In 1801, two thirds of the population of England and Wales was rural; in 1851, more than half lived in towns and cities. Many countrymen migrated to the cities but there was still too little work to support the agricultural workforce which remained and by 1901 the percentage had halved again. East Meon saw its population decline by 42% between the censuses of 1851 and 1861 with 640 men, women and children, leaving the parish, from a population of 1543,. (This was mitigated by an influxof 285, and an excess of baptisms over burials … a period of wholesale migration into and out of the village. Indeed, towards the end of the century, East Meon bucked the national trend in that its population actually increased.)
Of the 640 who left between 1851 and 1861, roughly 250 were men looking for work and the majority travelled no further than other East Hampshire villages and towns (98 of 164 male migrants we have traced); 38 went to Portsmouth and Alverstoke, 9 to London, and 5 abroad. Most were agricultural labourers looking for farm work; even those who went to the cities found work related to their previous employment – ‘farm carters’ became ‘carters’ or grooms, ‘agricultural labourers’ became ‘labourers’, other trades included ‘gardeners’ and ‘seedsmen’. 16 joined the Armed Services, mostly the Navy in Portsmouth, and 8 found work at Alverstoke and Widley/Hilsea, building the fortifications known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ because the Portsdown Hill forts faced inland to defend against an unlikely land attack … and never fired a shot in anger.
Of the 250 men who left East Meon a mere 20 returned in the next fifty years, of whom seven were from one family: the Merritts, three of whom served ten years in the Navy. Luke Merritt returned as an agricultural labourer, but became a ‘cattle dealer’ and ended his life in Brooklyn, a substantial house on the High Street next to Glenthorne. Another returner, George Spiers, came back in 1868 as a bricklayer and before his death described himself as a ‘builder’. A third, David Noble, left the village as an under-shepherd but returned as a ‘journeyman brewer’ then became the village carrier, living in the White Cottage on the High Street, and married Ann Tilbury, sister of William who founded the grocery shop next door. David Noble ended up farming on his own account at Rookery Farm in Ramsdean.’
Why did they leave? As Eric Hobsbawm put it, some may have anticipated ‘streets lined with gold’ but found only ‘a few coppers on the pavement’. 11% of those who migrated did acquire trades and a further 7% moved to other occupations … in all, 37% rose to a higher socio-economic class than they had occupied in East Meon, including the three we have met. Their reasons for leaving may have been a desire to spread their wings and experience life outside the valley. The majority, however, were driven out by poverty and the lack of work; as Hobsbawm again put it, ‘the nineteenth century was a gigantic machine for up-rooting country men’, which reached new peaks in the middle of the period. The leavers were mainly young and single and did not come back.