OF LATE years there has been in England an increasingly active discussion of the necessity for a better distribution of population between the Dominions and the mother country. The English press and the English public have awakened to the fact that the mother country is overcrowded and that the Dominions are relatively empty. The overcrowding is specially marked in that portion of the British Isles that bears the name of England. The population of Scotland is relatively small and increases slowly; the population of Ireland has steadily declined since the potato famine of the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1911 was smaller than that of Scotland. Owing to the rebellion it was impossible to take a census in Ireland when the census of Great Britain was taken in 1921, so that we cannot precisely ascertain how the population of Ireland was affected by the cessation of emigration during the Great War. But neither in Ireland nor in Scotland is there any such serious excess of population as in England.

In 1911 the number of persons to the square mile in England and Wales was 618; in Scotland only 157; and in Ireland 136. The population of England still continues to increase rapidly, both from the excess of births over deaths and from the influx of migrants from Ireland and Scotland. Therefore to get a true picture of the overcrowding of the mother country in comparison with the emptiness of the self-governing Dominions it is better to concentrate attention on England. In the following table, therefore, the population and area of England, and the number of inhabitants per square mile, are contrasted with the population, area and number of inhabitants per square mile of the various self-governing Dominions. (The principality of Wales is usually linked with England for statistical as well as for administrative purposes, but for convenience the figures for Wales are here given separately.)

Area Number per
Population sq. miles sq. mile
England 35,679,000 51,000 699  
Wales 2,207,000 7,000 315  
Scotland 4,882,000 30,000 162  
Northern Ireland (estimated) 1,284,000 6,000 214  
Irish Free State (estimated) 3,160,000 27,000 117  
Australian Commonwealth 5,437,000 2,975,000 1.8
New Zealand 1,200,000 105,000 11  
Canada 8,788,000 3,730,000 2  
Newfoundland 259,000 43,000 6  
Union of South Africa 5,100,000 472,000 10  
---------- --------- -----
32,317,000 7,395,000 4.4

It will be seen that England alone, with an area of only 51,000 square miles, has a larger population than all the rest of the self-governing territories of the British Empire with a territory of 7,395,000 square miles. If white populations alone were taken into account the contrast would be even more impressive, for a very considerable portion of the population of South Africa consists of indigenous races at a low level of civilization. The colored population of the South African Union far exceeds in numbers the white population of Anglo-Saxon origin that is scattered through the other portions of the British Empire--in India, the Straits Settlements, Hongkong, the West Indies, and various parts of Africa. These white administrators and merchants and planters only number a few hundred thousands all told.

The broad fact that emerges is that England alone contains considerably more than half the white population of the whole British Empire.

How then does it happen that, in spite of the marvelous existing facilities for locomotion, so many millions of the people of the English race remain crowded at home, while there is apparently limitless space in other parts of the Empire where they could settle under their own flag?

Take as a typical illustration of the bearing of this question the contrast between New Zealand and England. The climate over the greater part of New Zealand is temperate and thoroughly suitable to people of the English race; the soil is fertile; there are many natural harbors making communication easy; there are wonderful varieties of scenery to help to make life enjoyable. Yet New Zealand with twice the area of England has barely a thirtieth of the population.

When we pass to Australia the comparison--though the magnitude of the figures makes it more striking--is less conclusive. For a considerable part of Australia consists of barren land, and other parts are, on account of the climate, unsuitable for settlement by people of English stock. But even when all allowance has been made on this account there remain many millions of acres in Australia capable of yielding a good return to the cultivator, but as yet untouched.

The same proposition holds good for Canada. It is true that in many parts of Canada the severity of the winters involves a strain which people accustomed to the mildness of the English climate cannot long endure, and that is probably the reason why the proportion of Canadians of Scottish descent is relatively large. But in spite of the severity of the winters a considerable and steadily growing population lives and thrives in Canada, so that climatic considerations alone will not explain the smallness of the population of Canada as compared with that of England.

