British kinship behaviour and economic security

Kinship studies of the early modern period have pointed to the importance of kinship as an economic structure for both the poor and rich. King has scrutinized the letters of the English poor and discovered not only the imposition the enduring emotional bonds of kinship over long distances but also how relationships form a retention to place and significantly how kinfolk can put themselves out economically to support their relatives even when not required to do so my law. Tadmor has also shown Eighteenth century cross-Atlantic communications between ‘supplicants’ and ‘benefactors’ claiming stretched and nuanced kinships relationships that created a space in which requests could be made. Erikson has also examined cross-Atlantic communiques as part of the nineteenth century wave of migration identifying ongoing economic concerns between separated family members including the movement of elder relatives from one continent to the other.

Kinship and economic security amongst British cultural groups was clearly not as dead or dormant as the likes of Laslett in the mid-twentieth century made it out to be nor was Adam Smith correct back in the late 1700s when he dismissed the ability of kinship to be meaningful without regular, weekly, encounters between individuals. Davidoff’s claims about kinship could also come under pressure if the data-processing exercise of genealogy is worked through. Her stance based within a feminist approach to history, insisted that kinship only existed within society as a support factor for the weakest, marginalized in society, women and children yet biological-marriage linkages between men of all classes can be shown to boost advantage.

For instance reconstruction of networks, made possible by genealogy data-processing in Aberdeenshire points to serial kin-based network formation. This is most obvious amongst and between modest farming families tenanted with the same estate managements on the marginal lands being brought into cultivation across the nineteenth century. This network formation took the form of cross farm marriages that rapidly linked the bulk of farms as an extended kinship raising queries as to kinship as socio-economic resistance and empowerment. Could the estate factor isolate and harass a family farm without risking the anger of the wider neighbours who had all become related?

The same technique of kinship collation of huge social network reconstruction also sheds light on the process of rural to urban migration. A common thought about cities especially growing ones is that they swallow up the new resident, pushing together vast numbers of strangers with no enduring community links. A simple sampling of nineteenth century British cities like Glasgow, London, Cardiff and Swansea can pick out micro-clusters of people from rural districts within a few houses of each other, such as the Gill and Diggins families on Kensington’s Pembroke road during 1881. Both households having members originating from Tiverton, Devon, in Glasgow a mini-Lockerbie emerges at the end of the century across a cluster of the city’s core streets north of the river. When reconstruction and collation is added to this sampling the Gill’s wife and Diggin’s husband are revealed as siblings and in Glasgow a cluster of Lockerbie cousins emerges whose life moments reveal inter-meshing in the city and retaining links back to the borders.

The data-processing of records, conducted by genealogy enthusiasm, of these ordinary people, builders, painters, servants, fixers and toilers removes the limitations enforced by artificial boundaries of counties, parishes, enumeration districts and streets. The closeness and encounter of kin-folk emerges and questions the concept of rising cities as cohorts of strangers, as well as showing the need to understand more about the economic impacts of active relatedness. It has been over 30 years since Grieco flagged up the connection between work-class factory employment and informal kin networks gaining little traction in the debates. On the other end of the economic scale it is possible to see the importance of the cross-Atlantic letters and cross Empire notes convincing, summoning or offering support for relatives to join external migrations bolstering the number of relatives who could fill important economic roles in new European settlements like Milwaukee or Sydney. By noticing the kin-inter-connectivity of British cultural people of the nineteenth century the importance of kinship to British economic culture is stretched from Tadmor’s observation in 1800 through to the post-Edwardian period, it also throws more light upon modern migration into the UK. By acknowledging and studying British kinship rather than considering it an anachronism by noticing the inter-related clusters of the nineteenth century city and countryside the use of kin behaviour to bulwark against potential economic adversity emerges with similarities to the more recent migrations into Britain.

Author: collating kinship

Iain Riddell is a University of Leicester PGR commencing Nov 2014 focused upon building an understanding of the application of kinship as a tool to explore UK socio-political and economic history post 1800. He has previously worked in inner urban local community and faith-based projects, specialising in marginalised communities.

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