Age of Invention: London the Great

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When we measure historical economic growth, we tend to focus on living standards — often measured in terms of output per person. But one of the most remarkable features of modern, sustained, and continuous growth over the past few centuries has also been the increase in the sheer number of people. Great Britain has a population today of almost 64 million, about 3 million of whom live in Wales. Yet 3 million was roughly the population of the whole island in the early sixteenth century. If the might and honour of a country was determined by the multitude of its people, as wise Solomon was supposed to have said, then Henry VIII was about as mighty as Mark Drakeford, the current Welsh First Minister.

When we look for the early signs of economic growth, we should also be looking out for surges in population. Improvements to technology could enable an economy to support many, many more people, even if the growth in production wasn’t yet able to outpace population growth. Take a look at the list of the pre-industrial golden ages of growth, referred to by the historian Jack Goldstone as “efflorescences”. The list includes the Islamic World of the ninth to twelfth centuries, Song Dynasty China, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch Golden Age, and Tokugawa Japan, not to mention the height of the Roman Empire. Each seems to have seen increases in living standards — in GDP per capita. But Goldstone also pointed to Qing Dynasty China, particularly the period 1680-1780. In this efflorescence, China experienced a dramatic increase in its population — from 160 to 350 million. Like so many efflorescences, this growth soon fizzled out, and the latest estimates suggest that real wages and living standards declined (contradicting the estimates Goldstone drew upon for his original article in 2002, which suggested that they had stayed the same or even improved). Yet despite China’s inability to outrun Malthusian pressures, the addition of 200 million souls to the planet’s population — an addition that was twice the entire population of Europe in 1700 — was a remarkable achievement.

That achievement was, it seems, largely enabled by the intensification of agriculture, though in a way that used more labour rather than saving on it. Indeed, it seems to have been one of the things most remarkable to early European visitors in the sixteenth century. As the Italian geographer Giovanni Botero put it, in China “there is not a little scrap of ground that is not husbandly and very well manured”. He described the country as “so covered with habitation, that all China seems but as one town”. (Even despite this exaggeration, he managed to underestimate the country’s population size by at least half.)

Curiously, much the same was also said of Botero’s native Italy. One English visitor at the turn of the seventeenth century described how the Italians “plant and sow in the very ditches of the highways, in the furrows of land, upon the walls and ditches of cities and castles, yea, to the very doors of private houses, fitting each least corner”. Italy at the end of its Renaissance, much like Qing China, sounds like it was a region pushing the very limits of what its technology could squeeze from the land.

Meanwhile, however, Britain found ways to continually increase its population, and then to make them richer too. Before the seventeenth century, the population of England had never broken the 5 million barrier, reaching peaks just below it in the 1290s and 1340s, just before the Black Death. Yet it had been overwhelmingly rural. No more than 3-4% of the population lived in cities greater than 5,000 inhabitants. Even mighty London — by far the largest city in the country — at its medieval peak in the 1340s probably only had about 45,000 people. For context, that’s about the population of modern-day Perth, or Salisbury (or Hackensack, New Jersey). Tiny.

We must thus imagine pre-modern England as a land of tens of thousands of teeny tiny villages, each having no more than a couple of hundred people, which were in turn served by hundreds of slightly larger market towns of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, and with only a handful of regional centres of more than a few thousand people. By the 1550s, the country’s population had still not recovered to its pre-Black Death peak, and still only about 4% of the population lived in cities. London alone accounted for about half of that, with approximately 50-70,000 people (about five times the size of its closest rival, Norwich). So after a couple of centuries of recovery, London was only a little past its medieval peak.

But over the following century and a half, things began to change. At first glance, England’s continued population growth was unremarkable. By 1700, its overall population had finally reached and even surpassed the medieval 5 million barrier, despite the ravages of civil war. This was, perhaps, to be expected, with a little additional agricultural productivity allowing it to surpass the previous record. But the composition of that population had changed radically, largely thanks to the extraordinary growth of London. England’s overall population had not only recovered, but now 16% of them lived in cities of over 5,000 inhabitants — over two thirds of whom lived in London alone. Rather than simply urbanise, England londonised. By 1700, the city was nineteen times the size of second-place Norwich — even though Norwich’s population had more or less tripled.

London had, by 1700, thus risen from obscurity to become one of the largest cities in Europe. At an estimated 575,000 people, it was rivalled in Europe only by Paris and Constantinople, both of which had been massive for centuries. And although by modern standards it was still rather small, it could at least now be comfortably called a city — more or less on par with the populations of modern-day Glasgow or Baltimore or Milwaukee.

