This was my second essay for my History course at the University of Cambridge, and the question was "'A conundrum resolved'. Do you share this view about the question of the growth of population in the century after 1750?" It was graded at 1st.

A bit of context: Two guys from Cambridge University called Wrigley and Schofield published a book called "The Population History of England 1541 - 1871: a reconstruction" in 1981. It tracked a whole range of demographic variables in England and essentially forms the basis for all further discussion of the demograpghics of England at this time. But much further discussion there has been: you can't write this sort of history without a very good understanding of the society you're writing about, and it's emerging that there are many pertinent things about English society that we don't know. This essay essentially lays out the different social and economic factors that might have influenced things like people's decision to marry, when to leave home, and when to have children. Wrigley and Schofield actually added their own interpretation in articles after the book, but this has been attacked. Much more discussion will ensue.

The reconstruction of English demography was based on 404 parishes - there were about 15,000 in England at the time. This is a statistically significant sample but because civil registration of births, deaths and marriages didn't begin until 1837 the parishes were just recording religious rites. The growth of Nonconformity meant that people didn't always do things under the auspices of the Anglican Church, plus people migrating in and out of the parishes would cause problems. However, despite the various flaws it's possible to poke in Wrigley and Schofield's data, it is by far the best we have. Parish reconstitution studies (making a detailed map of demographic activity over centuries) are being carried out to try and work out the demographic behaviour of different economic and social conditions, and these will help a lot in solving some of the problems I outline below.


Starting from the early eighteenth century, and accelerating rapidly from about 1740, English population surged rapidly. In 1680 – 1820 the growth rate was 133%, and in 1820 – 1900 it was 166%, with rates in France in these periods of 29% and 26% respectively. The growth was particularly marked in the period 1791 – 1831, during which it was 1.36% per annum – an increase overall from 7.74 million to 13.28 million.1 The work of Wrigley and Schofield established that the dominant characteristic of the English demographic regime that allowed this growth was a rise in the level of fertility during this period – the gross reproduction rate (GRR) went from 1.98 in the 1670s/80s to 2.94 in the 1810s/20s. Wrigley and Schofield say that if mortality had remained unchanged over this period (the "long" eighteenth century) and fertility had run its historic course, the intrinsic growth rate of the population would have risen by 1.25%. If the converse had happened, the rise would only have been 0.5%.2 Because marital fertility did not rise during this period, the most significant factor is incidence and timing of marriage. A new conundrum therefore rises from the ashes of the old – why did marital patterns change so markedly in 18th century England? The answer to this question is by no means clear, and so I would tend say the conundrum has not been resolved: it is rather refocused – and this assumes we accept Wrigley and Schofield's analysis, which we may not.

Wrigley and Schofield stressed the importance of age of marriage over incidence thereof, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century: and Goldstone agrees.3 He sees the problem of explaining English population growth in this period as primarily one of explaining the reasons people were marrying earlier. The conundrum is now a social and economic one, rather than simply a demographic one. Like many other writers, Goldstone thinks proletarianization was a major contributing factor to the decline in the age of marriage. As more people moved into the economic group which subsisted by wage labour, more people found the determinants of marriage favouring earlier nuptiality. Prior to proletarianization most people had worked as farm labourers on a one year contract or live-in servants-in-husbandry and they had continued working in these conditions until they accumulated enough capital to marry and set up their own household, perhaps with their own piece of land. The proletarian, on the other hand, saw no prospects of further development in his social position and had only to establish an income base before marrying. The segment of the population in proletarian wage labour which paid well enough and with sufficient regularity to marry early was, by this thesis, increasing in the eighteenth centuries.

This seems contrary to Wrigley and Schofield's analysis that marriage patterns followed trends in real wages with a lag of thirty years.4 Issues about the reliability of the Phelps-Brown Hopkins index of real wages aside, it does seem bizarre that people would base their decision to marry so heavily on the state of real wages in the past. This is especially true with increased proletarianization – the very structure of the labour market was changing rapidly, and real wage trends over a span of decades were probably less important than people’s perception of what the future would hold. Proletarianization was a common factor throughout the agricultural and urban sectors – although the agricultural labour force had been proletarianized in the past, it was becoming more so.5 There was a new spurt of enclosure activity from about 1760 until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which implies renewed investment in the countryside and an end to traditional practices were this investment took place. Food was needed to feed the urban centres that grew so markedly during this period, and a national market was emerging which allowed the growth of regular employment. As economic uncertainty was reduced and increased integration took place, people could be more certain that they would hold down their job for a long time – this encouraged earlier marriage.

