The myth of the peasantry; family and economy in a northern parish
[From Richard M.Smith (ed.), Land, Kinship and Life-cycle (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984)
Historians and sociologists agree that England between the thirteenth
and eighteenth centuries was a 'peasant' nation.(1) By this they often
mean no more than that it fitted within the definition proposed by
Firth when he wrote that by a peasant community 'one means a
system of small-scale producers, with a simple technology and
equipment, often relying primarily for their subsistence on what they
themselves produce. The primary means of livelihood of the peasant
is cultivation of the soil.' (2) England would also appear to have been a
peasant nation in the more precise sense that it was, to follow
Kroeber and Redfield, a society where those living in the countryside
constituted a 'part-culture' dependent on towns, markets and a
state.(3) One consequence of this interpretation is that the basic
contrast is held to be between industrial nations on the one hand and
'peasant' nations on the other. Thus England is lumped with con-
tinental Europe, Ireland and Scotland up to the nineteenth century,
with pre-revolutionary Russia and China and with contemporary,
(1) There is a more detailed discussion of the stereotype and of the definitional problem
in a paper, which complements this essay, entitled 'The Peasantry in England before
the Industrial Revolution. A mythical model?', in D. Green, C. Haselgrove and M.
Spriggs, editors, Social Organization and settlement (oxford, 1978), pp. 325-41, cited
hereafter as Macfarlane, 'Peasantry'. Two examples of similar studies are R. H.
Hilton, The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1975), and J. Thirsk,
English Peasant Farming (London ' 1957). The research on the parish of Kirkby
Lonsdale upon which this article is based has been funded by the Social Science
Research Council and King's College Research Centre, Cambridge, to whom I am
most grateful. Much of the work has been carried out by Sarah Harrison. I should
also like to thank Cherry Bryant, Charles Jardine, Iris Macfarlane and Jessica styles
for their help. I also acknowledge the help of the County Archives offices at Kendal,
Carlisle and Preston.
(2) Quoted in G. Dalton, 'Peasantries in Anthropology and History', Current Anthropology 13: 3-4 (1972), p.386.
(3) R. Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago, Ill., 1960), p. 40.
India and Mexico. It is assumed that useful lessons can be learnt by
comparing basically similar social and economic structures. There has
been a growing interest recently in refining such a crude dichotomy
in order to make it possible to distinguish between different agrarian
systems. Following the lead of Chayanov it has been suggested that
one extra feature is needed in order to make the label 'peasant'
appropriate for an agricultural 'part-society. This final criterion is
described by Thorner as follows. (4)
Our fifth and final criterion, the most fundamental, is that of the unit of
production. In our concept of peasant economy the typical and most
representative units of production are the peasant family households. We
define a peasant family household as a socio-economic unit which grows
crops primarily by the physical efforts of the members of the family ... In a
peasant economy half or more of all crops grown will be produced by such
peasant households, relying mainly on their own family labour ...
As Shanin states, the basic feature is that 'the family farm is the basic
unit of peasant ownership, production, consumption and social life.
The individual, the family and the farm, appear as an indivisible
whole . . .' (5) Among the consequences of this situation is the fact that
the head of the family appears as 'the manager rather than proprietor
of family land', that the fertility of children is encouraged in order to
increase the labour force of the productive unit, that peasant villages
or communities are usually more or less self-sufficient.' As Chayanov
had stated much earlier, 'The first fundamental characteristic of the
farm economy of the peasant is that it is a family economy. Its whole
organization is determined by the size and composition of the
peasant family and by the co-ordination of its consumptive demands
with the number of its working hands." Thus, when we speak of
peasantry we are trying to describe not merely a particular tech-
nology, but also the basic organization of ownership, production and
In the article cited above I have argued at some length that certain
central features of English society in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries lead us to suspect that the situation was very far removed
from that of an ideal-type peasant society. For example, the property
rights of women and children were totally contrary to those in other
peasant societies. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of the Essex parish
of Earls Colne in the period 1500-1750 showed that in every respect it
4 In T. Shanin, editor, Peasants and Peasant Societies Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 205.
5 Shanin, Peasants, p. 241.
6 Shanin, Peasants, pp. 242-4.
7 Quoted in E. Wolf, Peasants (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966), p. 14.
was 'non-peasant'. (8) A brief survey of some other villages studied by
Hoskins and Spufford confirmed that Essex was not exceptional in
this respect. Yet all these studies are based on the lowland area of
England where the market was well developed. It is well known that
there was great regional variation in England during the sixteenth to
eighteenth centuries. If we are attempting to establish an English
pattern, it is necessary to produce evidence from an upland area.