During that crucial century and a half then, London almost single-handedly began to urbanise the country. Its eighteenth-century growth was to consolidate its international position, such that by 1800 the city was approaching a million inhabitants, and from the 1820s through to the 1910s was the largest city in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century England also finally overtook Holland in terms of urbanisation rates, as various other cities also came into their own. But this was all just the continuation of the trend. London’s growth from 1550 to 1700 is the phenomenon that I think needs explaining — an achievement made all the more impressive considering how many of its inhabitants were dropping dead.

Throughout that period, urban death rates were so high that it required waves upon waves of newcomers from the countryside to simply keep the population level, let alone increase it. London was ridden with disease, crime, and filth. Not to mention the occasional mass death event. The city lost over 30,000 souls — almost of a fifth of its population — in the plague of 1603 (which was apparently exacerbated by many thousands of people failing to social distance for the coronation of James I), followed by the loss of a fifth again — 41,000 deaths — in the plague of 1625, and another 100,000 deaths — by now almost a quarter of the city’s population — in 1665. And yet, between 1550 and 1700 its population still managed to increase roughly tenfold.

I’ve been hard-pressed to find an earlier, similarly rapid rise to the half-a-million mark that was not just a recovery to a pre-disaster population or simply the result of an empire’s seat of government being moved. Chang’an, Constantinople, Ctesiphon, Agra, Edo, for example — all owed their initial, massive populations to an administrative change (often accompanied by a degree of forcible relocation), and all then grew fairly gradually up to or beyond half a million. As for a very long-term capital like Rome, it seems to have taken about three or four centuries to achieve the increases that London managed in just one and a half (though bear in mind just how rough and ready our estimates of ancient city populations are — our growth guesstimate for Rome is almost entirely based on the fact that the water supply system roughly doubled every century before its supposed peak). The rapidity of London’s rise from obscurity may thus have been unprecedented in human history — and was certainly up there with the fastest growers — though we’ll likely never know for sure.

But how? I can think of a multitude of factors that may have helped it along, but I find that each of them — even when considered altogether — aren’t quite satisfactory.

Consider, for example, that the tenfold increase was in the period before the expropriative parliamentary enclosures of Marxist legend, when state fiat was used to deny smaller farmers their ancient, customary rights to use the land near their villages. While the very first of these enclosure acts appeared as early as 1604, parliamentary enclosure only really got going from the mid-eighteenth century. Instead, for the period in question, enclosure happened in a piecemeal way, with the open fields gradually dissolving as farmers exchanged or sold their tiny strips of land, over time amalgamating them into larger, privately controlled plots. With ownership concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, it became relatively easy to gain the unanimity needed to suspend common rights. The process played out in myriad ways all over the country, sometimes with amicable agreement and voluntary exchange, sometimes with ruthless monopolising of the land, with the already-large owners systematically buying out their neighbours. In some cases it involved the consolidation of existing arable land, in others it meant the conversion of forest, heath, marsh, or fen — the traditional “wastes”, to which the poorer villagers might have had various customary rights to gather firewood for fuel, or to graze their cattle, or to hunt for small game — into land that could be used for farming or pasture.

How this process played out all depended on extremely specific, local conditions. But on the whole it was slow — piecemeal enclosure had been happening to varying degrees since at least the fourteenth century. It’s hard to see how such a sporadic and piecemeal process could have led to such consistently and increasingly massive numbers flocking specifically to London. Indeed, the fact that they singled out London as their target suggests that this narrative might have it back-to-front. Some economic historians argue that it was the prospect of higher wages in the ever-growing metropolis that induced farmers to leave the countryside in the first place, selling up or abandoning their plots to those they left behind. Rather than enclosure pushing peasants off the land and into the city, London’s specific pull may instead have thus created the vacuum that allowed the remaining farmers to bring about enclosure. Otherwise, why didn’t the peasants simply flock to any old urban centre? The second-tier cities like Norwich or Bristol or Exeter or Coventry or York would all have been far less dangerous.

Similar problems can be raised for other potential explanations. Improvements in agricultural productivity, through the adoption of new techniques and specialisation might also have been a permissive factor for London’s growth. But in terms of the direction of causality, it’s also possible that agricultural productivity only improved as a response to London’s growing demands, as some economic historians argue. And again, why would it have had such an outsized effect on a single city? I’m unsure. Much the same, I think, can be said of London’s sources of fuel for heating. Coal from Newcastle gradually replaced firewood, as the strain of London’s rising population put pressure on nearby forests, but the shift seems more like a straightforward response to a change in prices. Firewood from the mid-sixteenth century simply became costlier, leaving sooty, smelly coal as a cheap (and still less desirable) alternative. There was no sudden discovery, as far as I can tell, to lift ecological constraints and enable a population boom. Coal had been an important alternative fuel source for London since at least the thirteenth century.

