Keith Rankin Analysis: Historical Population of the United Kingdom: 43 to 2013

Chart of the Month: UK-population (copyright Keith Rankin, 2017).

Analysis by Keith Rankin.

The demography of the United Kingdom, the tangata whenua of Ngāti Pakeha, is of interest to all of us. I caught this chart (from, but it uses the wrong scale, as far too many of our published charts do these days. This scale problem is most significant with charts covering long time periods, and it leads to an exaggeration of the importance of recent data.

My chart uses the same data (extended to a population of 64 million in 2013), but uses a log-2 scale. This means that it shows doublings of population, rather than five-million-person increments.

Many demographic blips are missed in the early centuries, because estimates are very far apart. For example, it is likely that there was a significant population fall after the Romans left Britain in the fifth century.

What we do see is an acceleration of population growth in the (known-to-have-been) warm centuries at the beginning of the second millennium, followed by a huge decline mid-fourteenth century. This decline was the Black Death, which some of us will remember as the initial setting for Vincent Ward’s 1988 New Zealand time-travel Odyssey, The Navigator. (This movie might be due soon for a scheduling on Māori TV.) This plague is widely understood to have been a Malthusian crisis in Europe, an event triggered by pathogens arriving from Asia, but ultimately due to a mix of climate change and overpopulation relative to the economic capacity of the era.

The next population rise represents the impact of the transition to capitalism, the renaissance, and the first period of globalisation which began in the late fifteenth century. This higher growth rate continued in the United Kingdom until about 1800, interrupted mainly by the Civil War of the 1640s. It was in 1798 that Thomas Malthus published the first edition of his seminal ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’. This was in response to a widely-held viewpoint that population growth – virtually unlimited at then historical levels – was sustainable and beneficial to economic progress.

On the face of it, Malthus’ timing was very bad. Population growth accelerated sharply over the next decade or so, the early years of the industrial revolution. There are three main reasons for this acceleration. First, the growth of fossil fuels, as coal displaced (depleted) wood as an energy source. Second was the widespread adoption of the potato, a product of globalisation that originated in South America. Third was the incorporation in 1800 of Ireland into the United Kingdom.

In the middle years of the nineteenth century – the 1840s in particular – the United Kingdom experienced its second main Malthusian crisis of the millennium. The potato famine in Ireland combined with pandemics of cholera and tuberculosis in England, peaking in 1848 (although tuberculosis remained the number one scourge well into the twentieth century).

Recovery from Malthusian doom was due, this time, to the huge expansion of land inhabited by British (and other European) people. It was the beginning of the growth of the Neo-Britains such as New Zealand; the growth of the ‘anglosphere’. This expansion of British settlement helped population to grow rapidly within the United Kingdom. Food became much cheaper during this second era of globalisation, dating in essence from around 1850. Traditional large families suffered fewer deaths after 1850, and the British were much slower than the French to adopt contraception.

The chart shows that, in the United Kingdom at least, population growth slowed substantially in the twentieth century. World War 1 was part of this; indeed, it could be argued that this war was the third great Malthusian crisis of the second millennium. Overpopulation relative to global carrying capacity in the 1910s was very real, as the gains to British people from British expansion were surpassing their natural limits.

From the 1920s we had the new opportunities offered by electricity, oil and natural gas, antibiotics, and chemical syntheses of products that mimicked natural ones. (Important here in a New Zealand context is the role of topdressing fertiliser on pastoral farmland.) The result was another substantial increase in the carrying capacity of the world, including the United Kingdom.

Many of us sense that the next Malthusian crisis may be only a decade-or-so away. The good news is that the economic, accounting and technological ideas that may lead to the next post-Malthusian recovery are also present in today’s ‘outsider’ intellectual environment. The lesson of history, however, is that humankind will probably need to experience a substantial economic and demographic crisis before necessary solutions are actually adopted. During the 2020s, wilful blindness and alternative falsehoods will continue to prevail.