Furthermore, if we are to find a pre-industrial peasantry anywhere in
the country it seems likely that it will be in the higher, supposedly
more remote and backward, upland region. It is generally agreed by
those familiar with such regions that kinship and the family were
more important in the upland region. There, if anywhere we will be
dealing with a domestic economy, based on extended kinship and
family labour. Groups of kin are the basic unit of production in a
peasant society. In association , with low geographical mobility this
will lead us to expect a high degree of kin co-residence in an area with
'peasants'. It is therefore relevant that a number of local historians
have spoken of the 'kindreds' and 'clans' of these upland areas, in
contrast to the dispersed kin of the lowlands. Describing Troutbeck in
Cumbria, Scott noted the frequent occurrence of identical surnames
and wrote: 'These families - we might rather call them clans -
inter-married so frequently that their descendants are inevitably
related many times over . . .(9) Cowper, describing Hawkshead in
north Lancashire, wrote: 'what we venture to term, in default of a
better word, the clan system - the cohabitation of hamlets and areas
by many folks owning the same surname and a common origin'. (10)
More recently James has suggested that 'upland' areas in the Durham
region were more familistic, (11) and Thirsk has noted that while the
'clan' was only strong in Northumbria, in many upland areas 'the
family often exerted a stronger authority than the manorial lord'.(12)
8. The nature of the sources and methods used in the study of Earls Colne, a project
funded by the Social Science Research Council, is described in A. Macfarlane,
Reconstructing Historical Communities (Cambridge, 1977).
9. S. H. Scott, A Westmorland Village (London, 1904), p. 261.
10. H. S. Cowper, Hawkshead (London, 1899), p. 199. See also, on 'kindreds' in the area,
C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, A Short Economic and Social History of the Lake Counties
1500-1830 (Manchester, 1961), p. 90. Cowper's observation is confirmed in one
respect by the recent discovery that in the Hawkshead parish register for 1560-1800,
twelve out of 506 name sets account for 36% of the total baptisms. I owe this fact to
Dr Richard Smith and the SSRC Cambridge Group for the History of Population and
11. M. E. James, Family, Lineage and Civil Society: A Study of Society, Politics and Mentality in the Durham Region, 1500-1640 (oxford, 1974), p. 24.
12. J. Thirsk, editor, The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol, IV (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 9, 23.
Speaking of the northern fells, and in particular the areas of partible
inheritance, Thirsk writes that 'the family was and is the working
unit, all joining in the running of the farm, all accepting without
question the fact that the family holding would provide for them
all ....' (13) Of all the upland areas of England, the area most likely to
be, inhabited by peasants was southern Cumbria, that is parts of the
Lake District, west Yorkshire and north Lancashire. It is known that a
special form of social structure, based on small family estates',
existed there. A peculiar form of land tenure had given rise to the
,statesman' in an area of weak manorial control and difficult com-
munications. As Scott wrote of Troutbeck, 'Under this system of
customary tenure there has grown up a race of men singularly sturdy,
independent, and tenacious of their rights ... Instead of the land
being occupied by two or three squires, and a subservient tenantry,
this single township has contained some fifty statesmen families,
which have held the same land from generation to generation with
the pride of a territorial aristocracy."' The security, the immobility,
the equality, all seem to indicate a peasant society.
In this region lies the parish of Kirkby Lonsdale, where the stone
walls and substantial farmhouses remain very much as they were in
the seventeenth century. The parish produced grain, wool and cattle
in an area stretching from rich riverside meadows in the south up to
high fells of nearly two thousand feet on the east. The approximately
2,500 inhabitants in the late seventeenth century were distributed in
nine townships. The tenurial situation varied from township to
township, and consequently each had a different social structure.
According to Machell, who travelled through the parish in 1692 and
whose findings are corroborated and expanded by Nicholson
and Burn, (15) the tenurial situation in the various townships at the
end of the seventeenth century was as follows:
Kirkby Lonsdale: some tenants free (about one third), some customary, some
customary at fine arbitrary, some arbitrary (copyhold), some heriotable.
Casterton: tenants about half free and half customary, paying a fine certain
for three years rent.
Barbon: six or seven freeholds; all tenants are finable and arbitrary (i.e.
copyhold), they were sold to freehold in 1716.
13. 'Industries in the Countryside', in F. J. Fisher, editor, Essays in the Economic and Social
History of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1961), p. 83.
14. Scott, Westmorland Village, pp. 20-1.
15. J. M. Ewbank, editor, Antiquary on Horseback (Kendal, 1963), pp. 18, 26, 29, 36, 39-1
J. Nicholson and R. Burn, The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and
Cumberland (London, 1777), Vol. ii, pp. 243-65.
