Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X.: of the population of england and wales. - Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
Return to Title Page for Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER X.: of the population of england and wales. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
of the population of england and wales.
But, in opposition to the conclusions and computations of the preceding chapters, the adherents of Mr. Malthus may allege the accounts which have been delivered by various writers, and lately published under the sanction of high authority, respecting the growing population of England and Wales.
There is no actual enumeration of the inhabitants of this country, except the two which were made by the direction of two acts of parliament in 1801 and 1811. These stand as follows.
For the amount of the population at other periods, different modes of computation have been resorted to.
First, the writer of the Observations prefixed to the Abstract of Population for 1811, as published by authority, has proceeded upon the amount of the registered baptisms for different periods, and calculated by the rule of proportion, thus: “If 263,409 baptisms, the average medium of the baptisms for the five years preceding the enumeration of 1801, were produced from a population of 9,168,000, from what population were 157,307, the baptisms of 1700, produced?” And upon this basis he has constructed the following
A mode frequently resorted to by writers on political economy, in estimating the population of a country, has been by a calculation built on the number of houses. The following is a Table collecting the different accounts on this subject under one point of view.
A third method, perhaps as satisfactory as either of the preceding, would be, to proceed upon the amount of the registered burials for different periods, and to calculate by the rule of proportion, thus, If 192,000 burials, i;he average amount for five years, from 1795 to 1800, were produced from a population of 9,168,000, from what population were so many burials, the registered amount of a remoter year, produced?
I am afraid however that the conclusion from all these computations will be, that no certainty, no consistent and plausible result, can be deduced by any of the modes hitherto devised.
We have the inference drawn from the registered amount of baptisms, as calculated by the editor of the Reports.
The calculation from the number of houses in England and Wales ought in all reason to confirm the Table founded upon the baptisms; or it must be allowed in a certain degree to weaken the evidence which that Table affords.
The amount of houses, as exhibited in the preceding page, is obtained as follows. The first three items are taken from the hearth-books, there being at that time a tax of two shillings for every hearthe . The next three are in like manner extracted from the returns to the tax-office, given by the surveyors of the house and window duties for the different departmentse. And the last two are taken from the returns to the two population-acts for those years respectively.
Now, if I calculate the question of inhabitants to a house by the rule of proportion, and suppose as many persons to a house in 1690 as in 1811, to which I see no reasonable objection, the population of England and Wales at the former of these periods will appear to be upwards of seven millions. But Mr. Rickman, by his computation upon the register of baptisms, makes the population of England and Wales for 1700 and 1710 (for he has not extended his calculation beyond the commencement of the eighteenth century) to be only 5,475,000 and 5,240,000 respectively.
Another conclusion that would follow from our calculating on the number of houses, would be that the country was rapidly depopulating from the Revolution at least up to the year 1777, a conclusion, which no reasoning founded upon any other consideration will incline us to believe. It is obvious indeed, that, where there is a tax to be collected, a variety of circumstances will vitiate the returns, so as to make them very far from being entitled to implicit credit. I should refer myself therefore only to the actual enumerations. There the enquiry was directed to the clergyman or overseer in each parish, who could hardly be conceived to have any temptation to conceal the number of houses in his district: to which I may add that a house is a sort of commodity not easily hid.
Let us next look to the number of burials, a species of register, I should think, as little liable to error as that of baptisms. Every human creature that is born is not carried to the priest of the parish to be baptised; but every human creature that dies, unless at sea, is consigned to the earth, and his obsequies are rarely unaccompanied with the ceremonies of religion.
The question abovestated was, If 192,000 burials, the average amount for five years, from 1795 to 1800, were produced from a population of 9,168,000, from what population were so many burials, the registered amount of a remoter year, produced?
But here we are stopped on the threshold by the information of the editor of the Reports, who assures usf , that “the average number of registered burials (though considerably fluctuating from year to year) has remained stationary during twenty-one years, from 1780 to 1800; the first five years of which period, as well as the last five years, and all the twenty-one years together, equally averaging at about 192,000 burials per annum”
Here then we have an evidence, perhaps as strong as any ground of computation can afford us, of a population that does not increase.
