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?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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.