We like to believe that we live in a fair, meritocratic society that encourages geographical and social mobility. Politicians - from left and right - take it for granted that ability and effort will usually be rewarded, that the coal miner's clever daughter will be allowed to be a lawyer if she wants and that the millworker's artistic son will have the chance to become a landscape gardener. Similarly, it is assumed our citizens will always be able to travel and move around the country to take up new careers and opportunities. Yet recent research on the movement of families around the country suggests that such notions are misguided. Our society is far more rigid and unyielding than we suppose. The British way of life is not one of unfettered freedom of movement but is marked by the fact that most people stay put and remain near their families - unless forced to travel. These points are vividly demonstrated by the example of the village of Guisborough in North Yorkshire.
Guisborough has little claim to fame. A pleasant dormitory suburb of Middlesbrough, it is marked by modest affluence and the ruins of a nearby 12th-century priory.
There is one odd feature about the village, however: an unexpectedly large number of surnames that clearly have no connection with north-east England. Names like Magot, Tregonning and Laity are found in the town and in the surrounding countryside. These families turn out, as you might guess from the names, to be Cornish in origin.
Nor is Guisborough alone in having this unexpected south-western connection. The nearby village of Skinningrove does, too, as do several other outlying villages and suburbs around Middlesbrough. Here you will find Curnows, Treloars, Tre mains, Trembaths and Oldses mixing with names such as Hodgson, Robson, Stephenson, Hutchinson and Atkinson that are more typical of the area.
But why? How did these Cornish people end up in north-east England in such numbers? And, more to the point, what does their presence there signify today? These questions have intriguing answers I discovered while researching my book Face of Britain, an examination of how modern technologies - DNA analyses and computer databases - are transforming our understanding of Britain's past. Indeed, those Cornish names, and the current social status of the families that bear them, can tell us much about the state of the nation today, in particular about the idea that we live in a just, meritocratic society.
First, let's look at the reason for those Cornish names on Teesside. Their appearance is the result of the collapse of tin mining in Cornwall in the 19th century. Faced with starvation, families moved en masse to north-east England so that they could take up jobs in the one industry to which they were accustomed: mining. But instead of hewing tin ore from the Great Polgooth and other pits, they came to Teesside to dig coal to fuel the industrial revolution that was then taking its grip of the area. Given that few miners then lived beyond the age of 30 - thanks to dust-induced diseases such as phthisis - the migration demonstrates how desperate their circumstances must have been.
The Cornish-Middlesbrough link thus gives us a poignant insight into 19th- and early 20th-century life. That we can plot it so precisely is thanks to the work of Professor Paul Longley, whose team at University College London has created a database of nearly 26,000 British surnames that is now being used to analyse British population changes. The surnames in this database appeared in the Great Britain census of 1881 as well as on the 1998 electoral register, and their distribution is displayed on a map of the British Isles that anyone with a computer and a broadband connection can now access.
People stay put
Simply log on to www.spatial-literacy.org and key in a surname. You will then be presented with a colour-coded map showing the distribution across Britain in 1881 and in 1998 of any name that appeared in the 1998 electoral register more than 100 times. Attenborough produces a purple region of highest concentration around Nottingham; Sykes around Huddersfield; Widdicombe around Torquay and Plymouth; Ramsbottom in south Lancashire; Pettigrew around Kilmar nock; and McKie in the south-west tip of Scotland. Then, if you put in some of those Cornish names - such as Tregon ning, Curnow and Olds - you can see the result: a purple patch for each name in Cornwall, and an intriguing yellow splodge, which indicates a modest level for the name's frequency, around Teesside.
However, the research undertaken by Longley and his colleagues contains a great deal more than surnames and their geographical distribution. The researchers have also studied indicators and details of economic and social status based upon type of neighbourhood, as suggested by postcode. Other factors, including property values, educational attainment, employment levels, financial data and health statistics, have also been included in their analyses.
And when this information is applied to the descendants of the Cornish mining families, who had lived a life of grim poverty in the 19th century, it becomes clear they fared little better in relative terms in their new home town of Middlesbrough in the 20th century. Many of them, according to Longley, still live in poor housing and some are on social benefits. Educational standards are low and they lack professional qualifications. The passage of more than a century has produced no change to their lot. The past hundred years may have brought general improvements to health and education, but the descendants of those Cornish migrants remain in low socio-economic groups. "The Cornish families of Teesside are just one example," says Longley. "Getting out of the rut is harder than we might believe."
