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Population Growth in the Age of Peel

One topic in English history that has caused a great deal of controversy is population growth. The only certain fact is that the population of Great Britain grew at a rapid rate during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the population of Ireland grew equally rapidly until the onset of the Famine in 1845.  A population graph shows that there was a fall in the death rate whilst the birth rate remained almost static.

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published his Principles of Population in which he said that the population of Great Britain was increasing at an uncontrollable rate. He believed that the natural rate of human reproduction, when unchecked would lead to geometric increases in population: that is, population would increase each generation at the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 5122, and so forth. He also said that food production increased only at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). This meant that ultimately the food supply would not be able to support the population. Malthus wrote his book to suggest possible remedies for this likely state of affairs.

It was shortly after the publication of Malthus' book that the first Census was taken, in 1801. John Rickman was responsible for the first four Censuses (1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831) but the information he collected was not very detailed. However, a brief Census is better than no Census at all.

It has been estimated that  the population increase between 1801-31 was 50% and that between 1831-51 it increased by a further 25%. However, in this latter period the death rate also increased, particularly in towns where living conditions were appalling and were deteriorating even further. Where the population was increasing fastest, deaths were proportionately the most numerous. In the 1840s, Liverpool had a population of about 40,000 living in cellars, with an average of 5 or 6 persons in each cellar.

Year

England and Wales (millions)

Scotland (millions)

Ireland (millions)

Britain (millions)

Birth Rate per 1,000

Death Rate per 1,000

1831

13.8

2.3

7.8

23.9

36.6

23.4

1841

15.9

2.6

8.2

26.7

32.2

21.6

1851

18.0

2.9

6.6

27.5

34.3

22.0

In England and Wales in 1831:

Between 1839-1851 the deaths of children under one year old numbered 150/160 per 1,000 and the birth rate was 32/33 per 1,000. This should be compared with more recent birth rates: in the 1960s they were 17.5 per 1,000 for example.

 In 1841, 45% of the population of England and Wales was under 20 years old and less than 7% of the population was over 60 years old.

In 1851: 40% of women between 20 and 40 years old were single. A total of about 2.5 million persons were single.

CAUSES OF POPULATION GROWTH

  1. the death rate began to fall rapidly (most of the time) while the birth rate remained constant. In 1831 the first cholera epidemic struck Britain; there was a subsequent epidemic in 1847-8. Cholera caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people but the dreadful living conditions in the towns and the poor working conditions had a more far-reaching effect on the death rates.
  2. there was an increase in the number of marriages per 1,000 population. The average age of marriage fell and since this meant that couples had more child-bearing years, the birth rate increased.
  3. until about 1870, children were an economic asset. Opportunities for child employment increased and children could work from an early age. It has been said that couples had large families so that they could send the children out to work and thus supplement the family income. Child employment was gradually restricted by factory and mines legislation, starting in 1833 with the first effective Factory Act but culminating with the 1870 Education Act.

DEATH RATES FELL because:

  1. medical knowledge improved, especially in the use of anaesthetics and antiseptics, although many of these discoveries came later.
  2. the 1848 Public Health Act enabled town corporations to implement much needed "clean-up" schemes. Although much of the Public Health Act was based on the miasmic theory (that bad smells caused disease) it did have the right effect, even if for the wrong reasons. Towns were cleaned to remove the bad smells; in so doing, the causes of disease (germs) were also removed.
  3. Factory and Mines legislation prohibited the use of child labour and reduced working hours, particularly for young persons (those aged between 13 and 18) and adult females; elementary safety codes were made compulsory which reduced accidents to some extent.
  4. cheap, fresh food became more readily available after the building of the railways and the introduction of free trade.

Population growth may have been slowed down by a number of factors

  1. The emigration of young, single males is believed to have slowed down the rate of population growth because in 1824 the laws prohibiting emigration of workmen were repealed, so the labour force was free to emigrate.
  2. The 1843 Budget encouraged the export of machinery and technology and many men went to work abroad in trades where they could make money by using British know-how.
  3. 1845 Irish potato famine had a disastrous effect on the population of Ireland
  4. cyclical and structural unemployment resulted from increased industrialisation. This had an adverse effect on the diet and quality of life of the working population, which in turn affected fertility rates.
  5. there was a growing awareness of opportunities overseas and emigration of families increased. This was aided by better land and sea transport.

