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How typical is your family?

Updated Friday 6th January 2006

Evelyn Kerslake explains how demographics can help you understand your family history.

Linda and Shirley with family tree Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

If you’ve got the family history bug and are busy identifying and locating ancestors from the distant or more recent past, then a useful way to get the most from that information is by using it alongside demographics. By looking into the circumstances that form the setting for your family’s history, you can begin to see how typical they were. Historians call this putting your family history in context. In doing this, you can explore how individual family members relate to broader historical trends. You may even begin to see aspects of the relationship between individual ancestors and their society.

You could find out about that context by reading historical accounts of the period, place or activity associated with your ancestors. Similarly, by turning to historical demographics you can find out about ‘average’ or ‘typical’ population trends, including birth, marriage and death rates, economic activity and geographical mobility. If you know what the average person or family was doing at any particular time, then you can see how your particular family in the past measures up. Were they going with the flow and acting in similar ways to the majority of others? Or were they doing something different?

Demographic statistics are based on information from, for example, census reports or parish records. Data from these sources are used to calculate an average birth rate, or to find out the average age at which people married, when they died, how many children they had and so on.

Historical demographers have worked on many periods, from medieval times to the 20th century. Family historians may well find statistics based on the census reports of 1841-1901 particularly helpful, as these post-date civil registration for births, marriages and deaths which began in England in 1837. But first, a word of caution. Despite the wealth of information demographics can offer, we should note various limitations. National averages can mask local or regional variations, and averages don’t necessarily take into account differences based on sex, class, disability or ethnicity.

Also, in his book A Clearer Sense of the Census, (1996), Edward Higgs discusses the reliability of census data, which is the basis of much demographic work. He notes that the quality of the final data may have been affected by the way information was collected initially. Poorly paid and managed enumerators transcribed data from a form filled in by the householder (who may or may not have been sufficiently willing or literate to participate accurately) into their census enumerator’s book (CEB). Although this transcription was supposed to be double-checked, there is plenty of scope for inconsistency and error. To properly understand the comparison between your particular family and the statistical average, you should bear these considerations in mind.

Accepting this caution, how can you use historical averages? The historian Michael Anderson outlines two areas where demography can be helpful, and perhaps surprising, to family historians: migration and stability, and moral codes.


Linda and Shirley with family tree Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

First, migration and stability. The popular notion that the family in the past lived out its existence in one place without geographical upheaval has been routed by the work of demographers. Michael Anderson argued that “however hard we look” the geographically stable family was “very rare” in all but a few places in Britain and that this has been the case “since medieval times”. His work on a national sample of the 1851 census illustrates that under half the population lived where they were born, two-fifths had moved before their 15th birthday, and one in six had moved before their second birthday. Furthermore, these migratory patterns were similar for both people living in rural and urban areas. While the distances migrated were relatively short, existing transport systems and poor communications meant that this was sufficient to put the migrants out of easy reach of their relatives. Anderson’s work, therefore, depicts migration as a long established population trend.

So, how is this useful to family historians? Knowing that migration was a commonplace occurrence over many hundreds of years, it is possible to compare the migration, or lack of movement, of any individual family against this general picture. Did that family move around the country? If so, how far did they go? Did they move often, or only once? Did they move with other members of their family, or alone? Is it useful to break down the information we have by sex to see if the men in our family were more likely to migrate than women, or vice versa? Beginning with data about average migration patterns enables us to consider how a particular family compares to wider historical developments.

Accompanying the myth of the geographically stable family in the past, there’s also the idea that people in the past adhered to a conservative moral code, where sex before marriage was unheard of, children were born to married couples and marriage was a long-lasting partnership. Michael Anderson calls into question all these points, noting that, based on the birth of their first child, around 60 per cent of women in the early 19th century seem to have conceived that child before marriage. He also notes the constancy of the illegitimate birth rate from the mid-Victorian period to the 1960s. Finally, he argues that pre-20th century marital break-up rates “closely paralleled” modern ones, but were caused by the death of a spouse rather than by divorce.

Demographic work on sexual behaviour and marriage is helpful to family historians because it enables them to make comparisons between what was happening in a particular family and what was typical. It also highlights the importance of being aware that earlier families and societies might have similarities to our own, even if there are different reasons for that behaviour. However, it is helpful to refine these comparisons by also considering, for example, the impact of class on such behaviour. If a particular family in the early 19th century were atypical in having the first child conceived after marriage, might this have been because of middle class concerns about ‘respectability’? There is often no easy answer to such questions but asking them helps drive historical enquiry further.

Family historians, then, have a lot to gain from historical demography. Beyond making a comparison between the average and the particular, and assessing a family’s typicality or lack of it, it is also possible to begin to explore why that family in the past behaved as it did.

For example, it was typical in 1871 to be geographically mobile. However, my research shows that my family remained in two nearby Cambridgeshire villages. They were, therefore, atypical of their time in this respect, although in other areas, such as birth rates, they conformed to the average trend. With this knowledge, I’m in a position to ask more questions about my family. Knowing they were not behaving in the way most families were, I can ask ‘why not?’ What was it about them, or their situation, that made them stay put, when many people saw advantages in moving around the country?

To answer this, I need to move back from the general historical picture provided by demography and re-focus on the particular history of my family, and also on the relevant local history. The dynamic of family history, the movement from the particular family to the general context, continues by returning to the particular family again, this time able to ask different questions and to begin to consider why they lived as they did.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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