The Coal Question

William Stanley Jevons
Jevons, William Stanley
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
2nd edition.
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Chapter X


IT is in several ways essential to our inquiry to examine, briefly, the increase and movements of our population, and the extraordinary effects which the growing use of coal has exercised upon it.


Our examination must be restricted to England and Wales, or at most to Great Britain. Ireland, if referred to at all, must be contrasted with England in natural and social condition. Practically and commercially Ireland is devoid of coal. In spite of the large area of the Irish coal measures, there are only 73 collieries in Ireland, of which about 46 are in work. The total produce was 125,000 tons in 1864, and is on the decrease. We can only attribute this extraordinary fact to the inferior quality of the coal, and the great cost of mining it. "The coals of Ballycastle in the north are of a quality so inferior, that English coal is in use within a very few miles from the pits; the coals of Arigna are almost equally inferior in quality; whilst the anthracite or stone coal of Kilkenny, from its deficiency of flame, can only be partially used, and from its weight and density of texture, is three times more expensive in excavation than the bituminous coal of the English fields."*43


Ireland cannot raise a manufacturing system alongside of England when she has to buy from England the chief requisite of manufacturing industry. The manufactures of Ireland have been abolished by the steam-engines of England,*44 and it is a persistent but strange error of authors and statesmen to suppose that Ireland can still find wealth in imitation and rivalry with England. The industrial efforts of the Irish should be exerted in a contrary direction to those of England, and agriculture and handicraft employments in which fuel affords no aid will be their best resource. If it be found that such pursuits will not sustain an increasing population, we must learn to conform to the conditions under which we are placed; and when rightly viewed the recent exodus of the Irish people, by which a population of 8,175,124 persons in 1841 was reduced to 5,798,967 in 1861 is a fact confirming, in the negative way, many conclusions to be drawn concerning the progress of our own population.


Scotland will be occasionally referred to. It exhibits the bright and dark features of English progress, intensified in degree. While the general rise of Scotch industry, especially in the cases of the Glasgow iron trade, and the lowland agriculture, surpasses the highest instances of English progress, the poverty and distress of the Highland and sterile parts, and the emigration thence arising, exceed anything we have suffered in the agricultural parts of England. But the want of statistical data concerning Scotland and Ireland would generally oblige us to give our attention to England alone, were this not also desirable for the sake of simplicity.


The following table exhibits the progress of the population of England and Wales for nearly three centuries, according to the most reliable estimates and enumerations [See diagram fronting the title page.—Econlib Ed.]:—

increase for 10
Rate of Increase
per cent. for 10
1570 4,160,321*45    
1600 4,811,718 217,132 5 increase.
1630 5,600,517 262,933 5 increase.
1670 5,773,646 43,282 1 increase.
1700 6,045,008 90,454 2 increase.
1701 6,121,525*46    
1711 6,252,105 130,580 2 increase.
1721 6,252,750 645 0 increase.
1731 6,182,972 -69,778 1 decrease.
1741 6,153,227 -29,745 0 decrease.
1751 6,335,840 182,613 3 increase.
1761 6,720,547 384,707 6 increase.
1771 7,153,494 432,947 6 increase.
1781 7,573,787 420,293 6 increase.
1791 8,255,617 681,830 9 increase.
1801 9,192,810 937,193 11 increase.
1811 10,467,728 1,274,918 14 increase.
1821 12,190,302 1,722,574 18 increase.
1831 14,070,681 1,880,379 16 increase.
1841 16,050,542 1,979,861 14 increase.
1851 18,109,410 2,058,868 13 increase.
1861 20,281,587 2,172,177 12 increase.


The estimates for the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, however carefully calculated from the registers of births, deaths, and marriages, and from other data, are not true to a nicety; but they afford at any rate conclusive evidence that in the first half of last century the population was nearly stationary, and occasionally diminishing. About the middle of the century, it began to grow again; and the rate of growth rose until, in the beginning of this century, it reached a height altogether unprecedented in the history of the country. In the period 1811-21, especially we find the increase as high as 18 per cent. or treble the rate which prevailed in the previous half century.


