The population of England and Wales was already on the increase when King George III came to the throne in 1760. It was the beginning of what was later to become known as, ‘The Industrial Revolution’.

England was on the brink of new discoveries in agriculture; advances in health and the inventions of water powered and later, steam powered machinery. The start of an era, which in time, would alter people’s lives forever. Although food was scarce, the population more than doubled over the next century. An explanation of what caused this increase has been an on going argument between historians for many years. We shall consider the facts behind these claims, for it is an argument in its own right whether the population did indeed rise at this time.

There had not been a full census, until 1801. Before that time, the population was counted using several different methods: Muster rolls were used to count men in the army; around 1086, William I ordered the compilation of the ‘Domesday Book’: which was a detailed survey of all the counties in England, this showed the amount of people in each area and how much livestock and land they had.

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‘for centuries it survived in two manuscript volumes: the first, known as Little Domesday, covers Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk; the second, Great Domesday, covers the rest of the English counties south of the River Tees, but in less detail. Great Domesday is thought to represent the final stage of a long and complex editorial process, which was halted soon after William I’s death and before it reached the eastern counties.’

Clergymen kept records of the baptisms and burials in their parish, but these were often incomplete and only included people in their congregation; Thomas Cromwell made the registration of baptisms and burials compulsory in 1538.

In 1696 Gregory King used the hearth tax to calculate the number of people living in each house. The hearth tax was used to collect tax money based on the number of fires a person had in their home. It was also known as the ‘chimney money’. This way of calculating the population was inaccurate, because false information could be given by the householder to avoid paying high taxes.

From 1750 onwards there was dramatic rise in the population, it grew from 6.5 million in 1750, to 17.9 million in 1850, that is 11.4 million more people in England and Wales over a hundred year period.

There were great advances in science and medicine in the later part of the 18th century. The smallpox vaccination had been a great success, (although it can be argued that the disease would have died out anyway). Hospitals were being built in the new towns and cities, which were springing up, all over England and Wales. The hospitals were available mainly to the wealthy. Although the healthcare was not as good as it is today, giving birth in hospital was far safer than it had ever been in the villages, where only the local village midwife with her limited resources would attend the mother during her confinement. This could be one of the reasons why there was a fall in infant mortality.

One big problem in the hospitals was the doctors themselves. They would alternate from dissecting corpses to treating sick patients. Unfortunately their hygiene knowledge was limited and they would never disinfect or even wash their hands after visiting each patient. This, it is said, was the main cause of infections being spread from patient to patient, although, there were still a high number of deaths of people in hospitals. Despite this fact, the death rate in England and Wales in the late 18th century was still on the decline, and the birth rate still was on the increase.

It could be argued that improvements in agriculture were the primary reason for the rise in population between 1750 and 1850.

Working on the land had been the main source of income for two thirds of the population of England and Wales in the middle of the 18th century.

New methods of farming were being developed all the time. The planting of barley, rye, wheat, turnips and potatoes, became wide spread practice. Enclosure of the land, which transferred land previously used by all, to private ownership and plant rotation, was found to increase yield. The introduction of new breeds of livestock and the use of horses to pull ploughs, and later, steam powered threshing machines. Men, who had been tied to the land, had to move away and find a home of their own. Along with the vagrancy laws being relaxed, young, unattached men could leave the villages, and go in search of work to the towns and cities.

By the late 18th century there were changes in the way young men completed their apprenticeships, instead of taking seven years, it was thought that they could learn the skills needed in less time, five or even three years, therefore taking less time to complete. This meant they could marry at an earlier age than ever before; previously a man could not marry until his apprenticeship was finished. The average age of marriage was 26 years old, but now it was as young as 23 years old. These extra three years meant they could start a family earlier and could have more children. This is likely be a key reason the population started to increase between 1750 and 1850.

In the towns large factories were being built, cotton and woollen mills, iron foundries and potteries. At first these factories were powered by water and later by steam. The possibility of finding work was greater, although the pay was low, work was plentiful. The largest proportion of the work force was women and children. They were cheaper to employ and had nimbler fingers, often working 14 hours a day. Whole families could work in the same factory. If a worker had a lot of children, he could have more money coming into his home. Therefore it paid to have more children. This could be another reason why the population of England and Wales was increasing.

The Speenhamland system, which was named after the town in Berkshire were it was first introduced in 1795, was an allowance paid to the poor, based on the number of children a person had and the price of bread. If the harvest had been bad the price of bread would go up. The Speenhamland system was heavily criticised by Thomas Malthus, who was an economist and a demographer. In 1798 he claimed in his “Essay on the Principle of Population” that by giving the poor extra money, it was encouraging them to have more children and unless checked, this would lead to wide spread hunger.

The consumption of gin, at only 1d a pint was a cheap way of blocking out the misery and cold of life in the big towns and cities. The possibility of child neglect coupled with wide spread misery and despair, which would have been caused by over indulgence. Combined with the belief that Idleness and immorality were also caused by gin drinking, this must have been a dilemma for the authorities. Several acts of legislations were brought in to curb this drinking problem, but to no avail. In 1750 the price of barley and malt went up, the fields, where it had been previously been grown, were now being used to grow the food requirements of the ever-growing population of people and their animals. Gin was now too expensive to buy.

‘Total domestic consumption of spirits fell from 7,886,000 gallons in 1745, to 5,453,000 in 1752, and 3,243,000 in 1758. Practically all the reduction can be accounted for by a fall in the volume of British spirits.’

Evidence shows that there was a rise in the population from 1750-1850 and when investigating why this rise occurred, it seems that all of the following facts should be considered. Without the extra food available, there would be no extra people. With out the extra people, there would be no one to work in the ever, increasing factories. Without the factories there would be no money for the extra food.

The rise in the birth rate, fall in the death rate and infant morality, along with the improved food production and hygiene, have all played equally significant parts in the increase of the population.


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