The Process of Internal Migration in England and Wales, 1851-1911: Updating Ravenstein and the Step-Migration Hypothesis


  • Joseph Day University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences



Step-Migration, Internal Migration, England and Wales, Nineteenth Century, Census


Since their publication in 1885 and 1889 respectively, Ravenstein’s laws of migration – which have since been summarised as eleven broad rules – have achieved something approaching universal acceptance (Ravenstein 1885, 1889). While most of these laws have been tested and retested using data drawn from a range of countries and time periods – invariably reconfirming the status of his hypotheses as “laws” – one hypothesis has been resistant to attempts to confirm Ravenstein’s interpretation; the so-called step-migration hypothesis. Given the conflicting definitions of step-migration, this article first recounts the historiography of the term and the subsequent reason why this paper has defined step-migration as a means by which individuals migrated, rather than a population-level phenomenon in which out-migrants are continually replaced by in-migrants. Recent studies have invariably concluded that while step-migration may have been the predominant means by which migration occurred during periods of industrialisation in the past, it is no longer the process by which movement occurs in modern, post-industrial societies (Plane et al. 2005). This article therefore critically re-evaluates the evidence upon which Ravenstein based his laws. The census. Whereas Ravenstein used the published report of the 1881 census; the present study utilises the complete, individual-level manuscript census returns from 1851 to 1911. Through an analysis of approximately 160 million lifetime migration paths, this paper draws two important conclusions. First, that most people’s migratory activity tended to be concentrated in a single move – usually upon leaving home – rather than in a series of steps over their lifetimes. This means the census – recording only individuals’ birthplace and location on census night – captures most people’s full migration histories, amplifying its value as a source for studying migration in the past. By first identifying the age range in which migration occurred, this article argues that the similarity of the age profile of migrants to those leaving home suggests they were one-and-the-same process. By then constructing synthetic cohorts and analysing the distances migrated by the population in each census between the mean ages of key lifecycle events – leaving home, leaving service and entering marriage – it is demonstrated that very little migration occurred beyond the first move. This is reiterated in a cohort analysis which shows very little change in the destinations of migrants between censuses. In order to search for evidence of migration post-marriage, mothers’ migration paths are reconstructed from those of their co-resident children. This similarly demonstrates that only a minority of mothers migrated during their childbearing years with the majority of migration occurring prior to the birth of their first child. This article therefore shows that while 1851-1911 was not a period without migration, nor was it one of constant movement. Rather, England and Wales urbanised because the majority made a considered choice of destination once in their lives. This article therefore demonstrates that migration in steps was the exception rather than the rule and that the individual-level census returns are a valuable source of migration evidence between 1851 and 1911 and deserve far wider use.

* This article belongs to a special issue on “Internal Migration as a Driver of Regional Population Change in Europe: Updating Ravenstein”.




How to Cite

Day, J. 2020. The Process of Internal Migration in England and Wales, 1851-1911: Updating Ravenstein and the Step-Migration Hypothesis. Comparative Population Studies. 44, (Jun. 2020). DOI:



Research Articles