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Herefordshire's Changing Population

Herefordshire is a county of 2180 square kilometres on the borders of Wales, with a current population of about 170,000 people. The City of Hereford has about 65,000 inhabitants, while none of the five market towns has more than 10,000.

The Prehistoric Population

For most of the Holocene (the period since the end of the last Ice Age, i.e. the last 10,000 years) we don't know how many people lived in Herefordshire. It is clear, though, that there were enough people here in prehistory and the Roman period to make a significant impact on the landscape. There are 52 hillforts in the county, for example (in other words, one per 4192 ha), five Roman towns and innumerable earlier burial mounds and monuments. These represent a considerable expenditure of energy surplus to the main task of obtaining a living, for as well as building settlements and monuments we know that people were doing all the usual things - farming, ritual, making implements and jewellery, waging war and so on, for occasionally their artefacts turn up in excavations and as stray finds. These monuments and artefacts prove that prehistoric people had a sufficient surplus of food to support craftspeople and other specialists.

Population from the Domesday Survey to AD 2001

The first official census in Herefordshire was the Domesday Survey of 1086, carried out on the orders of William the Conqueror. Over 200 years later, after the Black Death of 1348, there was a poll tax in 1377. The Hearth Tax of 1664 can be used to make an estimate of population in that year, and then in 1801 came the first official national census. Official censuses have followed every ten years ever since. Though there are problems with all these sources they can be used with care to construct population figures for the county.

Herefordshire's Population


 Year  No. of People  Year  No. of People
 1086  32,556  1871  125,426
 1300  81,696  1881  121,101
 1377  30,636  1891  115,762
 1664  65,505  1901  114,125
 1801  87, 927  1911  114,269
 1811  93,526  1921  113,189
 1821  102,669  1931  111,767
 1831  110,617  1951  127,159
 1841  113,272  1981  146,573
 1851  115,489  2001  174,900
 1861  123,712    










These figures hide emigration from Herefordshire that certainly took place in the later 19th century, when more than 10% of the population left the county every 10 years (e.g. more than 16,000 people between 1861 and 1871) due to poverty and other causes (Grundy 1986). There may well have been migration in the medieval period before the Black Death. This and other matters are explained below.

The Domesday Survey

The Domesday Book of 1086 only mentions heads of household so to arrive at the population figures all people mentioned were counted and the total multiplied by five. There are many uncertainties with Domesday, for example how many people are missed and whether some people have been counted twice. It is not clear whether the c. 180 landholders listed actually lived in the county, whether they had a retinue with them who were not counted, or whether the eight churches and three monasteries had uncounted and associated people. In this essay slaves (823), landowners (180), priests and everyone else is counted and given a nominal family of five, and then a further 20% is added for missing people, for undoubtedly there were some.

The following section relies on documentary sources, from Domesday (Thorn and Thorn, 1983), the poll tax (Fenwick, 1998), the hearth tax (Faraday, 1972), the national census (Herefordshire, Census of England and Wales, Printed Reports 1841-1951, Church of the Latter Day Saints 2000, Office of National Statistics website).

For 96 people in Archenfield and some villages in Archenfield and elsewhere where land was held by Welshmen (c. 13 villages) it seems likely that the people listed were heads of clans containing an unknown number of people (Taylor 1997, 25). I have calculated 120 for the heads of clans (96 plus an estimated 24 for heads in other villages in Archenfield). To find the size of the clan there is a clue in the number of ploughs recorded in Archenfield (there are 73). The average number of ploughs belonging to villagers and smallholders elsewhere in Herefordshire is 0.6 per family; thus 73/0.6 is 122 families, making the 96 heads over only 1.27 people per clan. The phrase "with their men" would suggest rather more than this, however, and Archenfield may have been a largely pastoral economy. I have taken the 120 heads of clans and multiplied this by six to give the heads of families in the clans. There is no way of knowing if this is right, or even nearly right, but nevertheless, the low number of Welshmen in comparison with the English suggests they were a minority. Using this method the estimate is unlikely to be an overestimate, though it may be an underestimate.