Middleton: the tenants purchased their estates to freehold ill the time of
Elizabeth and James 1.
Firbank: all freeholders, having purchased their customary tenures in 1586.
Killington: all freeholders, having purchased their customary tenures in 1585.
Lupton: only about two freehold tenements, all the rest customary.
Hutton Roof: some divided customary estates, but generally bought them-
This illustrates the variability even within a parish, supporting
Gilpin's contemporary observation that 'Customs especially in the
Northern Parts of this Nation are so varied and differing in them-
selves as that a man might almost say that there are as many, severall
Customes as mannors . . . yea and almost as many as there are
Townshipps or Hamletts in a mannor. (17) We may examine in more
detail two townships which were adjacent, but which contrast strik-
ingly in their tenurial situation, namely Lupton and Killington. In
Lupton there was an absentee lord ,)f the minor, but he owned very
little of the township land directly, there was no 'demesne'. Almost
all the land was held by customary tenants with holdings of between
fifteen and forty acres apiece and some rights in the common grazing.
In Killington the form of tenure had originally been the same as that
in Lupton, but in 1585 the customary holdings had been converted to
freehold. One consequence was that there were two persons styled
I gentlemen' living in Killington according to the listing of inhabitants
of 1695,(18) whereas there were none in Lupton. But even these were
minor gentry. The largest land holder's holding in Killington before
the Civil War consisted of a capital messuage, Killington Hall, forty
acres of arable, twenty acres of meadow, one hundred acres of
pasture and one hundred acres of moss and furze called 'Killington
Demesne', another messuage with sixteen acres of land and a water
mill." This was roughly five times the size of the average holding in
Killington, but, since there were about forty estates in the township,
it only constituted about one-eighth of the total land area.
It is clear that English 'freehold' tenure, which gave an individual
complete and total rights over his land, is diametrically opposed to
the form of land holding that is characteristic of peasant societies,
16. W. Farrer and J. F. Curwen, Records Relating to the Barony of Kendale (Kendal, 1924),
Vol. it, p. 416.
17. A. Bagot, 'Mr Gilpin and Manorial Customs', Transactions of the Cumberland and
Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society new series 62 (1961), p. 228.
18. The listing, which covers the whole of Kirkby Lonsdale parish, is in the Record Office
at Kendal among the Fleming papers (WD/RY).
19. An inquisition of 1639, reprinted in Farrer and Curwen, Records of Kendale, Vol it,
where there is a form of joint family ownership.(20) It thus seems very
likely that, whatever may superficially appear to be the case, Killing-
ton after 1585, Firbank after 1586, Barbon after 1716, Middleton
since the early seventeenth century and parts of Kirkby Lonsdale and
Hutton Roof had a form of land tenure system incompatible with
peasantry. Yet in the areas with 'customary' tenure, particularly
Lupton, where nearly all was held in this way, some form of family
estate might have existed, surviving longer there than in the other
townships. We therefore need to examine this northern customary
tenure, known as 'border tenure' or 'tenant right' in more detail.
The parish of Kirkby Lonsdale lay within the barony of Kendal, and
consequently all the manors, except the rectory manor, were held of
that barony." 'Customary' tenure was thus part of that general
border tenure which has been particularly well documented since it
was a peculiarity of the area and the subject of considerable litigation
in the seventeenth century. An excellent contemporary description is
given by Gilpin, (22) and there have been a number of more recent (23)
descriptions. Supposedly in exchange for armed service on the
border, the tenant held by a form of tenure which lay somewhere
between ordinary copyhold as known in the south of England and
freehold. As with copyhold, the tenant paid certain fines and rents to
the lord, though these were usually fixed and small, and performed
certain services or 'boons. But unlike copyhold, the holding of land
was not 'at the will of the lord' but by the custom of the manor. The
land holdings were known as 'customary estates of inheritance' and
could be transferred from one 'owner' to the next without the
permission of the lord, only being registered, and a fine being paid, in
the manorial court. The estates were 'descendible from ancestor to
heir under certain yearly rents. Furthermore, 'the copyholder had
no property in the timber on the land; the customary tenant owns
everything, as if it were freehold, except the minerals beneath the
Soil. (21) Customary tenants could devise their land by will, and it
descended automatically to their children or other legal heirs if no will
was made. This situation has been described as 'tantamount to
20 For a more detailed discussion of this opposition, see Macfarlane, 'Peasantry'.
21 Farrer and Curwen, Records of Kendale, Vol ii, p. 305.
22 Bagot, 'Mr Gilpin and Manorial Customs'.
23 Bouch and Jones, Economic ... History of the Lake Counties, pp. 65ff; J. R. Ford, 'The
Customary Tenant-Right of the Manors of Yealand', Transactions of the Cumberland ;
and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society new series (1909), pp. 147ff; W. Butler, 'The Customs and Tenant Right Tenures of the Northern Counties . . .',
Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society ' new series 26 (1926), pp. 318-36.