In passing I will draw attention to the fact that the ratios or rates per cent. of increase show some approach to uniformity over considerable periods of time. The simple numerical increase of population presents no such uniformity, and in late times is thoroughly divergent. In fact the arithmetic increase of the four years, 1857-1861, was as great as that of the whole century, 1651-1751.*47 It is clear, from the mere inspection of the table, that the notion of an arithmetic series is wholly inapplicable to matters of population and statistics. We must look to the ratio or proportional rate of increase, as measuring progress or marking the changes of condition of our population.


Looking now to the rates of increase from 1821 to the present time, we are at once struck by a very distinct and continuous decrease. The rate of 18 per cent. diminishes successively to 16, 14, 13, and 12 per cent. There is an appearance of convergency—of a new approach to a stationary condition.


Properly examined, however, this appearance is found to be very deceptive. When necessary allowances are made, our growth up to the present time is seen to be one of increasing rapidity.


In the first place, a nation is a very composite whole, of which each part may change at its own rate. Our population especially is divided into the distinct agricultural and manufacturing masses—contrasted as they are in every point of nature, history, and social condition. The one represents Old England in its maturity; the other, New England, already the greater, yet still growing as in youth.


We may compare the condition of these two great portions by means of the rates of progress of some of the most purely agricultural and most purely manufacturing counties:—

Buckingham... 9 14 9 6 5 3
Cambridge... 13 21 18 14 13 -5
Devon... 12 15 13 7 6 3
Dorset... 9 16 10 10 5 2
Norfolk... 7 18 13 6 7 -2
Somerset... 10 17 13 8 2 0
Sussex... 19 23 17 10 15 8
Westmoreland... 12 12 7 3 3 4
Wilts... 4 14 8 8 -1 -2

Durham... 10 17 24 29 27 30
Lancaster... 22 27 27 24 22 20
Monmouth... 35 22 29 36 17 11
Northumberland 19 15 11 12 14 13
Stafford... 21 17 18 24 20 23
Glamorgan... 19 20 24 35 35 37


Comparing the above tables, we see that in the period 1811-21 both the agricultural and manufacturing populations were in a state of rapid increase. To this is due the extraordinary general rate of increase of the population, namely eighteen per cent. during those ten years. But the subsequent rapid decline of the agricultural rate shows how impossible it was for a growing population to find subsistence on the land. And when we remember the prevalence of pauperism during the period 1811-21 we shall be convinced that the increase of agricultural population which did occur, was unsound and not warranted by any corresponding increase in the means of living.


The following numbers express the average sum contributed by each person in England and Wales to the legal support of the poor:—

1801... 9 1*49
1811... 13 1
1821... 10 7
1831... 9 9
1841... 6 0
1851... 5
1860... 5 6
1864... 6 2*50

Some allowance ought to be made for the variation in the value of the currency, but the pressure of pauperism half a century ago would still remain about double what it now is. And this pressure was chiefly felt in the agricultural counties. Mr. Porter, in his "Progress of the Nation,"*51 gave a table whence it clearly appeared "that the burthen of the poor's rate in proportion to the population is generally greatest in the most agricultural counties. Suffolk, Norfolk, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, and Cambridgeshire, all essentially agricultural, are the most heavily burthened with poor; while Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire, which are of an opposite character, enjoy a comparative exemption from that burthen." This clearly marked difference prevents us from attributing the excessive pauperism of the time to the wars, or the high price of corn, which last circumstance ought to favour the agricultural, at the expense of the manufacturing population.


