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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Migration, Urbanisation and Socio-Economic Change, England and Wales 1851-1911

Migration, Urbanisation and Socio-Economic Change, England and Wales 1851-1911


Migration has long been recognised as an important driver of economic, social and demographic change. It is both a response to, and a determinant of wage rates, it acts as a vector of disease and it shapes our sense of place. Yet a paucity of data has meant that a comprehensive analysis of internal migration in nineteenth-century England and Wales has not been possible. The recent release of the Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM) database - containing approximately 160 million individual-level returns - means that the given place of birth of the entire population as reported in the 1851-1911 censuses of England and Wales can be used to map millions of lifetime migration paths. By analysing the changing relationship between migration, wages, the transport network and the socio-economic context, it will be possible to understand both the determinants of migration and the effect it had on the communities migrants exited and entered over a sixty year period.

The period 1851-1911 was also one in which migration fundamentally changed the profile of the British population. 1851 was the first year in which more than half the population of England and Wales were recorded as urban (50.4%) and just sixty years later, this had risen to 78.9%, almost trebling the urban population from 10.6 million to 28.2 million. Therefore, this study will provide deeper insights into the mechanisms driving individuals' migration choices which manifested themselves in the form of rapid urbanisation. It will address such questions as; if migrants were responsive to wage differentials, why did rural-urban migration peak when agricultural wages were high? What impact did the growing railway network have on migration flows? Did migration tend to occur within clearly defined boundaries? What does this tell us about individuals' sense of place?

This study will be conducted in two strands and the first will consider individuals' incentives to migrate and wage differentials - to be transcribed from Board of Trade wage surveys - while the second will analyse migrants' capacity to move. In addition to analysing the effect of straight-line distance on migration flows over time and space, the transport network as it existed in 1831 and 1911 will be analysed thanks to a collaboration with my proposed mentor Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor and his project 'Transport, Urbanization and Economic Development in England and Wales c. 1670-1911'.

Analysing individuals' incentives to migrate in the context of factors limiting their capacity to do so allows radically new questions to be asked. Was time a more significant determinant of migrants' destination than distance once wage differentials are accounted for? Did this change as the network evolved? In order to account for migrants' constrained choice of destination, an algorithm developed with colleagues at MIT will be used to identify migration fields - regions in which the number of moves within them was maximised and the number of moves between them was minimised. How did these regions shape individuals' choice of destination? By analysing the relationship between migrants' assessment of the risks and returns of leaving their parish of birth in the context of competing alternatives, the mechanisms which led to urbanisation and rural depopulation can be better understood and serve as a benchmark for further analyses of urbanisation in both the past and present.


1851-1911 was a period unlike any other in the history of migration in England and Wales. While the rural population fell by over half a million between 1851 and 1911, the urban population trebled, accounting for 80% of the total by 1911, a level at which it remains today (Lawton, 1967; ONS, 2013), yet it is a process that is still poorly understood. Despite observing a strong correlation in cross-sectional data between net out-migration and low wages, longitudinal analyses have shown that rural outmigration peaked when agricultural wages were high (Boyer and Hatton, 1997; Cairncross, 1949). This project seeks to reconcile these observations by analysing individuals' incentives to migrate, the constraints limiting their capacity to do so and how these changed over time. Through a comprehensive analysis of the individual-level census data available from the ESRC-funded Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM), this project will move beyond previous studies - hampered by small samples or aggregate data - to produce new insights into the drivers of rural outmigration and urbanisation in a maturing economy. These broad aims will be achieved by meeting three specific objectives:

1. Enrich I-CeM

  1. Geo-locate individuals' reported birthplace within a geographic information system (GIS). This will form the basis of all subsequent analyses of migration.
  2. Match occupations to average wage estimates from Board of Trade reports and the HIS-CLASS and HIS-CAM measures of social stratification.
  3. Use studies by Booth, Rowntree and Bowley to estimate household minimum (poverty line) levels of expenditure.
  4. Integrate GIS of transport networks present in 1831 and 1911.

2. Incentives to Migrate

  1. Analyse the relationship between wages and migration. Did the unskilled require a bigger/smaller wage differential to induce migration relative to their skilled counterparts? Did this change over time?
  2. Analyse the relationship between poverty and migration. Did poverty make individuals more or less likely to migrate and did this impact on labour market integration?

These questions will be analysed spatially to determine the region-specific factors determining individuals' response to wage differentials.

3. Limits to Migration

  1. How important was distance to individuals' migration strategy? Complex agent-based models (ABMs) and spatial interaction models (SIMs) will be produced to evaluate the effect of distance - measured in both miles and minutes - on the migration decision and how this changed between 1851 and 1911.
  2. Using an algorithm developed with colleagues at MIT, primary migration 'fields' can be identified by analysing the migration network. This can be used to visualise the extent to which individuals' destinations were constrained by the places they perceived as being physically, culturally or economically 'close'.
  3. Analyse the development of the transport network. Did a growing infrastructure enable migrants to pursue new routes or did it just entrench existing ones? How did this relate to individuals' perception of place and belonging?