This however does not shake the faith of the editor of the Reports, who steadily adheres to his computation from the baptisms, and affirms an increase of population within that period to the amount of 1,215,000 persons. For the five years from 1805 to 1810, he states “the average of burials to be 196,000g ,” that is, to exhibit the comparatively slender increase of 4000 per annum; and yet, according to him, the population of the country, between the years 1780 and 1810, has experienced an increase to the amount of no less than 2,535,000 souls.
This circumstance would Certainly have startled the faith of a more diffident speculator; but it has no such effect upon him. He indeed brings forward an extraordinary solution for the difficulty. “The average number of burials,” he says, “having remained stationary, or nearly so, while the population has been increasing by more than two millions and a half, authorises a satisfactory inference of diminishing mortality in Englandh .” Satisfactory indeed, but no less astounding than satisfactory, if no more persons are found to die now, when the population is 10,488,000, than died before in the year 1780, when the population is stated to have amounted to no more than 7,953,000. Can any thing be more extraordinary than this? I had heard before of the improving salubrity of London, in consequence of its widened streets and the better arrangement of its buildings. But that the whole climate of the country from the Land's End in Cornwal to Berwick upon Tweed should thus have improved, I confess is new to me.
But let us try the accuracy of these registers in another way. Dr. Price in his Observations on Reversionary Payments has fixed the average medium of the probability of human life at thirty-three yearsi . Consequently, the number of those who are born, or those who die, annually in any country, multiplied by thirty-three, ought to yield us the amount of its inhabitants.
Now by Mr. Rickman's statement, the average amount of baptisms for the five years preceding the enumeration of 1801 is 263,409k . This number, multiplied by 33, gives 8,692,497, a number, short by 475,500 of the enumeration for that period. This however would be a most unfair mode of calculation, since, I suppose, a great majority of the people of England in 1801 were more than five years of age, and those who were older, being born, according to Mr. Rickman, from a much thinner population, must have been born in years that yielded a much smaller number of baptisms.
From the same authority we learn, that the average of burials is 192,000, and this for twenty-one years, from 1780 to 1800. Now this number, multiplied by 33, gives no more than 6,386,000, a number short by almost three millions of the actual enumeration.
It is further worthy of remark, that, in the page of the Observations prefixed to the Returns of 1811, immediately preceding that from which the Table of Population throughout the Last Century is taken, the editor has presented us with a Table of the Proportions of Baptisms to Marriages1 , during the very period when, according to him, the greatest increase was taking place in our population. The highest of these proportions is 366 to 100, very considerably less than four to one. Now it is surprising that it did not occur to the editor, that, while this proportion obtained, there could be no increase of population; a point which has already been abundantly established. The return of baptisms therefore supports two opposite conclusions; first, in page xxiv of the Preliminary Observations, that there can have been no increase of population; and, secondly in page xxv, that the increase has been so considerable, as for the number of people to have doubled itself in the course of a century. The just inference is, that these returns of baptisms can in no way be relied on as a safe ground of reasoning.
From what has been stated, it seems, fair to set aside all the conjectural and computatory accounts of the population of England and Wales, previous to the passing the act for 1801. But it will still be asked, what shall we oppose to the comparison of the two actual enumerations of 1801 and 1811, from which it follows that we gained in population in those ten years an accession of 1,320,000 citizens?
It appears indeed that the marriages, compared with the births, did not average four children born during this very period to one marriage taking place in it, that the burials were increased by an amount of only 3,019 per annum for the whole country, and that the number of those who died, according to this statement, was only such as implied a population of 6,435,627 persons.
But I may be told that all this is computation merely, and will be wholly vitiated by the supposition of the gross imperfection of the registers. The population on the contrary is the sum of the returns made from every parish or district by the resident clergyman or overseer, who by the exertion of a certain diligence could not fail to know the number of the actual inhabitants. It was his business to go from house to house, and learn from the head of each family the precise number of his family or inmates. At all events, though he should in some instances have reported too small an amount, it can hardly be supposed that he counted a larger number of heads than really existed. The population of England and Wales therefore ought to be taken at 10,488,000 for the year 1811.
