On the Spring-Stone Debate

While finding a decisive victor in debates on semantics and historical interpretation often proves difficult, in the lively clash between historians David Spring and Lawrence Stone on social mobility into Britain’s landed elite, the former presented the strongest case. The discourse, of the mid-1980s, centered around the questions of how to define “open” when considering how open the upper echelon was to newcomers from 1540-1880 and, most importantly, to newcomers who came from the business world. On both counts, Spring offered a more compelling perspective on how one should regard the historical evidence and data Stone collected in his work An Open Elite? Namely, that it was reasonable to call the landed elite open to members of lower strata, including business leaders.

The debate quickly obfuscated lines between the two questions. In his review of An Open Elite?, Spring noted that Stone showed a growth in elite families from 1540-1879, beginning with forty and seeing 480 join them, though not all permanently. Further, “Stone shows that regularly one-fifth of elite families were newcomers.”[1] In his reply, Stone declined to explore the “openness” of a twenty percent entry rate because it was, allegedly, irrelevant to his purpose: he was only interested in the entry of businessmen like merchants, speculators, financiers, and manufacturers, who did not come from the gentry, the relatively well-off stratum knocking at the gate of the landed elite. Spring “failed to distinguish between openness to new men, almost all from genteel families, who made a fortune in the law, the army, the administration or politics…and openness to access by successful men of business, mostly of low social origins.”[2]

True, Stone made clear who and what he was looking at in An Open Elite?: the “self-made men,” the “upward mobility by successful men of business,” and so on, but leaned into, rather than brushed aside or contradicted, the idea of general social immobility.[3] For instance, observe the positioning of: “When analysed with care…the actual volume of social mobility has turned out to be far less than might have been expected. Moreover, those who did move up were rarely successful men of business.”[4] The notion of the landed elite being closed off in general was presented, followed by the specific concern about businessmen. Stone went beyond business many times (for instance: “the degree of mere gentry penetration up into the elite was far smaller than the earlier calculations would indicate”[5]), positing that not only was the landed elite closed to businessmen but also universally, making his protestations against Spring rather disingenuous. Stone insisted to Spring that an open elite specifically meant, to historians and economists, a ruling class open to businessmen, not to all, but Stone himself opened the door to the question of whether the landed elite was accessible to everyone by answering nay in his book. Therefore, the question was admissible, or fair game, in the debate, and Spring was there to provide a more convincing answer. A group comprised of twenty percent newcomers from below, to most reasonable persons, could be described as relatively open. Even more so with the sons of newcomers added in: the landed elite was typically one-third newcomers and sons of newcomers, as Spring pointed out. Though it should be noted both scholars highlighted the challenge of using quantitative data to answer such historical questions. The collection and publication of such numbers is highly important, but it hardly ends the discussion — the question of openness persists, and any answer is inherently subjective.

However, it was the second point of contention where Spring proved most perceptive. He pointed out that while the gentry constituted 181 entrants into the landed elite during the observed centuries, those involved in business were not far behind, with 157, according to Stone’s data. This dwarfed the seventy-two from politics and seventy from the law. As Spring wrote, Stone’s quantitative tables conflicted with his text. Stone wrote in An Open Elite? that “most of the newcomers were rising parish gentry or office-holders or lawyers, men from backgrounds not too dissimilar to those of the existing county elite. Only a small handful of very rich merchants succeeded in buying their way into the elite…”[6] Clearly, even with different backgrounds, businessmen were in fact more successful at entering the landed elite than politicians and lawyers in the three counties Stone studied. What followed a few lines down in the book from Stone’s selected words made far more sense when considering the data: businessmen comprised “only a third of all purchasers…”[7] The use of “only” was perhaps rather biased, but, more significantly, one-third aligned not with the idea of a “small handful,” but of 157 new entrants — a third business entrants, a bit more than a third gentry, and a bit less than a third lawyers, politicians, and so on. Spring could have stressed the absurdity, in this context, of the phrase “only a third,” but was sure to highlight the statistic in his rejoinder, where he drove home the basic facts of Stone’s findings and reiterated that the landed elite was about as open to businessmen as others. Here is where quantitative data truly shines in history, for you can compare numbers against each other. The question of whether a single given number or percentage is big or small is messy and subjective, but whether one number is larger than another is not, and provides clarity regarding issues like whether businessmen had some special difficulty accessing Britain’s landed elite.