Although England was becoming more industrialised, as late as 1851 about half the population still depended on rural occupations for its livelihood. Of this number, a half was directly employed in agriculture. The agricultural population grew more slowly than in industrial areas and the population shift to the towns from the countryside was helped by railways and the increased chance of employment.

The population grew rapidly in Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Leicestershire and in the new coal and iron districts. It is important to bear in mind that there are no reliable migration statistics prior to the 1851 census: this is unfortunate, because there was much migration before 1851.  Population was most dense in London, then Middlesex. There was also a high density population in

By 1851 over a half of the population of Britain lived in 70 towns which had 20,000 or more inhabitants each. Town growth was due to migration and cumulative natural growth of population. By 1834 the most recent industrial depression was ending, wages were rising and there was a labour shortage in industrial areas. The textile industry was expanding and the 1833 Factory Act had reduced child labour. Edwin Chadwick and the Poor Law Commissioners advocated and assisted migration from rural to industrial areas, to soak up the rural poor. The scheme continued until 1835-37: then the 'Hungry 40s' began (it is one of those quirks of historians that the "Hungry '40s" are located between about 1837 and 1842/3).

Emigration figures are about as reliable as the population figures (that is, not very reliable) but it has been estimated that between 1830-1839, about 668,000 people emigrated. This rose to about 1,495,000 between 1840-1849 although the majority of the increase in emigration may be accounted for by the Irish famine when over one million people left the United Kingdom. Many of the Irish emigrants went to America or Canada.

 GROWTH OF TOWNS

This was a major feature of industrialisation in Great Britain. The greatest growth in town growth took place in the north of England where most of the heavy industry was to be found.

TOWN

1801

1831

1851

Liverpool

82,000

202,000

376,000

Glasgow

77,000

193,000

329,000

Manchester

70,000

238,000

303,000

Leeds

53,000

123,000

172,000

Only the growth of London's population could compare with the rapid growth of Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Bradford. These towns acquired larger populations by both cumulative growth and from internal migration. This latter occurred through short-distance moves from rural areas to the nearest town - very much a 'caterpillar' movement. Manchester drew on north Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumberland and north Wales. The West Riding drew on north and east Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Birmingham drew on Staffordshire and Warwickshire and London drew on eastern and south-eastern England (and everywhere else).

There was no rural depopulation. The population growth in the countryside was slower than in towns and there were some areas that did show a decline, for example Devon, the Chilterns, Scottish Highlands and east Wales. These were all upland pasture areas where farm enlargement or consolidation was marked.

EMPLOYMENT IN 1851

The following list is selective (not exhaustive). The occupations are in rank order of numbers employed. For further information on occupations, follow this link.

Male

Female

Total

Total population

10,224,000

10,736,000

20,960,000

Population of 10 years old and upwards

7,616,000

8,155,000

15,771,000

Agriculture: farmer, grazier, labourer, servant

1,563,000

227,000

1,790,000

Domestic service (excluding farm service)

134,000

905,000

1,039,000

Cotton textile workers (every kind)

255,000

272,000

527,000

Building craftsmen (every kind)

442,000

1,000

443,000

Labourers (unspecified)

367,000

9,000

376,000

Milliners, dressmakers, seamsters/seamstresses

494

340,000

340,494

Woollen workers (every kind)

171,000

113,000

284,000

Coal miners

216,000

3,000

219,000

Silk workers

53,000

80,000

133,000

Blacksmiths

112,000

592

112,592

Hosiery workers

35,000

30,000

65,000

Glovers

4,500

25,000

29,500

Nail makers

19,000

10,000

29,000

Tanners, curriers, fellmongers

25,000

276

25,276

These statistics are taken from Cook and Stevenson, The Longman Handbook of Modern British History 1714-1987 (Longman, London and New York, 1983), pp. 153-5. 

It is interesting to note that

It is clear, therefore, that even in 1851 Britain was far from being an industrial nation.

The rapid growth of towns exacerbated an already desperate situation and urbanisation created social difficulties


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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