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households. The study of British households from census-type listings was pioneered by Peter Laslett and his colleagues at the Cambridge Population Group in the 1960s, and was essentially designed to test widely held assumptions about the nature of family life in the past. It was supposed that most people in the past had lived in large households, with several generations under the same roof. In practice, mean household size was relatively small. The average size of household in England before 1750 was just 4.44 persons, rising to 4.81 in the following 70 years. It fell thereafter and by the end of the Second World War was just 3.67 persons. Households in the 1990s are historically the smallest they have ever been, at only 2.4 persons. Laslett's analysis of household listings, dating from the 16th cent. to 1820, demonstrated that they were also relatively simple in their structure. The predominant form was nuclear, that is they consisted of one married couple, with or without children. Relatives other than unmarried children were found in only about 11 per cent of households, and only a handful, some 4 per cent, consisted of more than one married couple. Although some historians disagree and comparable data is lacking, most historians think that this form of household structure has predominated since at least the early medieval period.

The experience of living in households in the past differed from that of today in important respects. To begin with, they frequently contained servants and lodgers. Between 1650 and 1821 between 11 and 14 per cent of the total population were servants (either domestic or working as live-in labourers) and a further 5–6 per cent were lodgers. In 1970 just 1 per cent of the population could be so classified. Again, the proportion of households containing relatives was at its greatest in 1947 (when it was three times more common than in the 100 years before 1750), caused largely it seems by the temporary post-war housing shortage. Living alone has dramatically increased, particularly since 1960. In 1981 those in their 60s and early 70s were five times more likely to live alone than before 1790. There are also some striking similarities. Single parenthood today is only as common as it was in the 16th and 17th cents., although divorce, rather than death, is now the chief cause.

Jeremy Boulton