Population had been growing since the first half of the eighteenth century. By the first national census in 1801 it had reached 15.7 million and by 1831 some 24.1 millions. The reasons for this were straightforward. The birth rate increased and the death rate fell after the 1750s. Women married younger at just below twenty-five years so increasing childbearing years. Historians disagree about the reasons behind these trends. Decline in 'killer' diseases like smallpox, improving living conditions, economic prosperity encouraging early marriage, higher life expectancy are suggested causes of growth. Whether there was a single cause or whether as is more likely there were several, growth was far from even. In England and Wales between 1750 and 1800, the annual average population increase was 0.7 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent for the following fifty years. For Scotland and Ireland the figure respectively were 0.5 and 1.6 per cent and 1.1 and 0.6 per cent.
Population growth stimulated demand for raw materials, manufactured goods, food and services that could be produced by the growing reservoir of available labour. Manufacturing industries, whether in the areas of dynamic growth like cotton textiles or in traditional artisan-based trades, expanded. The service sector saw particular growth with increased demand for domestic, medical and legal services and the creation of new professions to support expanding industries, towns and agriculture. Population growth stimulated urban growth with internal migration especially to the newer urban centres of production and to London. Urban growth too was far from even. Urban growth had its costs as well as benefits. It heightened squalor with many migrants finding they had exchanged rural for urban slums. There were higher levels of mortality especially among the labouring population, increasing exploitation in the workplace and a growing gulf between rich and poor.
The sweeping changes that took place in British agriculture—its agricultural revolution--over the period 1750-1850 in response to the increased demand for food from a rapidly expanding population. Recent research has shown these changes to be only part of a much larger, ongoing process of development. Changes of the latter half of the 18th century included the enclosure of open fields, the introduction of four-course rotation together with new fodder crops such as turnip, and the development of improved breeds of livestock. Many of the changes were in fact underway before 1750 and other breakthroughs, such as farm mechanisation, did not occur until after 1850. Farming dominated the British economy in the 1780s. The previous century had seen major changes particularly in the use of arable land. Turnips and crops like clover ended the need for fallow land. Cheaper iron making led to major developments in ploughs though it was not until after 1850 that machines were widely used. Selective breeding increased the quality and quantity of meat and dairy produce. Enclosure of the lighter arable land led to better use of land. This transformed the rural landscape. A pattern of field, stonewall and hedgerow already existed in northern and western England and in Wales and in much of eastern England which had already been enclosed. For central England, the open fields remained. Here the modern chequer-board pattern of small fields replaced the open landscape in a generation. Enclosure may have led to the dominance of large farms in southern England but most farming was on a much smaller scale. In Yorkshire, for example, seventy per cent of farms were less than one hundred acres and across the Pennines in Lancashire and Cheshire the figure was ninety per cent.
The growing needs of population, as well as the increased profitability of farming during the French Wars, pushed back the margins of arable land as never before. By 1820, twenty-five million quarters of corn were produced annually compared to fifteen million in 1760. This was not enough. From the 1760s, Britain relied on foreign imports of wheat to feed its growing population. Urban growth could not have been sustained without this. The French Wars marked a high point in British farming. Farmers invested heavily in improving their land, borrowing funded from high grain prices. Falling prices, a collapse from 127 shillings a quarter in 1812 to 74 shillings within two years, and cheaper continental imports after 1815 brought problems for arable farmers. It led to successful demands for protection. The Corn Laws were passed in 1815. Urban and industrial Britain saw the Corn Laws as a means of keeping food prices artificially high and of supporting farming at the expense of manufacturing industry. The advantage farmers thought they would gain was far outweighed by the propaganda advantage gained by its opponents. High costs certainly made wheat farming difficult when prices were low. Many farmers complained of 'depression' after 1815 through to the mid-1830s. Those who survived did so by reducing labour costs significantly. This was paid for through the 'distress' of agricultural labourers especially in southern England where little alternative employment was available.
The role of agriculture in the English economy was showing signs of declining national importance by the 1820s. This was less so in Wales, Scotland and Ireland where farming remained important. In Wales in the 1780s around seventy per cent of the working population worked in self-contained farming communities. Demand for farm tenancies remained high but land hunger and the ignorance of new techniques limited improvement. Similar problems existed in Ireland where sub-division of land meant that almost two-thirds of all holdings were below fifteen acres. Ireland was also an important exporter of grain and livestock to England. There was, however, a trend away from arable to pasture and livestock prices fell less dramatically than grain. Perceptive landlords soon recognised that urban growth meant markets for Irish meat. In 1825 47,000 Irish cattle were exported rising to 98,000 ten years later. In Scotland there was a clear difference between the improving farming of the Lowlands and the more traditional methods used in the Highlands. Scottish pioneers developed the threshing machine in 1786 and the horse-drawn reaper in 1826 and, more importantly, new methods of field drainage that allowed a revolution on Britain's heavy clay soils after 1840.
Between 1750 and 1850 the British economy experienced a very rapid and, by international standards, pronounced growth in manufacturing, an ‘industrial revolution’. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors increased, and the proportion employed in farming fell. The textile, iron and coal industries underwent dramatic change as new technologies and new markets stimulated growth on an unprecedented scale. This traditional view of an 'industrial revolution' provides only part of the picture. The experience of cotton textiles was not typical of manufacturing industries. There was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system by 1850. Growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experience of cotton production. Change took place on a far broader canvas. There was growth of a far less dynamic nature in a whole range of traditional industries. Most employment in manufacturing industries remained small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets. These trades were hardly affected by new technology. It was the wider use and division of labour that allowed output to grow. Economic transition was the result of the combination of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation was varied and factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal producing industries. Change varied across industries and regions. Lancashire may have seen vigorous industrial development but in Norfolk and Suffolk, the woollen textile industry declined in the face of competition from the more advanced and mechanised production of Yorkshire.
The industrial landscape changed under the impact of the 'industrial revolution'. Industrialisation in the eighteenth century occurred largely in the countryside and rural industry was domestic often in conjunction with farming. This industry was capable of mass production and of supplying regional, national and international markets. The move of some industries to factories did not lead to the emergence of the modern industrial landscape. Waterpower did not create smoke or dirt. Only when coal and steam were used directly did towns become blackened and their air and water polluted. Steam power led to larger concentrations of industries, often near canals or navigable rivers, and of the labourers needed to work in them. The move from the rural cottage industry to the urban factory is over-exaggerated. As late as 1851, the majority of people employed in Britain worked in the unmechanised sectors of the economy.
The market, local, regional, national or international, was at the heart of the economy in the 1780s. The transport of bulky good, and a reduction in the cost of carriage, was made easier by the development of the canal network in the second half of the eighteenth century and by railways after 1830. Coastal and river transport became increasingly important but Britain remained predominantly a horse-drawn society until the late nineteenth century. The last half of the eighteenth century saw growing demands for consumer goods. London, for example, used over three million tons of coal each year and thousands of cattle, sheep and fowl were driven to the London food markets from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The experience of London was paralleled in the growing cities of the Midlands and the North. Population growth stimulated home demand for cloth, leather for shoes, bricks, pottery, iron pots and pans. Growing consumption influenced, and was in turn influenced by, trade and economic growth.