Economic change in the countryside is important in shaping the fortunes of rural communities. But the pattern of change that has occurred in the British countryside over the last century has not impacted evenly on either communities themselves or the countryside as a whole. Rather, it has been responsible for ‘differentiating’ rural areas along socio-cultural and economic lines, as we saw in the last chapter. As the farming economy weakened and mechanisation took hold, the number of people employed in land-based occupations declined, and as farms became less reliant on local labour, wage levels dropped. The population of rural areas fell by a million persons between 1851 and 1931 (from 8.9 to 7.9 million), and whilst almost 50 per cent of England’s population was ‘rural’ in the middle of the nineteenth century, this proportion had declined to less than 20 per cent by 1939. This absolute and relative decline in population was driven by two forces. First, by industrialisation and the demand for labour in towns and cities; and second, by the reduced need for labour in an increasingly mechanised farming sector. People drifted from the land during this period and the population of cities was swollen by both in-migration and natural growth.