Population Change in Britain

  • Gerard O’Donnell
Part of the Macmillan Master Series book series (MACMMA)


Demography is the study of human populations, particularly their size, structure and development. The study of demography in a scientific way probably started in 1662 when John Graunt published Natural Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality in which he showed a pattern between the proportions of deaths to various causes in London. He also tried to chart what happened to a group of children born at the same time up until their deaths. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the development of life insurance encouraged the study of health, disease and death. The first major systematic study of population was Malthus’s Essay on Population (1798) in which he claimed a ‘law of population’ — ‘that the human species, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five year … while the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio … man would increase as the numbers 1. 2. 4. 8. 16. 32. 64. 128. 256 and subsistence as 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9’. Economic improvements could only be temporary, as the population would reduce itself by war, famine and disease once the optimum point was reached. Some used Malthus’s theory to argue against improving the conditions of the poor as this would only mean that more people would survive and bring the cataclysmic collapse of population nearer.


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© Gerard O’Donnell 1988

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  • Gerard O’Donnell

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