Population Growth & Distribution Since 1801

Population Growth & Distribution Since 1801

When the first Census was taken in 1801, Devon had some 340,000 people out of a total for Britain of about 10½ million. This was well up to the national average for a time before the Industrial Revolution had made much mark outside a few limited areas, and when density still mainly depended on agriculture. By 1851 there were 567 000, an increase of sixty-seven per cent, but meanwhile the population of the whole country had risen by nearly a hundred per cent. The great industrial towns, based on coal, which had grown elsewhere, had no counterpart in Devon: instead their competition was helping to extinguish what remained of industry in the county. But agriculture was still very flourishing, and apart from the port towns and Exeter it still governed the distribution of population in Devon. Railways had as yet had little time to make their effects felt; and though the total in places of over 3000 had grown much faster than that of the villages, much of it was still in market towns whose fortunes mainly depended on farming.

The 1851 map shows all places which then had over 1000 people: and one striking fact that it illustrates is that there were twice as many large villages between 1000 and 2000 as there were a century later. Labourers’ wages were abominably : low in Devon, even by the standards of the time, and . farmers could afford to employ as many as they could find a use for. At this stage they were about seven to eight shillings a week in North Devon, and eight to nine in the south. Though the more enter­prising villagers sometimes moved off to seek better fortune elsewhere, this was much more difficult than it later became. The prosperity of farming in turn supported markets, tradesmen and craftsmen in the small inland towns.

The next fifty years saw Devon’s population rise ‘ by under seventeen per cent, while the country as a ” whole increased by seventy-seven per cent. Such increase as there was, was urban, and in the countryside there was actually a steep fall. Many villages and small market towns lost a quarter or a third of their people, and some villages more than forty per cent, after farming ran into the great depression from the 1870s with the competition of cheap imported grain. Much land previously under cereals had to be turned over to stock-grazing, with con­sequently less demand for labour; and falling income also obliged farmers to manage with fewer men and less lavish spending in the market town. The areas hardest hit were the less fertile soils of the north and north-west, where the 1951 map shows significant blank spaces compared with that for 1851, Railways as already mentioned, sometimes actually hastened the decline of the smaller market centres.

In 1863 Edward Girdlestone came to Halberton as Vicar, from Lancashire where farm-workers (thanks to alternative employment in industry) were much better paid and housed. His attempts to persuade the local farmers to give them fairer treatment met only open hostility, and from 1866 till he left in 1872 he applied the classic remedy of decreasing the supply of labour to increase its price. He organised and helped the migration of over 400 men, some with families, to Kent and to northern counties, and those who prospered encouraged others to follow. So began a great movement, followed by emigration to the United States and the British colonies, which drained many rural Devon parishes. From the 1870s onwards there was also a considerable movement from North Devon to South Wales, where industrial employment could be found, helped by the trading connections by coaster across the Bristol Channel. Partly as a result, by the end of the century farm-workers’ wages had risen to 12-13 shillings a week – though they were still low by comparison with most other counties.

Devon - Population in 1851

By 1900 the mines of Tavistock and the Dartmoor fringes were worked out, and the last rural woollen mills had succumbed to the competition of better organised large-scale ones in the north, helped by local coal’. The only considerable forms of alternative labour in country districts had therefore ceased: and the large estates, feeling the pinch of agricultural depression, dismissed labour on a locally disastrous scale in the 1890s. By 1900, therefore, the self-contained village communities with their abundant shops and craftsmen, so evident in the 1850 Directory, were fast waning.

Along the south coast the situation was very different. Holiday resorts, which were also favoured for retirement, had grown out of all proportion. Torquay more than doubled, and Paignton trebled, its size in this half-century. The Plymouth towns also nearly doubled as the port and dockyard devel­oped; and the railway and industrial centre of New­ton Abbot (which had been a small market town before the railway arrived) had outstripped .Tiverton and Barnstaple.

Devon - Population in 1951

The half-century before 1951 for the most part continued the trends which developed in the later nineteenth century. Except during the First World War, farming remained depressed: and the revival after 1939 coincided with mechanisation and a steady rise in the cost of labour, and consequently made little difference to the numbers employed. Inland villages barely held their own, or declined still further, unless they had some other source of employment like a factory or quarry: The development of bus and car transport, however, made it easier for people to live at a distance from their work, and some villages near large towns had grown as a result. On the other hand, the trade of smaller inland centres suffered still further. Urbanisation continued to the point when nearly half the total population lived in Plymouth (including Devonport since 1914), Exeter, and the Torbay towns, and Over seventy per cent in places with more than 3000 people.

Devon - Rural Depopulation


The thirty years since 1951 have however seen a marked reversal of some previous trends, and a great development of the already noticeable effect on ‘commuter’ villages near large towns. Though rural population in the less accessible or less attractive parts of the county has remained stable or actually declined still further, the massive growth in private car ownership with post-1951 ‘affluence’ has caused a striking population increase in many villages. Much of this new settlement is of people who work in towns, or of retired incomers seeking a pleasant place to live after a life’s work in the great con­urbations of the Midlands and London. Previously declining country towns have also in most cases recovered – Crediton by over fifty per cent and Tor­rington and Honiton by over forty per cent. Semi-industrialised Newton Abbot has grown by over forty per cent and its neighbouring contributors Kingsteignton and the Kerswells by still more. Tiverton and Tavistock have also grown by over fifty per cent, and the resort towns Exmouth and Dawlish by, respectively, over fifty per cent and forty per cent.

Private car ownership has meant the run-down or extinction of rural public transport, and a con­sequent distinction between mobile car-owners, as commuters of with easy access to towns for other purposes, and the rest – mostly the less affluent local workers or pensioners – who are more isolated than before. With few exceptions, increased village popu­lation has not resulted from increased local employment; and the effect has been the introduction of newcomers with a generally higher living-standard than that of indigenous people, and consequently something of a social division in previously homogeneous village societies.

Exeter  and Plymouth have both had boundary extensions, the latter taking in Plympton and Plym­stock, making Exeter over 95,000 and Plymouth over 241,000; but many of those working in either place live in a neighbouring village. Ivybridge (not even a parish until 1894), because of its nearness to the latter, increased its population in these thirty years from 1852 to 5,106, not far short of the ancient town of Totnes!

Devon - Rural Population, 1951 to 1981