Clark G. and Hamilton G. (2006) Survival of the richest in pre-industrial England

Clark Gregory and Hamilton Gillian (2006) “Survival of the Richest : The Malthusian Mechanism in Pre-Industrial England”, Journal of Economic History, 66/3, 707-736.

Clark and Hamilton

All the tables and figures of this post have been shamelessly stolen from this article available on line.


The ‘Malthusian’ model of pre-industrial societies depicts a situation in which “incomes are kept at subsistence levels by the interaction of fertility and land supply” (707). Although, due to a chronic lack of sources, the relationship implied by this model between wealth and reproductive success has proved elusive(708). Different studies contradict each other (709). Life expectancy did not seem to significantly rise during the periods of high wages such as the 15th century. Similarly, over the pre-industrial era it appears that was only a slight correlation between higher grain price and reduced fertility (a doubling of prices would on average only lead to a reduction in fertility inferior to 15%).

The authors measure the reproductive success of the males aged 16 and above in England c.1600 (i.e. “the number of surviving children a man had at the time of his death, counting as surviving children also children who were dead but had themselves left surviving children”). They “find that wealth at death […]was powerfully connected with reproductive success. The richest males left twice as many offspring as the poorest” (710).

Method and issues with the sample

The English population during the pre-industrial period managed to increase by about 0.56% a year (the average number of daughters per woman was around 1.21) (711). Even though, wills were made above all by those who had something to bequeath in the first place, it seems that people very low on the social ladder were also writing wills (712). As 77% of the wills of the authors’ sample were written within a year of the testator’s death, they ought to represent quite accurately the number of surviving children (713). Most children – even the married daughters – were mentioned in the wills, even by the poorest testators (716).

Result: survival of the richest

As a result, married men with less than £10 in bequests would typically have less than 2 children while those with more than £1,000 would have nearly 4 (721). This is confirmed by the fact that the average testator in England would leave 2.58 children behind him, so even if the poorest testator did forget some of their children, the richest class would still have a reproductive rate much higher than the rest of the population (722). Furthermore, “only 54% of the poorest testators would leave a son, as compared to 74% of the richest” (723).

On the other hand, the socio-professional status has a much milder impact than wealth. The gentry was not particularly successful and the labourers had only 0.8 children less than the top three social groups. Literacy and occupation are similarly quantitatively and statistically insignificant (724). As rich testators were not dying significantly older than the poorer ones, added time to accumulate assets and to produce offspring is not a significant variable (727).


The rich testators of the sample did not marry younger than the others and seem to not have had a longer life expectancy. The marriage rate was not significantly higher amongst rich men than among poor ones. So “the greater reproductive success of richer men lay predominantly in the fact that they produced more surviving offspring per year of marriage. […] They may have married younger brides, they may have remarried at higher rates if their first wife died, or their children may have survived infancy or childhood better” (730).


Because of the scarcity of high pay positions and other wealth producing assets, “the great reproductive success of richer testators […] meant that their children had to be on average moving down the social ladder […] reasonably rapidly.” (731). While the testators with less than £10 in assets where 65% of the recorded population, their children only amounted to 53% of the total. On the other hand, the testators with more than £500 were only 7.9% but their offspring amount for 13.1% of the next generation.

“Given that assets per person in the population probably stayed constant over this interval, there thus must have been considerable net downward mobility in the population. Nearly half of the sons of higher class testators would end up in lower asset class at death. Indeed net mobility would be downward for testators in all the groups with £25 or more in assets.”

Enlarging the scope
After 1250, the king of England’s administration reported the death of all the king’s feudal tenant as a tax was paid upon succession (732).

“In the two periods in medieval England where the population was stable or growing, 1250-1349, and 1450-1500, tenants in chief were producing on average about 1.8 surviving son, nearly double the population average. Even in years of population decline from 1350 to 1450, though implied surviving sons per tenant in chief declined, it remained at above the replacement rate in most decades.”

The same causes must have produced the same effect in medieval and early modern England: net downward social mobility. A similar trend as also been observe in 17th- to 19th-century Austria and Germany. On the other hand, evidence from 17th- and 18th-century Quebec indicate that French Canada was a society of upward social mobility. (734).


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2 Responses to Clark G. and Hamilton G. (2006) Survival of the richest in pre-industrial England

  1. Yefan Zhao says:

    Hi Ben,

    I had a question regarding your post “Clark G. and Hamilton G. (2006) Survival of the richest in pre-industrial England” That post had a painting of a family dressed in black, and I was wondering where you got it, or what the title/author is. I would like to use it in a work of mine and I was wondering if it was copyrighted or had the copyright expired?

    Thank you,

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