24 Scott, Westmorland Village, p. It'.
freehold', (25) and in regard to security of tenure this was the case,
though the fines, rents and services made it akin to copyhold in other
respects. The estates could be bought and sold by ordinary deeds of
bargain and sale, though they would also be registered as admit-
tances in the court roll.(26) This was a form of transfer exactly similar to
freehold. (27) The major restriction on the tenant was that the inherited
estate should not be subdivided. In order that the land holding
should be large enough to provide a warrior for the border defences,
the customs stated that all of the holding should go to one person, the
widow, then to a son, and in default of a son to only one daughter. As
we shall see, this was a very strict form of impartibility.
One supposed result of such a system was that wealth was evenly
distributed between equal 'family farms'. This equality was noted by
those who had witnessed the collapse of the old tenurial system in
the second half of the eighteenth century. Looking back to the first
half of that century, a writer in 1812 described how 'excepting the
estates of a few noblemen and baronets, the land was divided into
small freeholds and customary tenements, in the occupation of
owners . . ..' (28) Another supposed result was that a certain family
would be identified with an estate, and that it would pass for many
generations down the same family.
Yet, if we look a little more closely at the precise nature of
ownership, the pattern is not so simple. We have noted that farm and
family are merged in peasant societies; it is the family or household as
a group that owns the farm holding, the head of the family merely
being the de facto manager. Individual ownership is alien. This is
absolutely the opposite of the case in both Lupton and Killington,
where it would be difficult to envisage a more individualistic form of
land holding, either by freehold or by customary tenure. There is no
evidence in any of the multitudinous court records or customs of the
area that the property was jointly owned by the family. In fact, all the
indications are in the opposite direction. First, it is clear that in both
townships the landed property was transferred to one person, who
was not merely the nominal title holder but the owner in an exclusive
sense. This owner might as easily be a woman as a man. If anything,
the individualism of ownership was even more extreme than in most
copyhold tenures in the south for whereas in Essex, for example, all
25 Butler, 'Tenant Right Tenures', p. 320.
26 Ibid., p. 319.
27 Ford, 'Customary Tenant-Right', p. 157.
28 J. Gough, Manners and Customs of Westmorland ... (Kendal, 1847; first printed in
1812), p. 25.
daughters received shares in the estate as co-parceners if there was no
male heir, in Lupton the principle of individual property prevented
this division. By the custom of that manor, and generally under
tenant-right tenure, in the event of no sons surviving the holding
went to only one daughter. As Machell put it, quoting from a
Chancery decree of the early seventeenth century, (29) there was a
general custom in the barony of Kendal 'that the eldest daughter/
sister/cousin inherits without copartnership in tenancy'. This was a
direct equivalent to the custom of male primogeniture in the area. The
general principle was that the holding belonged to one person, and
could only be transferred to one person; it was not owned by a group
of brothers, for example, and partitioned between them as in peasant
societies. As I have argued in the article already cited, the presence of
primogeniture and impartible inheritance, and the consequent disin-
heritance from the main holding of the other children, which many
observers have noted to be more extreme in England than anywhere
else in the world, is inconceivable in a 'peasant' society. In a peasant
society, the estate is held jointly by the children; it may be temporari-
ly partitioned according to their needs, in which case all the males
have equal rights. In most of England, the main estate could not be
divided or partitioned, though extra pieces which had been accumu-
lated could be given to other children. Thus it could be argued that
merely finding impartible inheritance, as we do in the tenant-right
area, is a sure index of the absence of a true peasantry.
Unfortunately it is not possible to deal here with the considerable
areas of partible inheritance in England, particularly in the upland
areas. One of the best documented of these was in Dentdale, which
lay alongside Kirkby Lonsdale. The contrast between the two
parishes is very instructive and has been illuminated in a general way
by Dr Thirsk. (30) It would be very useful to obtain an account of the
relations between family and economy in such a region, testing out
the hypotheses concerning a peasant social structure. It would also be
useful to know more concerning women's property rights. In peasant
societies, land is not owned individually, and therefore when a
woman marries out of a village or family she may not take land with
her, though she may own moveable objects and possess livestock.