One problem is that we are blinded by stories of startling individual success: the Charles Dickenses of our Victorian past who rose from poverty to achieve wealth. We conclude that society is fluid and fair, particularly to enterprising migrants. In fact, cases such as that of Dickens are the exception. The norm is social immobility, a point you will be persuaded of if you compare the two maps produced by Longley's database - the ones for 1881 and 1998.
If you flick between the two maps for most names, you see the spread of families from a specific heartland to other areas of the country. Thus you might be inclined to conclude that Longley and his colleagues have demonstrated the flexibility and geographical mobility of British people during the past century. In fact, that is not what is being displayed. If we compare the two sets of maps, the old and the new, the really striking aspect is that the original pockets of surnames on 1881 maps remain exactly where they are on the maps of 1998. So, yes, some people move on, but a greater number stay put.
"What we see most in the 1998 maps is just a blurring of surname hot spots as a few people head off and start up lives somewhere else," says Longley. "The real surprise for us was the extent to which people appear to stay where they are. Moving on to a new life in a new location is too traumatic for most people and so they stay where they are, getting on with their lives much as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did before them." Therefore, the idea that we are increasingly socially mobile may be a myth. Journalists and academics may move about the country but most people stay put.
That is the real lesson from these new studies: that the nature of British society has changed far less than we previously supposed. Indeed, many scientists now believe that most of the genes of the British people today can be traced back to the very first people who settled on the land more than 12,000 years ago. We may have some added Viking blood or Anglo-Saxon genes but deep under our skin, most of us are still Stone Age hunters. Similarly, Longley's research shows that our social structure is rather inflexible and resistant to change. Movement to the top is a slow business.
Although the lack of mobility of the average Briton may appear depressing, our attachment to place has thrown up other, more satisfying findings. One recent programme of research revealed that British women are marked by their startling fidelity. This was shown by studying the Y chromosomes of British men. This bundle of DNA confers masculinity and is passed on, like a surname, from father to son. Professor Mark Jobling of Leicester University has found that if you compare surnames with Y chromosomes, you get a surprising match. Discounting common names such as Smith, Jobling found that two men with the same surname, chosen at random, had a 50 per cent chance of also having the same Y chromosome.
Thus all these distinctive pedigrees across the country - the Attenboroughs, Pettigrews, McKies and Ramsbottoms - that stretch back into the 13th and 14th centuries to the days when surnames were created still carry the genetic signature of their creators. Dozens of generations are involved in these pedigrees, it should be stressed, yet any one would have been broken by a single act of infidelity by a woman over all those centuries. (Infidelity by a father would have no effect on the genes of his family, but if a mother had had a lover who impregnated her with a male child, the link between the family Y chromosome and the family name would have been severed for that boy and for all his male offspring. Some scientists have a special name for this phenomenon. They call it "male introgression into the surname pool". The rest of us know it as cuckoldry.) Yet this does not seem to have happened in the vast majority of families studied by experts. Bryan Sykes, the Oxford geneticist, sees the trend as clear evidence of the faithful nature of British women. "We see very, very little of this in the British Isles," says Sykes. "These genetics studies suggest the illegitimacy rate in this country is less than 1 per cent."
That is a controversial finding. Past levels of illegitimacy, in terms of children not conceived by their assumed fathers, have been estimated at more than 5 per cent in Britain. "Our work flatly contradicts those figures," says Sykes. "In fact, family life in Britain has been a lot more stable and trusting than it has been given credit for."
"Face of Britain" by Robin McKie is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). The accompanying television series is scheduled for March
Who? Log on to http://www.spatial-literacy.org and type in your surname.
What? A map will show you the distribution of your name around the country according to the 1998 electoral register.
Where? Go to the 1881 map to see the distribution of your family name at the time of that year's census.
Why? That's the interesting question. Why, for example, did the Blairs move south? Why did the Becketts hardly move at all? Did the Tebbits never need to get on their bikes? And what was the Hattersley link with the Highlands after 1881?