Modelling regional imbalances in English plebeian migration

by Adam Crymble (University of Hertfordshire)


FJohn Thomas Smith, Vagabondiana,1817

We often hear complaints of migrant groups negatively influencing British life. Grievances against them are many: migrants bring with them their language, cultural values, and sometimes a tendency to stick together rather than integrate. The story is never that simple, but these issues can get under the skin of the locals, leading to tension. Britain has always been home to migrants, and the tensions are nothing new, but two hundred years ago those outsiders were from much closer afield. Often they came from just down the road, as close as the next parish over. And yet they were still treated as outsiders by the law. Under the vagrancy laws, poor migrants in particular ran the risk of being arrested, whipped, put to hard labour, and expelled back home.

It was a way to make sure that welfare was only spent on local people. But thanks to this system, we’ve got a unique way to tell which parts of Britain were particularly connected to one another, and which bits just weren’t that interested in each other. Each of those expelled individuals left a paper trail, and that means we can calculate which areas sent more or fewer vagrants to places like London than we would expect. And that in turn tells us which parts of the country had the biggest potential to impact on the culture, life, and economy of the capital.

As it happens, it was Bristol that sent more paupers to London than anywhere else in England between 1777 and 1786, including at least 312 individuals. They did not arrive through any plan to overwhelm the metropolis, but through hundreds of individual decisions by Bristolians who thought they’d have a go at London life.

From a migration perspective, this tells us that the connectedness between London and Bristol was particularly strong at this time. Even when we correct for factors such as distance, cost of living, and population, Bristol was still substantially over-sending lower class migrants to the capital.

There are many possible explanations for this close connection. The tendency for migrants to move towards larger urban centres meant Bristolians had few other options for ‘bigger’ destinations than smaller towns. Improvements to the road network also meant the trip was both cheaper and more comfortable by the 1780s. And the beginning of a general decline in the Bristol domestic service economy was met with a rise in opportunities in the growing metropolis. These combined factors may have made the connections between London and Bristol particularly strong.

Other urban pockets of the country too showed a similarly strong connection to London, particularly in the West Midlands and West Country. Birmingham, Coventry, Worcester, Bath, Exeter, and Gloucester were all sending peculiarly high numbers of paupers to eighteenth century London. So too was Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, despite being located far to the north and almost certainly requiring a sea journey.

But not everywhere saw London as a draw. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire – a band of counties within walking distance of the sprouting mills of the industrialising North – all sent fewer people to London than we would expect. This suggests that the North was able to retain people, uniquely acting as a competitor to London at this time. It also means that places like Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne may have had a bigger impact on the culture of the metropolis in the eighteenth century than places such as York and Sheffield. And that may have had lasting impact that we do not yet fully understand. Each of these migrants brought with them remnants of their local culture and belief systems: recipes, phrases, and mannerisms, as well as connections to people back home, that may mean that the London of today is a bit more like Bristol or Newcastle than it might otherwise have been. There is more research to be done, but with a clear map of how London was and was not connected to the rest of the country, we can now turn towards understanding how those connections sculpted the country.

To contact the author on Twitter: @adam_crymble

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