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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


In search of work. Labour migration and economic performance in England and the Netherlands, 1600-1900

In search of work. Labour migration and economic performance in England and the Netherlands, 1600-1900

Dr. Jelle van Lottum, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow. This research project is being supported by as a three year British Academy postdoctoral fellowship.

Labour migration is intimately linked to economic development. A lack of labour in an economic core region can be a significant brake on a country's economy. If a sector cannot attract sufficient labour, first of all this will limit production, which of course dampens revenues, but more importantly, labour scarcity will lead to higher wages, which in turn leads to inflation of prices and a worsening of a country's position on the international goods market. Of course it is possible to substitute labour by capital, but technology alone cannot make economic growth possible; labour remains an essential production factor even in times of technological improvement.

The level of migration in a country is of course not only determined by the demand for it in the core region. How many people move to the economic centre, or over what distance, is determined by a number of factors, but two in particular can be seen as most important: demographic developments, which influences the size of the labour force in the core and the periphery, and the institutional framework, which determines the extent in which authorities allow people to move into, or within the country.

The planned project analyses how in England and the Netherlands over a period of 300 years (1600-1900), geographical mobility changed as a result of the changing economic performance, demographic structure and legislation affecting the free movement of labour in the two countries. In doing so, it aims to explore the link between economic development and geographical mobility in two countries that followed diverging economic paths, had a different demographic development and a diverse institutional approach towards immigrants. At the same time, England and the Netherlands were two countries that had much in common. They drew a large labour force to their economic core regions, both had colonies which stimulated emigration to their overseas possessions, and they were located relatively close to each other, potentially sharing a migration field from which labour could be extracted.

Remarkably, in most economic studies of the two countries labour migration is omitted, or only treated marginally. The studies that do explore the link between migration and economy are mostly focused on specific towns or regions, or restrict themselves to changes within a period of great change, without looking at the migratory behaviour of the population before or after – as for instance in the case of the industrial revolution.

The project aims to fill the existing lacunae by investigating two countries comparatively and dealing with a longer period of time. In doing so, the project intends to answer four questions that address different aspects of the social and economic history of the two countries. First of all, did industrialization lead to a change in the number of people that migrated, or the distance migrants had to travel? Secondly, how did the changing demography of the two countries influence the migratory behaviour of people; again did this lead to more or less migration or migrants travelling larger or shorter distances? Furthermore, was the relatively stringent (in comparison with the Netherlands) policy towards migration in England a brake on economic development? And finally, by looking at the occupational structure of migrants, the extent to which the migrant population changed qualitatively over time will be investigated. Did the composition of the migrant population change in the two countries in a similar manner?

By answering these research questions the outcome of project will not only shed light on an until now largely unexplored topic in the comparative economic and demographic history of the two countries, it also aims to contribute to the understanding of migration as factor in the in the promotion of economic growth.