But in both Lupton and Killington, as elsewhere in England,
women's property rights were extensive. A number of the wills for
these two townships mention women holding landed property, and
it has already been mentioned that a widow would succeed to her
31 Ewbank, Antiquary on Horseback, p. 3.
30 Thirsk, 'Industries in the Countryside'.
husband's estate, followed by one daughter when a son had not
survived. Men could thus hold land 'in the right of their wife.
If further proof of individualistic property rights is needed, it may
be found in the numerous proceedings in cases which came from the
parish of Kirkby Lonsdale to be heard in Chancery. The court dealt
with numerous disputes where one individual sought to obtain rights
over a specific piece of land or other property. Reading through the
roughly 70 000 words of information in sixteenth- and seventeenth-
century cases from this parish has not once given any hint or
suspicion that there was a strong link between a family group and a
holding in the sense that some group larger than the individual
owned the property .(31) The head of the household or registered
landowner clearly owned the property in the full sense, and was not
merely the organizer of a joint labour group. There is no trace of the
family as the basic unit of ownership and production.
It might be objected that the wife and children did, in this area,
have inalienable rights in the family property. It could be pointed out
that by tenant-right the widow inherited the whole of her husband's
estate during her 'pure' widowhood, that is as long as she did not
remarry or have sexual intercourse. Furthermore, Kirkby Lonsdale
was within the archdiocese of York, where there was a custom until
1692 that a wife and children each had a right to one-third of their
husband's/ father's moveable goods at his death.(32) If we look more
closely at both Common Law as it applied to freehold lands and
manorial customs, it is clear that this was not a joint estate. The wife
only had rights as long as she was a widow, and the children had no
inalienable rights in their parent's land or other real estate. Even with
moveable goods, a man could give them all away in his life-time, just
as he could sell or give away all his land. In Kirkby Lonsdale, as in the
rest of England, the principle that 'a living man has no heirs', that
children had no inalienable rights in a family estate, appears to have
been present.(33) Thus a father could totally disinherit a son if he so
wished; primogeniture merely meant that an eldest male heir would
inherit if no will or transfer before death had been made to the
31 Most of the Kirkby Lonsdale proceedings have been found among the papers of the
Six Clerks, in classes C.5-C.10 in the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane. A
standard description of this much under-used source is W. J. Jones, The Elizabethan
Court of Chancery (oxford, 1967).
32 H. Swinburne, A Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills, 5th edition (London, 1728), pp.
33 Maitland stated that this principle was grasped in the thirteenth century: Sir F.
Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward 1, 2nd
edition (Cambridge, 1968), Vol. ii, p. 308.
contrary. It did not mean that a son would automatically inherit.
Thus, for example, in Lupton we find in the will of John Wooddes in
1682 that, because the eldest son Roland 'would never doe my
counsell nor be ordered by me neyther is a fyth man to serve the
queries majestie nor the lords for these causes and consyderation',
the whole estate was given to the younger son, who was merely to
pay his elder brother £6 13s 4d. (34) In Killington, a man could do what
he liked with his real estate, with the exception that a widow had
one-third as a dower for life. In Lupton, he could do what he liked
before his death, or after the death of his wife, on condition that the
inherited estate was not divided.
One consequence of the highly developed private property rights
in the area was the enormous amount of litigation in the central
courts of equity, primarily Chancery. Another result was the making
of a very large number of wills dealing with chattels and real estate. It
has been pointed out that in peasant societies, for example in Russia
before 1930,31 wills were either unknown, or regarded with great
dislike. Since the dying father is not the private owner of the
property, he cannot devise it to a specific individual. The sons are
co-owners with the father, just as they are co-workers. But in Kirkby
Lonsdale numerous wills were made which embody the principle of
devisability of land, thus extending the father's power after his death.
For example, the township of Lupton, with a total population of
about 150 persons at the end of the seventeenth century, produced
115 wills during the period 1550-1720. Many of these were concerned
with allocating cash portions to younger males and to girls who
would not normally benefit directly from the land holding, but they
also frequently confirmed the disposition of real estate.
Another feature we associate with traditional peasantry is geo-
graphical immobility; both families and individuals tend to remain for
their lives in one village or group of villages. This does not seem to
have been the case in Kirkby Lonsdale. To start with the crude index
of the survival of family names, we may look to see how many of the
28 surnames of those who held land in the township of Lupton in
1642 according to a tenant list were still present two generations later
in a list for 1710. (36) The answer is twelve; thus less than half were still
present. Of course we have to allow for change of name at marriage,
or the chance that unrelated individuals with identical surnames had
34 The will is among those for the Deanery of Lonsdale in the Lancashire Record Office
35 T. Shanin, The Awkward Class (Oxford, 1972), p. 223.
36 The lists are among the Lonsdale papers (D/Lons) at the Record Office, Carlisle.
come into the parish. Further research will establish how many of the
holdings were in the same family throughout this period. what is
certain is that the rate of change of ownership increased in the middle
of the eighteenth century so that there was hardly a farm owned by
the same family throughout the period 1642-1800. It is also clear from
preliminary work that, even before the introduction of turnpike roads
and other pressures which are believed to have destroyed the old
patterns, there was very considerable mobility of farm holdings.
