Many of the developments in the landscape of the parish have been the result of changes in the population of the village. It is by no means easy to obtain accurate figures of the number of people living in the village prior to the 19th century and this note is to explain how we arrived at the final totals. From 1801 to the present day there are reliable population statistics in the official Census Returns. Prior to that any estimate of population has to be worked out from documents whose primary purpose was not always the recording of population. Therefore there is always an element of guesswork and error in the resulting figures. Our first record of the number of people in the village is in Domesday Book. However there are serious difficulties for we are not sure whether the recorded numbers of people are heads of families, individuals, or a mixture of both. In addition both Great and Little Shelford are mixed up together. Therefore our estimate of population in 1085 is only a guess. However it does seem likely that there were between 115 and 170 people living in the village at this time. The next record of population is that given in the Hundred Rolls of 1279. Again many of the problems we had in Domesday Book re-occur and they are increased by the fact that some people may be listed more than once. The estimate of population from this source for Great Shelford is around 400. This is a considerable increase in the 1086 figure and it may be a hopeless over estimate. Moving on to the 14th century,the Lay Subsidy Roll of 1327 presents the same difficulties but seems to indicate a population of just over 250. This is a sharp decline from the 1279 figure if the former is accurate, which is unlikely, and would bring the population back to little more than it was in 1086.
Our next definite idea of the size of the village is not until the 16th century when the parish registers begin. Using the methods devised by Dr, Cox it is possible to obtain some idea of population trends in the parish from the 1550s to 1801 when the official returns commenced. These figures are still not very exact and cannot be trusted absolutely but they do show a general stable level of population of between 300 and 400 from the mid-16th to the early 18th centuries. At either end of this period the figures can be checked against two other sources. In 1568 there are the Bishop's Returns which list 300 people for the village. This, while not agreeing exactly with the total calculated from the parish registers for the same period is not far out. Towards the end of the 17th century are the Hearth Tax Returns of 1663-4. These show a figure markedly higher than those from the parish registers which may mean the latter totals are too low. During the 18th century the parish register figures, while perhaps still not accurate show a marked rise in the population of the village which was continued into the 19th and 20th centuries.
On the whole, while accepting all the possible errors in our calculations, the resulting graph does seem to indicate a fairly small medieval population which increased markedly in the 15th and 16th centuries, levelled off again in the 17th and then climbed steadily until the end of the 19th century. Since then, under the pressures of modern life, it has rocketed upwards.
Page last updated October 29th 2009