I am myself more inclined to give credit in this respect to the returns of 1811, than to those of 1801. There are very obvious reasons, that might have made men cautious at first of giving a true answer to an enquiry of this sort. A country like England, so deeply loaded with taxes and exactions of all kinds, will naturally have a people that regard with a certain degree of jealousy the movement of their government and their superiors. We have heard of poll-taxes, of pressing of seamen, of pressing of soldiers, and of the conscriptions of France, not to mention the drawings for the militia at home. The honest peasantry and manufacturers and mechanics of this country, when first addressed with questions as to the number of persons in their family, of their inmates or lodgers, very excusably looked shy upon the questioner, and recollected a maxim current in ordinary life, that truth is not always to be spoken. The second time, having experienced no ill consequences from the first experiment, they became more frank. It is therefore very conceivable, that there was not one human creature more in the country, when the population was returned as 10,488,000 in 1811, than when it was returned as 9,168,000 in 1801.
I have already said, that the enumerations of Great Britain in 1801 and 1811, were merely so much labour thrown away. Being taken with such inconceivable absurdity, all ages and sexes being confounded together, they can, in my conception, be made the basis of no reasoning. We are therefore reduced to conjecture merely, as to the cause of the inequality of amount in the two enumerations. If the population had been divided into classes according to every five or ten years' difference of ages, as in Sweden and in the United States, the truth would have flashed upon us at once. The added numbers by direct procreation in the enumeration of 1811 would have been all under ten years of age, and of consequence the number of such children in 1811 would have exceeded the number in 1801 by the precise amount of 1,320,000. This would have been an evidence that could hardly have been called in question.
Is England more or less populous now, than it was a hundred years ago, or than it was forty years back? Each man answers this question according to his preconceived opinions.
Man is a migrating animal. He removes from one place to another, from the town to the country, and from the country to the town, as he shall happen to be impressed with the notion that in this or in that he shall be most likely to find his well-being.
London I am persuaded is more populous now, than it was at any remote period: but is England more populous?
The life of man is too short for any accurate ideas on such a question; and in this respect it is not true, that “one generation telleth to another.” Our fathers thought, it may be, that their country was well peopled and prosperous. But did these words convey the same image to their minds as to ours? The observation of man is too narrow to scan a country, 580 miles in length, and 370 in breadth. We see that one spot becomes more crowded, and another thinner of people; but we do not see how far the one does or does not balance the other.
The observation of the same individual varies from youth to age. Our ideas become modified from day to day, and we do not observe the variation; and the notion that the same set of words excites in us at twenty, and at fifty, is essentially different. Things alter, and appear to us the same, and continue the same, and appear to us materially changed. I remember a friend of minem , who after a lapse of ten years visited the house where he had resided when he was a boy: he was persuaded that the garden was inclosed with a wall that effectually cut off the view of the circumjacent country, and felt much surprised at his return to find this wall scarcely higher than his breast: if he had continued all the time on the spot, it is probable he never would have perceived the alteration. Our minds change much as our bodies do, in which it has been computed that not a particle remains the same after a lapse of twenty years.
We are like children at a juggler's exhibition, who, while their attention is craftily called to a particular point, look only there, and see nothing of the general scene, and of what is passing elsewhere, that it was more material to observe. We see the high days, and the holiday-making; and how men crowd together to shows, and courts, and prosperous cities, but what passes in the obscure nooks and corners of the state we do not see. If I travel from London to York, I can count up the cottages, and observe how many carts and carriages and foot-passengers go along the road within a given number of miles, and what appearance there is of populousness and activity, or the contrary; but I do not know what Addison, and Swift, and Congreve, and the most competent observers saw, when according to the Table of Houses there was an appearance of the greatest numbers of mankind, though their local arrangement was different from that of the present day. Nay, if I had myself performed the journey twenty years ago, the memory of man is of so irretentive a texture, and his judgment so easily seduced, that I shall not now distinctly call to mind what I saw then, and shall be bribed insensibly to accommodate the comparison to that system of political economy, whatever it is, that I have happened to embrace. The collation we attempt, is either at too near intervals, when it is not reasonable to expect any considerable alteration, or at too remote ones, when the image which was once distinct in the mind, has become so obscure and faded, and has suffered so much from the injury of the seasons, and the variety of scenes and impressions which have intervened, that a wise man would hardly have the courage to rely upon it.
