The decline of the national †population in the late Middle Ages, as a consequence of the Black Death and other diseases, caused the rapid or gradual decay of many rural settlements (see deserted medieval villages). Nevertheless, before the 19th century the population of the British Isles was overwhelmingly rural. Famine in Ireland in the 1840s led to emigration on an unprecedented scale and the evacuation of large parts of the countryside. The Highland Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries depopulated many settlements in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. During the 19th century large numbers of countryfolk throughout Britain migrated to the industrial towns in search of higher wages and a better standard of living. Large numbers emigrated overseas.
During the reign of Victoria, therefore, while the national population grew considerably, many rural areas experienced population decline. The extent and timing of this exodus can readily be observed from studies of census returns. See W. A. Armstrong, ‘The Flight from the Land’, in G. E. Mingay (ed.), The Victorian Countryside, i (1981), which demonstrates that statistics relating to registration districts, rather than counties, show a persistent drain of people away from the countryside. For a local study, see Gwyneth Nair and David Poyner, ‘The Flight from the Land: Rural Migration in South‐East Shropshire in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Rural History: Economy, Society, Culture, 17/2 (2006). The population of only three English counties (Cornwall, Huntingdon, and Rutland) and three Welsh counties (Cardigan, Montgomery, and Radnor) fell absolutely between 1841 and 1911, but in many other counties the growth of local towns obscures the extent of rural depopulation.
The southern half of England experienced a considerable outflow as agricultural labourers left the land in droves, particularly in the 1850s and the 1870s. In the north of England rural wages were higher, as farmers tried to counter the pull of the towns and industrial villages, but many places in the rural north shrank in size during the later 19th century, especially during the 1880s, when employment opportunities were reduced by the disappearance of many old handcrafts and traditional industries. Thus, the exhaustion of the lead seams in Swaledale caused the population there to decline by nearly 50 per cent between 1871 and 1891. The people most likely to leave were the young. Girls, in particular, sought employment as domestic servants in the towns. See Bridget Hill, ‘Rural–Urban Migration of Women and Their Employment in Towns’, Rural History: Economy, Society, Culture, 5/2 (1994). The net result of all this migration was that rural settlements commonly possessed fewer inhabitants in the mid‐Victorian era than they had in the early Middle Ages. The peaceful character of the sparsely populated countryside of much of the British Isles today is largely a consequence of the rural depopulation of the 19th century.