The Georgian Population Boom


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    In the late eighteenth century Britains population suddenly boomed in a way unprecedented anywhere else in Europe. It was the product of a number of different circumstances but was predominantly for two reasons. Britain finally managed to prevent the plagues that had devastated its population with chilling regularity, and the fertility of the population increased at the same time.

    The first census in Britain was taken by John Rickman in 1801 and based on abstracts from the registers given to him by parish Clergy. So any population figures taken before this are estimates.

    When George I came to throne, the first of the Hanover kings, the estimated of the population of Britain was 5.25 million. 100 years later in 1815 the population of Britain was 10.25 million - it had almost doubled.

    This becomes even more incredible if we look at population growth measured from 1680 to 1820. In Britain there 133% increase - a figure completely unprecedented in Europe at the time. France in this same period increased by only 39%, the population of Holland stayed the same.

    If you look more closely at the figures, the trend is even more dramatic. The Majority of this growth came in the latter stages of the eighteenth century and are estimated as follows;
    1714 - 5.25 million
    1727 - 5.45 million
    1760 - 6.15 million

    So in the first 50 years the population was growth was less than a million. In the next 50 years from 1760 to 1815 the population swelled by over 5 million.

    The rate of population growth between 1700 and 1750 was such that it would have taken 200 years to double the population of Britain. Between 1750 and 1824 population growth accelerated so that the rate jumped to population doubling every 40 years.

    There were two basic reasons for this, a rise in fertility, but most importantly, a huge drop in mortality.

    The decline in mortality was predominantly due to the decrease in epidemics accompanied by a decrease in their severity. These epidemics were devastating especially in the cities, and were the biggest killers of people. It was only when Britain started imposing trade quarantines on imports from the Baltic around 1711 and with Provence in 1722 that recurrences of devasting plagues, such as the Bubonic Plague epidemic which hit in 1665, were prevented.

    There were still epidemics such as Typhus, small pox and influenza but they were 'milder' than plague and the death toll far less severe. After 1750 the severity of these epidemics decreased markedly and that is when the British population began its explosion. The population also had more of a chance to build up resistance to these diseases as the epidemics were milder and the population became more more integrated. Plus of course there was the increasing popularity of innoculation for small pox which helped to control that disease.

    The second reason for an increase in the population of Britain was its increasing fertility. This is clearly more difficult to substantiate on nationwide basis so the figures have been based on a study of Parish records done by Professor Wrigley and published in 1989. He puts the average age of marriage for a woman between 1600-49 as 26 (28 for a man). By 1800- 49 it was 23.4 for a woman (Male 25.3). As the age of marriage decreased so there was an upsurge in fertility - women now had a longer fertile period in marriage and were less likely to die from disease during marriage. This decrease in marriage age coincided with the decrease in epidemics and created the boom.

    This decline in marriage age came with two social changes. The decrease in small farming because of the increase in Enclosure of fields, and the increase of manufacturing.

    In brief, most men and women had waited to marry. They saved their money, laboured for others until they could afford their own small piece of land and could get married and raise a family. From the mid eighteenth century until about 1815 there was large scale of enclosure (done by parliamentary acts) which altered the English countryside. It made it uneconomical for small holders to survive and put the land in the hands of large land owners. As more fields were enclosed and came under the control of single large landowners, the reason for holding off on marrying decreased. Couples were more likely to have to labour for someone else all their lives so there was less reason to wait and save their money.

    The altering agricultural situation created a landless population that were looking for work and provided a ready labour market for the new manufacturies which began to grow up around this time.

    The trend of decreasing marriage age can be seen in parish records of towns with these manufacturies, the age at first marriage plummeted on their arrival. This was especially evident when these records were compared with neighbouring districts which didn't have factories or an industrial presence where the age at first marriage remained higher.

    Of course these studies are conducted on whole populations - not on the individual priveleged ones. The aristocracy had more reason to marry and align their families for wealth, land, etc. Their sons and daughters had a purpose in life to improve the family fotunes, so they are married off, the daughters anyway, much younger. As young as 13 and 14 sometimes even in the eighteenth century.


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