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The population geography of England and Wales c.1379-1911

The population geography of England and Wales c.1379-1911


We are currently in the process of creating datasets of local population estimates covering England and Wales at a variety of spatial scales from the vill/parish through to the county between c.1379 and 1911. What follows summarises and illustrates with sample maps what we have achieved to date and what we plan to do in the future. The purpose of creating these datasets is two-fold. Firstly, where we have comprehensive occupational data, as in the early nineteenth century, local population data are required to weight those data to produce robust national estimates of occupational structure. Secondly, for periods where geographically comprehensive occupational data are not available (i.e. before the nineteenth century), local population data (especially in the form of population density) provide powerful clues to the importance, or otherwise of non-agricultural employment within the area. In a predominantly agricultural economy, population densities will generally be low and can be expected to vary in predictable ways with topography, altitude, soil quality and latitude.

From 1801 it is possible to produce local (parish) population datasets for the whole country every ten years (and we have done this down to 1891). Before that, it is possible to produce such datasets for the great bulk of the England and Wales at three dates: c.1379, c.1550 and c.1670 (at a number of other dates partial coverage is possible). From 1761 it is possible to generate estimates of hundredal populations every ten years and we have done this down to 1841 and in principle it may be possible to extend this (with some loss of precision) down to the parish level. By generating these population datasets we can identify early industrial regions, map their boundaries with precision and measure their populations.

For many analytical purposes the county is a large and often a misleading unit of analysis. The capacity to map population and population density in smaller units is can bring out patterns which are obscured using larger units. This can be seen by looking at figure 1, which shows population densities in 1801 by parish, hundred and ancient county and figure 2 which shows population growth 1761-1841 by both hundred and ancient county. What is true of the county can be true of rather smaller units such as nineteenth century registration districts. This is illustrated by figure 3 which shows population growth rates in parts of Lancashire and Cheshire between 1801 and 1851 by both registration districts and the registration sub-districts.

Examples of local population datasets and maps created to date

1) Parish population c. 1670 and 1801-1891 in consistent units.

We are close to completing work on parish population estimates for c.1670. These were produced using data from the Compton Census of 1676 and hearth tax returns of 1670.

The published census provides population totals for parishes and other local units every ten years after 1801. However, it does so in units which vary from one census to another. We have produced, for the first time a dataset at quasi-parish level in units which are consistent over time. Figure 4 shows population densities at quasi-parish level for c.1670, 1801, 1851 and 1891.

For further details see: Wrigley, E.A., The early English censuses, British Academy Records of Economic and Social History, new series (Oxford, 1911).

2) Populations of ancient counties for 1600, 1700, 1750 and 1801.

Figure 5 shows estimates of population density at county level for 1600, 1700, 1750 and 1801. For details of how these figures were derived see: Wrigley, E.A., 'English county populations in the later eighteenth century', Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 35-69 and Wrigley, E.A., 'Rickman revisited: the population growth rates of English counties in the early modern period', Economic History Review, 62 (2009), pp. 711-35.

(3) Population densities of hundreds for 1761-1841.

Figure 6 shows population density by hundred for 1761 and 1841. For details of how the 1761 and 1841 figures were derived see: Wrigley, E.A., The early English censuses, British Academy Records of Economic and Social History, new series (Oxford, 1911).

(4) Population change for registration sub-districts c.1801-1891.

Figure 7 shows percentage population growth rates by registration sub-districts for the period 1801-1891.

Current work and future desiderata

Work currently in progress means that we will soon have parish or vill level datasets for England Wales for c. 1379 (80 per cent coverage) and c.1670 (virtually 100 per cent coverage) and substantial coverage at a number of other dates. We are hoping to obtain further funding to allow us to extend the nineteenth century quasi-parish level coverage from the current end-point of 1891 down to 1911 and to create a mid sixteenth century dataset with virtually complete coverage of all English and Welsh parishes.

Further publication plans

We are hoping to secure funding to allow us to produce:

  1. two paper atlases of the changing population geography and occupational structure. One on the period from c.1817-1911, for which we have spatially comprehensive occupational data. The other on the period c.1379-c.1817 for which we do not have spatially comprehensive occupational data (and which therefore requires a somewhat different approach).
  2. an electronic atlas. Some of the figures accessible from this page give an initial sense of the benefits of an electronic atlas over a paper one. For instance the power-point versions of figure 1, figure 4, figure 5, figure 6 and figure 7.