There is no evidence whatsoever, from the figures, from the wording
of wills or from the contents of legal cases, that families and farms
were closely attached by sentiment. It is symbolic that the farms were
hardly ever called after families, but after natural features: Foulstone,
Greenside, Fellhouses. Contemporaries only seem to have talked
occasionally of the 'Burrows of Foulstone' to differentiate them from
other persons of the same surname in the parish. The situation was a
long way from the imaginary world of Cold Comfort Farm; 'there
have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort . . .'. But even more
striking than the movement of whole families is the degree of
Although there is some out-migration, and daughters often move
to a nearby village at marriage, one of the central features of peasant
societies is their low rate of geographical mobility. Except in times of
crisis, a man born in a village is likely to remain there all his life,
working on the jointly held estate and receiving his rightful share
when married. Girls would stay to work for the communal labour
pool until marriage. Farm labour is family labour, the unit of
production swelling and contracting over the life-cycle. The unit of
production is based on the biological family, with adopted and
in-marrying additions. It is now known that nothing like this occur-
red in Kirkby Lonsdale in the seventeenth century. Preliminary
figures published some years ago showed that a very considerable
proportion of the children left home in their early or middle teens. (37)
Using a combination of parish register and a listing of inhabitants, it is
possible to estimate the frequency with which those baptized in the
parish remained there, In Lupton, for example, of twenty males
baptized in the period 1660-9 who were not recorded as buried before
1695, only six were present in the listing of that year. Fourteen had
disappeared from the township. Women were even more mobile. Of
23 girls baptized in the same period whose burial is not recorded, not
a single one was present in the listing of 1695. A search for both boys
37 A. Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 209-10.
and girls for the decades after this also suggests that very few of the
children stayed in Lupton after the first few years of their lives, even
though their parents remained. Far from settling down on a family
farm, younger sons and all daughters moved away. Even the eldest
son often went away for a number of years before returning to take
over a holding. The central feature of the situation seems again to
have been the opposite of the 'peasant' situation. Rather than the
holding absorbing the children's labour, the parental home shed the
children just as they began to be net producers. If extra labour was
needed, it was hired in the form of labourers or servants. This was
related to a particular and peculiar household structure.
It is characteristic of peasant societies that in operation and some-
times in residence as well the basic unit is the 'extended family.
Married sons and their wives and parents work together and con-
sume together, pooling labour and sharing proceeds. This is often
reflected in residential arrangements or household structure. Thus
households are often large and contain more than one currently
married couple - as, for example, in a 'stem' family, with a married
couple, their married son and wife and their grandchildren. It is clear
that in Kirkby Lonsdale, as elsewhere in England at this time, such
complex and extended households were absent. The listing for
Lupton in 1695 does not show a single instance of a married child
living with his or her parents, not even with a widowed parent. The
Killington listing mentions two cases only among 222 names; a
widow living with a married son, and a widower with a married
daughter. The idea that two married couples should live or work
together is never expressed in any of the documents. Nor are there
any cases of anything equivalent to the Indian joint family, where
brothers and their wives live together or work a communal estate
together. Throughout Kirkby Lonsdale, the listings for the nine
townships show, with very few exceptions indeed, only nuclear
families, parents and unmarried children. It is true that wills fairly
frequently mention that children are married, but in such cases the
married child seems to have lived elsewhere.
It is obvious that analysis of residential or household structure is
not by itself enough to disprove the absence of 'extended' or 'joint'
families. Co-residence is only one of the indexes. Although the
Kirkby Lonsdale families did not live in complex households and do
not seem to have been 'eating from the same pot' as they would have
done in pre-revolutionary Russia, they could still have been acting as
joint families in terms of ownership, production and consumption. It
is well known that the joint residential unit, for instance in India, is
often more an ideal than an actuality, and that most people, most of
the time, live in nuclear households, even in peasant societies. 38 Even
if it is clear from comparing the Kirkby Lonsdale listing and parish
register that the situation was far removed from that described by
Berkner for parts of Austria, where most people spend a part of their
lives living in an extended household,(39) it might be that operationally
there was some form of co-operation. We might find a group of
married couples, parents, brothers and wives and children living in
the same village and working a communal plot.
