Ideas of social mobility under challenge as study shows descendants of 19th-century wealthy have kept their class advantages
We may like to think the stark divisions of Dickensian Britain are long gone. But, according to a study into social progress over the past millennium, little has changed since the 19th century.
Research shows that the descendants of people who in 1858 had "rich" surnames such as Mandeville, Percy and Darcy, indicating they were descended from the French nobility, are still substantially wealthier in 2011 than those with traditionally "poor" or artisanal surnames.
Drawing on data culled from official records that go back as far as the Domesday Book as well as university admissions and probate archives, Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, has tracked what became of people whose surnames indicated their ancestors had come from either the aristocratic or artisanal classes.
By studying the probate records of those with "rich" and "poor" surnames every decade since the 1850s, he found that the extreme differences in accumulated wealth narrowed over time.
But the value of the estates left by those belonging to the "rich" surname group, immortalised in the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy, the estate-owning hero in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, were above the national average by at least 10%, a statistically significant figure.
In addition, today the holders of "rich" surnames live three years longer than average, life expectancy being a strong indicator of socio-economic status.
The findings, described by Clark as sending a "clear, powerful, shock to our casual intuitions", undermine the commonly held belief that important societal developments such as the creation of the welfare state helped to level modern society's playing field. "The huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility," he said.
Clark's controversial research, which is to be presented at the Economic History Society's annual conference today, also suggests that widely-held perceptions about medieval England may have to be revised. Clark believes that the apparent social fluidity of the period contrasts starkly with that of industrial England.
"Over the last 150 years, the rate of social mobility revealed by surnames is slower than most social scientists have estimated – and is possibly slower than in the middle ages," Clark said.
"The modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy." Clark notes that many surnames in the medieval period indicated the bearer's occupation such as mason, carpenter or baker. Those bearing the surname "Smith", for example, were chiefly descended from the simple village blacksmiths that emerged in the middle of the 14th century.
Strikingly, by 1450 the share of "Smiths" at Oxford University, the entry for those wishing to rise to the highest positions in the church and therefore a key indicator of social achievement, was equal to their proportion across the general population.
And by 1650 there were as many "Smiths" in the top 1% of wealth holders as in the general population, suggesting they had been completely assimilated into the elite. Clark contrasted their progress with that of the nobility who arrived in England after the Norman Conquest and were recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Families such as the Darcys drew their names from the Normandy towns and villages from where they originally came.
His research suggests that by the 13th century these surnames were on average eight times as common at Oxford university as in the general population. However, by the early 15th century such names were only twice as common at the university as in the general population, suggesting many wealthy families were unable to sustain their privileged position during the period.