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Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1170–2012


Using educational status in England from 1170 to 2012, we show that the rate of social mobility in any society can be estimated from knowledge of just two facts: the distribution over time of surnames in the society and the distribution of surnames among an elite or underclass. Such surname measures reveal that the typical estimate of parent–child correlations in socioeconomic measures in the range of 0.2–0.6 are misleading about rates of overall social mobility. Measuring education status through Oxbridge attendance suggests a generalized intergenerational correlation in status in the range of 0.70–0.90. Social status is more strongly inherited even than height. This correlation is unchanged over centuries. Social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times. Thus there are indications of an underlying social physics surprisingly immune to government intervention.

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  1. The intergenerational correlation for height is 0.64 (Silventoinen et al. 2003). Grönqvist et al. (2011), however, estimate that in modern Sweden the intergenerational correlation of cognitive ability is as high as 0.77.

  2. There are exceptions in which children took the surname of the mother, such as illegitimate children, but these can be seen to be a very small share of all births. Until recently more than 99% of children in England had their surname registered as that of the father.

  3. In psychometric terms, underlying status is a latent variable.

  4. We use the English convention of referring to Oxford and Cambridge together as Oxbridge.

  5. Ashton (1977) estimates that students recorded for Oxford in 1170–1500 were only 20–25% of actual numbers.

  6. To eliminate surnames for which most of the holders would be non-English, the rare surname samples excluded as far as possible names whose population concentrations lay outside England. Thus all names beginning with “Mc” or “Mac” or “O’” were removed since they are of Scottish or Irish origin. Also, any surname with more than 40 occurrences in the 1881 census was removed if its frequency in 2002 was more than 2.5 times the earlier frequency (the expected frequency would be 1.85). A check using surnames represented by 500 or fewer holders in 1881 found that even including all surnames in the sample did not change the estimated b by much.

  7. The first period, 1800–1829, in which the elite surnames are identified, cannot be used to estimate b, since in this period we do not have the expectation that \( {\overline{y}}_{kt}={\overline{x}}_{kt} \), unlike in Eq. (7). In this first period the average status of the surnames is overestimated by their relative representation at Oxbridge, since the surnames included will tend in that period to have a positive random component in terms of their educational status.


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Clark, G., Cummins, N. Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 1170–2012. Hum Nat 25, 517–537 (2014).

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  • Social mobility
  • Intergenerational correlation
  • Status inheritance