Gregory King was an amateur statistician who attempted to produce, by using tax returns, a census for England for the year 1688. This was the first time such a detailed project had been carried through, and predated the first government census by more than a century. Historians have debated ever since as to how accurate his figures were, but any social history of the time is likely to begin with King’s findings.
His method was to divide the population into five broad categories: first, the landowning gentry; then what we would today call the professional middle classes; the working farmers; the shopkeepers and craftsmen; and finally, much the biggest class, the poor. Each category was then subdivided by job or rank, the number of households in each subdivision given, and an average annual income and expenditure calculated for each. The most obvious defect with this system is that the “household” included not just immediate family, but all dependents living on the premises, including servants and apprentices; and that therefore no figures are given for these huge demographic classes. (Conversely, the poorest classes would have very small “households” under this system, for all their children would have left home at a very young age, to work as apprentices or servants)
King’s first class is the landowning elite. It is headed by the 160 noble families, with an average household of 40 and an annual income of £3000. (Some of the wealthiest might have been worth ten times this, with well over 100 servants). There then follow the 26 Bishops (who would mostly have been drawn from the landowning class), and over 16,000 non-noble landowners, labelled as “baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen” (see notes, below). Their average incomes ranged from £800 down to £280, and their household size from 16 to 8. The expenditure of the landowners would also be very high, though largely voluntary: huge sums might be expended on building, entertaining, art-collecting and politics, let alone gambling; but much of this was deemed necessary to maintain a social position, and landowners who did not spend lavishly were rarely respected.
The second-most-prosperous class is the professional or educated middle class, though of course King did not use such a term. It included such people as merchants, government officials, lawyers, clergy and military officers. There are approximately 65,000 households in this class, with 4 to 8 in a household, indicating that virtually all would normally keep a servant or two. Incomes ranged widely: a merchant trading internationally might be worth over £400 a year, and top officials could well be better-off than the poorer gentry; whereas a poor curate might have to struggle on as best he could on under £50. Many of this class would have been younger sons of the landowning class, obliged to go out and earn their living.
The twenty years following King's survey increased the importance and wealth of this class immensely: the need to finance two major wars against France led to the creation of the National Debt and the Bank of England, and the emergence of the City of London as the world's greatest financial centre. The sudden rise to prominence of the new millionaire financiers was deeply resented by traditionalist landowners, but many noblemen saw the possiblilities of reviving the family fortunes by marrying their sons to the daughters of wealthy bankers.
The third class is the working farmers, divided into 160,000 freeholders, who owned their land outright, and 150,000 tenant farmers. (At this time, the word “farmer” did not necessarily involve agriculture, but meant someone who rented; as in “tax-farming” or even “baby-farming”). Incomes ranged from over £90 to under £40. The better-off farmers would have farm-hands or maids living with them.
The very large number of farmers contrasts with the comparatively small number of shopkeepers (50,000) and skilled artisans (60,000), showing that England in Gregory King’s day is still an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Their incomes are estimated as £38-£45 a year. Households are small; a shopkeeper or craftsman probably has one or more apprentices living on the premises, but his own sons have gone to be apprenticed with someone else.
Finally we come much the biggest class of all: the poor. King actually labels them as “persons decreasing the wealth of the country”, since he could not see how they could survive on their miserable incomes. The numbers are vast: 364,000 households of unskilled labourers on an average of £15 a year; 400,000 “cottagers and paupers” (the last remnants of the English peasantry), barely surviving on £7 or so a year, and before long to be reduced even further by the Enclosure movement; 85,000 “Common soldiers and sailors” on £14 - £20; and finally the extraordinarily large number of 30,000 “vagrants and beggars”, with virtually no assessable income. King thus calculated this vast class of the poor as more than half the population of the country; but since his working method did not assess servants as a separate category, the overall number of poor people would in reality be even greater.
The total population of England, according to King, would be 5½ million (a tenth of today’s figure), of whom well over half lived in a household with an income of less than £20 per year. Although King does not attempt any breakdown by age, it would have been a country dominated by youth. Surveys in specific towns at the time suggest that two thirds of the population would have been under 25 years old. The total number of adult males in the country would probably be little over one million.
England was still overwhelmingly agricultural: about 75% of the people lived in the countryside; 10% lived in London, and all other towns put together contained a mere 15% of the population! It was only in the census of 1851 that it was found that the majority of people lived in towns - probably the first time this had ever happened in human history!
1. One crucial difference between England and most Continental countries was the very small number of nobles: 160 in King’s day, rising from around 50 in Tudor times to reach 500 or more in Victorian Britain and over 1000 today. By contrast there was in England a large class of landowning gentry, who were, legally, “commoners”. By contrast, in France, Spain, Germany, Poland or elsewhere all the landowning class were nobles, with particular caste privileges (in some countries only a nobleman could own land, become an army officer, hold certain offices of state, etc), none of which applied in England. But conversely, these countries had a great many poor nobles, many of them hardly better-off than the peasants, but clinging proudly to their privileges. The English nobles were few, but all were rich. One consequence of the small numbers was that the English nobles were too few to constitute an inbred group: noble families tended to become extinct after a few generations, hardly any noble families could trace their line back to the Middle Ages, and numbers were constantly having to be replenished from below; usually from the richer gentry and successful generals, admirals and politicians.
2. The “baronets, knights, squires and gentlemen” of King’s classification are collectively known as the “gentry”. At some time in the Middle Ages it was decided that these people were legally commoners, not nobles. In consequence, these people were eligible for election to the House of Commons, and from Tudor times right through to the start of the 20th century, they dominated it: almost all M.P.s were landowning gentry, plus a sprinkling of lawyers, officials and military men, with just a few rich merchants from the big cities. This is of crucial political importance: the House of Commons was run by a class of rich, influential and independent-minded landowners, without whom the history of England would have been very different.
3. Exactly who, or what, was a “gentleman”? In King’s day it had a specific meaning, namely; someone who was sufficiently rich not to have to work his land with his own hands. (“ A gentleman did not get his hands dirty”). But as the economy grew and became more complex, questions arose. Was a successful lawyer a “gentleman”? or what about a top official, or even a rich merchant? In the end, the term “gentleman” came to acquire its present meaning: someone with polite manners. (I hope to explore this matter further in a future entry)
4. The chances of the children of the poorest families ever rising in the world were very slight. Even becoming shopkeepers or skilled artisans might be beyond them. Craftsmen ( the carpenters, smiths, weavers etc) were trained and qualified by apprenticeships, which had been tightly regulated ever since Tudor times. But for a boy to enter an apprenticeship for a well-paid “trade”, his father would probably have to put up some money, which would be beyond the reach of the very poor. In some cases it was even more difficult; when Shakespeare was a boy in Stratford-on-Avon, the tradesmen of the town were ordered only to accept apprentices from the children of their fellow-citizens, and were banned from taking on peasant boys from the countryside.
One of the very few legitimate outlets for an ambitious boy from such a background was to join the army. The pay of a private soldier was too low to attract a skilled man, and the army was recruited overwhelmingly from the farms (plus a fair number of petty criminals on the run!). Discipline was very harsh, but the restless peasant lad could at least expect a reasonable diet, better clothes and footwear, and the chance of adventure and maybe some plunder!
(In my next entry, I shall look at England around 1700; particularly the various roles of the different classes in the politics and local government of the time)