Remember, also, that what was impressive about London 1550-1700 wasn’t really its population’s size, but its rate of growth. Food and fuel were certainly needed to attain a particular level, but cities of over half a million souls had existed all over the world for well over a millennium. And even had England failed to exploit its coal or to increase its agricultural productivity, I see no reason why London could not have found other sources. After all, the cities of the Low Countries did not feed themselves — they imported their grain from the Baltic, and even from England. Indeed, England’s increasing supplies of food and fuel could just have easily caused foreign cities like Amsterdam to balloon in size instead. Due to prevailing winds it was just as cheap and easy to ship grain from Norfolk all the way to Holland than to send it down to London. I would imagine that the coal-bearing ships that made their way past the Norfolk coast from Newcastle would also have been able to make a similar jump to the Netherlands. As far as I can tell, one of the main reasons that more grain and coal was not exported from England was simply because the demand from London was so great.

The answer must lie, instead, in commerce. But even this explanation is unsatisfying to me, as it’s unclear whether England had obtained any kind of edge in either trade or colonial extraction. Spain and Portugal in 1700 had much larger American colonies, and the English had only just managed to wrest control of New Netherland from the Dutch. While the English had tried to establish colonies in North America since at least the 1580s, all attempts had failed until the survival of Jamestown, Virginia after 1610, and then of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. Likewise, attempts to colonise the Caribbean only finally succeeded at St Kitts, Barbados, and Nevis in the 1620s, with Jamaica and the Bahamas added a few decades later. Certainly, American tobacco and then slave-grown Caribbean sugar proved lucrative to London merchants, but at most these industries would have impacted London’s population growth in 1650-1700, which was when its remarkable expansion was slowest (from a population of 400,000 to 575,000). It’s also unclear how sugar or tobacco would have supported London’s population growth given that these were luxury imports, not exports that would have directly provided employment to London’s growing multitude. The puny population of England’s American and Caribbean colonies — altogether about 400,000 people by 1700 — meant that the demand for London-made exports was limited. The colonies at most only bought 15% of London’s exports, as measured by value. They would have consumed an even lower proportion of London’s total output.

In terms of Asian expansion, too, I also don’t see any kind of English edge. The East India Company, chartered in 1600, had begun to establish trading posts in India and Indonesia, but by 1700 it was still very much a mere trading company, not the infamously territory-grabbing behemoth it would become in the 1760s. It was still a mere mosquito, its ships flitting about the Indian Ocean at the whim and mercy of local powers, especially the Mughal Empire. Indeed, when the English tried to carve out an independent presence in India in the 1680s, the Mughals crushed them — they seized the company’s forts and forced it to pay reparations. Named the “Child’s War”, after the company’s governor Sir Josiah Child, it might as well have been named for England’s relative feebleness. The company before 1700 also still faced sharp competition from the Dutch, French, and Portuguese.

The East India Company’s trade was often profitable, but it’s not clear why its dividends would have had an outsized effect on London’s population — why was there not a similar growth before 1700 in Amsterdam? As with the American trade, that with Asia did not directly provide much employment for Londoners either. Quite the opposite. The company’s ships largely took Spanish silver and gold out east, and returned to Europe with Indonesian spices and, increasingly, Indian-made cotton cloth. The company’s trade would thus, at this early stage, have supported the growth of manufactures and cities in India, not England. And as a proportion of London’s exports in 1700, Asian demand accounted for just 4% of the total (and even less, again, as a proportion of the city’s total output).

Both the American and Asian markets would, of course, become of much greater importance to England’s trade over the course of the eighteenth century (the North American colonies’ population, for example, would increase almost tenfold in the next 75 years). But if London’s growth up until 1700 had anything to do with trade, I suspect we have to look much closer to home. London’s exports were overwhelmingly sold at European markets, and by the mid-seventeenth century, when the city had already experienced its fastest century of growth, about 80-90% of its exports had been in woollen cloth. Even in 1650-1700, when a growing proportion of trade consisted of re-exporting American and Asian imports to the rest of Europe, woollens continued to account for the vast majority of actual exports. And it was still woollens, anyway, that were exchanged in southern Europe for gold and silver to then send to Asia to buy Indian cloth and spices.

So if international commerce was the key factor to explain London’s greatness, I suspect that it’s to wool, and to Europe, that we need to look. More on that another time.

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