Depopulation of the English Countryside

19th century England saw an increase overall in population and massive numbers of people, especially the poor, emigrated due to claims of overpopulation. But William Cobbett in his rural rides repeatedly rants about the depopulation of southern England, especially the hungry ragged poor in the fine countryside which is highly productive, yet unable to pay them a living wage. He writes of men working on breaking rocks for roads at the height of the harvest as farmers could not afford their labour, but the parish rates, paid by everyone, paid them to do work that was not needed. It all makes no sense.

I used to do a lot of hiking in South and West England and was often struck by the huge churches in tiny towns which I assumed was a modern change, with the advent of railways and cars, but Cobbet did the maths on this.

He got a map of the Avon River leading to Salisbury, a distance of about 20 miles with 31 churches and 30 manor houses, many of the latter were in decay. Everyone had to pay tithes, ie 1/10 of their income, which Pre Reformation went to pay the poor rates and maintain the local cleric. But many of the parsons at the time were absent and claimed the parsonages were inadequate so allowed them to take the income for themselves, so locals had to pay the poor rate as an extra tax. But Cobbett keeps asking who built these large churches, some of which he claimed could seat about 1,000 people, whilst villages he saw had only a few houses. He later notes the presence of strip lychetts, terraces on the hillsides which allowed for extra strips of ploughland which further points to a high population in the region.

The drop in population seems to have been even more marked in Kent, with a parish churches often less than a mile apart and all of decent size, but what he omits to mention in both cases is that they were on pilgrimage routes, ie to Canterbury and to Salisbury, which drew in a lot of money. But even so, his case is intriguing. The parishes must have had a lot more people living there, in close communities. This is even more noteworthy when you think they did not have winter food for many or any cattle, hence they slaughtered most animals in the autumn.

Cobbett’s rants were especially aimed at the likes of the Rev Thomas Malthus who claimed the poor were a burden on poor rates, but at the same time there were no complaints about all the soldiers, pensioned and active, of clerics, politicians and investors who did no work, but who earned far more than farm labourers. He also complains of the fact that felons were better fed and clothed than the poor agriculturalists.

He makes estimates of the amount of food produced in this same valley near Salisbury, takes as an example from one parish of 500 persons, or 100 families who produce enough food for over 500 persons while those who grow the food are half starved. So for the whole valley, 1,800 families produce enough to feed well 136,000 persons.

No wonder he was such a ranter.

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