The big drop

Families that tumble down the social ladder

William Yewdall, who died in 1906, was born into a wealthy family in Calverley, Yorkshire. The Yewdalls had made their fortune in cotton and wool, owned substantial areas of land and were important enough in the local community to have a road named after them.

But through incompetence and bad luck William caused his relatives and their descendants to decline into poverty and inconsequence – a mortifying process known to sociologists as downward social mobility.

For generations, it’s been considered wise to ponder the lives of individuals who rose up “from nothing”. From Dick Whittington to David Beckham, these few are held up as examples of a society that is fundamentally meritocratic.

Less common, though no less exemplary, are stories about people who sank “from something”. But downward mobility has been hard to monitor, for the simple reason that the people involved tend to fall into obscurity, and tracking the progress of their descendants has till recently presented almost insuperable logistical difficulties. To many minds, the best example we had was fictional – Thomas Hardy’s bleak novel Tess of the Durbervilles depicts a man whose snobbish obsession with once-glorious ancestors leads directly to his daughter’s demise.

Thanks to the internet, that’s changed. But the people who have done more than any sociology department to gather the data are family historians like Beverley Harrison, 23, who came across William Yewdall in the course of investigating her own distant relatives. Nearly two million amateur genealogists like Harrison, carrying out their research online, in local libraries, and by letter to long-lost relatives, have pieced together stories that make clearer than ever before the frequency of downward mobility in Britain’s supposedly rigid class structure.

The credit for drawing those stories together goes to Genes Reunited, the family history website owned by Friends Reunited. Earlier this year, the site sent out a questionnaire to its members. It asked whether their families had risen or fallen in social and economic status. Around a thousand families replied. About 20 per cent reported that their forebears had been much richer than they were. The sample was self-selecting, and therefore not strictly representative of the population at large, but all the same the result was remarkable.

It indicated that individual families are almost four times more likely to decline socially than anyone previously realised. And the sheer variety of causes reported by respondents suggested that, ultimately, there’s nothing you can do to prevent that happening to your family.

Harrison’s own interest in genealogy began shortly before she got married. She was giving up her maiden name, Yewdall, and wanted to find out more about it. To begin, she worked from an elementary family tree prepared by her uncle. Gradually she filled in more names, working back through birth, marriage and death records, and the British census. The work soon became compulsive, she says. For weeks, it kept her at her computer from the moment she got home from work – she designs floor plans for estate agents – till bedtime.

These days, she does most of the work on Sunday afternoons, while her husband Wayne is out playing bass guitar in his heavy metal band. She gathers an assortment of bulging files, plugs her laptop into a phone line and gets to work. She has gradually “bled dry” – as she puts it – every available archive. As a result, she now has around 1,000 names in her tree. Of those, some 245 are Yewdalls.

As well as working online, she’s taken days off work to glean details from the public archives in Bradford. And she’s been in touch with distant relatives all over the country, and across the English-speaking world, often going to see them face to face.

“We always knew the family once had a lot of land and money. Now I’ve met people from all the different branches, and they all seem to have lost it. It’s gone.”

The family enjoyed its greatest success under David Yewdall, who was born in 1808. The next generation lost everything. David’s son, William, claimed liquidation four times and his father lost confidence in him, Harrison says. “David wrote a clause in his will saying that William would not be given a lump sum, and that his trust fund depended on him not being a criminal or a bankrupt.”

Struggling with the decline in cotton and wool trades, William put the family money into all kinds of ventures. One of the last was a brewery, which was liquidated – no pun intended – just four months after his father’s death.

When families lose wealth suddenly, they find themselves isolated. Obliged to sell their homes, they move somewhere cheaper, often in a less desirable area. Where previously they may have socialised expensively, through membership of expensive clubs, they can no longer do that. Sympathetic friends invite them to dinner-parties at home but issuing return invitations can be difficult. Eventually, having little good news to share, the ruined family loses touch even with those few remaining friends.

In many cases, it’s easier to move away from the area altogether. That’s what William Yewdall did. He left Yorkshire, says Harrison, to make a new life for himself in the Isle of Man.

“I find that the photographs make me sympathise with them all. Part of me sort of fantasises about what might have been, if only they’d taken more heed.”

You may be wondering just how far down the social scale the family fell. It’s hard to say with precision, but Harrison describes both her parents as working class. “My mother’s family were down at the bottom,” she says. “They had to go down the street to use the privy.” Her father’s family, the Yewdalls, were grand by comparison: they had a privy in their own back garden.

Hardly less grim is the story uncovered by another amateur genealogist. Tracey O’Connor, 44, a mother of two, grew up in Leicester on a council estate and now works at Sainsbury’s. Her mother had told her years before that her grandfather’s family were “gentlemen”. Now she knows that’s true: O’Connor’s research demonstrated that her ancestors included surgeons, army officers and magistrates. Some owned substantial areas of land in Norfolk and kept dozens of servants; others had a sugar plantation in the West Indies. She remains unsure why the family lost its wealth, but knows the land in Norfolk was sold in the 1880s. The family was reduced to making a living in the workhouses of Leicester. O’Connor seems to have taken the discoveries pretty well: “I’m not ashamed of where I was born or my roots, but I’d love to go back in time and see how my ancestors lived.”

