The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Population in the 18th Century

Category: 18th century

According to the first accurate estimation made in 1688, the population of England and Wales was about 5,500,000. Scotland had about a million and Ireland perhaps two million. Most part of the English popula­tion lived south of a line from Worcester to the Wash, and a quarter of the total was in and around London, which had a population of about 540,000 compared with the 488,000 of Paris and the 125,000 of Rome. Other cities and towns in England and Wales had about 876,000 and there were about 4,000,000 in villages and hamlets. People were more evenly spread than at any other time since.

The most populous agricultural areas were those of the Midlands. There were concentrations outside London in Bristol and Exeter, and in other areas where there were ports with people engaged in shipping and shipbuilding, and in some areas where coal and tin or copper were mined. But the majority of workers, both in agriculture and in the various crafts or light indus­tries which could be carried on in their own homes, were in the interior of the country.

There was a scatter of small industries near Lon­don, in Essex and Kent, in Whiltshire and Somerset, in Yorkshire, Durham, and Cumberland, where iron, coal, or wool could be the basis of some industrial develop­ment. But England was predominantly a country of farmlands, of commons or moor and waste land. The south and south-east were preferred as places of res­idence by those who could make a choice.

The backbone of the country was its country folk, the rich landed squires, peasants and farmers working on the land. The wealth of a typical country gentleman came from his large estates. That made landlords spend a great deal of time improving their estates. They liked to live in large country houses. Rich people were eager to rebuilt their country houses or add to them to make them larger still.

This was the time of enclosures, when the traditional open-field system gave way to more manageable farms, and of changes in farming techniques.

Country gentlemen began to build or buy houses in London and Edinburgh. It became fashionable to spend winter season in a city attending a series of balls and parties. It also became the fashion to go to a spa, where one could drink mineral waters. Such spa towns as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Harrogate were especially popular.

London had been changed into a spacious and cos­mopolitan city of brick and stone. It was a busy city, and the forest of masts in the port of London was growing thicker every day.

Only in Edinburgh the culture was comparable with that of London. It was said to have a population of about 30,000. The links between Scotland and France and Holland had given it a European outlook. But if Scotland had a continental air, her economic and social life was harsh even for that age. Glasgow in 1700 had a population: of only 11,000. There were only two main streets, for the most part unpaved. House refuse was piled in the streets as there were no drains.

In Ireland there were about two million people of which only one-half million were Protestants. Here was a real frontier problem cursed with a tangle of reli­gious, racial, and economic hates. It was a frontier prob­lem England was never to solve.

In 1700 Dublin was reputed to have a population of about 60,000. In a setting of squalor and destitution there was the most generous hospitality and some of the best conversation in Europe. Cork had a bare 35,000, Limerick 11,000, Waterford and Galway perhaps 6,000 each. Belfast was only a small port. The fertility of the land and the natural resources of fish and game which Ireland possessed led some contemporary economists to think that idleness was the curse of plenty.

Most Englishmen were husbandmen, graziers, shep­herds, fishermen, miners, and quarrymen. Each coun­try town had its miller, brewer, tanner, and sawyer. Each village had its baker, smith, and cobbler. These rural craftsmen engaged in primary production out­numbered the workers in more highly organized in­dustries such as cotton, textiles, and mining.

At least twenty of the total of twenty-seven mil­lion acres of England and Wales were in agricultural use. About one-third of the country was forest, heath, and fen. The richest farming areas were in the Mid­lands; the poorest in the north of England. The culti­vated land was almost evenly divided between arable and pasture.

Wheat, barley, oats, and rye were the main crops in most parts of England. In north-east Norfolk water-borne transport made large-scale corn growing possi­ble. The river Severn with its tributaries, the War­wickshire Avon and the Wyu, formed a highway for a half a dozen counties in the west of England, and sev­eral Welsh counties as well.

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