Mike Winstanley discusses the push and pull reasons which drove people to leave the countryside for the towns.
By Mike Winstanley
Last updated 2011-02-17
Mike Winstanley discusses the push and pull reasons which drove people to leave the countryside for the towns.
Over the last two centuries, countless thousands of people have deserted the countryside for the towns or new lives overseas. Why? Have people fled because conditions became too intolerable, because they have been denied access to land or jobs which would otherwise have been capable of supporting them? Or have people voluntarily deserted the land in preference for a better life elsewhere? In short, have they been 'pushed' off the land or 'pulled' by the attractions of life elsewhere?
The tragic image of a people forcibly driven from the land into factories by 'enclosure' from the late 18th century is an enduring one. The most powerful early proponents of this view were J L and Barbara Hammond who wrote in The Village Labourer, 1911:
Before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land, after enclosure he was a labourer without land ... families that had lived for centuries in their dales or on their small farms and commons were driven before the torrent.
Landless, the agricultural labourers who remained were powerless to prevent exploitation and were therefore forced to work for long hours for meagre, irregular wages.
The wages are terribly low. How these people live they only know. ... They could unfold a tale of heroic endeavour.
Attempts to fight back, notably through trade unions from the early 1870s, failed. The wonder is not that so many left, but that so many stayed. North of the border, the popular story of forced expropriation and eviction appears even more dramatic, with the indigenous people ousted in favour of sheep farms and deer reserves during infamous 'Highland Clearances'.
From the late 18th century the concentration of manufacturing in larger units in towns or on the major coalfields, undermined the viability of 'cottage industries' which had once provided work for women and children, and local craftsman who could not compete with machine-made goods. Textiles, for example, had once been spun and woven in the countryside on a large scale. The rural woollen and linen industries of the South West and East Anglia collapsed in the face of increased competition from Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The subsequent growth of factory spinning and power-loom weaving, then undermined the rural economy of North, leading to marked falls in population in many upland townships in the Pennines from the 1820s.
Machinery also destroyed the hand-lace making which once flourished in the South Midlands. Local handicrafts also suffered. Hand stitched boots were superseded by machine-made products from Northampton or Leicester. Tailors declined as mass produced clothing became available. Similar stories could be told of potters, furniture makers, brewers, millers and other trades, while the decline in population which ensued adversely affected those involved in the building trades by the end of the 19th century. Only those who serviced the horse-economy - blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers - survived somewhat longer until the motor vehicle undermined their trades in the twentieth century.
This gloomy picture is not without its critics. They argue that people were attracted by new opportunities elsewhere rather than driven from the land. They point to the fact that 'enclosures' affected only a small proportion of the population, primarily in parts of the south and east Midlands. Workers in the new factories and mills of northern England were not dispossessed agricultural labourers; they were primarily recruited from local families who had long been involved in some form of manufacturing. Urban areas not only offered jobs with higher pay, but promised a varied and appealing social life, which appealed particularly to young men and women who found life in a small community both oppressive and dull.
London, in particular, had long acted as a magnet which attracted people from all over Britain. Emigration agents vigorously promoted new opportunities which were opening up in the 'virgin' territories of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even before the Clearances, people were leaving the Highlands of Scotland in the late 18th century drawn by the prospects of a better life across the Atlantic. Commentators increasingly recognised that those who were leaving the land were those who wished to leave. A Liberal enquiry into the land in 1913 concluded that 'All the best blood, young spirits with higher aspirations, leave for the towns or abroad. Only the old and children were left with the indifferent.'
Three examples from different parts of the country demonstrate the complex variety of factors behind the 'rural exodus'
In 1791, several families uprooted from the valley of Dentdale, deep in the northern Pennines, to take employment in a new worsted mill over 30 miles away at Dolphinholme near Lancaster. Few of them ever returned. Benjamin Shaw's family was among them. His autobiography suggests it was not a premeditated move.
...there was a man named Miles Burton, a carter, and this man was a native of dent and employed at this factory, & there happened to be a want of hands there. This miles informed the master that he could get them hands at dent, so he was authorised to come over to dent to hire hands, & trade being bad, some families went thither and seemed to like it well, & being in want of more hands, Mr Edmondson the managing master came over to dent to engage hands, several more families were hired & among the rest my father and family - we were 7 childrer & they like large families the Best, for the Chidrers sake..
The prospect of jobs, particularly for younger family members, is clearly evident. Although there was no forced eviction and no enclosure agriculture, coalmining, quarrying and various cottage industries, particularly hand loom weaving and knitting, represented a hard life with few prospects, especially 'trade being bad'. The decision to go was arrived at by comparing prospects at home and elsewhere. It involved the whole family.
When James Boswell visited Raasay off the coast of Skye in 1773 he found a thriving and prosperous population and 'a great plenty of potatoes'. The people were not tempted by the current 'emigration mania' which he and Samuel Johnson noted elsewhere on their journeys at the time. Then in the 1850s population dropped by over 50%. Ship after ship ferried people overseas to a new life in Australia. Where crofters had once grown potatoes and fattened cattle, sheep now roamed. Thirty years later in the 1880s, crofters who remained argued that the people were driven from the island by landlords, 'like lambs separated from their mothers' clutching handfuls of soil from their island homeland.
Yet even this tale of heartless eviction is not all it seems. The exodus occurred against the backdrop of the successive failures of the potato crop which culminated in the famine which large tracts of Scotland in the late 1840s. Assisted passages overseas offered by emigration societies and local landlords became difficult to resist. George Rainy, the island's proprietor took the opportunity to amalgamate holdings for letting to sheep farmers, but he did not engineer most of the removals. Like the Shaws in Dent, circumstances contrived to make leaving more attractive than staying, however uncertain the future elsewhere was. In this case, it involved a large section of the community.
Flora Thompson's autobiographical trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford, was published between 1939 and 1943. It recalled, with undisguised nostalgia, life in the late Victorian Oxfordshire countryside through the eyes of a young girl. Despite its charms, Lark Rise (Juniper Hill), like most other rural areas, was a hamlet in which mothers packed their daughters off to jobs as servants in the town.
Poverty and cramped housing meant that it was well nigh impossible to keep girls at home without some form of income, yet opportunities for contributing to their upkeep were very circumscribed. Lace making, once a 'regular industry in the hamlet' had been killed off by 'nasty machine-made stuff'. Whereas field work had once been common, by the end of the 19th century this was restricted to lowly, repetitive tasks undertaken by a few older women and most youngsters had developed a 'distaste for "goin' afield"'. Farm service was similarly looked down on. Mothers were not only driven to send their daughters away, however, they 'ambitious' for them, searching out places in respectable establishments in towns where aspiring middle-class families preferred them to the town-bred, less deferential girls. In this case, migration was a solitary affair.
These different case studies suggest that motives and means were diverse. In some cases migration was premeditated or preordained; in other cases it was almost a spur of the moment decision. In some cases whole families, even communities moved. In other cases it was the young and single. In some cases, the decision was freely taken; in others it was forced upon them by circumstances. In a few cases it was the poorest who migrated out of necessity; in many cases it was those who sought to better themselves. Some travelled but a short distance to the nearest town. Others went, literally, to the other side of the globe. Underlying this variety of experience was the discrepancy between the limited economic opportunities available on the land and the attractions of the towns or colonies.
Although widely condemned from the late 19th century, relative rural deprivation has been difficult to eradicate. Pressure groups like the Arts and Crafts movement and the Home Arts and Industries Association, sought to provide new opportunities on the land. Government smallholding schemes were introduced in 1890s and 1900s, and land was made available for ex-servicemen after the First World War as part of Lloyd George's 'Homes for Heroes' campaign. The 20th century witnessed numerous attempts to 'regenerate' the rural economy, including legislation to ensure the provision of cheap housing for local workers.
Technology has been regularly held up as reversing the trend. In 1906 A. Wilson Fox speculated that 'new methods of locomotion', most notably the motor vehicle, would enable 'manufactories to be erected outside large urban centres' while encouraging government to decentralise its operations to increase employment in the rural districts. If we substitute 'telecommunications' or the Internet for 'locomotion', then it is clear that much same hopes are still expressed today. Whether they will be realised only time will tell.
Migration and Mobility in Britain Since the Eighteenth Century by Colin Pooley and Jean Turnbull (UCL Press, 1998)
Rural Life in Victorian England by G.E. Mingay (Futura, 1977)
Reshaping Rural England: A Social History, 1850-1925 by Alun Howkins (Harper Collins Academic, 1991)
Country Life: A Social History of Rural England by Howard Newby (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987)
Rural Depopulation in England and Wales, 1851 to 1951 by John Saville (Routledge & K. Paul, 1957)
Land and People in Nineteenth Century Wales by David Howell (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977)
Clanship to Crofters War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands by Tom Devine (Manchester U.P., 1993)
A History of the Highland Clearances by Eric Richards (2 volumes Croom Helm)
Mike Winstanley is Senior Lecturer in History at Lancaster University where he teaches 19th century social and regional history. He has a special interest in northwest England. He has published books on the Lancashire cotton workforce, family farming, rural industry, housing and radical politics, and has a particular interest in the development of retailing and the role of the family in business. His most recent publication is Temples of Commerce: revolutions in shopping and banking in Philip Waller, The English Urban Landscape, (Oxford University Press, 2000).