The truth of the matter is that in contrasting the overcrowding of England with the lack of population in the Dominions we are in the presence of a world-wide problem, not one peculiarly English. England is overcrowded not because the cultivators of her fields are too thick on the ground, but because she has developed urban industries which create employment for a much larger population than her soil can support. These urban workers are packed into large towns; they live in narrow streets, seldom visited by fresh air or full sunlight. They may have developed a town instinct which makes many of them indifferent to a stuffy atmosphere and even appreciative of incessant noise; but the possession of that instinct does not compensate them physically for the loss of the conditions needed for the development of health and strength. During the Great War a very large part of the male population had to be examined to test their fitness for military service. The largeness of the proportion rejected as unfit was a sufficient demonstration that the present conditions of life in England do not tend to the promotion of a vigorous physique. Roughly, about eighty percent of the whole population of England is living in towns or urban districts. In a word, the over-population of England is due to the excessive development of urban industries and urban life.

A similar consideration affects the whole problem of the world distribution of population. It is true that few if any other countries have such a large percentage of urban inhabitants as England has, but in practically every country in the world the percentage of urban dwellers is increasing. One of the outstanding facts in the movement of population in the United States is the rapid growth of great cities. New York is, of course, the most striking example. Within the brief period of thirty years (1890 to 1920) the population of New York City increased from 2,507,000 to 5,620,000. Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, tell a similar tale. According to the American Statistical Abstract for 1920 the urban population of the United States increased from 40 percent of the total in 1900 to 51.4 percent in 1920. Yet the United States still possesses vast areas of fertile land as yet unploughed or capable of fuller cultivation.

In Canada an identical movement from country to town is in progress. As recently as 1891 the rural population of Canada was twice as great as the urban population; according to the census of 1921 the rural and urban populations are now almost exactly equal. In the interval of thirty years the Canadian rural population had increased slowly from 3,296,000 to 4,436,000; the urban population had increased rapidly from 1,537,000 to 4,353,000. Yet during this period great efforts had been made by numerous immigration agencies to bring settlers from Europe to establish themselves not as town dwellers but as cultivators of the Canadian soil. In spite of these conscious efforts, and in spite of the opening up of vast new areas of land by the development of railways, the growth of the rural population is relatively slow. Indeed, in some provinces of Canada the rural population is actually declining. It has declined appreciably in Ontario and Nova Scotia, and slightly in the French province of Quebec. Meanwhile the Canadian towns continue to grow. Happily there is a growth in the number of rural settlers in the newly developed province of British Columbia.

Turning to Australia, we find an even more striking example of the townward tendency of the human race. In 1921 the population of the great continent of Australia, together with the island of Tasmania, was 5,437,000, of whom no less than 2,338,000, or 43 per cent of the total number, were living in the six capital cities of the states that make up the Australian Commonwealth. Yet Australia has an immense area of still undeveloped land. To bring back the comparison to England, it may be added that the whole population of this great undeveloped continent, with Tasmania thrown in, is less than the population of what is known as Greater London. The forces which built up towns rather than farms in Australia are simultaneously at work adding house to house and street to street in the metropolis of the Empire, till Greater London possesses a population of roughly seven and a half millions of people as compared with five and a half millions for the Commonwealth of Australia.

What, then, are these forces which all over the world are driving human beings from the country to the town? They are both material and mental. On the material side the most important fact is the application of machinery to agriculture. As long as man's only implement for tilling the soil was a wooden plough, the amount of human labor required to produce a modest crop was so great that the larger part of the population of every country was compelled to engage in agriculture. With the improvement of the plough and the development of machinery for reaping and threshing, less human labor is needed, and more people can be set free to do other work. In a word, primitive man had to give practically all his time to producing food for himself and his family; civilized man--or perhaps it would be better to say mechanized man--can obtain his food with a much smaller human effort. If mechanized man could secure the use of a plough and other implements gratuitously, and if he were content to live the simple life of his primitive ancestors, he would spend a few days in tilling and in reaping and the rest of the year in placidly enjoying his plentiful supplies of food. But human beings are not made like that. In the mass they are so made that as soon as one desire is satisfied other desires are developed. The human desire for food is quickly satisfied, for it is necessarily limited by the size of the human stomach. B[ILLEGIBLE WORDS] other human desires, taken in the aggregate, are limitless; they succeed one another in a stream that only ends when the human imagination ceases to function. Consequently, as the amount of labor required to produce the necessary quantity of food is diminished the resulting surplus of labor is diverted to the production of other things to satisfy other human desires. Most of these other things that men and women desire do not require any great amount of land for their production. They can generally be better produced where population is compact, so that the advantages of division of labor can be secured and mechanical power can be economically developed.

