On the eve of the Armada in 1588, the population of England was some 3.8 million. England had enjoyed peace and plenty since the accession of its Queen thirty years earlier.
However, as the bells rang to celebrate the victory over Spain, the 'good times' were coming to an end. The long spell of good harvests ended in the late 1580's and prices began to rise. From 1594, and especially in 1596 and 1597, the harvests failed. These were years of famine when, although there was little actual starvation, resistance to common illnesses was weakened. Fortunately, the bad years did not last - by 1601 the harvests were good again, and by the close of the reign, England's population had reached about four million (J Youings, Sixteenth-Century England, Chapter 4 passim, and especially pages 148-149).
How did Hungerford's population change during the reign of Elizabeth? How many people actually lived there? Was it growing - if so, how fast? These are fundamental questions in any kind of local history study, because population growth affects many other aspects of local history, for example, the care of the poor, agriculture and the economy in general. Parish registers are the essential source for local population studies, and it is particularly fortunate that Hungerford has a full set of parish registers from 1558 onwards. Without these, a valuable aspect of the town's social history would remain hidden.
Hungerford's parish registers in the Elizabethan period have an added value to local and family historians alike. From 1562 to 1602, two Vicars, Edward Brouker and his son William, recorded a considerable amount of extra information along with the bare facts. These illuminating details on cause of death, trade or occupations or unusual circumstances add much human and social material for the local historian.
We look at some examples later, but first we try to estimate how many people lived in Hungerford, and how fast the population was growing.
In 1558, in the year of the accession of Queen Elizabeth, Hungerford's population may have been between 600 and 700. This figure has been obtained by assuming an increase of 10% every decade since the 1520's, when a fairly comprehensive survey, the muster roll of 1522 (PRO E315/464) suggested a population of between 500 and 570 (10% per decade is the approximate increase of the national population). By the end of the 16th century, calculations using parish registers suggest it may have grown to between 1000 and 1100, but these figures are very approximate and relate to the whole parish, including Eddington, as well as the farmsteads and hamlets to the south of the town . (Figures for 1600 have been calculated by assuming a birth rate of 30 per 1000, and using the average annual baptism rate over 10 years (33.4 for Hungerford 1591-1600). On this basis a population of between 1000 and 1100 can be suggested).
What is more certain is that Hungerford's population was growing steadily throughout the late 16th century. By counting the total baptisms and burials for each year and calculating a 'running average', this reduces the distortion which would be apparent from the peaks and troughs of yearly variations in both.
What seems to have happened in Hungerford was that the population rose quite rapidly and steadily to about 1580 but then slowed slightly. The general trend reflects the national pattern - population growth is thought to have slowed down at this point. Generally, however, the population steadily increased because, quite simply, more people were born than died each year. This is true nationally, but it is very marked indeed in Hungerford. What were the reasons for this apparently spectacular growth in population? Good harvests, less frequent epidemics and a buoyant economy may all have been important. Hungerford almost certainly benefited from its position on the Bristol-London road, leading to increasing demand for its goods and services. This could have led to increased employment, with people coming into the town to take advantage of the opportunities available.
However, the use of a 'running average' graph hides some interesting detail. There were years when the burial rate soared to 'crisis' level - when the annual burial total was at least twice the average. 1582 was such a year: with forty burials, it was one of the rare years when baptisms did not exceed burials. Closer examination of the month by month burial totals suggests a summer epidemic (e.g. dysentery, typhoid or plague, all associated with hot weather). Burials peaked between June and August, but there was also a peak in November. 1597 was another year when burials exceeded baptisms: nationally, 1594 to 1598 were years of heavy, unseasonable rainfall, disastrous harvests and impassable roads (Youings, Sixteenth Century England, p 151).
However, there is a need to be very cautious in assuming that baptisms and burials, as recorded in the parish registers, reflected the actual totals of births and deaths. The registers certainly begin to look less reliable towards the end of the century - it is difficult to imagine there were only ten burials in the whole of 1600, for example, although this is the total of recorded burials.
(From Elizabethan Hungerford, Julie Shuttleworth et al, 1995)
On to [The Plague Epidemic 1603-04]