Population Growth and Movement in the Industrial Revolution

Population Growth and Movement in the Industrial Revolution

During the first Industrial Revolution, Britain experienced massive changes-scientific discoveries, expanding gross national product, new technologies, and new buildings and structure types. At the same time, the population changed-it grew in number, became more urbanized, healthier, and better-educated.

There is evidence for some in-migration of the population from the rural areas and foreign countries as the Industrial Revolution got underway. But, while the growth was certainly a contributing factor in the revolution, providing the vast industrial expansion a workforce it urgently needed, the revolution also worked to increase urban populations too. Higher wages and better diets brought people together to meld into new urban cultures.

Population Growth

Historical studies indicate that between 1700 and 1750, the population of England stayed relatively flat, with little growth. Precise figures don't exist for the period before the establishment of a nationwide census, but it is clear from existing historic records that Britain experienced a demographic explosion in the latter half of the century. Some estimates suggest that between 1750 and 1850, the population in England more than doubled.

Given that the population growth occurred when England experienced the first industrial revolution, the two are likely connected. People did relocate from the rural regions into large cities to be closer to their new factory workplaces, but studies have ruled out sheer immigration as the largest factor. The population increase came from internal factors, such as changes in marriage age, improvements in health allowing more children to live, and an increase in the number of births.

More and Younger Marriages

In the first half of the 18th century, Britons had a relatively late age of marriage compared to the rest of Europe, and a large percentage of people never married at all. But suddenly, the average age of people marrying for the first time fell, as did the rates of people never marrying, which ultimately led to more children. The birth rate in Britain also rose to out-of-wedlock births.

As young people moved into the cities, they met more people and increased their chances of matches over sparsely populated rural areas. Although estimates of the precise percentage of real term wage increase vary, scholars agree that it rose as a result of growing economic prosperity, allowing people to feel comfortable starting families.

Falling Death Rates

Over the period of the industrial revolution, the death rates in Britain began to fall and people began to live longer. This might be surprising given that the newly crowded cities were rife for disease and illness, with an urban death rate higher than the rural areas, but overall health improvements and a better diet (from improved food production and wages to buy it) offset that.

The rise in live births and drop in death rate has been attributed to a number of factors, including the end of the plague (this happened too many years before), or that the climate was altering, or that hospitals and medical technology had made advances such as smallpox vaccines. But today, the increase in marriage and birth rates is held to be the main reason for the sheer growth in population numbers.

Spreading Urbanization

Technological and scientific developments meant industries were able to build factories outside of London, and so multiple cities in England became increasingly larger, creating urban environments in smaller centers, where people went to work in factories and other mass places of work.

The population of London doubled in the 50 years from 1801 to 1851, and at the same time, the populations in the towns and cities across the nation blossomed as well. These areas were frequently bad as the expansion happened so quickly and people were crammed together into tiny living spaces, with dirt and disease, but they were not poor enough to stop the lengthening of the average lifespan.

It was the industrial revolution's population movement which began the era of the urban population, but the continued growth within the urban environments can be more justifiably credited to birth and marriage rates within those environments. After this period, the relatively small cities were no longer relatively small. Now Britain was filled with many huge cities producing enormous quantities of industrial products, products and a way of life soon to be exported to Europe and the world.


  • Clark, Gregory. "Chapter 5 - the Industrial Revolution." Handbook of Economic Growth. Eds. Aghion, Philippe, and Steven N. Durlauf. Vol. 2: Elsevier, 2014. 217-62. Print.
  • de Vries, Jan. "The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution." The Journal of Economic History 54.2 (2009): 249-70. Print.
  • Feinstein, Charles H. "Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain During and after the Industrial Revolution." The Journal of Economic History 58.3 (2009): 625-58. Print.
  • Goldstone, Jack A. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the "Rise of the West" and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History 13.2 (2002): 323-89. Print.
  • Kelly, Morgan, Joel Mokyr, and Cormac Ó Gráda. "Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of the British Industrial Revolution." Annual Review of Economics 6.1 (2014): 363-89. Print.
  • Wrigley, E. A. "Energy and the English Industrial Revolution." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 371.1986 (2013). Print.
  • Wrigley, E. A, and Roger Schofield. The Population History of England 1541-1871. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.