The laxness of the Poor-laws, the impetus communicated by the rise of our manufacturing and trading system, the demand for soldiers, and perhaps other causes, seem to have induced throughout the United Kingdom, in the early part of this century, habits of unrestricted marriage, which in the absence of any extraordinary outlet for the growing population could only lead to poverty. In Ireland the result of an unsound but rapid growth of agricultural population was that extraordinary emigration which is not yet stopped. In the Scotch Highlands the result was hardly less deplorable, or the emigration less remarkable, though on a minor scale. The harshness of nature rather than the harshness of the landlords is the cause of this emigration, which is clearly shown in the following rates of progress and regress:—

Argyll... 6 12 4 -4 -9 -12
Ross... 8 13 9 5 5 -1
Inverness... 7 16 5 3 -1 -8
Sutherland... 2 1 7 -3 4 -2


It is interesting to compare the above with the rates of progress in counties where the coal and iron trades flourish:—

Ayr... 23 23 14 13 15 5
Lanark... 29 28 30 34 24 19
Renfrew... 18 20 19 16 3 10

Now in England our agricultural population has received a check similar to that in the Scotch Highlands. No inconsiderable numbers have gone abroad, but in general the surplus country population has been draughted into the towns. Those nourished among sheep pastured hills, or richly tilled fields, in the quiet village, or the lonely hut, are attracted to the crowded squalid alleys, the busy workshop, or the gloomy mine.


Mr. Smiles has explained how the population of a hill-girt district, like Eskdale, is kept stationary from generation to generation. "Oh, they swarm off," said a native to him. "If they remained at home we should all be sunk in poverty, scrambling with each other among these hills for a bare living."*54


It is indeed true, as remarked by Mr. Rickman,*55 that an increase of population "may be deemed a solid good, or a dreadful evil, according to the circumstances of the country in which it occurs. If a commensurate increase of food and of raiment can be produced by agriculture and by manufacture, an accession of consumers in the home market cannot but be beneficial to all parties; and the increase of population in such case may be deemed equally desirable in itself, and conducive to national strength and national prosperity."


The effects of an unwarranted growth of population are seen in the poverty of our own agricultural counties, and in the wretchedness of Ireland and the Scotch Highlands.


It is our towns which alone afford the growing subsistence which is the warrant of an increment of population. They not only have room for their own native born, but engulf the best blood of the country districts. They afford that unlimited subsistence, which could alone enable our population to approach a constant geometrical rate of increase.


But it must not be supposed that our towns have maintained a constant rate of growth. I have chosen thirty of the most progressive and important English manufacturing towns, and summed up the number of their inhabitants.

 Population.Numerical increase
in ten years.
Rate of increase
per cent in ten years.
1801 623,000    
1811 763,000 140,000 22
1821 991,000 228,000 30
1831 1,352,000 361,000 36
1841 1,763,000 411,000 30
1851 2,220,000 457,000 26
1861 2,679,000 459,000 21

Such numbers alone give us an adequate notion of our powers of growth. Our manufacturing population has more than quadrupled itself in sixty years; it has multiplied at a rate equivalent to doubling in twenty-eight years. When the new is thus viewed apart from the old, our growth is seen to be that rather of a new colony, than of an ancient settled country whose history runs back 2,000 years. And when it is considered that this country and the busy towns in question have been sending forth the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who populate Africa, Australia, and America, I assert without fear of contradiction, that the annals of the newest and most flourishing settlements afford nothing so truly astonishing as our growth. England enjoys the stable society, the refinements and comforts, the intellectual and historical renown which belong to an ancient, mature, and honourable monarchy. But she joins the good new to the good old in a manner elsewhere unknown. In our spreading towns, in our factories and fleets, not to speak of our arts and sciences, our yet living literature, and our constitution still perhaps changing for the better, we see the great work which is given into our care to carry on in moderation for the good of ourselves, our posterity, and the world.


But, to return, it will be seen that the rate of progress of our town population has dropped from thirty-six per cent. to twenty-one per cent. Is not this an indication that even our town population is overrunning its means of subsistence, and that we are now converging to a stationary condition? This is far from being true as yet; the rates of increase will probably not continue falling. But in any case our industry is divergent; and the more so, the more nearly we regard it in its first spring. It is the unslackened progress of Durham and Glamorgan, that most truly represents the progress of our national industry. The growth of the populations of those counties has been already shown, but the constant progress of our great northern coal trade is still more clearly shown in the following accounts of the united populations of the five great coal towns, Newcastle, Gateshead, Tynemouth, South Shields, and Sunderland.