Literary evidence makes us suspect that even joint families defined
in terms of operation rather than residence did not exist. It was not
just a matter, as Arthur Young put it when attacking the settlement
laws, (40) of the young 'abhorring' the thought of living with their
fathers or mothers after marriage; it was a question of discipline,
self-government, independence. A description of norms which
would astound an 'ideal-type' peasant is given in 1624 by William
Whately when counselling young people.(41)
When thou art married, if it may be, live of thy selfe with thy wife, in a
family of thine owne, and not with another, in one family, as it were, betwixt
you both. . . The mixing of governours in an household, or subordinating or
uniting of two Masters, or two Dames, under one roofe, cloth fall out most
times, to be a matter of much unquietnes to all parties: to make the young
folks so wholly resigne themselves unto the elder, as not to be discontented
with their proceedings; or to make the elder so much to deny themselves, as
to condescend unto the wills of the younger . . . in the common sort of
people [is] altogether impossible. Whereof, as the young Bees do seek unto
themselves another Hive, so let the young couple another house ...
This advocates not merely a physical separation, but a social one also,
the setting up of an economically and jurally independent unit. We
find that local records support this idea of separate units.
Wills, inventories, deeds and manorial records, as well as the
listings, make it clear that families did not operate as communal units
in production and consumption. Despite earlier quoted remarks
about the concentration of family names, the listings do not reveal
heavy concentrations of people with the same surname, possibly kin,
living near to each other. In Killington, for example, the majority of
38 W. J. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York, 1963), p. 17; figures for
India are summarized on p. 242.
39 L. K. Berkner, 'The Stem Family and the Developmental Cycle of the Peasant
Household . American Historical Review 77 (1972), pp. 398-418.
40 Quoted in W. E. Tate, The Parish Chest (Cambridge, 1960), p. 214.
41 W . Whately, A Bride-Bush: or, a Direction for Married Persons (London, 1619), sig.
the surnames of heads of household only occur once in the listing. In
only nine cases did surnames occur in more than two households.
The most common surname in the parish was Barker, fifteen of the
222 persons in the parish being called by that name; eleven were
called Atkinson. If we concentrate on these two names, we find that,
although each of them was to be found in eight separate households,
this was by no means a situation of a group of 'kindred' farming a set
of neighbouring estates or one large farm. In the case of the Barkers,
there were three households with three Barkers in each, one with two
people of that name, and five households merely containing one
person of that name, usually as a servant. The Atkinsons were even
more spread out, with one set of three, one of two, and the rest single
individuals. Since both these names were common in the region, it is
quite likely that a number of the individuals were not related, except
very distantly. If we turn to the wills, there is nowhere in the nearly
two thousand for the parish a suggestion that brothers were farming
jointly. The probate inventories show where people's livestock was at
the time of their death and to whom they owed debts; in neither case
is there any hint of communal farming. The unit of production was
the husband and wife and hired labour (not children). This helps to
explain, and is given support by, the incidence of servanthood in the
It appears from studies of India, Russia and other peasant societies
that farm servants and domestic servants are relatively rare and
unimportant in traditional peasantries. Farm labour is family labour.
In Kirkby Lonsdale, a search of the listings shows that the absent
child labour was replaced by hired labour. In Killington, of an adult
male population of approximately eighty, ten were stated to be
servants and nine were day labourers; thus approximately one-
quarter were hired labour. Another quarter were stated to be 'pen-
sioners' in receipt of parish poor relief. Thus one half of the
population was supporting or paying for the labour of the other half.
There were also thirteen women stated to be servants. It seems to
have been the case that movement into an unrelated household,
either as apprentice, servant or day labourer, was a central feature of
the area. In other words, instead of the unit of labour being
determined by the demographic expansion and contraction of the
family as sons were born and grew and parents died (as in the classic
Chayanovian model),, people regulated the amount of labour by
hiring labour. As their holding expanded, they could bring in more
labour. Half the parish hired the other half. In this situation,
economics were not dependent on demography. Furthermore, with a
free labour supply, two important consequences followed. First,
there was no great incentive to marry young and to have many
children; young adults could be hired without the inconvenience of
having to be fed and clothed in their young and unproductive years.
Secondly, there was an incentive to saving and accumulation, since
such saving could be used to purchase more land and more labour.
Expansion was not limited by the inelasticity of labour. A conse-
quence of this was that the pattern of social mobility in the area was
very different from that experienced in peasant societies.
