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'On the Town' - Women in Augustan England

Joyce Ellis looks at how women coped with and were able to exploit the urban environment between 1688 and 1820.

Modern demographic research suggests that in what is known as the 'long eighteenth century' the female population of England's larger towns expanded dramatically, producing what one demographer has called 'a remarkable predominance of women' in contrast with the more balanced or emphatically male-dominated populations of smaller settlements.

By the 1690s the sex ratio (the number of males per 100 females) in larger towns had fallen to an average of 83.4 and in Bristol the ratio was as low as 80.2. This female bias in urban populations was already visible to Gregory King (1648-1712), the great pioneer of social statistics, in the later seventeenth century and it continued unabated for the next hundred years. The 1801 census revealed that Oxford was the only large town in England and Wales not to house a majority of women, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, in the resort town of Bath, men accounted for only thirty-nine per cent of the population. In explaining these statistics demographers have ruled out the possibility that there might have been a strange urban variation in normal fertility patterns producing a large surplus of female babies. They are equally convinced that the skewed sex ratios cannot simply be the result of higher male infant and child mortality or of greater female longevity. All the evidence indicates that urban populations were unbalanced principally by a net inflow of female migrants.

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