The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – sixty years of her reign – is being celebrated this week. Only one other British monarch has reigned for sixty years, and one other almost managed it. Keen readers of this year’s April ‘Olympic Games’ special issue of Significance will already know, if they have turned to page 39, that the average length of an English monarch’s reign since 1066 has been just 22 years.
(What was that information doing in an issue devoted to the Olympic Games, I hear you cry? It was helping to work out the date of the first Olympics of all, which may or may not have been in 776BC. Read it here to find out!)
The standard deviation of their length of reign is 16.3 years, which shows that there is quite a bit of variation involved. Edward V and Edward VIII, for example, reigned for less than a year apiece. The one who almost reached sixty years on the throne was George III - who reigned for 59 years and 96 days; for the last ten of those years he was well mad. Queen Victoria, of course, reached her jubilee, amid great rejoicing, in 1897 at the age of 78. Kings and queens tend to have shorter lives than ordinary people – as the statistician Francis Galton showed in a curious exercise to find out, statistically whether praying for people helped them to live longer. He reasoned that the most prayed-for people are kings and queens. He compared the longevity of European kings and queens with that of clergymen, military men, and other respectable Victorians; and concluded, since the kings and queens died younger, that praying did not work. See here, here and here for more on the rather remarkable Galton.
But to return to our current jubilee. Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in February 1952. Britain has changed quite a bit in the sixty years since then. The Office for National Statistics has just released some data to show just how differently we all lived back in those days.
In 1952 we were in an era of post-war austerity. We think the nation is poor now, but in 1952 we were really poor. There was still food rationing. (Five years earlier brides from all over the country had sent in their own clothing coupons to help the then Princess Elizabeth obtain the material for her wedding dress). The nation’s GDP back then was £15,983 million; it was £1,507,585 million in 2011 - an increase of 9,332%
Does that mean we are all ninety-four times richer now than we were back then? Alas no, because inflation has been chundering away at a compound rate for those sixty years as well. You would have to pay £24.34 today to buy what you could have bought for £1 back then - or looking at it another way, £1 today would be equivalent to 4p in 1952. That of course is 4 new pence, which is the equivalent of ninepence halfpenny in old pounds-shillings-and-pence money, which was the sort that was around back then. (But only old people, like me and the Queen, remember that.) There were still farthings around back then. A farthing was a quarter of an old penny, but even sixty years back there was really nothing you could buy with one. Still, they did have a pretty picture of a wren on the back – the wren being Britain’s smallest bird.
If our money was different, our work was different too. The five most common occupations for men, as classified by the 1951 census, were Clerks (there were 600,712 of them), metalworking, engineering, electrical & allied trades (414,434); agricultural workers other than foremen/shepherds and nurserymen/market gardeners (411,305 – and I cannot imagine why a shepherd did not count as an agricultural worker); all other industrial and commercial undertakings (unskilled workers) (384,049); and finally, an occupation touchingly described as ‘Drivers of self-propelled goods vehicles (369,727)’. We would call them white van drivers today.
For comparison, the five most common male occupations in 2011 are
1. Production; works and maintenance managers (357,111)
2. Elementary goods handling and storage occupations (309,876)
3. Sales and retail assistants (305,322)
4. Retail and wholesale managers (289,692)
5. Metal working production and maintenance fitters (262,541)
For women, jobs have changed – but not quite as radically as I had imagined. In 1952 they were: Clerks (other than shorthand typists/secretaries/typists/costing) (509,310); Shorthand typists, secretaries (380,209); Domestic servants (other than chefs/cooks/kitchen hands/chambermaids) (373,480); Non food goods sellers (other than food goods/chemists/tobacco/newspapers) (220,322); and Charwomen and office cleaners (215,336).
The corresponding jobs today are
1. Sales and retail assistants (820,404)
2. General office assistants/clerks (585,037)
3. Care assistants and home carers (445,875)
4. Nurses (387,464)
5. Cleaners; domestics (383,561)
The job titles are less condescending, but looking after other people still seems to predominate.
Back then, the census recorded 203 Puddlers and shinglers, who hammered the raw product of blast furnaces into manageable shape, and three female locomotive engine firemen, who presumably stoked the steam engines on the railways. Both occupations have now vanished. On the other hand a 2008 survey estimated that the number of IT consultants was ‘in the low hundreds of thousands’. Back in 1958 there were none.
Some other job categories have disappeared – notably many of those on the staff-lists of previous monarchs. Her Majesty lives relatively modestly, compared to her forebears. 18th and 19th-century monarchs typically had a thousand staff on the royal household payroll. Among them were Chocolate Maker to the Queen; Yeoman of the Mouth to Her Majesty Queen Mary in the Pantry; Necessary Woman to the Corridor and Entrance Hall; and, from an earlier era, Keeper of the Lions in the Tower. Other titles include Moletaker; Master of the Game of Cock Fighting; Strewer of Herbs and Laundress of the Body Linen.
I know these things because, to coincide with the Jubilee, 50,000 records from the Royal Household staff lists have been put on-line. They stretch from 1660 to 1924, covering the reigns of King Charles II to King George V. They are on the family history website www.findmypast.co.uk, in association with the Royal Archives. If one of your ancestors was employed by a Royal palace you can do a name search and probably find him or her.
But you can postpone doing that until you have been out and cheered and waved your flags at one of the 4,000-odd beacons being lit across the country on Monday night, or joined the estimated million-strong crowd watching the pageant of 1,000 boats along the Thames. (How do we estimate crowds? Like this.) Happy Jubilee.