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Britain's first demographic transition

Britain's first demographic transition

This project will produce the first detailed examination of the historical population geography of the whole of Great Britain across the 1851-1901 period. It will use spatial statistical analysis to re-examine the population history of Great Britain not as the story of two, or three, separate countries, but as a spectrum of experiences over time and space, providing exciting new perspectives on, and understanding of, the demographic history of these islands. For the first time interrelated patterns of all four demographic elements, fertility, mortality, marriage and migration, will be integrated across the three nations, and the results will be disseminated to a wide audience via academic papers and by building on the success of our online atlas, Populations Past.


This project will present the first historical population geography of Great Britain during the late nineteenth century. This was a period of unprecedented demographic change, when both mortality and fertility started the dramatic secular declines of the first demographic transition. National trends are well established: mortality decline started in childhood and early adulthood, with infant mortality lagging behind, particularly in urban-industrial areas. The fall in fertility was led by the middle classes but quickly spread throughout society. Urban growth was fuelled by movement from the countryside to the city, but there was also considerable migration overseas, particularly from Scotland, although to some extent outmigration was offset by immigration. There was local and regional variation in these patterns, and a contrast between the demographic experiences of Scotland and of England and Wales. Couples married later in Scotland but fertility within marriage was higher, and the improvement in Scottish mortality was slower than that south of the border. However, while there has been research on local and regional patterns within each country, these have mainly been pursued separately, and it is therefore unclear whether there were real national differences or whether there were local demographic continuities across borders, and if so whether they followed economic, occupational, cultural or even linguistic lines. Understanding population processes involves a holistic appreciation of the interaction between the basic demographic components of fertility, mortality, nuptiality and migration, and how they come together, interacting with economic and cultural processes, to create a specific demographic system via the spread of people and ideas. This project is the first to consider a historical population geography of the whole of Great Britain across the first demographic transition, drawing together measures of nuptiality, fertility, mortality and migration for small geographic areas and unpacking how they interacted to produce the more readily available aggregate national patterns for Scotland and for England and Wales.

We will build on our successful project on the fertility of Victorian England and Wales, which used complete count census data for England and Wales to calculate more detailed fertility measures than ever previously possible for some 2000 small geographic areas and 8 social groups, allowing the investigation of intra-urban as well as urban-rural differences in fertility. The new measures allowed us to examine age patterns of fertility across the two countries for the first time. We were also able to calculate contextual variables from the census data which allowed us to undertake spatial analysis of the influences on fertility over time. As well as academic papers, our previous project presented summary data at a fine spatial resolution in an interactive online atlas,, a major new resource which is already being widely used as a teaching tool in both schools and universities.

In this new project we will calculate comparable measures of fertility and contextual variables using the full count census data for Scotland, 1851 to 1901 inclusive, to complement those for England and Wales. However, our new project will go considerably further and will integrate place-specific measures of mortality and migration, for both Scotland and for England and Wales. We will provide new age-specific data on fertility, mortality and migration for the whole of Great Britain using existing datasets, at a finer geographic level than has previously been possible, and will analyse these spatially and temporally to gain a panoramic understanding of the forces driving this crucial period of demographic and social change. We will expand to bring our new findings to a wide academic and non-academic audience and will provide the data for others to explore interactively.

Crude birth rate

Image credit (main image): The Bayswater Omnibus by George W. Joy (1844-1925). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.