Population growth: why?


Between 1831 and 1911 Britain’s population continued to grow steadily.

Source 1: Population 1831-1911 (in millions)



England and Wales











































Source: based on B.R.Mitchell British Historical Statistics, CUP, 1988.

Although rates of increase slackened from about 1850, especially in Scotland, annual increments rose from around 250,000 in the 1830s to nearly 400,000 in the 1890s, mostly in towns and industrial areas. Ireland, with its falling population after 1841, was the exception. From the 1830s rural population growth slackened and progressive migrational losses led to continuous decline of population in virtually all agricultural areas between mid-century and 1914. All regions were affected, though the greatest relative loss was on the marginal uplands of Britain and on largely farming economies, both lowland and upland. Despite substantial overseas emigration most of the rural surplus was absorbed in urban labour markets.

Source 2: Demographic indices




































CBR – crude birth rate; CDR – crude death rate; LE – life expectancy at birth; IMR – infant mortality rate (per thousand)

Source: based on Wrigley and Schofield, 1989.

By the end of the nineteenth century the economic influences on population growth had changed. The dominant influence of food prices, previously the major element in real wages, on marriage rates and levels of fertility was no longer the key determinant of population growth. Earnings were driven mainly by the secondary and tertiary sectors that employed most people and shaped labour demand and population mobility. But the mortality decline, that had contributed so much to accelerating population growth from the 1740s, was halted between the 1820s and early 1870s by the toll exacted by high urban mortality. Not until improvements in urban health, in child and, from the turn of the century, infant mortality, did mortality rates resume their downward trend. From the 1870s there was a fertility decline initiated among the middle classes spread rapidly as widespread adoption of birth control led to a fall in crude birth rates from 36.3 per thousand in 1876 to 28.7 in 1900 then rapidly to around 15 in the 1930s. However, a youthful structure still predisposed Britain’s population to grow. Annual births remained at over one million throughout the period 1890-1914, peaking at 1.08 m in 1903 and with deaths falling from 670,000 per annum in 1891 to 578,000 in 1913, it was only increased emigration that kept population growth in check.

Overseas migration played an important part in reduced rates of population growth throughout the Victorian period. In England and Wales net losses were 0.04 to 0.2 per cent. In all some 10 million emigrants left Britain between 1815 and 1914 as compared with a total population increase of 29 million. That the balance was not more adverse was due to substantial immigration, especially from Ireland. Over 1.8 million people left England and Wales in the depressed 1880s and 1.9 million in the 1900s. All parts of the country contributed, though losses were relatively greatest from the most depressed rural counties and declining mining areas such as Cornwall. Up to 1850 half the emigrants were unskilled, many of them agricultural labourers; by 1900 that proportion had fallen to one third and four out of five emigrants were from large towns and industrial areas.


Mortality and fertility


Levels changed little between the 1820s and the 1870s after which they moved hesitantly downwards to the turn of the century. The major factors influencing health and mortality were:

  1. Socio-economic forces: rising real wages and improved living standards and diet offered some improvement though not to the urban poor.
  2. Bio-medical factors: offered few major break-throughs in curative medicine before the late nineteenth century despite better hospital provision and improved treatment and containment of epidemic diseases especially those of childhood such as scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles.
  3. Environmental factors: great pressure in the large towns in which an increasing proportion of the population lived restricted improvement. Only with effective legislation to improve sanitation, water supply and housing and to apply effective measures of preventive medicine — especially the control of epidemic diseases — were these gradually eliminated.

Medical science may have changed slowly but improving public and private medicine and, from 1850 onwards, more and better-run hospitals improved health and life expectancy, especially among the middle class. The introduction of school medical services in the 1900s helped through regular eye, dental and hair inspections [head lice were a universal scourge in poorer areas].

While most epidemic diseases resisted cure, prevention and treatment could limit their impact. The epidemic years of 1831, 1847-9 and the 1860s saw an average mortality of about 22 per thousand increase to 24-25 per thousand. Excess mortality in large cities and industrial areas was reflect in the contrast, identified by William Farr, between the ‘Healthy Districts’ [rural and suburban areas] that had an average life expectancy at birth of 51.5 years in the late 1830, and the ‘Poor Districts’ [unhealthy inner cities and many industrial areas] where it was less than 29. This gap narrowed from the 1880s when it began a slow fall to figures for County Boroughs and Rural Districts in 1911 of 47.5 and 66.3 years respectively. The close link between high population density, overcrowding and death rates at all ages, especially among infants and children, underlines the continuing important of environmental and socio-economic factors in health and mortality.

The major reason for the wide discrepancies in life expectancy and the principal cause of failure to improve this until after 1890 was the failure to conquer infant mortality. Child deaths began to decline erratically from 1830 and more steadily from the 1860s, only from 1900 was there a parallel fall in infant mortality. In late nineteenth century England between 15 and 20 per cent of deaths occurred to those under the age of one year with about 25 per cent for those under five years. Infant mortality in the unhealthiest cities was more than double than in healthy rural areas and twice that of suburban areas. In Glasgow intra-urban mortality in the 1870s ranged from 21 to 46 per thousand with even wider discrepancies between wards of 69 to 166 per thousand. The mortality of infants born to unmarried mothers was substantially higher than that of legitimate children and roughly one third of all infant deaths occurred during the first month of life.

