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The Occupational Structure of Britain, 1379-1911

A Leverhulme funded project run by Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley

This Leverhulme funded project is the third phase of a major research program based in the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure run by Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Tony Wrigley. The research aims ultimately to reconstruct the evolution of the occupational structure of Britain from the late medieval period down to twentieth century.

The old paradigm that the industrial revolution in Britain was a short and rapid transition (c.1750 to c,1850) is no longer tenable. We now know that not only was there much change and growth over the preceding two centuries but that the process remained incomplete in the mid-nineteenth century, however the old paradigm has not been replaced by a clear account of where, when and how change took place. No type of evidence is better adapted to identifying and measuring the timing and scale of economic change than information about changing occupational structure.

The purpose of this part of the project proposal is to examine the period before the classic industrial revolution. It should not only clarify the most important transition ever to take place in British economic history, but should also throw light on an issue which has attracted much attention in recent years. Was early modern England already significantly different from, say, Japan or the more advanced parts of China by c.1750?

There is sufficient source material available to make a study of changing occupational structure before 1750 feasible despite the some evidential lacunae for female employment. The nature and scale of female participation in economic activity is an issue of great importance to a fuller understanding of occupational change generally and the earlier phases of the project have revealed that there are indeed records which may supply sufficient information. The project aims to extend an analysis over the whole country for the late medieval and early modern period.

The project began by asking a number of key questions

  • Firstly, when and over what period or periods did the share of the labour-force outside agriculture rise to the levels we now know were obtained by the mid eighteenth century?
  • Secondly was the growth in secondary sector employment in the early modern period accompanied by tertiary growth?
  • Thirdly, how far did male and female patterns of employment follow the same or different paths?
  • Fourthly, during what periods and at what pace did the regional economic specializations that were so marked by the mid eighteenth century develop?
  • A fifth and closely connected question is when did the regionally distinctive rates of population growth and levels of population density, so evident by the mid eighteenth century, develop?
  • The last two questions relate to a sixth question, what was the role in this of improvements in transport infrastructure and facilities?

This project will make it possible to provide for the first time an overall account of a fundamental aspect of the changing structure of the English and Welsh economy from the late medieval period to the early eighteenth century. This will lead to a radically better understanding of the evolution of the English and Welsh economy in the centuries preceding the world's first industrial revolution and will therefore also make a major contribution to global economic history.

The methodology underlying the project is simple: to make the fullest possible use of the available quantifiable evidence relating to male and female occupations over the period from the late fourteenth through to the early eighteenth century in order to reconstruct the economic evolution of England and Wales both spatially and chronologically for the period before the classic industrial revolution. What is not at all simple is to find suitable source material and what follows sets out the sources the researchers plan to make use of.

Occupations: Anglican baptism registers 1690-1729

Occupations: Quasi-census documents

Occupations: Probate and court material

Sources of local population data:

Such as the Compton census of 1676 and the diocesan population returns for 1563 and 1603. The former was a return of households; the latter of communicants, non-communicants, and recusants. The later seventeenth-century hearth tax returns also provide parish-level information and diocesan visitations may also yield valuable estimates. Additionally, there are several hundred listings of inhabitants for individual settlements surviving for dates between c.1550 and 1801 (many held in the archive of the Cambridge Group). Finally, there is invaluable information for a much earlier date. Poll tax returns, giving number of lay tax-payers over the age of 14, are available for approximately 4,000 English villages in 1377

Sources on female occupations:

These can be problematic but within London the records of large institutions like schools, hospitals, many guilds and the criminal court records are available online. Court records are good for most of the country and published articles on much smaller places suggest that sources are indeed available: indictments under the statute of labourers; household and farm account books; the 1570 Norwich census of the poor; guild records; apprenticeship records; parish Easter books; and communicant and household listings. These sources all provide data on male and female occupations and the way forward is to analyse women's and men's occupations together, in the same locations, wherever they are available.

The transport infrastructure

By or multiple employments



From October 2016 Dr Leigh Shaw Taylor will be taking up a one year British Academy Mid Career Fellowship to allow him to publish the key findings, commence in-depth public engagement and to acquire some key new skills required to take the project forward.


The main website for the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure's research programme can be found here: