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The British and Irish Ruling Class 1660-1945, Ellis Wasson, De Gruyter Open, 2017

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This behind-the-scenes look into its underlying research, challenges encountered, empirical rationale and editorial processes provides an invaluable perspective on this recent book project.

An Interview with Ellis Wasson.


This two-volume publication by Ellis Wasson provides a unique trove of historical longitudinal data on British and Irish members of parliament (MP) that will stand in Open Access format in good stead to the scholarly community. As this research project is unusual in its breadth, aims and results, Pablo Markin has conducted an unstructured e-mail interview with the author of this recently published overview of The British and Irish Ruling Class, 1660-1945 (2017). This has allowed Ellis Wasson, an American historian that has published numerous publications on British political and social history, such as The Role of Ruling Class Adaptability in the British Transition from Ancient Regime to Modern State (2010), to provide an inside view into how this research project has been accomplished from its initial idea to the Open Access book form it has taken.

Palace of Westminster, River Thames, London, England, the United Kingdom, March 8, 2013 | © Courtesy of David McKelvey.
Palace of Westminster, River Thames, London, England, the United Kingdom, March 8, 2013 | © Courtesy of David McKelvey.

Pablo Markin (PM): Could you please describe the process that led to this book project?

Ellis Wasson (EW): Britain was the first industrial nation. It was also one of the few countries in Western Europe that developed an independent judiciary and a robust legislature that successfully challenged executive authority early in the modern era. Britain has pursued a unique path to modernity. It retained a potent hereditary aristocracy late into the nineteenth century, still socially ascendant until the mid-twentieth century, and still capable of producing individuals in the front rank of British life in politics (e.g., Winston Churchill, died 1965) and wealth (e.g., the Duke of Westminster, died 2016) after 1945. Historians have long been fascinated by the political system’s ability to maintain continuity since 1660 while at the same time Britain gradually developed into a democracy and rapid, even extreme, change took place in the economy. Why was Britain the first industrial nation? One of the most compelling explanations was that social mobility was more open and fluid than in other societies (which could also help explain why more socially constipated countries experienced political revolutions whereas Britain did not). If rapid social acceptance of new wealth did exist, this could have been a key explanation for technological innovation, political stability, global expansion, and dynamic growth.

Over thirty years ago I began to collect data about the British political elite between 1660 and 1945 with a view to analyzing questions relating to social mobility. My mentor at Johns Hopkins, David Spring, was an expert on English landed society and encouraged prosopographic research. One of his graduate students, the late Dan Duman, studied the lives and careers of British judges, and another, (W.D.) Bill Rubinstein, became an expert on wealth-holders. I looked for a consistent measure of high status over multiple generations. The use of membership in Parliament had been neglected as a means of gathering data about the British aristocracy and those rising into it, despite the fact that almost every successful entrepreneur, or those who excelled in other fields that yielded wealth, aspired to join the House of Commons. It was through that chamber that the road led to a peerage, the prize every seriously ambitious Briton sought until the twentieth century.

The House of Commons in the early 19th century. The House of Commons at Westminster: This engraving was published as Plate 21 of Microcosm of London (1808) | © Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson.
The House of Commons in the early 19th century. The House of Commons at Westminster: This engraving was published as Plate 21 of Microcosm of London (1808) | © Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson.

I needed to have access to accurate and detailed information about the families I studied. The “History of Parliament”, founded before the Second World War but with an accelerated publication schedule after 1945 (funded by the British Government), helped provide answers. The celebrated historian, Sir Lewis Namier, editor of some of the volumes, was interested, however, in the careers of MPs as a means of understanding the mechanics of politics, not social and economic history. The early volumes paid inconsistent attention to landownership, social origins, and lineage. Later editors have done an increasingly good job providing a fully rounded picture of members of the political elite. An excellent compendium on the peerage (pub. 1887-1959) was also available, although these days the “History of Parliament” includes the House of Lords in its remit.

In 1984 another celebrated historian of the British aristocracy, Lawrence Stone, published a book on social mobility (An Open Elite? England 1540-1880) in which he challenged the basic paradigm of understanding the development of modern British society. Based on the painstaking analysis of the ownership of country houses in three counties in England Stone argued against the view that commercial and business wealth was the source for the rise of most elite families. Rather newcomers emerged from the genteel professions: the law, office, military and the Church. According to Stone a rethink about why and how Britain became the first industrial society was needed. Many critics pointed to flaws in Stone’s work. Moreover, he did not include Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in his study. My own research offered a path to understanding that was comprehensive, accurate (Stone’s measurement of the size of houses, for example, was open to question), and consistent over time.

I was able to bring together the arguments based on my data in a book, Born to Rule: British Political Elites, published in 2000. In it I demonstrated that business and commerce were the foundations for the entry of many families into the social and economic elite, and during the 19th century a good number of these were involved in industrial production not just the more “gentlemanly capitalism” of commerce and finance.

After the publication of Born to Rule, I was drawn away from the subject by other research and writing projects and teaching and administrative responsibilities. However, I knew that the data I had collected formed an important resource for scholars, both as a work of reference and as a basis for further research. In the last few years I was able to put the data into a format useable by others than myself and then looked for a publisher.

Carvings, Palace of Westminster, London, England, the United Kingdom, August 16, 2010 | © Courtesy of Captain Roger Fenton.
Carvings, Palace of Westminster, London, England, the United Kingdom, August 16, 2010 | © Courtesy of Captain Roger Fenton.

PM: What research problems have you encountered while working on this two-volume publication?

EW: Soon after my research began I realized that confining my coverage to England was not going to be practical. Many families held land in two or more of the nations forming the United Kingdom. Many of the “Ascendancy” families in Ireland arose first in Scotland or England. Many owned landed estates in more than one kingdom, and many families elected MPs or gained peerages in nations other than the place of their principal residence. Drawing a neat dividing line between England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland was about as useful as forcing too many clothes into a suitcase and then using scissors to clip around the edges so the lid can be closed. Fortunately, a biographical study of members of the Scottish Parliament before the Union was published in 1992 (edited by Margaret D. Young) and Dr. Edith Mary Johnston-Liik undertook to write the biographies of the members of the Irish Parliament (published in 2002). Though not yet published, Dr. Johnston-Liik generously made her data available to me for use at Queen’s University, Belfast. The History of Parliament in London also allowed me to consult some biographies of MPs from volumes not yet in print.

Another problem was identifying all MPs in a family’s history, whose election might have taken place centuries before the 1660 starting line I had chosen in order to keep the project within manageable proportions. Election of MPs before 1660 and particularly during the Middle Ages did not always carry the same social weight and meaning that it did after 1660. Nonetheless, many important families accumulated sizeable numbers of MPs from the 1300’s onwards. Most of the Medieval period has yet to be covered by the “History of Parliament”. Fortunately, family and local histories often provided assistance, and a list (of variable accuracy and often unclear in terms of precise identification, as families often duplicated the use of forenames) of MPs was published by Parliament in 1878-79. Similarly, the names and family connections of MPs elected after 1830 (the original cutoff date for the “History of Parliament”) had to be tracked down by various means.

Tracing the histories of great peerage families such as the Stanleys, Cavendishes, and Howards is not hard to do. Many reference works and even whole books are devoted to such dynasties, along with biographies of notable individuals. However, identifying the origins of families that produced only a few MPs and then died out can be challenging. Often it is extremely difficult to establish how fortunes were made, the quantity of land purchased, and what happened to the wealth after the family disappeared. The search for evidence led me to many libraries in the US, Ireland, and the UK. Sometimes a site visit to the neighborhood where a family was reported to have lived produced something in a local library, record office, or country house. Some recent families that made a good deal of money and established a presence in Parliament also have left remarkably thin trails of evidence about their origins and fortunes.

I was not a skilled master of computer-generated analysis when I began the project. However, I was fortunate to have a colleague, Michael Chupa, who was more than competent in the field, and he was able to crunch the data for me in answer to the questions I set. I also benefited from the assistance of my student, Kaizar Campwala, who was adept at plotting data in charts and graphs.

The main entrance with the portico and plaza in front of it of the former Parliament House, as it appeared in 2015 | © Courtesy of Shane Conneely.
The main entrance with the portico and plaza in front of it of the former Parliament House, as it appeared in 2015 | © Courtesy of Shane Conneely.

PM: What sets this research project apart from foregoing scholarship?

EW: I have described earlier the remarkable and exhaustive work of Professor Rubinstein, but he focused on wealth irrespective of whether particular men or families had made use of their good fortune to assert social status through the purchase of landed estates, country houses, or membership in Parliament nor whether this assertion was sustained over multiple generations. Some rich members of the bourgeoisie divided their wealth more or less equally among offspring, which usually led to disappearance from sight within a generation or two as the original fortune fragmented. Only those determined on rising high socially embraced the brutal and unloving mechanism of primogeniture in a bid to obtain hereditary titles and permanent membership in the social and economic elite by keeping their wealth intact and handing it on to a single heir. Stone’s work is, as I have suggested, deeply flawed for a variety of reasons and confined to a small sample of exclusively English families. My study is the only comprehensive one that exists covering all parts of the United Kingdom, 3,000 families, and 20,000 individuals with accurate data about landownership and social origins. My research also traced the descent of property linking multiple families in larger dynastic chains stretching over centuries. Often different surnames conceal the descent of landed estates, social status, and political power. Systematically collected information about these connections exists only in my book.

Reference works such as The Complete Peerage, Burke’s Peerage, Burke’s Landed Gentry, and other similar compendiums provide fragmentary data on the elite confined to particular years or focused on only one segment. In the case of many of the publications, the editors relied on the families themselves as the source of information about lineage and dynastic history, etc. Not all of this data is reliable. Indeed, a good deal of it is inaccurate or fantasy. The earlier volumes of the “History of Parliament” neglected lineage, wealth, and other material important to social and economic historians. The “History of Parliament” is a great, even heroic, work of scholarship, but it remains incomplete and not focused on family history or on the social and economic elite.

Parliament Square, Edinburgh, showing the Signet Library behind the statue of Charles II. The entrance to Parliament House is in the corner to the left of the library | © Courtesy of Kim Traynor.
Parliament Square, Edinburgh, showing the Signet Library behind the statue of Charles II. The entrance to Parliament House is in the corner to the left of the library | © Courtesy of Kim Traynor.

PM: What were the reasons for which you decided to use the Open Access model?

EW: I was anxious to make the information I collected available to as wide an audience as possible. I was not interested in profiting from this enterprise financially, based as it is on the labors of many hundreds of scholars who have preceded me, nor am I a candidate for promotion or tenure with selection tied to my rate of publication. The Open Access format seemed ideal to me because anyone with a laptop computer or even a cell phone could use the material (such consultations may be narrowly based on the search for an answer to one limited question) and pursue research in many different directions with ease. At the same time university libraries could acquire a hard copy to stand beside other works of reference about British history accessible for generations to come. I could have posted the data on a website created by myself, but access would have been more limited and ephemeral. I also benefited from the comments made by the De Gruyter Open peer reviewers that I would not otherwise have seen. The scale of this project (1,700 pages) probably would have scared away more traditional publishers, and I did not want the work to appear only in print.

PM: What was your experience with De Gruyter Open as a publisher for your book?

EW: I have had both positive and negative experiences with many different publishers over the years both in working on dozens of journal articles and books. I think it is fair to say that I have never encountered a smoother or more professional operation than De Gruyter Open. In particular Katarzyna Michalak, my editor, worked extremely hard to make the book as flawless as possible. The amount of detailed information packed into 1,700 pages is vast. Her eagle eye was enormously helpful in catching errors. The feedback from the peer-reviewers was balanced and helpful (not always my experience in the past with other publishers). The final product is handsome, both in virtual form and in print.

The interview with Ellis Wasson has been conducted by Pablo Markin.


Ellis Wasson, who, among other appointments, has been an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Delaware, had received his Ph.D. in British history at the University of Cambridge, the UK. He has authored more than a dozen articles in scholarly journals and is the author of six books: Whig Renaissance (1987), Born to Rule: British Political Elites (2000), Aristocracy and the Modern World (2006), A History of Modern Britain: 1714 to the Present (2009), The Role of Ruling Class Adaptability in the British Transition from Ancient Regime to Modern State (2010), and Sources and Debates in Modern British History 1714 to the Present (2012). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1998 and was a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge in 2004.

Featured Image Credits: Dublin Castle, Dublin, Ireland, September 20, 2008 | © Courtesy of William Murphy.

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