Social Mobility through Marriage in the Eighteenth Century

April 14, 2022 | Blog
Home > Social Mobility through Marriage in the Eighteenth Century

by Jeanette Holt (Royal Holloway University of London)

This blog is based on research made possible by the Research Fund for Graduate Students, funded by the Economic History Society.


Drunken and diseased people attending the wedding of William Huntington and the rich widow Sanderson (1800 ca)

Social mobility in the eighteenth century is not well understood due to the difficulty in obtaining sufficient evidence of social status and comparing status at different points in a person’s life.  This problem is exacerbated the further down the social spectrum a person was.  For the nineteenth century, identification of social status is facilitated by census records and civil registration, but a wider variety of sources is required for the eighteenth century.  My research compares the social status of brides and grooms for three London parishes between 1743 and 1763 in order to measure social mobility through marriage during this period.  The results have implications for our understanding of clandestine marriage in London just prior to the Clandestine Marriages Act, 1753.   Preliminary results indicate that clandestine marriage may have concealed larger social distances between brides and grooms, which may have been the primary motivation for many clandestine marriages.

Social status in the eighteenth century was not well defined and was somewhat tacit in nature.  People may have known where they stood in relation to one another but did not necessarily discuss this topic.  Defining social status for any individual can be a challenge, especially if they were not titled or well known.  Occupations are a good initial source but may be misleading  if used in isolation.  Financial data is also essential.  The social status of family members can yield clues to the status of the bride and groom because status was generally inherited from parents or for women, previous spouses.  Only rarely did a woman hold  social status in her own right.  This tended from to apply to widows, successful writers such as Frances Burney and Jane Austen, actresses, and some business women.  Conversely, men initially inherited  status from their fathers but after apprenticeship or work, developed their own status.

For the purposes of this study, social status is described using an eight-point scale from the higher aristocracy to paupers and vagrants.  Brides and grooms are allocated an occupational code and a financial code with the highest being used to define their position in society at the time of their marriage.  Attempts to categorise occupations include studies by The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, the Booth/Armstrong system used by Harvey et al, and the Historical International Standard Classification of Occupations (HISCO) for international data.  There are many others, but these do not categorise occupations according to social status, and some warn that this is not possible.  However, there are occupations which fall clearly within given social criteria, such as wool comber, doctor of physic, and bishop.  Others, such as brewer, lawyer, and waterman can conceal hidden wealth  or debt.  My methodology involves assigning a social level according to how an occupation was initially perceived, and using financial data to clarify social position.

A wide variety of sources are being investigated, including the Kingston History Centre, the Metropolitan Archives, and the Westminster Archives to assess couples from Kingston, St John Horsley Down in Bermondsey, and St Anne’s in Soho.  The marriage records to source the couples who married during that time include those from non-conformist religions and marriage licenses, where available.  To assess social status, the sources investigated include parish registers, wills, poor law, tax, petty and quarter sessions, other court records, personal papers, and newspapers.  Other  sources which can yield information on the social status of these couples will be considered.  The social status of the bride and groom is then compared to measure the social distance between them.

Preliminary results based on parish registers and wills indicate that there was a significant rise in marriages after the Clandestine Marriages Act.  This increase is well-established; but there also appears to be a rise in the social distance between couples – which is subject to change as other sources are investigated.  However, the implication is that the closure of clandestine marriage in London led to an immediate rise in church weddings.  This increase includes those who might originally have hidden social distance through the means of clandestine marriage until that avenue was closed to them.


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