 Population.Numerical increase
in ten years
Rate of increase
per cent in ten years.
1801 90,825    
1811 99,889 9,064 10
1821 125,128 25,239 25
1831 151,487 26,359 21
1841 192,283 40,796 27
1851 238,890 46,607 24
1861 297,752 58,862 25

London, too, a kind of great resultant and measure of the rest of the kingdom, holds a nearly constant rate—


 Population of London.Numerical increase
in ten years.
Rate of increase
per cent. in ten years.
1801 958,863    
1811 1,138,815 179,952 18
1821 1,378,947 240,132 21
1831 1,654,994 276,047 20
1841 1,948,417 293,423 17
1851 2,362,236 413,819 21
1861 2,803,989 441,753 19

The appearance of convergency which our population as a whole presents is due to emigration. And this emigration is not a mere adventitious and disturbing circumstance. It is an integral part—the complement of our general development. The more we grow at home upon our mineral resources and manufacturing skill, the greater demands we make for food and raw materials. And it is to a great extent our demand which raises wages in our African, Australian, and American settlements to rates that attract our population abroad. The gold discoveries have added only an accidental and temporary attraction.


Modern Britain does not and could not stand alone. It is united on the one hand to ancient agricultural Britain, and on the other hand to the modern agricultural nations of our stock, which are growing in several continents. Of the same language, manners, and bound together in the same real interests of trade, Britain and her colonial offspring must be regarded for the present as a single whole. Our own agricultural area being essentially limited, the offspring of the agricultural population must find employment either in our towns or abroad. And the growth of our towns requires a corresponding growth of our foreign agricultural settlements.


But it must not be supposed that emigration from England is caused by internal pressure. It arises rather from the external allurements which the colonial settlements offer in high wages, independence, and a certain charm of novelty and adventure not to be overlooked. The Irish emigration of 1847, indeed, was caused by internal pressure, and is to be contrasted to that still going on, and which is due to a positive attraction exercised upon the Irish by American prosperity. So the gold discoveries formed attractions which greatly accelerated English emigration, and aided the development of colonies now so important to our trade.


When once planted in almost boundless areas of rich country, like those of North America, Australia, and South Africa, population multiplies at a new rate, and manifests its geometrical tendency, freed from the checks which Malthus showed to be a usual restraint.


But the important result to us is the secondary effect of foreign British population in trading with the centres of manufacturing industry, and stimulating the growth of our wealth and numbers at home. Food and raw materials are poured upon us from abroad, and our subsistence is gained by returning manufactures and articles of refinement of an equal value. Provided our skill, our capital, but, above all, our motive power, coal, be equal to the continuous drain, there is no pitch of material wealth and greatness to which our towns might not attain, when thus supplied from our foreign agricultural settlements with the other elements of subsistence. For the present, it would seem, that our home resources are unweakened, and equal to any probable demands.


Hence it is that, in our most crowded towns, we have, in the development of our manufacturing and coal-consuming system, means of subsistence which for the present remove Malthusian checks to increase. Whether our children stay at home, or whether they go abroad, there is the same addition of useful labour, in fields of undiminished fertility, and the same inducements to a future continued multiplication.


The proof that this is the true state of affairs—that our emigration is not due to poverty and pressure at home, but rather to attractions abroad—that our increase of population is rather under than above the increasing means of subsistence—is apparent in many gratifying facts concerning our wealth, comfort, and contentment; but it is most strikingly shown in our marriage-registers. Poverty and superfluity of population would tend to restrain marriage, and free emigration would then, at the most, allow the continuance of the usual rate of marriage. Malthus, Ricardo, and other economists of the same period, were too much inclined to regard this as the normal state of society. Population seemed to them always full to the brim, so that each ship-load taken to the colonies would no more tend to empty the country, than a bucketful of water would tend to empty the ever-running fountain from which it is drawn. They could not bring themselves to imagine such a state of things in this country, that one man should not stand in another's way, and that men, rather than subsistence, should be lacking. But that this country does make some approach at present to such a happy condition, is conclusively shown by the late extraordinary spread of marriage.


"Marriages express the hopes and fears of the country. They go on at all seasons, and at all times; but prudence makes them fluctuate, so that the more and the less indicate the feelings with which the great body of the people regard their prospects in the world."*56 Every year of depressed trade and distress leaves its mark upon the returns of the Registrar-General, in the shape of diminished marriage; and every period of prosperity has a contrary effect. The returns, in consequence, are in no slight degree irregular; but, treating the numbers of marriages in periods of ten years, we get the results shown on the following page. The very considerable rise in the marriage rate is a fact of the utmost significance, and is all the more remarkable when compared with the low rate of increase of persons of marriageable age, as shown on p. 203.

 Number of marriages.Numerical increase.Rate of increase
per cent
1801-10 832,151    
1811-20 910,434 78,283 10
1821-30 1,052,095 141,661 15
1831-40 1,179,615 127,520 12
1841-50 1,354,988 175,373 15
1851-60 1,600,596 245,608 18


In stating the marriage returns for the quarter ending September, 1865, the Registrar-General says: "The rate was much above the average. Weddings were more rife than they were in the previous summer, or in the summer of any year since registration began. This implies that the great body of the people were prosperous."


The increasing frequency of marriage presents a strong contrast to the failing rate of increase of the total population. It shows conclusively that there is no such thing as an internal check to population in England, and that Nature is taking its appropriate means to remedy the drain from outward attractions.


Wonderful confirmatory evidence is derived from a comparison of the returns of the last two censuses concerning the conjugal condition of the people. It is found that the number of married persons increased 16 per cent. between 1851 and 1861, or four per cent. more than the general population; while the unmarried women of the age 20—40 years increased but little, and the unmarried men of the same age scarcely at all. The numbers are as follows:—

1851... 2,958,564 3,015,634
1861... 3,428,443 3,488,952
   Increase... 469,879 473,318
   Rate of increase 16 per cent...   16 per cent.
1851... 1,198,050 1,168,386
1861... 1,201,576 1,229,051
   Increase... 3,526 60,665
   Rate of increase 3/10 per cent...   5 per cent.


To complete this chapter, it would be desirable to present such accounts of the number of emigrants from England as would quantitatively prove emigration to be that check to our population which we have considered it; but statistics are here deficient. Accounts of the number of emigrants since 1814 have been published; but unfortunately no record of the nationality of the emigrants has been preserved. The large and fluctuating amounts of Irish and Scotch emigration render the accounts quite inapplicable to England; but from the accounts, such as they are, I form the following table of emigration to the several parts of the world:—

                United States.North American Colonies.Australasian ColoniesElsewhere.Total.
1815-20 50,359 70,438 2,731 123,528
1821-30 99,801 139,269 8,935 1,805 249,810
1831-40 308,247 322,485 67,882 4,536 703,150
1841-50 1,094,556 429,044 127,124 34,168 1,684,892
1851-60 1,495,243 235,285 506,802 49,875 2,287,205
   Total. 3,048,206 1,196,521 710,743 93,115 5,048,585


Statistics of the immigration into the United States*57 enable us to gain some notion of the increase of English emigration apart from that of the Irish and Scotch. In the American accounts, indeed, the nationality of the larger part of the immigrants is not stated; but if we divide the number of the undistinguished immigrants, in periods of ten years, in the proportion of the numbers of those whose birthplace is distinguished, we get the following probable numbers of emigrants to the United States, whose birthplace was in England or Wales:—

1821-30... 25,365
1831-40... 55,676
1841-50... 175,253
1851-55... 203,508


Since the beginning of 1853 the nationality of emigrants has been registered in our Customhouse accounts; and the Census Commissioners estimate, from the returns, that 640,316 persons, born in England or Wales, emigrated in the ten years between the census days of 1851 and 1861.*58


Emigrants are chiefly young men and women. The following figures give the proportional numbers of immigrants at New York, and the other ports of entry in the United States, for three intervals of age:*59

Years of Age. 
9-15... 22
15-30... 50
30-45... 28*60


In short, three out of four emigrants are marriageable, or recently married.