This, in brief, is the material reason for the townward drift of mankind. In addition there is a mental reason. Man is a gregarious animal. He wants--and she even more wants--the society of other human beings, and that society is obtained to a greater advantage in towns than in rural districts. This consideration has a very great influence on the question of emigration. People who have been accustomed to town life, or even to village life, cannot endure the complete isolation of a solitary farm on a back block in Canada. Quite a considerable number of women in Canada who have attempted to live in such solitude become mentally unbalanced. More generally the desire for society and for the mental stimulus which it provokes leads people of all classes to prefer a foothold in a town to space and comfort in the country.

Taking into account this mental factor as well as the material factor, it becomes clearly evident that the distribution of population throughout the British Empire is dependent upon urban rather than on agricultural considerations. Unfortunately, few English or Colonial politicians seem yet to have faced this fact. All the schemes for inter-imperial migration now being discussed in England are based upon the supposition that the way to move population is to develop agriculture.

It is sufficient here to mention the most recent and the largest of the Australian schemes now pending. This is a scheme which has been put forward on the joint authority of the governments of New South Wales, of the Australian Commonwealth, and of the United Kingdom. It contemplates the establishment of 6,000 settlers in the State of New South Wales in the course of four or five years. Even if these settlers all had families, the actual number of persons concerned would be insignificant in comparison with the present population problem in England, for the excess of births over deaths in England is about 6,000 in a single week. But it is anticipated that many of the prospective settlers will be boys of 18; provision is made for teaching them the work of farming in Australia at the public expense before they are settled on the farms, which are to be prepared for them, also at the public expense. The total estimated cost of the scheme is £9,000,000, to be divided between the three governments concerned in agreed proportions. At this rate of expenditure it would be necessary to expend not merely hundreds, but thousands, of millions of pounds before any appreciable reduction could be effected in the present excessive population of England.

The defenders of this and of similar schemes argue that experience shows that the growth of a rural population itself stimulates the growth of a local urban population to meet the needs of the surrounding farmers. That is largely true as regards past developments. Many of the towns in England began as markets where farmers could exchange produce; many still remain merely commercial centres with the addition of such domestic industries as tailoring, house building, and so on. In the same way, in Canada many small towns have come into existence to supply the commercial and industrial wants of the farmers in the neighborhood. To this extent it is true that a rural population attracts an urban population. But the process is necessarily a slow one, and even when complete does not amount to much, so far as numbers are concerned. In a country where agriculture is carried on with the aid of modern machinery very few human beings are required for the cultivation of a very wide area of land, and consequently very few or very small towns will suffice to meet all the local needs of this widely scattered rural population. Under modern conditions the growth of population depends on the development of manufacturing industries to supply the multitudinous wants that man develops as soon as his need for food is satisfied. It follows that if any appreciable change is to be made in the distribution of population throughout the British Empire it is to the movement of industries, not to the development of agriculture, that we have to look.

To a certain extent this fact seems to be appreciated, though somewhat vaguely, in the self-governing Dominions. In all the Dominions there is a strong movement for giving tariff protection to local manufacturing industries for the declared purpose of encouraging the development of such industries. On the other hand, when the question of immigration is considered the Dominion governments almost without exception insist that they only want agricultural immigrants. It may be, therefore, that the policy of industrial protection which the Dominions have adopted is due rather to immediate political influences than to ultimate economic considerations. Every local industry wants protection for its own benefit, and it can generally bring sufficient pressure to bear on local politicians to secure what it wants. On the other hand, the urban workers, knit together by strong trade unions, are resolutely opposed to the immigration of urban workers from England, for fear that the incomers might be willing to accept lower wages. Thus, on the one hand, the Dominions give tariff protection to local manufacturing industries for the professed purpose of assisting their development; on the other hand, the Dominions oppose the immigration of urban workers without whose aid any great development of local manufactures is impossible.