A retired coal miner, Alan Hepworth, 63, from County Durham, investigated his family and found prosperous and prominent relatives on his grandmother’s side. But by 1870 the landowning family was reduced to working as miners. “I don’t know what happened,” says Hepworth, “but I know they were wealthy, influential people. I wonder how things could have gone so wrong – and where all the money went. “

Should anybody be surprised that they have ancestors more prosperous or prominent than themselves? Humankind is not more than 10,000 generations old, but the family trees of all of us merge into one genetic tree after as little as fifty generations back. “It is virtually certain,” writes the American Guy Murchie, “that you are a direct descendant of Muhammad and every fertile predecessor of his, including Krishna, Confucius, Abraham, the Buddha, Caesar, Ishmael and Judas Iscariot. The earlier they lived the more surely you are their descendant.”

In other words all families, given time, move up and down the social scale (and across great distances in space). To see dramatic social mobility over a relatively short period is much less common, but the resident genealogist on Genes Reunited, Anthony Adolph, has advised countless individuals whose families experienced sharp downwards trajectories. In fact, he has a similar story in his own family.

His ancestor, Wilhelm Adolph, was a rich German who came to London in the early 1800s. He imported indigo and exported Cornish clay. He married a niece of the bishop of Liverpool, who had connections with titled aristocracy. But Wilhelm’s son Albert lost massive sums during the First World War, and the remaining fortune was lost by the incompetence of Wilhelm’s younger grandson. Joseph Adolph was put in charge of the business, later in the war, for the simple reason that he happened to be available: he’d suffered a hernia, while his brothers were fighting in the trenches.

“Joseph had a lot of sisters,” says Adolph. “As they descended into genteel poverty, they found it increasingly difficult to live. They’d been brought up not only to think that work was not a good idea, but also they had no idea how to do it. They watched what happened to their brother with incomprehension and panic.

“Families that go through this maintain their position by getting increasingly distant relatives to cough up. When my father went to school, the fees were paid by Joseph’s wife’s family.”

Like many others, Adolph was drawn to family history because he wondered what had happened to all the money. “It’s not that I grew up in dire poverty, by any means, but my ancestors were extremely wealthy. And you have the sneaking suspicion, as a child, that the money is still there, somewhere, and that if you can find it you might be able to reclaim it.”

What’s unusual about Adolph is that the hobby developed into a career. Before joining Genes Reunited he worked as research director at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. He’s written a guidebook for amateurs, co-presented TV programmes on genealogy, and continues to work as a freelance researcher. With that background, he was not surprised to learn that so many families have dissipated their wealth. “What is more unusual is to find families that retained it. It’s very unusual to find prosperous families that have kept going for more than four generations.”

All too often, he believes, the old saw about families going “from rags to riches and back to rags” in three generations is right. But what causes downward mobility – and can it be avoided?

Part of the Yewdalls’ problem was fecklessness. William’s generation, says Harrison, included big drinkers and gamblers. The problem came down to personal conduct – but it’s hard to see who, within the family or outside it, had the authority to do anything about it.

Other causes are entirely outside a family’s control. The Firth Mellors were ruined by the decline of the British cotton industry, and cheap imports. Samuel Firth Mellor’s cotton mills, in Oldham, earned enough to provide his family with a £20m fortune, including a vast mansion and a chauffeur driven car. But within a few years they lost everything. The family moved into a four-bedroom house in Prestatyn. Samuel’s great-grandson Stuart Parry-Mellor, who today runs a caravan park, was astonished to find how rich his ancestor had been. “But it doesn’t really mean anything to me,” he says. “If they hadn’t moved to Wales, my grandfather wouldn’t have met my grandmother.”

Then there’s political upheaval. Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski, a former medical secretary living in Stratford, East London, is a princess in the royal house of Rurik. Her family came to Britain after the Bolsheviks executed her great-grandparents. Her mother grew up in Mir castle, in Belarus, but ended up working in Wales as a hospital cleaner. Her husband, Maria’s father, was a painter and decorator.

You didn’t need to be Russian to suffer as a result of the revolution there. Wilhelm Adolph’s son Albert inflicted the first grave blow on his family fortunes by investing in goldmines in the Urals, during the First World War – only to see his investment confiscated by the new Soviet regime.

Another common cause is illness, particularly mental illness. An example of that is provided by Susan Cooper, a bookkeeper in Hertfordshire, descended from a wealthy German printer who came to London in the early 1800s. His next-door neighbour was the poet Shelley, and his business partner was a friend of Casanova. The printing business, Cooper found, enjoyed a period of considerable success until her great, great-grandfather lost a forefinger in an accident at the printing press. Unable to work, he spiraled into depression and eventually killed himself.

