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Town and country: taking stock in 1851

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

A feature of early-Victorian administrative techniques was the development of statistical science as an instrument not merely for recording crude figures but for eliciting causal connections between social phenomena and providing a more exact basis for social legislation. Apart from the valuable work of various local statistical societies, the main sources of information were

  1. the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages under the act of 1836 which also set up a central registry office at Somerset House with a Registrar-General who presented annual reports to parliament,
  2. the census of population held every decade since 1801.

The early and defective censuses were mainly concerned to discover the numbers, locality and sex of the population. In 1831 a more sophisticated enumeration of occupation was adopted. In 1841 a distinction was made between those born within and without the county of residence. In the 1851 census, the most detailed and accurate of the series to date, information was procured not only on occupation but on birthplace, family relationships, church membership and school-attendance. The 1851 census also formed a landmark in two other respects. The population of Great Britain had doubled since the first census of 1801, the fastest rate of growth it was ever to record; and for the first time the population of the towns equalled that of the countryside.

Census of Great Britain 1851, vol. i (1852), Report, Section 8 (Some of the General Results of the Inquiry), lxxxii-lxxxiv

The most important result which the inquiry establishes, is the addition in half a century, of ten millions of people to the British population. The increase of population in the half of this century nearly equals the increase in all preceding ages; and the addition, in the last ten years, of two millions three hundred thousand to the inhabitants of these islands, exceeds the increase in the last fifty years of the eighteenth century. Contemporaneously with the increase of the population at home, emigration has proceeded since 1750 to such an extent, as to people large states in America, and to give permanent possessors and cultivators to the land of large colonies in all the temperate regions of the world; where, by a common language, commercial relations, and the multiplied reciprocities of industry, the people of the new nations maintain an indissoluble union with the parent country. Two other movements of the population have been going on in the United Kingdom: the immigration of the population of Ireland into Great Britain, and the constant flow of the country population into the towns. The current of the Celtic migration is now diverted from these shores; and chiefly flows in the direction of the United States of America, where the wanderers find friends and kindred. The movement of the country population to the towns, went on unnoticed by the earlier writers, and it has never yet been clearly exhibited; but it is believed that the Tables of the birth-place of the inhabitants of the towns and counties, will determine its extent and character. It is a peculiarity of this movement in these latter times, that it is directed to new points, where the towns engage in a manufacture as one vast undertaking, in which nearly the whole population is concerned; as well as to the County towns, and to London.…

It is one of the obvious physical effects of the increase of population, that the proportion of land to each person diminishes; and the decrease is such, that within the last fifty years, the number of acres to each person living, has fallen from 5:4 to 2:7 acres in Great Britain; from four acres to two acres in England and Wales. As a countervailing advantage, the people have been brought into each other's neighbourhood; their average distance from each other has been reduced in the ratio of 3 to 2; labour has been divided; industry has been organized in towns; and the quantity of produce either consisting of, or exchangeable for, the conveniences, elegancies, and necessaries of life has, in the mass, largely increased, and is increasing at a more rapid rate than the population.…

At the same time, too, that the populations of the towns and of the country, have become so equally balanced in number - ten millions against ten millions - the union between them has become, by the circumstance which has led to the increase of the towns, more intimate than it was before; for they are now connected together by innumerable relationships, as well as by the associations of trade. It will be seen in the final publication, that a large proportion of the population in the market towns, the county-towns, the manufacturing towns, and the metropolis, was born in the country; and that, in England, town and country are bound together, not only by the intercourse of commerce and the interchange of intelligence, but by a thousand ties of blood and affection.

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