Rural Depopulation the Numbers

In 1801, over 65% of the English population lived in the countryside. Already by 1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death, after decades of gradual drift, the census records that 77% of people lived in urban areas and a mere 23% in rural areas.

In 2020 this number had shrunk further still, though the rate of population drift has clearly slowed significantly: 17% of the UK population were living in rural areas, the majority of these in rural towns or fringes, and only around 8% in villages or more remote areas.

Rural life was a tough life

This dramatic reversal didn’t have a single cause but was the result of a complicated tangle of pressures, pushing people from the countryside and pulling them towards towns and cities over decades. This article will ask how this radical change came about and what consequences it has had for modern Britain.

The period of most dramatic change can be seen in the nineteenth century, a period which shaped the landscape we all live in, the nature of the work we do and the ways in which we relate to the natural world.

Read More: The Brutal Corn Laws and Why Did They Matter? 

In recent years this picture has become more complicated still and there has been a notable move in the other direction, with a marked trend for post-industrial migration from cities into the countryside.

The rural ideal – but was it?

What does this tell us about the ways in which this important dynamic in rural history continues to play a role in modern Britain? When and why did people move from the country to the city and why might they be moving back?

The Agrarian Revolution and its Influence on Rural Migration

To understand what changed, we first need to begin with a picture of Britain around the turn of the nineteenth century, when most people still lived and worked in the countryside. The intervening years have so radically altered the shape of Britain, it is difficult to imagine a time when economic life wasn’t centred on towns and cities but in the fields and pastures.

a shepherd in the 1800s with a shepherds crook and lamb
A downland shepherd was a common sight. Britain started to import New Zealand lamb in the 1800s

It is important to remember that in England (as well as everywhere else in the world) agriculture was by far the largest employment sector at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. The British Agricultural Revolution saw an unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain. These increases were created by improving efficiency in labour and land productivity.

Read More: Steam Engines: How they Changed a Rural Way of Life


This change in agricultural work was caused by a number of factors from the mid-17th century onwards, such as innovations in farming technologies, a better understanding of crop rotation, and the acceleration of enclosure to create larger farms when there had previously been many more small ones.

As a result of these changes, the hundred years before 1770 saw agricultural production outstrip population growth in Britain for the first time. In fact, British agricultural production during this period was the highest in the world.

Farm labourer carrying a wheatsheaf
The harvest became known as the Year Without Summer

This new abundance spurred a rapid growth of population in England and Wales. In 1700, the population was 5.5 million; in 1801 it had reached 9 million. However, and perhaps paradoxically, this rise in agricultural productivity contributed to population drift to the cities.

Read More: Packhorse Bridges: What are They?

Essentially, agriculture became so much more efficient that it did no longer required such a large labour force. Innovations included enclosure, which consolidated land ownership into fewer hands, as well as new insights into crop rotation, better equipment and increasing mechanisation.


Many historians have argued that one significant motive for these changes was to force country labourers to become workers in the growing industrial cities. The industrial revolution needed a huge number of workers and the agrarian economy required fewer. From an economic point of view, it was clear that vast numbers of people needed to move out of the countryside and into the cities where their labour was more needed.

Read More: Rising from the Ashes: Britain After the Black Death

As such, the Agricultural Revolution has been seen as a key factor in creating the conditions for the Industrial Revolution in England, a phenomenon which spurred rural population drift.

The Industrial Revolution and the Transformation of Work

The single biggest influence on migration from the countryside to the growing towns and cities was the Industrial Revolution, a transformation which took place from roughly 1760 to 1840.

This was a period of rapid change in how people lived and worked in Britain, spurred by technological transformations, such as the steam engine, which allowed the mechanisation of manufacturing.

Steam thrashing machine
Steam thrashing machine at the Great Dorset Steam Fair. These machines put thousands of men and families out or work

It was a true revolution which fundamentally transformed Britain, not least in determining where people lived, promoting migration from the countryside to the growing cities in an accelerated and deliberate process of urbanisation.

Manufacturing now took place in factories rather than in cottage industries. This meant that it was necessary to have many workers concentrated together in one place.

The consequences of this change brought more growth and created a cycle of internal migration from rural areas into urban centres. The production of new goods created new markets which needed to be well connected by canals or railways to the newly established manufacturing centres.


As wealth increased, banking and commercial industries began to grow alongside industrialisation; these industries required workers too and promoted further growth in urbanisation.

High levels of population in urban centres attracted other commercial industries and this in turn accelerated the process of economic migration to towns and cities.

The Industrial Revolution transformed cultures of work in Britain in such a way that urbanisation became both necessary and inevitable. It kickstarted a process through which the economy relied on the concentration of workers in cities.

Rural families often ended up living in the slums

As life in the countryside became more challenging – with the Agrarian Revolution reducing opportunities for agricultural work – people seeking employment had little choice but to relocate to urban areas, even though the living conditions in these places (which were designed for efficient manufacturing, not for healthy living) were often significantly worse.

Failed Harvests and Hardship

Despite the overall improvement in agricultural techniques and crop yields, the nineteenth century saw a number of failed harvests which made life on the land more challenging.

