Population growth: Malthusian ideas and sources

What happened to Britain’s population during the nineteenth century? [1].  In 1803 Thomas Robert Malthus [1766-1834] published a second edition of his An Essay on the Principles of Population, a work that had been first published anonymously five years earlier[2]. He drew attention to the consequences of untrammelled population growth, arguing that it would double every twenty-five years and that existing resources would not rise sufficiently to support such growth.

  1. Although the ultimate check on population for Malthus appeared to be want of food arising from the different rations according to which population and food supplies increased, the immediate checks ‘are all resolvable into moral restraint, vice and misery’.
  2. Of these, the ‘positive checks’, as Malthus called them, included ‘all unwholesome occupations, severe labour and exposure to the seasons, extreme poverty, bad nursing of children, great towns, excesses of all kinds, the whole train of common diseases and epidemics, wars, plague and famine’.
  3. The ‘preventive checks‘ could largely be equated with ‘restraint from marriage which is not followed by irregular gratifications’, while ‘promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed and improper arts to conceal the consequences of irregular connections, are preventive checks that clearly come under the head of vice‘.

In England, Malthus argued, the checks to population were much affected by social class, the opportunities for employment and the physical, especially urban, environment. Self-imposed restraint on marriage operated with ‘considerable force throughout all the classes of the community‘. The population model Malthus developed was one in which the rate of demographic growth was influenced by mortality, fertility and net migration. Put simply

  • If the rate of population growth begins to rise there will be an increase in the price of food and this will reduce the level of real wages.
  • Lower real wages may lead to increased mortality or affect the prospects of marriage that will automatically increase the level of temporary or permanent celibacy.
  • As a result fertility will fall and the growth of population slow down as it would if mortality were to be increased.

This is called a self-regulation or homeostatic system. There is much in what Malthus wrote that is relevant to the post-1830 period but during the nineteenth century four ways were found to escape from the weight of Malthus’ law

  1. The association between population growth rates and food prices appears to have been broken even during Malthus’ lifetime.
  2. While the relationship between mortality and real wages persisted, the latter began a long-term improvement. Mortality was probably reduced as a result, though difference between classes persisted and may have been widened towards the end of the century. Improved standings of living were only one of many potential reasons for falling mortality.
  3. Marital fertility took the place of nuptiality as the principle influence on changes and variations in general levels of fertility. Family limitation came to be widely practised.
  4. The closed system described by Malthus was thrown open to new forms of destabilising influences. Cities grew at the expense of villages; America and the Empire at the expense of Britain.

How do we know?

To call the nineteenth century ‘the age of statistics‘ is highly appropriate. The first British population census was conducted in 1801 and repeated every ten years thereafter. The civil registration of births, deaths and marriages was begun in England and Wales in 1837 and in Scotland in 1855. While civil registration did not replace the recording of ecclesiastical events, like baptism and burial, it did mean that parish registers lost their position as the principal source for demographic study[3].  As all historians know only too well — sources condition interpretations. Before the 1830s precise information of population is problematic for historians. However, after 1850 information about the population’s age structure, for example, drawn from censuses, can be matched with data on age or cause from death from civil registration to create a relatively clear account of at least patterns of mortality. It is possible to illustrate how certain changes in content and reliability have affected the ability of contemporary and modern historians to construct a more accurate and comprehensive picture.

  1. The availability of a series of population censuses makes it a far simpler task to chart the changing size, composition and distribution of population.
  2. The operation of the hundred-year rule restricting the disclosure of information about individuals recorded in the nineteenth century censuses has effectively limited public access to the more recent census enumerators’ books. However, historians do have access up to the 1891 and 1901 census material and have the ability to consider household structure, occupation, and lifetime migration and to trace the characteristics of individuals and households from census to census. This has remarkably enhanced our knowledge of mid-Victorian society, but especially urban society.
  3. The creation of the General Register Offices in London in 1837 and Edinburgh in 1855 and especially the contribution of William Farr [1807-1883] brought a sense of rigour to what could merely have become a matter of data collection. Farr was responsible for the first official English life tables, preparing special reports on cholera and devising classifications of cause of death.

Despite the various methodological problems in using the data, the development of civil registration from 1837 and the considerable improvement in the population censuses from 1841 mean that it is the demography of the first half of the nineteenth century that remains obscure in comparison with later decades.

[1] There is a range of books available on demographic developments in the nineteenth century. N. Tranter Population and Society 1750-1940:  Contrasts in Population Growth, Longman, 1985 provides the most straightforward   discussion   of the problems. E.A. Wrigley   and R.S. Schofield The Population History of England 1541-1871, Edward Arnold, 1980, revised edition, CUP, 1988 is a standard work, difficult but useful for reference.  T.Baker and M.Drake (eds.) Population & Society in Britain 1850-1980, Batsford, 1982 is a seminal collection of articles. R. Woods The Population History of Britain in the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan, 1992 and R. Mitchison British Population since 1860, Macmillan, 1977 are simple and short guides.

[2] Contemporary attitudes to population are best approached through T.R. Malthus Essay on the Principle of Population, various editions but Penguin, 1970 has a useful introduction by A.Flew. The most recent short discussion of Malthus is by D.Winch, OUP, 1987.

[3] On  the nature of the nineteenth century census and problems in  using them see R. Lawton (ed.) The Census and Social Structure, Cass, 1978 and E.A. Wrigley (ed.)  Nineteenth  Century Society: Essays in the  Use  of Quantitative Methods for the  Study  of Social  Data,  CUP,  1972. W.A. Armstrong Stability and Change in an English County Town: a social study of York 1801-1851, CUP, 1974 shows how census material can  be used.

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