The Professions in 19th Century Britain and Ireland

The nineteenth century witnessed a huge expansion in the number of people in Britain and Europe described as members of a profession. Industrialisation, imperial expansion and the growth of the state led to an ever-increasing demand for lawyers, doctors, religious ministers and teachers, as well as newer service providers such as accountants, bankers and civil engineers. Many historians have viewed the professions as forming part of a wider middle class that also included manufacturers, merchants and entrepreneurs. However we simply do not know whether the professions acted differently from other members of the middle class in terms of who they married, how they were educated, the arrangements they made for their children and the social and cultural activities they engaged in. In short, we do not know whether they formed part of the wider middle class or were, as Harold Perkin (1969) once suggested, a distinct social class.


The Professions in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland
Research Aims

We are now in a strong position to be able to understand how the professions behaved as a group within society. This can be achieved through the use of tools originally designed for a purpose other than academic research, namely genealogy. Using online family history resources such as Ancestry, the British Newspaper Archive, Family Search and Scotlands People to search censuses, parish registers, records of civil registration and probate indexes, we intend to construct individual life histories of 1,000 members of the professions in nine towns in England, Scotland and Wales, drawn from the 1851 census and chosen for their diversity (Leeds, Bristol, Brighton, Merthyr Tydfil, Dundee, Greenock, Alnwick, Morpeth and Winchester). We will use the data we collect to identify the social, religious and educational backgrounds of members of the professions, their marriage patterns, roles within local government, membership of clubs and societies and the role played by women in the establishment of professional dynasties. By better understanding these issues, we will be much closer to knowing whether there was a distinct professional class whose members engaged in similar civic, social and economic enterprises in their local communities. The statistical evidence will be supplemented with information gleaned from the records of mechanics institutes, literary societies, churches and other bodies, which are usually held in local authority record offices. We will also consult business records, diaries, correspondence and other personal papers.

A three year Economic and Social Research Council award enables Professor Laurence Brockliss (University of Oxford) and Professor Michael Moss (University of Northumbria) to build on initial research conducted during a John Fell funded pilot project.