Along with proletarianization there goes the growth of proto-industry. Although some authors choose to do so, its role should not be overstated – the 1831 census found only 10% of the male labour force working in industry, including proto-industry.6 But it is very likely that this segment of the population would be very optimistic about future economic conditions and therefore encouraged to marry and have children. Each child would add to the productivity of the family unit once it reached a certain age, and so would not be wholly dependent. Furthermore, goods were often being produced for export, which might give people increased confidence about future stability – indeed it might even allow this sector of the economy to enjoy success amidst domestic stagnation. The number of people involved in this sort of employment should not be overstated, but nor should the effect of proto-industrialisation in a number of regions. England was a patchwork of very different regions at this time, and this is a possible point of criticism of Wrigley and Schofield's analysis.

Wrigley and Schofield work off national aggregate data, but the very specific aspects of each local part of the economy may undermine this data’s usefulness. Different social and economic conditions affected the demographic system in radical ways, especially in what was the most deliberate demographic act: marriage. Even if we view proletarianization as an increasingly common factor, different areas might respond to it in different ways. Areas were service-in-husbandry was in decline saw a subsequent decline in the age of marriage, but it should be remembered that a proletarian didn’t have to be married – they just had the option of doing so. Another regional factor was Poor Law administration – in parishes were the allowance system operated to reward people on a sliding scale for successive children or for marriage, it definitely encouraged some earlier marriage. This is not to say the Poor Law was responsible for the surge in population as has been suggested, but in a detailed examination of different regional situations it must be taken into account. Huzel has also suggested that the Poor Law acted to keep mortality rates down, a conclusion that it is hard to escape: the overall impact may not have been large, however.

The story of the cities is in need of further investigation, and Wrigley and Schofield do not really discuss this piece of the picture. A look at the towns also has implications for the primacy of fertility as the contributing factor to growth. Because the towns had a higher death rate than the countryside, it might well be expected that the rapid urbanisation of this period would have led to an increased mortality rate – but this did not happen. London absorbed half of the population growth of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but then became an area of net population growth.7 But the growth of the towns was arguably a double-edged sword – the increased demand for foodstuffs in the new urban centres would have exerted an upwards pressure on food prices, and hence real wages. This would serve to drive rural nuptiality and fertility upwards according to Wrigley and Schofield's model of rural nuptiality.

This model can be subject to criticisms. The asset accumulation model, which has people delaying marriage until they save up enough to support a household and the 'household economics' model, which presupposes every household trying to maximise its own income, presumes people to be wholly rational economic actors. In the case of marriage and child-bearing this is clearly not the case – social rituals, tradition and passion between individuals would sometimes derail the best laid plans. It must be noted that illegitimate fertility also rose during this period, something which runs counter to the economic interests of both parents and certainly cannot involve the child as an 'asset' in a household. Something seemed to be changing that increased the general level of sexual activity among the young – Schofield ascribes this to an increased prosperity8, and it seems plausible that an easier life would lead to laxer moral standards among the young. The question is how much we weight the social and economic sides of the question respectively, and they are certainly inter-connected – the availability of an economic base for the young would effect social norms on sex and marriage, and therefore alter their demographic behaviour.

The economic function of women and children must also be examined – this was very important for households as well. Population growth pushed down the number of female labourers as the time period wore on, and if these women were unable to find alternative employment it might well suit them to settle down with a man earlier. Although the asset accumulation theory would tend to state that these women would be unable to set up a household and should therefore remain celibate, if social norms were changing and proletarianization provided men with a steady income, it might well be viable for them to settle down. The Poor Law might also provide these women with an income once they were married. In regions in which these socio-economic conditions prevailed, it is likely the preventive check was eased by the structural of the labour market and welfare policy: but again it would be erroneous to pretend this was an "overall" factor. But combined with the decline of service-in-husbandry there may well have been few places left for a woman to turn but marriage.