It is difficult to conceive how the notion of the increasing population of our country has become so generally prevalent. Is the popula- of the world increased? Have the numbers of the human species been increasing from the earliest accounts of time? There is nothing, to speak moderately, in the history of the earth, to authorise this opinion.
Is England then an exception to the general succession of ages and nations? If so, the reasons should be assigned that authorise us to regard it as an exception.
Much confusion of ideas exists on this subject.
First, we read in holy writ that all mankind sprung from a single pair, and this unavoidably inclines us to believe in a progressive increase.
To this I have answered, first, from Derham and other theological writers who affirm the population of the earth to be now at a stand, that we are informed from the same divine authority, that in the early ages the life of man was nearly of one thousand years' duration, which, says Derham, was absolutely necessary for the first peopling of the world. Secondly, Mr. Malthus confines his enquiries to human authorities and statistical documents, and i cannot reasonably be blamed for following his example in my refutation of his Essay. Thirdly, this would have implied an invariable increase, or nearly so, an assumption as much in opposition to all the evidence of history as can well be imagined.
A second consideration which has impressed a majority of those to whom I address myself with the idea of the growing population of this country, is to be found in the progress of refinement. We compare our accommodations with what appear to us the aukward shifts to which the generations that preceded us were reduced, and we persuade ourselves that our advantages in this respect necessarily imply a greater number of human beings to partake of them. We pass in imagination at one leap, from the refinements introduced or existing in the early part of the nineteenth century, to a period of absolute Barbarism, like that of the naked Africans and North American Indians, and picture to ourselves men wasting a disconsolate life in immeasurable solitudes, where the presenting one human being to the eyes of another might be supposed to constitute an epocha.
But this is all a delusion. Civilisation as surely destroys its myriads, as the rudest and most unpolished state of existence. Immense wealth has a natural tendency to spread a comparative desert around it. A simple and tranquil form of social existence is not hostile to population. Of this we might be sufficiently convinced from the accounts given us by the first discoverers of the West India islands, and of the empires of Mexico and Peru. Of this we have still more incontestible evidence in the statements of the present population of Indostan.
But, though the notion of the increasing population, of our country has been the current notion of our political writers, this increase was never viewed as an evil till the year 1798. It is the geometrical ratio, that has produced all this confusion and uproar in the brains of politicians. Till the present age, these men flattered them selves with an increase; but it was an increase by moderate and slow degrees. They knew that the earth was capacious of inhabitants, immeasurably beyond the present numbers of mankind. They believed that, as nations advanced in numbers, they would also advance in ingenuity. They relied upon emigration as a resource, when any country or corner of a country should become inconveniently furnished with inhabitants. They regarded this, like the circles that the pebble makes in a lake; and they could contemplate no end to this vast, and perhaps frequently interrupted, expansion. They regarded the earth as an inexhaustible storehouse for the food of man, science and the practical application of science as indefatigable and endless, and the subsistence of human creatures and the progress of social improvement as a contemplation fraught with perpetual hope and exultation. But we have learned to fear that, which it is perhaps impossible should ever occur, and to give up all our present advantages, and those which a little before with confidence we anticipated, because the day will hereafter arrive, or not arrive, which will baffle and supersede all the calculations of human wisdom.
[e]Price ubi supra.
[i]Vol. II, p. 403.
For this Table see above, p, 203, 4.
[m]The reverend Joseph Fawcet, the friend of my youth, my first companion of imaginative soul and luxuriant ideas, whose name it is gratifying to me to record, though on so trivial an occasion.