The point to emphasize is that similar upheavals affect families today. Vast fortunes were wiped out by the collapse of Lloyds insurance market, and by ill-timed investment in the dotcom boom. And it’s not only those headline-grabbing events that ruin families. Recent figures show an increase in individual insolvencies of 46 per cent compared with last year, and an increase of 33 per cent in bankruptcy petitions. In England and Wales, an individual becomes insolvent every 7 minutes, and a bankruptcy petition is filed every 9 minutes. One who went through that this month was the boxer, Chris Eubank, but most happen anonymously.

Louise Brittain is an insolvency practitioner who deals with bankrupts and their families all the time. “At one extreme, you get people who don’t give a toss about what has happened to them. They almost brag about it. At the other, you have people who are so embarrassed that they can’t tell other members of the family. They won’t even tell their other half. Those are the cases that can end up with suicide.

“I always encourage them to tell, because it’s never as bad as they think. People who have been through the process become more resilient. They treat their children as more resilient. And they all get on with it. Look what happened to Jonathan Aitken’s children.” (Brittain represented Aitken’s creditors in his 1999 bankruptcy proceedings.) “They’re a great example. They went on to college and they went on socialising. They didn’t let their father’s failings alter their course in any way. They weren’t going to fail. I think it made them more determined to succeed.”

That type of comeback – if that’s what it is – seems hardly surprising in a family like the Aitkens, who have been rich and successful for several generations. But Adolph has a similar story to tell: one of his cousins, a nephew of the bankrupt Joseph Adolph, invented the table-football game, Subbuteo, and died a wealth man after selling up to Waddington.

Sociologists have long believed that positions in the upper classes are “stickier” than others. That is, it’s not uncommon to see families move about between the middle class and the working class, but it’s very rare to see really privileged families lose their positions. One of the great experts on the subject, John Goldthorpe of Nuffield College, Oxford, has noted that economic and social change created greater opportunities in the professional classes during the 20th century. There was “more room at the top”, which meant bright working class children were able to attain social and financial success – without displacing children from the middle class.

That growth in professional jobs continues, but in the last few years it has slowed down, and competition is increasing. These days, the biggest growth area is so-called McJobs – in service industries such as catering, retail and call centres.

Peter Saunders, of the Australian Centre for Independent Studies, worked previously as professor of sociology at Sussex University and specialised in social inequality. “With an expanding middle class and shrinking working class – the pattern of the last century – some degree of upward mobility has been inevitable. But the true test of the openness of a society is not the rate of upward mobility but downward mobility. The real question is whether successful people can help their kids cling on to their status, particularly if they are not very bright.”

A Cabinet Office report on social mobility, written in 2001, considered ways to strengthen meritocracy by facilitating upward mobility but also positively reducing barriers to downward social mobility for “dull middle class children”. The options included raising inheritance tax and even abolishing inheritance altogether. Lord Giddens, who invented Tony Blair’s Third Way, makes the case for those measures in his recent book The New Egalitarianism, in order to equalise the next generation’s life chances.

How realistic is that? Not very, says Goldthorpe. “I’ve talked to New Labour people and they’ve said, ‘There is no way the prime minister can go to the country on a platform of increasing downwards mobility.’”

Most of us regard meritocracy as unquestionably a Good Thing, it seems, while also clinging fiercely to the right of families to give their own children the best possible opportunities. It amuses Goldthorpe to point out that these great shibboleths of the political right are mutually incompatible. “Social mobility is a field full of delicious ironies.”

Despite the findings of genealogists like Harrison, Adolph and the others, Goldthorpe takes the view that children from advantaged backgrounds will always be alright. “Even without money, they still have attributes such as accent, and know-how, and social networks.”

Fiona Devine, professor of sociology at Manchester University, pretty well agrees. In her recent book, Class practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs, Devine argues that families have three different kinds of resource to pass on: money, cultural values and social networks. If spending money on private education doesn’t achieve the desired effect, middle class families use social networks: “They call their friends… Parents do as much as they can to prevent downward mobility.”

But no matter what they do, they can never guarantee a comfortable future for their children. “Even back in the nineteenth century,” says Saunders, “you needed brains to hang on to a middle class position bequeathed from your successful parents. This would certainly have been true of those inheriting a family company, because a fool will soon bankrupt a family firm. But it would also have applied to sons trying to follow their fathers into traditional professions like medicine, law, and public service.

“Brits have for too long been mesmerised by the persistence of the monarchy and aristocracy into thinking the whole class structure is set in aspic, when it is not. Novelists and playwrights have in every generation perpetuated the myth of class closure, but Britain has been a relatively open and fluid society for generations.”

Which is obviously a wonderful thing – just as long as it’s not your own family that’s tumbling down the social ladder.