The Eighteenth-Century Population Explosion

After a century of virtually no population growth, the countries of Western Europe experienced dramatic population increases between 1750 and 1800. Many countries doubled in size. In some countries, the growth continued through the nineteenth century. The population of Great Britain, for instance, doubled between 1750 and 1800 and then tripled between 1800 and 1900.

There were several reasons for the sudden increase. Medical advances and improved hygiene limited the devastation caused by epidemic diseases and plagues. The introduction of new food crops, most notably the potato, provided a better diet for the poor and reduced the incidence of famine. The combination of greater public order and fewer civil wars meant that life was less hazardous. The net result was a lower death rate and soaring populations.


The Industrial Revolution was paralleled by an agricultural revolution in Great Britain. New horse-drawn machinery, better fodder crops, extensive land drainage projects, and scientific stockbreeding increased agricultural productivity. But improved farming had a social cost. Between 1760 and 1799, large landowners fenced in between 2 and 3 million acres of common land that small farmers used for grazing.

The growing population, with a rising proportion of children to raise and older people to care for, put increased pressure on every aspect of society. Many peasants were no longer able to provide land for their children, who were forced to look for other ways to make their living. Small artisans in the cities suffered similar problems, unable to provide places for their children in their own workshops.

The exact relationship between population growth and industrialization is unclear, though the two are clearly intertwined. (Even countries that were late to industrialize shared in the general population increase, and its related problems.) What is clear is that the growth in population increased the demand for both food and manufactured goods and provided an abundance of cheap labor to produce them.

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