For the mid-medieval period figures are derived from the poll tax taken from Fenwick (1998). The 1377 poll tax includes everyone over the age of 14 except very poor people and priests. In order to include these people (i.e. children below 14, the poor and priests) I have doubled the figure; this is probably an overestimate. About three-quarters of the people listed in the total for Herefordshire (15,318) given in the Exchequer Accounts are also listed in the acquittances. Missing from the acquittances are the parishes on the west of the county in Wigmore, Huntington and Ewias Lacy hundreds, including Leominster. Leominster was a borough in 1334, assessed at 1/15th of Hereford in the lay subsidy. Glasscock (1975) says that for some reason places on the west in the 1334 lay subsidy - on which the poll tax was based - were not listed, so it is not possible to know where the west boundary of the county lay. These missing hundreds make up about one fifth of the county area of the 19th century. It seems likely that the missing quarter of people came from here and from Leominster, as most places are mentioned in the remaining part of the county. Therefore the total given seems a realistic figure for the 19th century area of Herefordshire.

The 1664 figure is taken from the hearth tax (Faraday 1972) using all inhabited houses and multiplying by five, then adding 15% for missing people. Some sort of check on this figure is provided by the Compton Church Survey of 1676 (Whiteman 1986). The total number of people listed in the church survey is 67,732, a 3% higher population, so the fit is actually quite good (sadly there are uncertainties with the Survey, or this figure would have been taken as the more reliable).

The 19th century figures are from the Census and are the first reliable and total count of people in the county.

The urban and rural population is distinguished in the tables below. The distinction between the two, however, was probably rather blurred before the 19th century. Townspeople would have had common meadows and backyard plots to grow food and rear animals, and no doubt a considerable amount of food and other resources were produced in and around the town.


Year  Population  Urban Pop.  Rural Pop.  Urban Pop. as % total 
1086  32,556  558  32,075 
1377  30,636  6568  24,068  21 
1664  65,505  9145  56,360  14 
1801  88,436  19,831  68,605  22
1851  115,489  29,452  86,037  26 







A pre-1086 population decline?

In the Domesday lists there is land for 658 ploughs not taken up at the time of the survey; this implies a fall back in ploughing by 28%. Other entries imply some land has reverted to waste:

"On these waste lands have grown woods in which this Osbern goes hunting... " (entry for Titley in Thorn and Thorn, 1983, 24,5)

talking of 30 hides or so in the west of the county and:

"In the Golden Valley 112 ploughs could plough. 56 hides; they paid tax" (Thorn and Thorn 1983, 25,7). This decline is generally attributed to Welsh warring in the 11th century (ibid).

These entries also suggest the population had declined before Domesday, possibly due to fighting between the Welsh and English.

A pre-Black Death population rise? 

The figures show a slight dip from Domesday to the poll tax, reflecting the impact of the plague, though the town population, starting as it did virtually from nil, rises. However, the figures do not show the height of the population prior to the Black Death, this can only be surmised indirectly.

Though there are no censuses there is some documentary evidence, in the form of holding lists of manors. In 17 manors of the Bishop of Hereford surveyed in 1086 and 1280, manor sizes grew by 412% (Hallam 1988) and in Herefordshire:

"wherever there is information, it tends to show an increase of from 40% to 100% in the century after Domesday and most often an increase of about two thirds" (Hallam 1988, 534).

Jack (1988) found from tenancy lists that 58 people died between October 1348 and September 1350 in Woolhope, a settlement that had an estimated 270 people in 1086 and 222 people in 1377. This would indicate that over a quarter of Woolhope's population died in two years. A more dramatic loss was suffered by vicars, who may have been particularly vulnerable. There was a huge rise in deaths in 1349 in the Hereford Benefices, 56 in this year compared to an average of 2.5 in the 14 years before and after, with another peak of 11 deaths in 1353 (Dohar, 1995, 42).

Archaeology also suggests there was a larger population in the 13th/14th century. This is not necessarily because of the shrunken medieval settlements (there are 237 listed on the HER database), for desertion may be due to a number of reasons. But the ridge and furrow recorded across the county on floodplains (HER 10647, 33566, 31880, 22215, 31852, 31439) and hills (HER 7421, 21898, 30534, 30695, etc.), and the large number of small banked and protected woods (e.g Sharpnage in Woolhope, Badnage near Tillington, Downey in Eaton Bishop) are good evidence of widespread cultivation. The most convincing argument, though, is the large number of castles, churches and towns dating in part to the 13th century; these must have required a large output of grain, craftspeople and resources.