It has been suggested that the typical pattern, at least of the
pre-revolutionary Russian peasantry is one of cyclical mobility by
which families move as a whole, and in which over time a family will
accumulate property, have more children, partition the estate and
become poorer again. Thus there are no long-term divisions into
permanent 'classes'.(42) The pattern in Kirkby Lonsdale \N-as totally
different. Families did not move as a whole; daughters and younger
sons often moved downwards while the eldest son would move
upwards. We have to trace individual mobility, rather than family
mobility, for the pressure of impartibility and private as opposed to
family estates was dominant. Furthermore, there are traces of a
growing separation between the rich and the poor, which turned into
a permanent class barrier, even in this supposedly egalitarian region.
In Killington at the time of the 1695 listing, approximately one-third
of the population were in receipt of poor relief or were 'pensioners.
In the main township of Kirkby Lonsdale, in the year of the listing
some 52 persons were listed in the poor overseer's accounts as
receiving alms. If we assume that they had roughly the same number
of dependants as the poor in Killington, this would again constitute
one-third of the population. We are witnessing the formation in this
rural area of a permanent and large category of landless and largely
propertyless labouring families. The townships were already divided
into certain individuals who owned the farms and shops and others
who worked for them.
If we combine the various features described above, we may
present an over-simplified, yet basically correct, general model which
depicts this parish as populated by a set of highly individualistic,
highly mobile (in both the geographical and the social sense) and
capitalistic farmers and craftsmen. This is further confirmed if we
look at the extensive web of debts and credit to non-kin revealed in
the probate inventories. It is also both supported and integrated into
42 Shanin, The Awkward Class, part ii.
one ideal-type life portrait in a description of what life was like in one
of these northern valleys. The account was written in the nineteenth
century, looking back to the early eighteenth, but, judging by the
accounts we have looked at, it would appear to hold true of the
second half of the seventeenth century also. Bearing in mind the
stability and 'family property' complex of an Indian or east European
peasant, it is worth quoting the description in full.(43)
The farm labourer of the dales, then (and he is more often than not the son of
a small farmer of yeoman), is nothing akin to his southern brother ... he is
early sent to school, but at fourteen leaves home to earn his own living. He
has been well schooled, in a way, and looks forward to 'service'. At the
half-yearly hiring - Whitsuntide or Martinmas - after he has attained his 'first
majority', he goes to the nearest country town and stands in the market-
place. He is attired in a brand new suit, with a capacious necktie of green and
red. These articles he has donned upon the memorable morning, and as a gift
from his parents they constitute his start in life ... As an outward and visible
sign of his intention, the lad sticks a straw in his mouth and awaits the issue
. . . After waiting a greater part of the morning and seeing many of his
fellow-men and maid-servants hired, he is accosted by a stalwart yeoman,
who inquires if he wants a 'spot' - a place, a situation. The lad replies that he
does; that he is willing to do anything; and that he will engage for £´ the
half-year - 'if it pleases' . At sixteen or seventeen he is stalwart enough to
hire as a man, and now his wages are doubled; he asks and obtains E12 for the
year, or even E14 if entering upon the summer half. The farm servants of the
dales 'live in, and have all found ... in proportion, the girls are much better
off in the matter of wages than the men. There is probably less competition
among them, owing to the fact that there is a great temptation for country
girls to migrate and enter service in provincial towns ... Many of the men,
when about thirty years of age, are able to take small farms of their own.
Nearly all the statesmen's sons do this, and probably without any outside
help; for, as a class, these labourers are not only industrious but thrifty. I
knew a man who had saved £É20, which sum he had divided and deposited
in three banks ... From the fact of 'living in', as nearly all the valley servants
do, it need hardly be said that early marriages are rare. All the better men
look forward to the time when they can have a farm of their own; and when
they obtain a holding, they then look out for a wife.
Here we see all the features: the absence of ties between sons and
their father's holding; geographical mobility; hired labour; saving and
thrift; late age at marriage; the movement of girls away from the area.
In every respect it is a contrast with peasantry.
It would be foolish to over-stress the absence of a peasant social
structure in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Although it cannot be found in the lowlands or in Kirkby Lonsdale, it
43 The Annals of a Quiet Valley by a Country Parson, edited by John Watson (London,
is possible that there may be areas, for example northern Cumbria,
Redesdale, Cornwall, in which farm and family were more closely
identified. Yet it does not seem possible to sustain the belief that
England as a whole was a 'peasant' society before the Industrial
Revolution. To what extent this placed it apart from continental
Europe, Scotland and Ireland, needs to be investigated. We shall also
need to examine when this alternative pattern emerged and what its
consequences were. Here we have merely sought to establish that
direct analogies between the supposedly 'peasant' nation of England
in the fifteenth to eighteenth century and peasantries in other nations
in the past and present should be treated with considerable caution.