There’s been a lot of interest lately in a study looking at wealthy families in England, which shows that people with ‘posh’ surnames are just as likely to be well-off as their ancestors in 1850 were. Social mobility’s a myth, it suggests. You're more likely to inherit your great-great-grandparents' jobs than their height.
And you may think that’s not surprising. England’s just as divided by class now, you might say, as it was in the days of Downton Abbey – or Wolf Hall.
But wait a minute – there are similar results in the USA. And in Japan, India, South Korea, Chile, and (surprisingly) Sweden and even China.
So here's the question for genealogists and family historians: do the jobs your great-great-grandparents did predict what you do today?
And before anyone says: "What? I’m a web designer, my partner’s a radiologist, my sister works in TV and my brother’s an air traffic controller," let’s stop and think about what those jobs really mean.
|No, Ug, you can't be a farmer. Our family's always been hunter-gatherers.|
Why do people do the work they do? For money, of course, or because they love it (if they’re lucky), but also for status. That’s what people are really asking when they say: "And what do you do?" They mean: "What sort of person are you?" and "Are you like me?" And if the answer’s "I’m the CEO of a finance company and my husband’s a rat-catcher" there would be a few startled people wondering what people with such different status (and incomes) are doing together. Even in 2015.
I’ve taken a look back at my own great-great-grandparents. On my Welsh grandmother’s side there were farmers. John Lloyd and his wife Elizabeth Jones farmed, just as their parents had done (and, I’m willing to bet, their own great-great-grandparents did). So did Thomas Davies and Sarah, his wife. They had middle-sized farms and employed help, so they would’ve been comfortably off, neither poor nor rich.
My Welsh grandfather’s family isn’t so easy to track down. Griffith Owen, my great-grandfather, was a mariner and it’s possible that his wife Elizabeth’s father was involved in the same trade. But I haven’t been able to track them down any further, partly because pinning down a Griffith Owen from Anglesey has turned out to be tough – there were a lot of them, and the records aren’t consistent. Still, my research shows that his father was a probably a farmer, an agricultural labourer, a slate-splitter, a brewer, or worked for the railway.
|Moyne, where Lucy and Thomas Delaney lived © Patricia Owen|
On the Australian side, Thomas Delaney and Lucy Simpson were farmers, again neither poor nor rich. Thomas’s father, Nicholas Delaney, my first convict, settled down as a farmer after being a roadbuilder. Lucy’s parents, both convicts, were a tailor and a farm servant.
Robert Sandon Wilson worked in the New South Wales goldfields but disappeared a few years after marrying my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Emma Henley (or Dicks). A photo of Sarah and their children shows them as respectably dressed, but I don’t know what she did for money after Robert vanished.
On my Aussie grandmother’s side, James Thomas Richards, a convict, became a top waterman and I’ve no evidence of his wife Rebecca Harrington working. John Winter, a rail labourer, was poor enough to take an ‘assisted passage’ to Australia – in other words, his fare was paid by a sponsor – and took up his father’s trade of quarryman. I haven’t found out what his wife, Ann Graham, another assisted immigrant and a blind pauper’s daughter, did to bring in money.
It’s a mixture of poor and comfortably-off people, all hard-working. Mostly they carried on doing what their parents had done. For some, going to Australia meant they had better lives, but they didn’t all end up with higher status – to be a convict, even a well-off one, left you with a ‘stain’ in respectable society. It was my grandparents who broke away from the family trades and moved to white-collar jobs in cities, though my Lloyd grandmother kept the family farm going. All still working hard.
And that’s what I do today – tapping away at my keyboard in a city. Job status-wise, what does that make me? Not high, not low, somewhere in the middle, like most people living in the UK. Despite our obsession with class – and the fact that the income gap is widening.
I’d love to know what you think about this five-generation theory, and if your great-great-grandparents’ jobs have any relation to you today.
Are you working in the same sort of trade or craft? Or have you broken away?