An interesting consequence of this inconsistency is the action of the Dominion governments in appealing to the mother country to give tariff preferences to colonial grown food. This request is defended on the superficially plausible ground that the Dominions grant a preference in their tariffs to goods produced in Great Britain, and therefore Great Britain ought to respond in the same spirit. The answer to this argument is that colonial tariffs are primarily designed to shut out British as well as foreign manufactured goods, and that consequently the preference is of comparatively little use to the British manufacturer. On the other hand, it is of supreme importance to the urban workers of Great Britain that they should be able to get their food as cheaply as possible, for otherwise their cost of living would rise. They would then either have to accept a lower standard of living, or by demanding increased wages they would have to risk the danger that the increased cost of production might render the industries in which they were employed unable to compete in foreign markets.

From a political point of view the proposal to tax the British workman's food in order to give a preference to the colonies is extremely dangerous. It involved the Conservative Party in the year 1906 in the greatest disaster it had ever experienced, and is not likely to be put forward again by any political party in Great Britain. Nor is the colonial demand for reciprocal preferences by any means unanimous. The Sydney Herald urges Australians to remedy defects at home before appealing to the British taxpayers to help them: "The British taxpayer already pays for our defense; is he also to pay for the maintenance of our farmers under present conditions?"[i]

This tariff controversy, however, is a matter of less importance than the question of the general policy at which the Dominions and the mother country should jointly aim, in order to relieve England of her excessive population and to provide a larger population for the under-peopled areas oversea. If the preceding argument has been followed, it will be seen that the only hope of securing any large movement of population lies in the transference of manufacturing industries. To suggest that this is an easy thing would be inexcusably foolish. Great industries spring up in a particular locality because the local conditions are favorable to their development. The Lancashire cotton industry, the most important of English export industries, began with the utilization of water power; was rapidly extended when steam power first became available; continued to expand owing to the cheapness of child labor; and gradually established itself on the hereditary skill of the local population, aided by the moist climate of the county. It is not easy to see how any large part of this industry could be transferred to Australia, which has no special climatic advantages and where labor is dear. Conceivably, however, it might be possible--if the local trade unions would permit the movement--to establish in Australia a number of cotton mills which would specially devote themselves to the wants of the local market and would take with them not only their English machinery and English directors, but the whole staff of English operatives. To bring about such a movement would undoubtedly require active assistance from the colonial governments; but the cost would probably be less than the cost of the schemes of land settlement now under consideration, and the results achieved in the matter of movement of population would be immensely greater.

The advantages of such a wholesale transference of industry would be specially great in cases where the new country is already in a position to provide the raw materials of the industry. The woolen industry furnishes a specially striking example. The production of wool is one of the principal features of Australian Agriculture, and the export of entirely raw, or "greasy," wool is the largest single item in the Australian export trade. There is also a very considerable export of wool that has been scoured and washed, but not in any way manufactured. In the first six months of the year 1922-23 the value of raw wool thus exported was nearly half the value of all the exports of the Australian Commonwealth. On the other side of the account Australia imports very considerable quantities of woolen manufactured goods from Europe and America. A few woolen factories have already been established in Australia, but it ought to be possible greatly to extend the manufacturing industry. It is interesting to note that the more far-seeing Australians are aware that this extension cannot be secured merely by protective tariffs. The Director of the Australian Bureau of Commerce and Industry in his report for the year ending June 30, 1922, says: "Something more than a tariff is needed quickly to establish this industry. I believe we can get more Baldwin and Patons, more Kelsall and Kemps, more Whiteheads, more Gaunts, to come to this country with their much valued experience and plant and skilled operatives."

