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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Nineteenth Century English Rural Population Mobility and Small Market Towns

Nineteenth Century English Rural Population Mobility and Small Market Towns

Joanne Wallace, PhD candidate in History

As far as we know, local rural circulation dominated population mobility in the early modern English countryside. The network of small market towns across the country were frequently the origins or destinations in a multitude of short-distance moves, providing unique temporary and permanent employment opportunities, residential opportunities, and points of social contact. Many small rural towns thrived with commercial, agricultural, industrial and population growth. However, eighteenth century improvements in transport that increased the hinterland of larger towns, and industrial production for national rather than local markets, proved challenging for smaller towns. During the later nineteenth century, out-migration, associated with falls in agricultural and rural industrial employment, resulted in population stagnation or decrease in many rural areas. At the same time, a significant number of small towns appear to have ceased to perform their former functions and declined to village status. To understand changing rural population mobility, and its impact on rural towns and their hinterlands, I intend to examine the relative importance of migration involving various types of origin and destination, and links to family structure, at the local level.

Population of Linton, Cambridgeshire

The initial plan for the study includes three parts. The first is a census-based analysis of small rural market towns in England and their in and out-migrants between 1851 and 1911. By examining a range of towns, with a range of experiences of this period, it will be possible to explore links between region, occupational structure, changes in transport and communication, simple family structure and outcomes of growth, stagnation or depopulation.

The second part is a case study of migration into and out of a small rural market town and its hinterland between 1841 and 1911. At its simplest level, this research will show where the population went, where it came from, and how this changed over time, allowing further analysis to quantify the relative and changing attractions of local villages, local towns, London and the colonies. Tracking individuals over many points in time reveals migration paths that are largely invisible using a static analysis, and provides evidence on questions of migratory process. The historiography consistently raises the significance of family in migration process and motivation, particularly in governing rural circulation. Therefore, the case study will focus also on family structure, identifying the effect of family links on migration of different kinds and variation in family structure between different destination categories.

The third part investigates the significance for migration of ideas about the nature of family life in different categories of origin or destination community, including rural villages and towns, industrial areas, cities, and the colonies. Starting with autobiography, I intend to collate a range of perceptions of family life in the different categories of place over the period. Contrasts of rural and urban life also colour contemporary news, poetry, songs, pictures and plays, providing further examples. Whilst these source types each have their own limitations for interpretation, and thus require sensitive use, they have been used successfully in social history. It is hoped that these illustrations can suggest common themes in place-related ideas about the family, and that these can provide context for understanding census based findings on migration and variation in family structure. Furthermore, autobiographical narratives may be used as an additional source for identifying examples of complex migration pathways that the census cannot reveal. Pathways identified in this way will be used alongside those revealed by the census-based case-study in considering questions of migratory process.