of Social Mobility

This paper explains how surname distributions can be used as a way to measure rates of social mobility in contemporary and historical societies. This allows for estimates of social mobility rates for any population for which we know just two facts: the distribution of surnames overall, and the distribution of surnames among some elite or underclass. Such information exists, for example, for England back to 1300, and for Sweden back to 1700. However surname distributions reveal a different, more fundamental type of mobility than that conventionally estimated. Thus surname estimates also allow for measuring a different aspect of social mobility, the underlying average social status of families, but the aspect that matters for mobility of social groups, and for families across multiple generations.

Malthus to Modernity: Wealth, Status and Fertility in England, 1500-1879

A key challenge to theories of long-run economic growth has been linking the onset of modern growth with the move to modern fertility limitation. A notable puzzle for these theories is that modern growth in England began around 1780, 100 years before there was seemingly any movement to limit fertility. Here we show that the aggregate data on fertility in England before 1880 conceals significant declines in the fertility of the middle and upper classes earlier. These declines coincide with the Industrial Revolution, and are of the character predicted by some recent theories of long-run growth.

Urbanization, Mortality, and Fertility in Malthusian England

The modern world is the product of two momentous changes: the Industrial Revolution of 1800, which brought sustained efficiency advances in economies, and the Demographic Transition of 1900, which channeled those efficiency advances mainly into increased income per capita, instead of increases in population. How these revolutions were connected has been a persistent unsolved puzzle in the history of growth. The Demographic Transition was achieved without any improvement in contraceptive technologies from those of 1800 and earlier. It was a possibility for all preindustrial societies. Why did it occur only after the Industrial Revolution?

20 Jan 2017, BBC ->Talking Business

2 Feb 2015, China Daily ->Children of today's super-rich will still be wealthy in 300 years' time

1 Feb 2015, Daily Mail ->Keeping it in the family: Children of today's super-rich ...

1 Feb 2015, Telegraph ->The wealthier your ancestors the more successful you will be, study concludes

31 Jan 2015, Guardian ->Inheritance: how Britain’s wealthy still keep it in the family

3 Dec 2014, Discovery News ->Elite Families Stay Elite for Centuries

25 Nov 2014, ZmeScience.com ->How the rich stay rich: social status is more inheritable than height

18 Nov 2014, Daily Mail ->How having the right surname STILL sets you up for life

17 Nov 2014, Phys.org ->Family ties that bind: Having the right surname sets you up for life

17 Nov 2014, Science20.com ->Domesday Book Listing Is Still A Ticket To Being Upper Class In England

30 Oct 2013, Telegraph ->Same names have attended Oxbridge since the Norman Conquest

29 Oct 2013, BBC ->Lady Mary needn't worry - Britain's elite will survive

29 Oct 2013, Daily Mail ->So much for social mobility

30 Oct 2013, Independent ->Are you of the Pemberley Darcys?

30 Oct 2013, Independent ->I’d offer my opinion about our feudal society, but I’m only a humble Dent

30 Oct 2013, Huffington Post ->'Elite' Surnames Such As Darcy, Mandeville, Have Studied At Oxbridge...

30 Oct 2013, CNBC ->What's in a name? Wealth and social mobility, study says

30 Oct 2013, Guardian ->You don't need a posh name for Oxford or Cambridge, but it does seem to help

9 Feb 2013, Economist ->Surnames offer depressing clues to the extent of social mobility over generations

13 Oct 2013, Economist ->Like father, not like son

18 Oct 2012, Washington Post ->How your last name will doom your descendants centuries from now

2 Sep 2013, Gawker.com ->A Rockefeller By Any Other Name Would Make Just as Much