As far as men were concerned, the decline in live-in service-in-husbandry and the tearing down of agricultural labourer's cottages may have meant men sought a wife and the attendant domestic comforts. As people were increasingly encouraged to be independent on nothing but their wage it made sense for young people to band together and form households and families earlier in life – they were, in a sense, coming of age earlier. This, as a psychological factor rather than a factor relating to earning power, may well also have been important in contributing to the falling nuptiality rate. A detailed study of peoples' attitudes towards marriage is needed, as the most evidence we have about early-marrying couples is the propaganda of the Poor Law Commission, which was keen to show that in fact early marriage was a result of the Old Poor Law.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars some trends starting to run contrary to what I have described above. Service-in-husbandry continued to decline, indeed at an even faster rate, but age of marriage rose slightly. This broke a trend that had prevailed in England since the mid-16th century – service had a cyclical popularity as fluctuations in real wages had made it more or less attractive for farmers to have live-in servants. Nuptiality had always moved in sympathy with these trends, as it is suggested it was doing during our time period – but something changed which stopped this. I would suggest that this doesn't invalidate the contribution of the decline of service-in-husbandry to the rising nuptiality rate, but it shows how fundamentally the structure of the labour market had changed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But this also shows that there was an impact made by both social and economic factors – in the period 1750-99, 20% of males and 15% of females married in their late teens or early twenties. This is quite a large amount, and it should by no means be taken for granted that the group would get even larger just because service declined further. Other factors, such as the hard to measure social conventions, or the structure of what replaced service as employment for the young, would clearly influence nuptiality also.

The conundrum of why the nuptiality rate rose in eighteenth century England is not one that can be wholly "resolved". The problem is necessarily a very regional one and dependent on factors in many places that are hard to measure – Wrigley and Schofield's national aggregate data tells us the outline to the story, but not the whole narrative. Parish reconstitution studies can be very useful in carrying out experiments comparing places with markedly different social and economic conditions and trying to ascertain what the important factors were: but they can also be subject to error because in some cases there is a small amount of data, and it may not be very accurate. Despite limitations, and the problems of migration in and out of the parish (we can never have a wholly closed system to study), parish reconstitution studies provide vital insight into some of the changes described above, such as the move to proto-industry and proletarianization. Care must be taken not to extrapolate conclusions for the whole nation from such studies, and rather accept that they illustrate particular processes that contributed to the overall change in the demographic regime.

The conundrum also extends beyond social and economic factors into individual people's minds. We need to know why people decided when to marry and whether to marry at all, and how far they took economic factors into account. We can make educated guesses about how rational they were – and it is likely they were quite rational – but assuming a wholly rational demographic system was operating will skew our results. Wrigley and Schofield have provided us with a lot of raw data and information on trends, but social and economic history must provide us with the interpretation to pad out their data. This can be accomplished by studies of particular parishes to try and ascertain what drove the individuals within them – Wrigley and Schofield provide a framework for discussion, but do not extinguish it.

1. E.A. Wrigley, 'The growth of population in eighteenth-century England: a conundrum resolved', Past and Present, 1983.

2. E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541 – 1871: a reconstruction (2nd edition, 1989).

3. J.A. Goldstone, 'The demographic revolution in England: a re-examination', Population Studies, 1986.

4. Wrigley and Schofield, op. cit.

5. J.A. Goldstone, op. cit.

6. R.S. Schofield, 'British population change 1700 – 1871', in R. Floud and D. McCloskey (eds.), The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 2nd edition, vol. 1.

7.M.J. Daunton, Progress and Poverty: 1700 – 1850 (1995)

8. R.S. Schofield, op. cit.

Complete bibliography

E.A. Wrigley, 'The growth of population in eighteenth-century England: a conundrum resolved', Past and Present, 1983.
E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541 – 1871: a reconstruction (2nd edition, 1989).
J.A. Goldstone, 'The demographic revolution in England: a re-examination', Population Studies, 1986.
R.S. Schofield, 'British population change 1700 – 1871', in R. Floud and D. McCloskey (eds.), The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 2nd edition, vol. 1.
M.J. Daunton, Progress and Poverty: 1700 – 1850 (1995)
R.S. Schofield, 'English Marriage Patterns Revisited', Journal of Family History, 1985.
J.P. Huzel, 'Malthus, the Poor Law, and Population in Early Nineteenth-Century England', Economic History Review, 1969.
J.P. Huzel, 'The Demographic Impact of the Old Poor Law: More Reflexions on Malthus', Economic History Review, 1980.
G. Boyer, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750 – 1850 (1990).
P. Razzell, 'The growth of population in eighteenth-century England: a critical reappraisal', Journal of Economic History, 1993.

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