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Historical population geography

Historical population geography


Population geography is key to understanding economic growth, urbanisation and migration patterns. The Industrial Revolution was associated with major redistributions of population within Britain and with a dramatic reorganisation of the urban hierarchy, but at present out understanding of these changes remains sketchy for the period before the first national census in 1801. High spatial resolution population estimates are also key to reconstructions of occupational structure, for several reasons. 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.

The Occupational Structure of Britain project includes three major sub-projects on population geography undertaken to provide spatially disaggregated population estimates for England and Wales (described below). In addition we are collaborating with Professor Michael Anderson and Dr Corinne Roughley who have undertaken similar work on Scotland. Through the ENCHPOPGOS network we are also encouraging the creation of comparable data for other countries.

  1. Consistent population units 1801 – 1911. 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. This work was completed by Tony Wrigley and Max Satchell, and resulted in the book The early English censuses (2011, OUP), and a dataset covering the whole period 1801 – 1911. As a result of this work we are now able to map the population geography of England and Wales at a variety of spatial scales (quasi-parish, registration sub-district, registration district and registration county) from 1801-1891.
  2. County and hundredal population estimates pre-1801. Early work at the Cambridge Group produced reliable estimates of the size and age structure of the national population from 1541 – 1801, based on inverse projection of census data together with pre-census counts of burials and baptisms (Wrigley and Schofield, 1989; Wrigley et al., 1997). As part of the Occupational Structure of Britain project Tony Wrigley has created estimates of county populations for 1600, 1700, 1750 and 1801, and estimates of hundredal or wapentake populations at decadal intervals 1761 – 1841. These datasets are described in Wrigley, E.A., 'English county populations in the later eighteenth century', Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 35-69; 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; and Wrigley, E.A. The early English censuses (2011, OUP).
  3. Population estimates for parishes/vills at three dates: c.1379, c.1550 and c.1670 (at a number of other dates partial coverage is possible). This is a very substantial undertaking and is still in the early stages but promises to provide a step change in our understanding of the early stages of industrialisation. By generating these population datasets we can identify early industrial regions, map their boundaries with precision and measure their populations, as well as provide robust measures of the chronology and geography of urbanisation.

These projects are described in further detail, and with maps of population geography, here:

Examples of population maps

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. Figure 4 shows population densities at quasi-parish level for c.1670, 1801, 1851 and 1891. Figure 5 shows estimates of population density at county level for 1600, 1700, 1750 and 1801. Figure 6 shows population density by hundred for 1761 and 1841. Figure 7 shows percentage population growth rates by registration sub-districts for the period 1801-1891.