Britain's moving story

New studies of names and genes are confounding core beliefs about being British. We are unadventurou

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.

Loyal wives

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

Do-It-yourself

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?

Getty/Julia Rampen
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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. Could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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