Over three-quarters of the fall in mortality between 1848 and 1901 was brought about by a decline in airborne diseases as scarlet fever, diphtheria and measles and those caused by infected water and food such as typhoid, cholera and, most significantly, dysentery and diarrhoea [a major cause of child deaths in summer months]. There was also considerable improvement in the prevention of respiratory tuberculosis thanks to better housing, nutrition and nursing. There was no improvement of other bronchial deaths, including pneumonia and influenza, to which growing air pollution undoubtedly contributed. Even in the countryside substantial differences in mortality reflected environmental and nutritional contrasts. In the Fens, for example, damp and humid summer heat tainted food and increased mortality in areas where babies were weaned young. Where children were breast fed and/or had access to fresh milk — as in many areas of upland England — infant mortality was often below average.


Fertility levels had already stabilised by the 1830s. The lower marriage age that had contributed to the increased natural growth of the early industrial revolution gave way after the depressed 1820s and 1830s to later marriage, a slight increase in the proportion of women who never married and lower birth rates of 35-6 per thousand women in the 1840s compared with over 40 per thousand around 1800.  There were certain limitations on marriage:

  1. New appliance methods of birth control [the rubber condom, Dutch cap and douche] were invented, marketed and adopted during the last decades of the nineteenth century but they were rather expensive for general use until after 1914. Since marital fertility was reduced, it must be assumed that some combination of sexual abstinence, coitus interruptus, accurate use of the safe period and induced abortion were the most likely means by which family limitation was brought about.
  2. Despite religious and cultural beliefs that delayed the adoption of family limitation in some sectors of society, increasing secularisation caused barriers to be broken down. The argument that family limitation represented the diffusion of birth control from the professional and upper middle classes — the maid learning from her mistress — to the lower classes does not stand up to close examination. Among the first to limit family size were ‘skilled‘ non-manual and commercial workers [shopkeepers, clerks etc.] who were also prominent among cautious late-marriers. There were considerable differences in marital fertility between different types of area in 1891. Relatively low birth rates in textile districts and residential towns, with large numbers of single women in domestic service and middle class households, contrasts with earlier and more universal marriages with larger families among iron and steel-making and coal-mining communities where the abundant use of high-paid boys and young men in the mines reduced incentives to limit families, while fewer opportunities for female employment and the stereotyping of women meant that girls married earlier.
  3. Social factors such as the availability of marriage partners in areas of high emigration or persistent out-migration {throughout rural England} limited marriage levels and affected births. Limitations on marriage in certain occupational groups, for example, living-in domestic servants and farm labourers, also affected local fertility patterns. The general increase in the mean age of marriage to about 25.8 years for women and some two years higher for men by 1850, and further increased from the 1870s, also reflected changing economic circumstances and the desire for more spending power and independence.
  4. There were considerable differences between industrial areas [where there were more and earlier marriages], rural areas [where marriages tended to be later] and between different social classes [urban labourers and miners married young; prudent white-collar workers, shopkeepers and the middle class postponed marriage until they felt able to afford it].
  5. Many single children who moved to the city — whether as a domestic servant or an industrial or office worker — often lived for a time in lodgings before taking on family responsibilities. Hence the large number of households with lodgers reflected in census enumerators’ books.
  6. Economic incentives to limiting the number and spacing of births were strong where women were prominent in the workforce. In the mills of Lancashire or West Yorkshire or in the Potteries women might delay having children, or have a smaller family and return to work as soon as possible. Increasing numbers of women involved in shop and, from the 1890s, office work might also have deferred marriage and limited their families. Among the middle class, the increasing expense of raising children with rising costs for domestic servants and school fees, as well as a growing desire for greater freedom and more money to spend on luxuries and entertainment, were obvious incentives to having fewer children. Even within geographical areas there were often significant differences in rates of marriage. In London there was a very close relationship between the proportion of women married and the percentage of women employed in domestic service. In Hampstead the proportion married was 0.274 while in Poplar, in the East End, it was 0.638 in 1861 and little changed by 1891.
  7. As child mortality declined, more survived to adult life so that there was less need for large families and more incentive to put space between births so as to avoid excessive pressure on mothers and households. The average family size fell from 6.2 children in the 1860s, to 4.1 for those marrying in the 1890s and to 2.8 for the 1911-marriage cohort. The rapid decline in the average age at which the mother’s last child was born — from age 41 to 34 over this period — is a clear reflection of deliberate spacing and limitation of births within marriage.

In Britain today up to a third of children are born outside marriage and about a third of marriages end in divorce. In the last century marriage set the bounds for sexual activity. This does not mean that illegitimacy, bridal pregnancy, prostitution and adultery were not common, especially in certain localities, but it does give marriage a direct demographic importance that is all but lost today. Illegitimacy or bastardy existed in the nineteenth century and in East Anglia and eastern England in general was sufficiently large for one to begin to doubt the importance of marriage as a social and legal event. But elsewhere in England, and especially off the coalfields, non-marital fertility was low enough in 1851 — only 5 or 6 per cent of births were illegitimate — for the institution of marriage still to be accepted as having particular importance as a regulator of fertility rates. By 1911 only 4 per cent of all births were illegitimate in England and Wales. It can be asked whether the forces that resulted in decline in marital fertility also led to the reduction of non-marital fertility.

This entry was posted in Nineteenth century society, Population. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s