On a smaller scale the same considerations apply to the leather industry. Australia produces large quantities of skins and hides, but her leather manufacturing industries are very limited. It ought to be possible by carefully planned action to secure the establishment in Australia of leather factories on a much larger scale. These would provide a local market for skins and hides produced by the rural population and in turn would supply the local people with the leather they required. It might be necessary to subsidize the industry for some years, but such a subsidy would, as already argued, produce much more tangible results than are ever likely to be obtained from the larger sums that it is proposed to spend on agricultural settlers.

There is another aspect of the possibilities of Australian development to which reference must be made. Over a considerable part of Northern Australia the climatic conditions forbid the employment of white men upon hard manual work; but the white men who live in Southern Australia are insistent that the whole continent shall remain white. The attitude of mind which leads to the insistent and passionate demand for a White Australia is not responsive to argument. It rests upon a racial feeling that is stronger than any rules of logic. If, however, the policy of a White Australia is maintained a large part of that huge continent will remain permanently unpeopled. In the abstract this is not a matter over which many tears need be shed. There is no moral obligation upon the human race to fill to overflowing every corner of the earth. On the contrary it is better for mankind that a good many spaces should be left empty. The solitude of the desert is a wholesome relief to the clamor of the city.

But the problem of the northern territory of Australia cannot be approached merely from an aesthetic point of view; in the near future it may create a grave international issue. Not far distant from the coast line of Northern Australia dwells an enterprising race packed into two or three over-crowded islands. Unless the people of Japan have the wisdom to reduce the rate at which their population grows--thus peacefully raising their standard of living--they must devote their energies to preparing for new wars so as to be able to overflow into the territory of their neighbors. China is Japan's nearest neighbor, but Chinese territory is already well filled. A little further south lies Northern Australia, empty of inhabitants and suitable for colonization by the Japanese. If the protection of the British navy were withdrawn it would be impossible for Australians to resist the well-organized naval and military forces of the Japanese Empire. The figures showing the contrast of populations and areas are sufficiently impressive without a word of comment:

Sq. miles Population
Australian Commonwealth 2,975,000 5,437,000
Japanese Empire 261,000 77,007,000

In face of the threat which this contrast implies, some Australians are beginning to ask[ii] whether it would not be wiser to abandon the policy of a White Australia so far as the northern territories are concerned and to import from India, or elsewhere in Asia, colored races who can work under tropical or semitropical conditions. With the aid of such colored races the agricultural development of large areas would become possible, and that development would in turn facilitate the further expansion of the white population in the south.

For example, the production of sugar is one of the ascertained possibilities of the more northerly regions of Australia, but the attempt to produce sugar with white labor is an economic failure. It is true that a certain amount of sugar production is carried on in Queensland, but the industry can only be made to pay by the exclusion or high taxation of foreign sugar; with the result that the rest of the Australian community suffers heavily from the artificial maintenance of a local sugar industry. In particular, the fruit growers of the south complain that sugar is so dear that they cannot afford to develop the jam industry. It was recently stated at a public meeting in Tasmania that jam could be imported from England and sold in Australia at lower prices than the Australian jam maker could afford to sell, although he had an abundance of cheap fruit growing close to his factory.

The question of cotton is equally important. There is little doubt that Northern Australia could produce large quantities of high grade cotton, but it cannot be grown and picked without the aid of colored labor. Australia would certainly be in a better position to develop the manufacture of cotton goods if she were herself a producer of raw cotton. Apparently, however, these considerations make little impression on the general attitude of the Australian towards colored labor. The demand for a White Australia is indeed so powerful that the Australians even object to the steamers of the P. and O. Company carrying Lascar sailors.

To emphasize, in conclusion, the general argument underlying this article: The main point on which the present writer wishes to insist is that if conscious steps are to be taken to secure a more even distribution of population throughout the British Empire, those steps must be guided by the economic fact that large populations are only possible in industrial areas. If England is to relieve herself of her present burden of over-population, she must deliberately direct her efforts to transporting her industries as well as her inhabitants to other parts of the Empire.

[i]Quoted in London Morning Post, July 10, 1923.

[ii]See article on "Tropical Australia," Edinburgh Review, July, 1923.

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  • HAROLD COX, Editor of the Edinburgh Review, author of "The Problem of Population," and other volumes
  • More By Harold Cox