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How did the Industrial Revolution change where people lived?
The Population Revolution 1750-1901


I don’t wish to be too anti-Maths but numbers can be meaningless things. Most textbooks contain table of population statistics during the Industrial Revolution – total growth of population, the changing proportion of the population living in towns. I suspect that most of us, teachers and students, look at them, use them and don’t really take on board their significance. They’re statistics, they’ve got no relation to people, they don’t mean much to us. So how can we make ‘population stats’ mean something? No surprise in my answer – maybe a bit of physical representation may help.

This isn’t a fully-worked through activity – there’s too many variables to allow me to write down a script – but what follows is the basis for two linked activities on population (rural to urban and then total population growth). In each case some classes will need some means of recording what’s happening – although these are short activities with plenty of involvement, writing down a summary does keep some idle hands busy!

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This activity is based on the ’Physical Map’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

1. The activity: Population shift from rural to urban

Let’s use the room to show change:

• everyone sitting down in the body of the room is living in the countryside and working in farming

• everyone standing at the front is living in a town working in manufacturing or industry.

Props – it might be useful to have some emblems or pictures to keep fixed in everyone’s minds which part of the room is which – some farm animals for those sitting down, an urban scene on the whiteboard at the front? If desperate just the words town and country printed large!

[You may also want some students at least to fill in a table showing the change in numbers in country and town – more for behavioural reasons than anything else]

a) Now while this is about the period after 1750 a little context may help – what proportion of the population lived in towns in the 14th century, at the time of the Great Revolt of 1381?

Answer about 5% – so assuming your class is in the region of 25 students bring out 1 student to the front to be the townsperson. This is a very visible demonstration that the vast majority were farming in the countryside. In fact most townspeople in the 1300s also had animals in or near the town – the divide between town and countryside was much vaguer then.

b) Move forward through time – up to 1801, that’s approximately 8 lifetimes or 14 generations (assuming a generation is 30 years) – you could count them down or quickly give the headlines of some great events from 1381 to 1800 to create the sense of the passage of time – ask how many the class think are now living in towns, maybe give them a bit of contextual information about life in 1801.

Answer – there’s more but not all that more – about 20% urban so bring out another 4 students so the split is now urban 5 – rural 20. In 1801 Britain is still a very rural country despite the beginnings of the IR.

c) Now skip forward 50 years to 1851 – give some sense of what’s happened – railways etc – what do students think the split is now? The answer is almost 50-50 – so move another 7 students so you have 12 in the towns at the front and 13 in the countryside – but, as an extra detail, don’t spread the townspeople out, squash them together a little to simulate the ‘cosiness’ of towns.

Now, if you wish, see what suggestions students have for

i) Why there’s been such a widespread movement of population – motives, methods of travel, impact?

ii) why you’ve squashed the townspeople up into a corner? Why were towns so crowded? Why were living conditions so poor in many?

This is about soliciting ideas and suggestions to be explored again later but the answers may make more impact emerging from this very simple simulation.

[Relatively few people actually moved long distances – most moved about 10-15 miles per generation. It seems a very cautious large-scale migration!]

d) Skip onto 1901 – again summarise some of the changes there’s been – what proportion do they now think are in towns? By now it’s just over 75% so move another 7 into towns – you should now have 19 in towns and only 6 in the countryside.

But now ease the congestion in the towns and spread the students representing the town populations out more – ask if they have any suggestions about why towns were a little less crowded? [this was the age of the suburbs, created by trains and trolley-buses etc and of the beginnings of government reform, of laws to improve housing etc]. Students may not come up with the answers but you’ve raised the questions in a more interesting form than any textbook will manage so students are more likely to be interested in finding out the answers later.

e) Summarise the pace of population movement – has it been quick? The answer is yes as this mass migration has happened over only 4 generations. You could think about and explain this in terms of generations – a child born in 1750, his son born 1780, grandson in 1810, great-grandson in 1840 (very regular family, this) so still only 60 in 1900.

It’s then important that students describe the change themselves, turning what they’ve just taken part in into their own words, exploring with your help the vocabulary they’d use in their description. It’s this stage of the activity that cements the learning.

2. The activity: Total population growth

This stage is shorter and leads off the above rural-urban stage.

a) Begin by going back to the urban-rural split in 1901 – 19/6. What are all these people in the towns doing? They’re working – but they’re not growing food. Who’s growing the food? Just the 6 left behind in the countryside – they must be working very hard! So how’s that possible?

b) The answer is that while the proportions have changed and a much smaller proportion live and work in rural areas there’s actually a lot more people because the population had grown considerably. There were approximately 4 times as many people in Britain in 1901 (41.5m) as there had been in 1751 (10.7m) – the other total population figures are 1801 – 15.9m and 1851 – 27.4m.

If you work that out

• In 1801 80% of the population was rural – 80% of 15.9m is approx. 12.7m

• In 1901 about 25% of the population was rural – but with a population by 1901 of 41.5m the rural population was similar in total to that in 1801.

Of course that raises questions – even with as many rural workers how were they feeding 4x as many people as in 1750? Can students suggest any answers?

c) Now review this total population growth – four times as many people 1750-1901? What problems might this have caused? What solutions were needed? Of course the nature of answers will depend on whether you’re doing this before or after covering the Industrial Revolution in general (there’s arguments either way) – if before then this is a good way of setting up questions to investigate when going on to look at the IR; if afterwards then it should tell you how much students have taken in about the nature and detail of the IR.

That’s it …

… an outline set of ideas for you to build on.

If you wanted to take this even further you could look at the geographical distribution of towns – largely in the midlands/south and east until the late 1600s and 1700s when the north and west begin to take over. This changing pattern represents both the growth of industry and the opening up of commerce with the Americas. This would make an interesting physical map activity.

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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