skip to primary navigation skip to content

Information on by-employments in probate inventories

Information on by-employments in probate inventories

Parish registers, testamentary documents, militia lists, court records, and most other sources of male occupational information typically describe men with a single occupational title. A common criticism of the Occupational Structure Project's results has been that recreating an historical occupational structure based on these titles is problematic as it ignores by-employments which, as Overton et al (and many others) have described as 'the norm' in pre-industrial England.1 The impression of ubiquitous by-employments is based on evidence from probate inventories which, in the goods listed, often show clear evidence of gainful activities additional to the decedent's stated occupation. As shown in a recent paper by Sebastian Keibek and Leigh Shaw-Taylor, the inventory evidence actually severely exaggerates by-employment incidence, as the by-employed were disproportionately likely to be probated.2 Nevertheless, a by-employment correction on principal-occupation-only estimates would still seem necessary.

Accurately determining the size of this correction requires rectifying a serious, general shortcoming of probate inventories: a severe bias towards wealthy, capital-intensive estates. A detailed description of how this can be achieved can be found in a recently published working paper.3 In essence, the approach reverses the statistical process which created the wealth bias in the probate record. First, the probability function describing the statistical likelihood of being probated as a function of estate wealth is established in an iterative process, depicted in illustration 1.

Schematic of the approach to finding the probability of being inventoried as a function of wealth

Illustration 1. Schematic depiction of the iterative process for establishing the historical probability of being probate as a function of household wealth
Source: Keibek, 'Correcting the probate inventory record for wealth bias', Cambridge Working Papers in Economic and Social History, 28 (2017),

By, subsequently, dividing the (known) wealth distribution of all probated households by the (now established) probability function the (formerly unknown) wealth distribution of all households, probated and non-probated, is reconstructed, complete with all other household characteristics included in the probate evidence, such as type and value of domestic items, total estate value, and the variety, quantity, and value of work-related goods. It is the latter which allows us to accurately determine the incidence and economic importance of by-employments, although it is worth remarking here that the methodology can obviously also be applied to reassess other important historical issues for which probate inventories are a central source of evidence, such as early-modern consumption and material culture. Staying with the issue at hand, the approach demonstrates that a much smaller share of early-eighteenth-century households were by-employed than the sixty-plus per cent often indicated by the 'raw' probate inventory evidence. In most early-eighteenth-century counties, only 20 to 30 per cent of secondary-sector household engaged in agriculture, and typically fewer than 10 per cent of farmer households were by-employed in male secondary-sector activities. Moreover, the scale of these by-employments, which can also be estimated, was much smaller than suggested by the 'raw' probate data; on average, secondary-sector households by-employed in agriculture generated 30 per cent of their income in the by-employment, whilst farmer households which also engaged in male secondary sector activities generated 20 per cent of their income from those activities. Combining these figures on incidence and income contribution enables one to calculate the appropriate by-employment correction to the principal-occupation-only male occupational structure, which turns out to be a relatively limited shift of 3 percentage points from the secondary to the primary sector.

However, it can be argued that even this limited correction is inappropriate. By comparing by-employment incidence with the size of the probated households, presumed roughly linearly related to the number of beds in these households, a very strong statistical relationship emerges. For every additional bed in the inventory, on average one additional by-employment is also found. This clearly suggests that such by-employments should not properly be interpreted as the probated male 'household head' engaging in several activities but, instead, as several individuals within the household engaging in different activities. But such household by-employment is irrelevant for the male occupational structure as it either relates to female work activities or to those of men other than the household head such as living-in sons who, in time, left their own traces in baptism registers and the probate record.

A much more detailed analysis of this topic can be found in a recently published working paper.4

1 Overton et al, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (2004), pp. 76-77.

2 Keibek and Shaw-Taylor, 'Early modern rural by-employments: a re-examination of the probate inventory evidence', Agricultural History Review, 61:2 (2013), pp.244-81.

3 Keibek, 'Correcting the probate inventory record for wealth bias', Cambridge Working Papers in Economic and Social History, 28 (2017),

4 Keibek, 'By-employments in early modern England and their significance for estimating historical male occupational structures', Cambridge Working Papers in Economic and Social History, 29 (2017),