Population – A Century of Change

Population – A Century of Change

In 1851 two-thirds of the population of Dorset lived in villages: since then the number living in towns has trebled, while the rural population has actually declined in numbers till it represents little more than a third of the total. Though Dorset escaped the effects of the original Industrial Revolution, it could not avoid those of the general depression in British agriculture which set in with the mass import of cheap foreign corn in the 1870’s and that of frozen meat soon afterwards. Between 1874 and 1894 the average rents of Dorset farms fell to half what they had been, and corn and sheep dwindled to make way for dairy farming (with which the foreigner could less easily compete). This meant a drastic drop in farm employment, and consequently in village population. Many places lost a third of their inhabitants by 1901, and some as much as half. The smaller market towns suffered likewise, though the larger ones managed to avoid any serious decrease.

Compared with rural areas, those towns which did not depend mainly on farming continued to grow steadily. The railway opened Weymouth and Swanage as holiday resorts, and greatly helped the development of Dorchester, Poole, and Portland. The last had only 1,619 people in 1801, but with the beginning of the naval base its population rose to 5,195 in 1851 and even temporarily passed 15,000 in 1901 when the Breakwater was being completed. In 1951 it was 11,377. Figures for towns not shown on the graph are as follows:

(Allington is included with Bridport on the graph).

While farming, except for a temporary revival during the war of 1914-18, continued in depression, the few large towns became steadily larger: and the revival in agriculture since 1939 has meant the employment of much machinery but few more men. Farming remains the largest single occupation, but employs little over a tenth of the male population as against over a quarter a century ago.

Since the 1920’s the petrol engine, driving buses, lorries, and private cars, has brought great changes. The old isolation of country districts off the railway lines has been broken down, and people are no longer bound to live within easy reach of their work. While many country people have left for town jobs, others who work in towns or have retired have homes in the country. Some villages near important centres have thus become partly residential areas for those Who are not concerned with farming, while agricultural and building crafts are now more conveniently concentrated in towns. Small coastal holiday resorts which were formerly inaccessible can now be reached by road.

The population map for 1951, using the same symbols as that for 1841, shows some of these changes. Many villages on the earlier map have since fallen below the 500 line and Will not be found; others which were once over 1,000 have declined, as have the smaller market centres. Weymouth, Poole, and Swanage have grown out of all proportion, and several smaller places Which now attract Visitors and residents have appeared.

The expansion of Weymouth is not all the result of development as a resort: light industry powered by oil or electricity, the Admiralty establishments at Portland, and a considerable retired population all play a part. The growth of Dorchester, the county town, is partly due to the increasing importance and activity of local government: a quarter of its employed male population are in some form of public service or the professions. Poole has become, by Dorset standards, a giant, with industrial development on a much larger scale, a wide extension of boundaries, and a large residential area. The new centres at West Moors and Fern Down are mainly residential, with market gardening on the lighter soils of the area.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the population density in Dorset, at 116 to the square mile, was about three-quarters of the average for England. In 1951 the figure had risen to 299, but this represented only two-fifths of that of the country as a Whole.