Stone failed to respond directly to this point, a key moment that weakened his case, but instead sidetracked into issues concerning permanence of newcomers and by-county versus global perspectives on the data, areas he explored earlier in his response, now awkwardly grafted on to Spring’s latest argument. Yet the reader is largely left to pick up on what is being implied, based on Stone’s earlier comments on said issues. He noted that only twenty-five businessmen of the 157 came from the two counties distant from London, seemingly implying that Hertfordshire, the London-area county, had tipped the scales. Merchants and others were not as likely to rise into the landed elite in more rural areas. What relevance that had is an open question — it seemed more a truism than an argument against Spring’s point, as London was a center for business, and thus that result was perhaps expected. Regardless, he did not elaborate. The adjacent implication was that Spring was again seeing “everything from a global point of view which has no meaning in reality, and nothing from the point of view of the individual counties.”[8] In the debate, Stone often cautioned that it made sense to look at counties individually, as they could be radically distinct — one should not simply look at the aggregated data. But Stone’s inherent problem, in his attempt at a rebuttal, was that he was using the global figures to make his overall case. He took three counties and lifted them up to represent a relatively closed elite in Britain as a whole. It would not do to now brush aside one county or focus heavily on another to bolster an argument. Spring, in a footnote, wrote something similar, urging Stone to avoid “making generalizations on the basis of one county. [Your] three counties were chosen as together a sample of the nation.”[9] To imply, as Stone did, that London could be ignored as some kind of anomaly contradicted his entire project.

Stone’s dodge into the permanence of entrants was likewise not a serious response to Spring’s observation that business-oriented newcomers nearly rivaled those from the gentry and far outpaced lawyers and politicians. He wrote that “of the 132 business purchasers in Hertfordshire, only 68 settled in for more than a generation…”[10] The transient nature of newcomers arose elsewhere in the debate as well. Here Stone moved the goalposts slightly: instead of mere entrants into the landed elite, look at who managed to remain. Only “4% out of 2246 owners” in the three counties over these 340 years were permanent newcomers from the business world.[11] It was implied these numbers were both insignificant and special to businesspersons. Yet footnote five, that associated with the statistic, undercut Stone’s point. Here he admitted Spring correctly observed that politicians and officeholders were forced to sell their county seats, their magnificent mansions, and abandon the landed elite, as defined by Stone, at nearly the same rate as businessmen, at least in Hertfordshire. Indeed, it was odd Stone crafted this response, given Spring’s earlier dismantling of the issue. The significance of Stone’s rebuttal was therefore unclear. If only sixty-eight businessmen lasted more than a generation, how did that compare to lawyers, office-holders, and the gentry? Likewise, if four percent of businessmen established permanent generational residence among the landed elite, what percentages did other groups earn? Again, Stone did not elaborate. But from his admission and what Spring calculated, it seems unlikely Stone’s numbers, when put in context, would help his case. Even more than the aggregate versus county comment, this was a non-answer.

The debate would conclude with a non-answer as well. There was of course more to the discussion — it should be noted Stone put up an impressive defense of the selection of his counties and the inability to include more, in response to Spring questioning how representative they truly were — but Spring clearly showed, using Stone’s own evidence, that the landed elite was what a reasonable person could call open to outsiders in general and businessmen in particular, contradicting Stone’s positions on both in An Open Elite? Stone may have recognized this, given the paucity of counterpoints in his “Non-Rebuttal.” Spring would, in Stone’s view, “fail altogether to deal in specific details with the arguments used in my Reply,” and therefore “there is nothing to rebut.”[12] While it is true that Spring, in his rejoinder, did not address all of Stone’s points, he did focus tightly on the main ideas discussed in the debate and this paper. So, as further evidence that Spring constructed the better case, Stone declined to return to Spring’s specific and central arguments about his own data. He pointed instead to other research that more generally supported the idea of a closed elite. Stone may have issued a “non-rebuttal” not because Spring had ignored various points, but rather because he had stuck to the main ones, and there was little to be said in response.

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[1] Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Review,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 152.

[2] Lawrence Stone, “Spring Back,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 168.

[3] Lawrence Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880, abridged edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 3-4.

[4] Ibid, 283.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 283.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stone, “Spring Back,” 169.

[9] Spring, “A Review,” 154.

[10] Stone, “Spring Back,” 171.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lawrence Stone, “A Non-Rebuttal,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 396. For Spring’s rejoinder, see Eileen Spring and David Spring, “The English Landed Elite, 1540-1879: A Rejoinder,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 393-396.