Population growth in East Anglia

Population growth in East Anglia

The population of East Anglia has grown much less rapidly than the population of the UK as a whole in the last 200 years. East Anglia is still basically a rural area with a low density of people per square mile. It has never experienced the sudden industrial expansion that changed Manchester or Birmingham from small towns to a major cities over the same period. The total East Anglian population is about one and a half million, so it has grown by a factor of three in the last 200 years. By comparison the population of the country as whole has increased by about six times. Norfolk  is fourth in area among the counties of England but twenty-first in the size of population.

Once we look more closely at the distribution of the population some other factors become obvious. The large towns of Kings Lynn, Ipswich and Norwich have become much more populous, while the deep countryside which used to provide work for large numbers of farm labourers has become depopulated. Picturesque cottages which now form the dwelling of one affluent family with perhaps two or three children used to be multiple dwellings each holding a family where ten children were not uncommon. The villages might appear to have grown with a sprinkling of new properties, but the occupancy levels have fallen. Even the building of new properties in these villages has been tightly controlled by planning regulations. Moreover the age profile of the population in England is rapidly growing older, and this trend is even more marked in East Anglia.

Certain parts of the county have greatly changed their social mix over the period. This has been especially marked in the seaside spots like Southwold, Wells-next-the-Sea and Brancaster. In such places the working class fishermen and sailors have been entirely displaced by wealthy middle class holiday home owners. The work which once employed these people has likewise vanished. Conversely the centres of towns (especially Norwich) went from the homes of all sorts, the wealthy and the poor, to being largely bereft of inhabitants at night. The growth in population of these towns came almost exclusively from the large estates of council houses built in the inter-war years. The upper floors of shops that were once home to the shopkeeper were left vacant, and once-professional areas like Surrey Street and St Giles in Norwich no longer held the homes of solicitors and doctors. Their offices and surgeries might remain in a few cases, but their homes had moved into the country; perhaps to those very cottages which once housed the rural poor. With the increasing mobility provided by car ownership the wealthy moved at least to the outskirts of town like the far end of Unthank Road. The height of this change was perhaps the 1970s; since then there has been a reinvigoration of town centres as living places, now for the ambitious young who once again inhabitant the Georgian town houses and flats above the shops, and for the older and more affluent residents of places like Friars Quay.

The distribution of people today and a hundred years ago would be very different. Norwich is still the main hub of population in East Anglia, but it is in fact much larger than it appears to be on paper; 132,200 live in Norwich itself, but nearly three times than number – 351,340 – live in the surrounding ‘travel to work’ area. What (in terms of employment and basic shopping requirements) were small and self-sufficient villages like Hethersett and Poringland a century ago have grown into large dormitory communities. This too has been made possible by the almost universal ownership of the motor car. This was a rare luxury before the First World War, when those few that were used around the local roads had chauffeurs to drive them. There were no bus services either, and to travel you used your bike or walked to the nearest railway station. If you were slightly better off you had a pony and trap. Before the Second World War the middle classes would drive themselves down to the coast at weekends; by then motor buses were taking the railway passengers, and by the 1950s all aspired to car ownership.

In contrast to these areas of population change the area around the Battle Area STANTA (Stanford) has been completely depopulated for over 70 years. We now have but one military airfield in Norfolk- Marham – where during the Second World War the county was peppered with them, but there is no realistic prospect of the Ministry of Defence giving up STANTA.  This is an exception, and in terms of area the major part of East Anglia is a rural community with numerous small villages that nowadays have little in the way of Post Offices or pubs.


On a larger scale the relative populations of Ireland and England tell a bleak story; in 1801 when the first national census was taken the population of England and Wales stood at just under 9 million. The population of Ireland (where a census was not taken until the mid 19th century) is estimated at just over 5 million; smaller certainly than England, but more than half as big. By 1841 when first official Irish census was taken this had risen to over 8 million, while the English figure had risen to just under 16 million. They had both grown more or less in proportion, but after that date the paths of the two nations diverge dramatically.

The Irish potato famine of the 1840s had a terrible effect on the people of Ireland. The famine certainly killed many people but far more were driven into exile. They emigrated to America, Australia and England in huge numbers. By 1911 the population of Ireland had virtually halved to under 4.5 million, while the population of England had gone from strength to strength, to stand at 36 million, more than twice what it had been 70 years before. (Interestingly the rate of population growth in England and Wales has slowed, contrary to what most people think. The period of spectacular growth was the the reign of QueenVictora. A hundred years after 1911 the population is still well under twice what it was. Without all the immigration since the Second World War the population might even have begun to shrink.)

Even today the population of Ireland is 6 million, with a further 1.8 million living in Northern Ireland. This means than population of the two countries is just about the same as the population of Ireland as a whole (then one country and part of Britain) had been 150 years before. Since 1911 the population of Ireland has begun to grow a little and it may by now nearly equal its historic high point of 1841. By contrast the population of England and Wales now stands at over 56 million, 40 million more than it had been in 1841.

JOSEPH MASON                                                                                                                                              



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