The effect upon the ages of our population is strikingly shown in the following numbers, which express the rates of increase per cent. between 1851 and 1861, of the numbers of persons in England and Wales between the ages stated:*61

Age.Rate of increase
per cent.
0-20 years... 12.0
20-40 years... 9.5
40-60 years... 16.0
60-80 years... 14.0
80-100 years... 5.8


The low rate of increase for the ages 20-40 years is very remarkable, and these numbers alone prove that our population, but for the emigration going on, would be increasing at the rate of 16 or 18 per cent. instead of 12 per cent.


It is in strict accordance with the known principles of population, that the great gap in the procreative powers of the population, caused by so large a subtraction of marriageable persons, should be filled by an unusual spread of marriage among those who remain; and the extent to which this is happening has already been stated. But are there no serious reflections that should occur to us, when made acquainted with such facts? Should we forget that we are now in the highest state of progress and prosperity that a country can look to enjoy? A multiplying population, with a constant void for it to fill; a growing revenue, with lessened taxation; accumulating capital, with rising profits and interest. This is a union of happy conditions which hardly any country has before enjoyed, and which no country can long expect to enjoy.


It is in such a period that a population becomes accustomed to early marriage, the easy acquirement of a livelihood, the habit of looking for a rise in the social scale, and the enjoyment of leisure and luxuries. Nothing can be more desirable than such a state of things as long as it is possible. It is the very happiness of civilization. But nothing is more grievous than the forcible change of such habits, and the disappointment of the hopes they inspire.


Now population, when it grows, moves with a certain uniform impetus, like a body in motion; and uniform progress of population, as I have fully explained before, is multiplication in a uniform ratio. But long-continued progress in such a manner is altogether impossible—it must outstrip all physical conditions and bounds; and the longer it continues, the more severely must the ultimate check be felt. I do not hesitate to say, therefore, that the rapid growth of our great towns, gratifying as it is in the present, is a matter of very serious concern as regards the future. I do not say that the failure of our coalmines will be the only possible check. Changes here, or in other parts of the world, may, even before the failure of our mines, reduce us to a stationary condition, and bring upon us at an earlier period the sufferings and dangers incident to our position. But such a grievous change, if it does not come before, must come when our mines have reached a certain depth.

Notes for this chapter

H. Fairbairn, Political Economy of Railroads, 1836, p. 116.
Ibid. p. 108.
Preface to Census Returns of 1841, pp. 34-37.
1701-1861 including army, &c. abroad: Census of 1861, General Report, p. 22. See the Diagram fronting the title-page.
General Report upon the Census of 1861. p. 22.
Census of 1861. Population Tables, vol. i. p. xviii. The negative sign (-) indicates a decrease of population, as in the cases of Cambridge, Norfolk, and Wiltshire.
Porter's Progress (1851), p. 91.
Increase due to the cotton distress.
Ed. 1847, p. 96.
The negative sign (—) indicates a decrease of population.
Census of Scotland, Population Tables, p. xlii.
Lives of the Engineers, vol. ii. p. 291.
Preliminary Observations to Population Abstracts, 1822, p. xxx.
Quarterly Report of the Registrar-General, 1849.
Bromwell on Immigration, p. 176.
Census of 1861. Population Tables, vol. i. p. xxxii.
Abstract of Seventh Census of the United States, p. 14.
Including, in the American authority, "the small number at older ages."
Census, 1861. Appendix to General Report, p. 111.

Chapter XI

End of Notes

14 of 22

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