Alison C Kay: The Victorian Professions project

Victorian Professions is a three-year research project (began in January 2014) investigating whether the professions formed a distinct self-sustaining social group with its own mores and values. A multi-institution project, team members are drawn from the Universities of Oxford, Northumbria and Leicester. Supported by an Economic and Social Research Council large grant award, the Victorian Professions team are combining crowdsourcing of family histories with their own extensive archival research. The project website contains an interface to the substantial research data already gathered over the last year and this will soon permit live updates of the information held on professional families in the study for all to see. The public will be able to see where there are gaps and questions marks that their own family history knowledge can help fill and resolve.

The nineteenth century witnessed a huge expansion in the number of people in Britain and Europe described as members of a profession. Industrialisation, imperial expansion and the growth of the state led to an ever-increasing demand for lawyers, doctors, religious ministers and teachers, as well as newer service providers such as accountants, bankers and civil engineers. Many historians have viewed the professions as forming part of a wider middle class that also included manufacturers, merchants and entrepreneurs. However we simply do not know whether the professions acted differently from other members of the middle class in terms of who they married, how they were educated, the arrangements they made for their children and the social and cultural activities they engaged in. In short, we do not know whether they formed part of the wider middle class or were, as Harold Perkin once suggested, a distinct social class (1969).

Using online family history resources such as Ancestry, the British Newspaper Archive, Family Search and Scotlands People to search censuses, parish registers, records of civil registration and probate indexes, we are constructing individual life histories of 1,000 members of the professions in nine towns in England, Scotland and Wales, drawn from the 1851 census and chosen for their diversity (Leeds, Bristol, Brighton, Merthyr Tydfil, Dundee, Greenock, Alnwick, Morpeth and Winchester). We are using the data collected to identify the social, religious and educational backgrounds of members of the professions, their marriage patterns, roles within local government, membership of clubs and societies and the role played by women in the establishment of professional dynasties. By better understanding these issues, we will be much closer to knowing whether there was a distinct professional class whose members engaged in similar civic, social and economic enterprises in their local communities. The statistical evidence will be supplemented with information gleaned from the records of mechanics institutes, literary societies, churches and other bodies, which are usually held in local authority record offices. We will also consult business records, diaries, correspondence and other personal papers.

With the advent of family history websites and social media it is possible to determine for the first time by studying families across several generations if professional families generally intermarried and whether children entered professions rather than chose careers in enterprise. We have included, unlike some commentators, the army and navy and civil service alongside the old professions of church, law and medicine. We will also seek to discover if the new professions which emerge during the Victorian period, such as accountants, architects, bankers, engineers and teachers, are also colonised by children from professional backgrounds.

The Victorian Professions team recently launched their project blog in January 2015 and are beginning to share some of the juicy stories their first year of research has revealed. For example, ‘Faith and fortune maketh the man’ starts with the marriage of a clergyman but with the use of family history, newspaper articles, wills and probate reveals a butler-made-landed proprietor on a mission to marry his daughters off into professional families. Accompanying this new Victorian Profession’s blog is a Twitter account and a Flickr account. Whilst intended to promote the project, the primary driver is to crowdsource additional research material, be it biographical details, photographs or family papers.

Lists of the professionals we have selected as the springboard for this project are available on the people page of the project website. If members of the public know about the family histories of any of these people, we are now inviting them to contribute to this ground-breaking project. We are interested in any papers, photographs or memorials in addition to building the family trees of our professional sample. Family histories for professional people from our selected towns, but not in the sample of professionals, are also welcomed.

For further information about the Victorian Professions’ project blog, social media and crowdsourcing activities, please contact Dr. Alison C Kay at

Project team members:

  • Laurence Brockliss, Primary Investigator (Professor of Early-Modern French History at the University of Oxford)
  • Michael Moss, Co-Investigator (Professor of Archival Science,  University of Northumbria)
  • Simon Dixon, Consultant (Keeper of Digital Archives, University of  Leicester)
  • Alison Kay, Post-Doctoral Researcher (University of Northumbria)
  • Kim Price, Post-Doctoral Researcher (University of Northumbria)
  • Jennifer Aston, Post-Doctoral Researcher (University of Oxford, currently on maternity leave)
  • Harry Smith, Post-doctoral Researcher (University of Oxford, maternity cover)

Project website:

Project blog:

Twitter: @V_Professions



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