Consideration of total population based on selected counted people, as here, prompts the crucial question concerning the size of the medieval household. Were families as large as possible as in the late 19th century, when people existed just this side of alive, or were medieval people cleverer? It seems likely that they were. After the Black Death, in the years 1377 to 1664 (spanning nearly 10 generations), the size of families in Herefordshire increased by 35%. This represents an average of 2.2 surviving children per couple. The figures don't take migration into account but the rise in population in England as a whole was low, so migration is unlikely to have been very significant at this time (Hatcher and Bailey, 2002, 57).

The poll tax population (30,636) is one generation after the Black Death. If there had been a population surge after the catastrophe and every couple had reared five adults successfully, this would put the immediate post-Black Death population at 12,254. If half the population had perished it would put the pre-Black Death population at 24,509, lower than the estimated Domesday population (32,634). This seems unlikely.

If in the first generation after the Black Death population rose at the 1.1% rate given above, it would put the immediate 1350 population figure at 27,851. If half the people perished, as the slight documentary and circumstantial evidence suggests, it puts the pre-Black Death population at 55,702. If in the preceding generation early 14th century famines killed one third of the population, it would put the population at about 81,696. Compare this to the 1801 population of 88,436. Given the corroborating evidence set out above and below this high population seems quite possible. 

If the Black Death toll was one quarter, the peak would be half that (41,777 people).

Historians believe that the population trebled from 2 million to 6 million in England between Domesday and the Black Death (Hatcher and Bailey, 2002, 31). If Herefordshire was the same, as many as 20% of people may have migrated. However, even if this were the case the average rate of increase would still only be about 1.11%. Compare this with the national rise in population over two generations between 1740 and 1801, when the population rose from 5.5 million to 8.9 million. This represents a 1.27 rate (2.5 surviving children per couple). In the next generations there was a higher still rate of increase.

Of course, some couples had larger families for a significant percentage had no children at all. The calculated Domesday and poll tax figures given here, however, do include all people.

Population in the Post-Medieval Period

In the post-medieval period population rose at a slower rate in Herefordshire than in England as a whole. It was not that people were having smaller families, but because people were migrating. Between 1841 and 1901 about 63,000 people left the county (Rees, 1993; Grundy, 1986) to look for work in other parts of the country, and indeed the world. They must have gone to the cotton mills in the north, the Welsh mines, the West Midlands, London and America. For the agricultural labourer there was little work or incentive to stay in Herefordshire, and people were very poor.

In the last 20 years this trend has reversed. The population has risen sharply as people locate to places with more space and good schools, and Hereford is currently one of the fastest growing towns in Europe.

[Original author: Rebecca Roseff, 2003]


Dohar, W.J., The Black Death and Pastoral Leadership. The Diocese of Hereford in the 14th century, 1995

Faraday, M.A., Herefordshire Militia Assessments of 1663, The Royal Historical Society, University College London, 1972

Fenwick, C. (ed.), The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 1998

Glasscock, R.E.. The Lay Subsidy of 1344, The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 1975

Grundy, Joan, "Population Movements in 19th Century Herefordshire", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club Volume XLV, Part II, 1986, pp. 488-501

Hallam, H.E., "Population Movements in England 1086-1350", in Hallam (ed.), 1988, pp. 508-594

Hallam, H.E. (ed.), The Agricultural History of England and Wales, Vol. II, 1042-1350, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Hatcher, J. and Bailey, M., Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England's Economic Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002

Jack, R.I., "Wales and the Marches" in Hallam (ed.), 1988, pp. 412-497

Rees, G., "Changes in Herefordshire during the Woolhope Years", Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club Vol. XLVII, Part III, 1993, pp. 289-299

Taylor, Elizabeth, Kings Caple in Archenfield, Elizabeth Taylor and Logaston Press, Almeley, 1997

Thorn, F. and Thorn, C. (eds.), Domesday Book 17 Herefordshire, Phillimore, Chichester, 1983

Whiteman, A. (ed.), The Compton Census of 1676. A critical edition, Records of Social and Economic History, New Series - X, The British Academy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986