Light on a rich country

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield
    Edward Arnold, 779 pp, £45.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 7131 6264 3

The title of this book means what it says: it is about England, not England and Wales. The exclusion of the Celtic fringe can be explained by the very real difficulties which arise for some forms of historical reconstruction from the narrow range of Welsh surnames and the weakness of the Established Church in Wales. The work is based on the extraction of figures from parish registers, the Census, once it was established, ‘family reconstitution’ carried out for a dozen parishes, a central group of experts using sophisticated numerical methods in Cambridge and the strengths of computerisation. So we have chapters in which the figures of events and base population are built up, and then chapters in which social and economic conclusions, based on these figures, are worked out. The figures are tucked away into an enormous structure of appendices, 16 in number, amounting to over a third of the whole book, but everything hinges on them, so the book has to be taken as a whole.

The unitary nature of the research means that a review must discuss how the figures are derived. Before the first Census of 1801 there exist partial counts of population and estimates for various dates. Before the start of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1838 there exist Church of England parish registers of the accompanying ecclesiastical events, baptisms, burials and marriages, with gaps when the register was lost, the parish clerk ill, the benefice unfilled, the village upset by civil war. Yet here in Appendix 2 we have page after page of figures for these vital events on a national scale, and also figures for the size of the base population, year by year, in which they occurred. How has one type of information been turned into the other?

The Cambridge Group for the History of Population has been funded as a specialised research unit since the 1960s – first of all privately, later by the Social Science Research Council. Its members have been partly freed from other academic burdens to carry on research and maintain one of the liveliest centres of debate in the British academic world. The debate has been both within the Group’s offices in Cambridge and with the general public, for the members of the Group have looked to private individuals to examine and analyse local parish registers, and have founded and sustained the journal Local Population Studies to publish some of the results. These volunteer researchers collected, month by month, material from 530 parishes: examination by the Group reduced this number for its own use to 404, all of which covered the whole period of 1661-1811 with only minor gaps, and it is their monthly and annual totals of baptisms, burials and marriages which form the basic material of the book. They are enriched by the information from the ‘family reconstitution’ parishes.

Even the hand-picked 404 parishes had deficiencies: these were identified by rules specially formulated, and then the entries which were considered to be missing were supplied on the basis of the identifiable trends which the gaps had disrupted. The authors are careful to refer to this process as ‘replacing’ – rather than ‘adding’ events to the registers. The annual totals then underwent a further restoration process in adjustment for under-registration. There was in the 16th century no organised dissent which refused the services of the established church, and babies were brought to church for baptism immediately after birth, so that in the early part of the study registration can be considered as equivalent to the events recorded. By the 19th century, dissent, separate burial grounds and chapels, laxity and secularism had all worked on this weak link in the record, and registration was increasingly remote from the actual number of events. So the annual totals had to be enlarged on a changing schedule, to fill in the unregistered items.

After this, the Group had to consider to what degree the 404 could be taken as a typical sample of the ten thousand or so parishes in England. They came from pastoral as well as grain-growing areas, from every county except Cornwall and Westmoreland, and in all sizes. Still, they tended to be southerly in location, and the large communities were overrepresented through an initial bias in their favour, based on the idea that such large parishes would be relatively free of unrepresentative variation. Large parishes were found, in fact, to have grown faster than other parishes, so the blocks of registration figures had to be weighted to discount this, and weighted in different proportions for the different series over varying periods.

After all these adjustments there emerge monthly and annual figures of births, deaths and marriages. A special gap that had still to be made up is the Great Wen, London, for it had been an initial, if mistaken impression that parish material for London could not be used in the same way. Another special problem was created by the years between 1811 and 1838, when parish registration was deterior-rating fast. Figures for this period are derived with special attention to the mortality of women, since it can be assumed that they did not share in the processes which involved men in the wars. In this period, also, the Princeton Model Life Tables, a volume which would earn Charles Lamb’s description of a ‘thing’ in book’s clothing, are used to estimate vital events. The rapidly changing mortality pattern of the period appears to lie within the systems covered by the Princeton North tables. Another problem patch is the 17th-century Interregnum, for replacement of ecclesiastical by secular registration created its own problems of under-recording. Some of the adjustments made are fairly arbitrary: in 17th-century London, plague deaths, worked out from the Bills of Mortality, are added in in surges to August mortality – a pattern not entirely borne out by what we know of the timing of epidemics. After all these problems have received a numerical answer, the series of vital events is made up for nearly three and a half centuries.

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