Read More: Beating The Bounds a 2000-Year-Old Custom

In 1815, for example, the eruption of the volcano Tambora had a huge impact on climate and consequently on harvests around the world. This was called the Year Without A Summer. In Europe, with the Napoleonic Wars just over, these events caused food shortages.

Low temperatures and heavy rains caused crops to fail in Great Britain and Ireland. Food prices rose steeply and the food riots of 1816 and 1817 saw the highest levels of violence in Europe since the French Revolution.

agricultural labourer with a scythe cutting corn
The end of the Napoleonic war in Europe changed the political and trade landscape

These were difficult times for everyone but perhaps especially for rural labourers whose livelihoods were especially dependent on successful harvests. Pressures such as these no doubt added to the lengthening list of reasons to seek employment in the industrial towns and cities rather than on the land, where work was dependent on caprices of weather and had already become more precarious with the changes brought by the Agrarian Revolution.

The Times

The Reverend Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne wrote in The Times in 1844  …..A family of five or six persons ought to have six gallons of flour a week, even if they have got a few vegetables from their garden-ground to help out now and then; but yet, when tailings of wheat are gone, they cannot, with these wages, buy any such quantity, and at no time will they have 1s a week left for clothes, candles, tea, butter, sugar, bacon, lard and so on. They seem surprised to be asked if they get it, and will tell you at once “that they do not know the taste of it.”

Poverty and the Poor Laws

In 1834, a New Poor Law was introduced which claimed to make the care of the poor more consistent and efficient throughout England. Before this, each parish had been responsible for supporting its own population in times of hardship from a poor rate funded by taxation.

poor laws
Advertisement for builders to build a new Workhouse in north Wales, 1829

There had been significant resistance about this among wealthier inhabitants of parishes who saw it as burdensome. This new Poor Law meant that people were only entitled to help if they left their homes and went to live in a workhouse.

Read More: Window Tax: So They Bricked-Up the Windows

These institutions were not in individual parishes but provided by wider districts and overseen centrally by Poor Law Commissioners. These institutions developed a reputation for being inhumane and dehumanising in their treatment of the poor.

A contemporary depiction of the hardships of the workhouse can famously be found in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) in which cruelty and deprivation are rife.

Christmas Day in a workhouse. The economic downturn following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century resulted in increasing numbers of unemployed. Coupled with developments in agriculture that meant less labour was needed on the land. To add to this, bad harvests beginning in 1828 and the eruption of the Swing Riots of 1830 meant that reform was inevitable.

One way in which this harsh treatment of the poor was manifested was in the pressure to migrate long distances for work – almost always from the country to the cities – which quickly became a standard practice.


Shortly after they were appointed, the Poor Law Commissioners were approached by manufacturers in Lancashire; there was a shortage of workers in the region’s rapidly expanding manufacturing industries and they requested that, under the terms of the new Poor Law, unemployed labourers from rural regions be relocated and put to work.

Read More: Smugglers of Britain: Kings of the Cove or Violent Gangs?

In March 1835, the Commissioners wrote to several other northern manufacturers proposing the extension of this scheme and offering to oversee it. This procedure was first tried at Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, a rural area with low wages and high levels of unemployment. An Assistant Commissioner visited distressed families in the area.

child labour

These families were subsisting on a mere seven shillings a week and the terms of employment in northern manufacturing districts would have dramatically improved their situation: they were offered work at an initial wage of 24 shillings a week for a family of four workers, which would be increased to 30 shillings after a year.

After initial reluctance, a total of 83 people migrated from Bledlow. By July 1836, 329 families or 2673 individuals had migrated from depressed rural areas to burgeoning industrial towns. By July 1837, around 10,000 people had been funded to relocate from the countryside to industrialising areas from parish poor rates.

How does this history shape Britain today 

The nineteenth century saw a dramatic reshaping of Britain, away from agricultural labour and towards industrialisation which required large numbers of people to live close together. This triggered a cascade of subsequent changes – for example the development of commercial businesses – which consolidated and accelerated this trend of moving people out of the countryside.

Read More: Stand and Deliver: Who Were Britain’s Highwaymen?

We can certainly recognise this balance between country and city today, when only 17% of people live in rural areas and when more than 25% of this small rural population is over the age of 65, and less likely to be seeking employment.

English village
Once full of poverty and no hope, villages are now being repopulated by the wealthy.


But now that we live in an increasingly post-industrial world, are there signs of change in this pattern? Since 2011, there has been a low but consistent level of internal migration from the cities to rural areas in the UK; in 2019/20, for example, the overall net internal migration to rural areas was 97,500.

Recent research has suggested that there is a slow but steady flow of change away from the model of industrial cities as economic and population centres. These new changes are powered by new ways of working, with improved communications technologies and transport links making it possible once again for people to live and work in the countryside.

Read More: Dick Turpin, Handsome Hero or Violent Criminal?

The downsides of cities – such as crime, overcrowding, and pollution – are no longer counteracted by the pull of employment and people are choosing rural areas for the quality of life they offer. The long history of rural population drift which began with the Industrial Revolution, seems to at least be beginning to lose its grip, as economic activity becomes more diverse and less centralised for many of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *