Consumption, wealth, indebtedness and social structure in early modern England

Sneath, Kenneth George 

Change log
Chapter 1 introduces the main question addressed in this thesis: was there a 'consumer revolution' in England in the third quarter of the eighteenth century? The question was posed by Neil McKendrick in The birth of a consumer society published in 1983. McKendrick called for 'detailed quantitative work' on probate inventories to answer the question. Probate inventories pose challenges to the historian and their interpretation is enhanced when they are used in conjunction with other sources. This is the subject of chapter 2. Following McKendrick's call, two major studies were carried out. The first was Lorna Weatherill's Consumer behaviour and material culture in 1988 and the second was Overton et al, Production and consumption in English households in 2004. 1 Weatherill's study was based on eight regions in England and Overton et al's on two counties, Kent and Cornwall. However, there were major problems in their approach. The first problem concerned is coverage of the vital period after 1750. Both studies rejected McKendrick's proposed 'consumer revolution' in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Yet Weatherill only covered the period up to 1725 and Overton et al had relatively few primary sources beyond 1730 and their study period terminated in 1750. The main reason for this failure was non survival of the sources. The second problem faced by both studies arose because few inventories for labourers survived for their selected locations. 2 Labourers represented the largest social group in most parts of England and evidence about their possessions is important in establishing how far ownership of consumer goods extended down the social scale. 1 L., Weatherill, Consumer behaviour and material culture in Britain 1660-1760, (2"d edn. London, 1996); M., Overton, J., Whittle, D., Dean and A Hann Production and consumption in English households 1600- 1750 (Abingdon, 2004) 2 Weatherill, Consumer behaviour and material culture, pp.21 0-1; Overton et a!, Production and consumption in English households, p.22. The two studies by Weatherill and by Overton et al showed that locality had a profound influence on the consumption of goods. This thesis is based on Yorkshire and Huntingdonshire. Chapter 3 explores the contrasting economies of these two counties, Yorkshire in the heartland of industrial change, and Huntingdonshire, an agricultural county. These counties were also chosen because both had large numbers of probate inventories covering the crucial period after 1750 and Huntingdonshire had more than 250 inventories for labourers. Based on 2949 probate inventories and over 400 probate accounts, this thesis represents the second largest study of consumption using probate records. It is the first evidence about consumption based on probate material dated after 1750. Consumption of consumer goods is related to social structure as well as location. Chapter 4 considers the problems in defining social and occupational groups. It demonstrates that social groups were not homogenous but represented a wide range of people. Two f~ctors influence social structure and relative personal wealth: the extent to which agriculture was practised and scale of credit. Chapter 5 examines agricultural production and the extent of by-employment. Chapter 6 discusses the importance and scale of borrowing and lending in the early modern economy and its impact on assessment of individual wealth. The inventoried population was not the same as the population in society as a whole. The problem of representativeness, discussed in chapter 7, is difficult to resolve. Overton et al admitted that their sample of inventories was not random and therefore that their results could not be generalised to the entire population of Kent or Cornwall. Weatherill did not attempt a study of society as a whole but people of middle rank. By using occupational data recorded in Anglican baptism registers and hearth tax records 2 the present study seeks for the first time to measure the extent to which probate records reflect the whole population. The economic changes of the early modern period were reflected not just in material goods but in the houses in which they were displayed. Housing is considered in chapter 8 and chapter 9 examines ownership patterns of selected consumer goods. These consumer goods included both new products such as clocks and more 'traditional' goods such as bedding and silver. Consumer change took place largely in the eighteenth century. There was a sharp rise in ownership of certain new consumer goods during the period of McKendrick's consumer boom after 1750. Ownership levels for some other goods rose earlier in the century. Location generally had a greater effect on the likelihood of ownership of consumer goods than wealth. With the single exception of clocks, consumer goods were much more commonly owned by inventoried persons in parishes with market towns than in more rural parishes. The large number of labourers' inventories provided a rare insight into their material culture. There was little evidence that most ne'Y consumer goods reached those towards the bottom end of the social spectrum. However ownership of these goods began to change after 1750. The new evidence covering the second half of the eighteenth century showed that clocks and to some extent looking glasses were being acquired by husbandmen and even labourers. The consumer revolution was at last beginning to arrive in the bottom half of society.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge