Quantifying historical developments in occupational structures

September 28, 2016 | News
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Sebastian Keibek, University of Cambridge, won the New Researcher Prize at the Society’s conference in March for his work on England’s occupational structure. Establishing the occupational a structure of England before 1800 is made difficult because the nature of records is particularly complex. Here, he explains a little about his sources and methodology, and his important findings

Thirteen years ago, Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley embarked on a research project called ‘The Occupational Structure of Britain, 1379-1911’. As is clear from its title, the project aims to describe over five centuries of change in British working life. My research, which focuses on men’s work during the 1600 to 1850 period, is part of the wider project, building on earlier efforts and feeding back into the ongoing programme of research. Understanding occupational change is of interest to economic historians for many reasons, but I would like to highlight two of these here. Firstly, quantitative data on the composition of the labour force provide us with excellent information on the structure of the economy, uniquely so at sub-national geographic scales. Secondly, when independent output estimates are available, understanding the contemporary occupational structure allows us to determine labour productivity growth and, thereby, gauge the effects of technological and organisational change as well as the room for improvements in living standards.  

Both reasons are especially pertinent for historians trying to understand the British Industrial Revolution. Traditionally, economists analysing this critical transition to modern economic growth have reserved an important role for structural change in their models. Arthur Lewis, for example, virtually equated industrialisation with a shift in the occupational structure from agriculture to industry, by which underutilised labour in the former was put to more productive use in the latter (1). Simon Kuznets too emphasized ‘the shift away from agriculture to non-agricultural pursuits’, followed later by one from industry to services (2). Walt Rostow’s five-stages model of economic growth was also strongly stucturalist in nature, with the share of the working population engaged in agriculture declining from seventy-five to forty per cent during the ‘take-off’ stage, and to twenty per cent during ‘drive to maturity’ stage (3).

In its quantification of the Industrial Revolution, the authors of Britain’s national accounts literature – from Dean and Cole, via Crafts and Harley to, most recently, Broadberry et al – have based their occupational estimates almost entirely on so-called ‘social tables’ (4). These were created by contemporary proto-statisticians like Gregory King and Joseph Massie. But these tables only provide information at the national scale and only for a single moment in time, are phrased in terms which allow wildly varying interpretations, were created by men pushing specific political agendas, and are, as Holmes phrased it, ‘far more the product of strained deduction, of mathematical juggling, or even plain guesswork, than of firmly grounded information’ (5). 

Fortunately, much more reliable and detailed information on men’s work is available in a number of sources. National censuses provide increasingly good occupational information, but only from 1831, so other sources are required for earlier years. The most important of these are baptism registers and testamentary documents. From 1813, registering the occupations of fathers became mandatory in Anglican baptism and during the eighteenth century too, these occupations were reliably registered in some English and Welsh parishes. Male occupations were also commonly recorded in testamentary documents such as wills and probate inventories, which are available in large numbers for most English and Welsh counties, often back into the sixteenth century. Baptism registers and testamentary documents complement one another beautifully: the former are reliable but scarce, the latter are widely available but heavily biased towards certain social groups and occupations. My methodology makes use of the complementary strength and weaknesses of each source: baptism data are used to calibrate the (biased) testamentary data, whilst testamentary data are used to interpolate and extrapolate the (scarce) baptism data. This methodology was applied to a new national database of over two million probate records, created from indexes to testamentary documents in forty-six (out of fifty-four) English and Welsh counties. Using the existing Cambridge Group’s baptism register database to calibrate these probate data, tables at the occupational sub-sector level (farming, fishing, textiles, transport, etcetera) were created for every twenty-year time interval between 1600 and 1850, for England and Wales as well as for the forty-six individual counties. Additionally, successions of maps were created for each of these counties, depicting the labour shares of the three main sectors (primary, secondary, tertiary) at the registration district level.

The picture of the Industrial Revolution which emerges from these tables and maps differs dramatically from the traditional one. There was no structural shift from agriculture to manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution; instead, this shift took place from the second half of the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, with manufacturing overtaking agriculture as the largest male employer in c.1740. Whilst agriculture continued to decline in occupational importance after 1740, it was to the service sector rather than manufacturing to which superfluous labour flowed; whilst only one in eight men were employed in the service sector in 1740, this had risen to one in five a century later. But the occupational data also make clear that such national observations are only a small part of the story. The truly spectacular developments were regional in nature, with highly diverse trajectories for different parts of country. England and Wales witnessed rapid concentration of function, with regional economies focusing on their specific strengths, all tied together by a continuously growing number of transport workers. Where the north-west of England and the West Midlands rapidly industrialised, many southern English counties witnessed equally rapid de-industrialisation. Norfolk’s secondary sector labour share, for example, fell from a high of sixty-three per cent in 1700 to thirty-four per cent in 1820. Functional concentration took place at local levels too, as the example of Cheshire (see figure) demonstrates. Similarly, industry and services became more and more concentrated in urban areas; whereas half the secondary sector workers in 1700 were rural, this was the case for only one in three a century later.

Figure: Share of adult men working in the secondary sector (Cheshire, 1620-1820)


1.  Lewis, ‘Economic development with unlimited supplies of labour’, The Manchester School, 22:2 (1954), pp. 105-38.

 2.  From his Nobel Prize lecture titled ‘Modern economic growth: findings and reflections’, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1971/kuznets-lecture.html.

3.   Rostow, The stages of economic growth: a non-communist manifesto, 3d edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 71.

4.   Deane and Cole, British economic growth, 1688-1959: trends and structure, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 137; Crafts, British economic growth during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), pp. 11-7; Broadberry et al, British economic growth, 1270-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 345-60.

 5. Holmes, ‘Gregory King and the social structure of pre-Industrial England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 27 (1977), p. 63.

I am currently finishing my PhD dissertation which will serve as the basis of a number of papers on the methodology and conclusions described above as well as a planned book jointly authored with Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley. More generally, the baptism and probate data offer a uniquely detailed basis to (re)analyse issues of economic development at regional, local, and national scales – there is much work to be done!

Sebastian Keibek, sk571@cam.ac.uk