Population growth: comings and goings

Mobility and migration, both internal and international were important in Britain’s growing population. Four aspects of migration are of particular significance.  First, there was massive emigration from the outer rural periphery, especially the west of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands that caused general depopulation.  Secondly, the countryside in general suffered net losses to the towns.  Thirdly, the great industrial and commercial centres of central Scotland, the English North and Midlands and South Wales, not only increased in numbers, but also expanded physically until they coalesced into the amorphous conurbation so well known in the twentieth century.  Finally, London should be treated as a special case since it not only maintained its British primacy, but also its share of the total population.  The new problems associated with managing and servicing such a massive concentration of people that reached nearly 5 million by 1901 imposed many strains, not least in terms of transport, social inequalities and sanitation.

Type of Move Long Distance  
Rural-Rural Temporary harvest migration Local inter-village movement including marriage migration
Rural-Urban Usually a series of ‘stepwise’ moves up the urban hierarchy Most common during early phase of urban growth — short distance movement to nearest town
Urban-Urban Increasingly common between large cities after about 1860 Movement up urban hierarchy from small town to nearby city
Urban-Rural   Movement of high-status households to rural suburbs
Intra-Urban   Frequent short distance moves mostly in same area of city

Source: Lawton, R. and Pooley, C.G., Britain 1740-1950: An Historical Geography, (Edward Arnold), 1991, p. 128.

            Many people saw rural to urban migration as the dominant feature of migration between 1830 and 1890.  This view is misleading since net in-migration was less important in most places than natural increase in urban growth.  Only newer settlements, resort towns, residential suburbs especially round London and newly established industrial centres depended largely on migration for growth.  While many left the countryside for towns, inducing nation-wide rural depopulation, and there was substantial and changing movement between towns, natural increase was of growing importance in urban population development.[1]

The motives for and effects of migration were very varied and increased in complexity after 1830.  It is possible to produce a classification of migratory moves that demonstrate the complexity of migratory experiences and the way in which inter-urban and urban-suburban movement became increasingly important as the century progressed.This classification suggests that the rural to urban move was not a single, discrete event but part of an overall life history of individual migration from the countryside, to an adjacent village and then to a local town.  Thereafter the individual might move several times up the urban hierarchy perhaps reaching a large city in the 1850s and subsequently moving between and within cities to end up in an outer suburb in the 1890s.  Such a migration history may be closer to reality than the simple stereotype of rural-urban migration.  Three principal points on migration in mid-century can be highlighted.  Most migration was directed at those counties and regions experiencing rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.  The majority of individual moves were relatively short distance through a series of stepwise movements.  Longer distance moves tended to be selective by occupation and age: such migrants were often significantly more skilled and literate than non-movers.[2]

Census birthplace data, though imperfect, offers a series of reasonably complete pictures of lifetime inter-county population movement after 1851.  Most studies emphasise the dominance of London as the target of long distance migration. Industrial areas outside London tended to rely heavily on regional networks of migration, though exchanges of migrants between industrial regions increased through the century.  Between 1851 and 1891, the limited occupational opportunities of a small town like Lancaster attracted migrants over only a short distance and it relied largely on its rural hinterland.  Larger towns like Bolton and Preston had wider spheres of attraction that increased in the later nineteenth century.  Although competing with Liverpool and Manchester, they offered significant and specific employment opportunities and exchanged migrants with the larger towns.

Specialist employment opportunities attracted particular migrant streams over long distances.  The substantial Welsh-born population of Middlesborough in the 1870s was drawn almost exclusively from South Wales and reflected a well-established migration stream between areas with similar industrial structures.  Several Welsh iron masters moved to Middlesborough to exploit expanding economic opportunities on Teesside and continued to recruit Welsh labour over a considerable period of time.  Similarly St Helen’s glass industry recruited many skilled workers from other glass-making areas, supporting the view that longer-distance migrants were often more skilled, better educated and of higher social status.

Most rural areas lost population but in those districts closest to expanding towns, population rapidly stabilised.  By 1900, population may have increased as urban growth spilled over the surrounding countryside.  Around London improvements in communication and pressure on space led to early and rapid suburbanisation.  Around Liverpool, villages on Deeside were attracting residential migrants by the 1890s after decades of population loss.  In remoter rural areas population losses were more general and continuous and were made worse in some cases by the coming of the railway.  Initially railways provided labour but they subsequently offered an easy outlet for migrants, especially with the decline of rural industry in the face of competition from urban-based factories.

Though most ordinary working people walked to most places with an occasional use of the railway, by 1900 not only were most towns and many villages connected into the national rail network but the cost of transport could be met by a larger proportion of the population.  Increasing provision of third class coaches with better facilities, after 1883 at a standard rate of only 1d per mile on most trains, led, by the early-twentieth century, to nearly 95% of all railway passengers travelling third class.  Public transport was also essential to suburban growth, especially in London.  From the 1860s with the opening of the Metropolitan Line in 1863 and the South London line in 1867, railways linked the City with residential suburbs and by 1910 a basic underground network stretched from Clapham to Finsbury Park and Hampstead.  Cheap workmen’s fares allowed working-class commuters to move to inner suburbs and helped to push the middle-classes further into the countryside. 

Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle all had quite well developed suburban rail services by 1914.  But in smaller towns, suburban dwellers relied on the omnibus and especially the tram to connect home and work.  The Tramways Act 1870 marked the beginning of tramway networks in most towns and from 1891 municipal authorities could take over the running of the tramway system.  Even in London the tram and the omnibus competed effectively with suburban railways.

The movement to the suburbs was an expression of social and economic conditions.  Families moving from terraced housing to the new semi-detached suburbs were a distinct section of the population: they had skilled jobs, with regular hours and often worked in the expanding sectors of the economy.  The centres of cities lost population and increasingly became simply places where people worked and where the unskilled and semi-skilled working-classes lived.  Round the centres of cities were the inner suburbs where the skilled working-classes lived.  Round them the semi-detached leafy suburbs of the white-collar and blue-collar workers, who acquired a new way of life and set of values as well as a pleasant environment. 

What impact did such movements have on the communities left by migrants and the places to which they moved?  How did it affect the lives of individuals and families?  In areas where there was a marked imbalance between inflow and outflow in numbers, demographic or social characteristics, the impact of migration could be devastating.  In many parts of rural England, for example, there was a substantial deficit of young men.  Elsewhere results were subtler.  Most large cities lost and gained vast numbers through migration, but socio-economic structure was little changed. Those who left were replaced largely by people of similar socio-economic backgrounds. 

In smaller settlements atypical change is most striking: the short-term impact of navvy gangs involved in railway construction on villages and small market towns; the recruits to defence establishments in such towns as Portsmouth, Plymouth and Aldershot, the short-term impact of rapid industrial growth in new towns like Middlesborough and Crewe or in expanding mining areas.  But in most places the long-term impact of migration was gradual and more easily assimilated.

In Victorian Britain population migration affected most people at some time in their lives and was taken for granted as part of lifetime experience, without severe long-term effects on either individual or community.  The search for work was the dominant motive, especially in longer distance movement targeted on specific labour markets.  Short distance moves remained dominant throughout the century and involved a host of individual reasons, leading migrants towards familiar areas and leaving open the possibility of return.

Emigration figures show that between 1821 and 1915 some 10 million people left Great Britain and a further 6 million left Ireland for non-European destinations.  More than half went to the USA and a further fifth to Australasia.  The impact of emigration needs to be assessed with some caution.  Emigration was far more important for Irish and Scottish populations than it was for England: between 1853 and 1900 net emigration represented 9% of natural increase in England and Wales but 25% in Scotland.  It is also important to note that of the 4,675,000 who left England and Wales, only about 2,250,000 were permanent migrants.

[1] See,  Saville, John, Rural depopulation in England and Wales, 1851-1951, (Routledge), 1957 and Long, Jason, ‘Rural-Urban Migration and Socioeconomic Mobility in Victorian Britain’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 65, (2005), pp. 1-35.

[2] Redford, Arthur, Labour migration in England, 1800-1850, (Oxford University Press), 1926 remains important.

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