Friday, 18 April 2008

Economic change: Agriculture

A clear understanding of agricultural[1] and industrial change[2] between 1830 and 1914. the economic profile of England and its social consequences, is essential for grasping the major social transformation that occurred in this period.

Agriculture: an overview

External as much as internal forces increasingly influenced the Victorian countryside. The poor harvests and deep depression of the 1820s and 1830s was followed by recovery as rising home markets took agriculture into a 'Golden Age' from the late 1840s to the early 1870s. The dominance of wheat production ended as grain prices collapsed under the flood of cheap imports from the New World after 1875. The policy of free trade meant that British farmers could not respond. Markets for stock and dairy products and perishable cash and fruit crops benefited from rising real wages and growing demand, but they too experienced foreign competition with the development of refrigeration and canning after 1870. The agricultural depression of the late 1880s and 1890s was widespread and crippling. It reflected the decline of agriculture's share of national income from one-fifth in 1850 to one-twelfth by the 1980s.

The achievements of British farming from the 1830s to the mid-1870s were impressive. There was widespread adoption of existing improvements and new techniques for dealing with difficult claylands, poor light soil and the marshlands spread to all types of farming. There was more intensive farming using chemicals as well as natural fertilisers produced substantially higher yields -- by the 1870s many agricultural labourers and craftsmen, especially the young and lively, had left the countryside because of the push of low wages, the pull of job opportunities, a livelier urban life style and better and cheaper transport drew local trade towards the larger county towns and regional centres and with it many professional and service activities

A diverse and changing economy

In 1850-51 James Caird argued that, in an increasingly market economy farming could only succeed as a business by maximising profits by increased yields and/or reducing the real cost of working the land. Faced with increasing foreign competition, British agriculture needed flexibility in cropping and land use and the key to success was to adapt varying soil and climatic conditions to profitable products. Despite this increasing adaptability, Britain's three major land-use and farming systems exerted a powerful influence:

  1. Upland farmers raised sheep and cattle, with some dairying near industrial centres, in an overwhelmingly pastoral setting and on small family farms.
  2. The drier lowland areas of eastern Britain were dominated by arable farming.
  3. The wetter lowland and heavy, water-retentive land saw farming increasingly focus on grassland for fattening and dairying as the price of grain plummeted in the 1870s.

After 1870, a fourth system of intensive cash-crop arable farming characterised high-quality, high-yielding soils close to major urban centres: the Fens for London; the mosslands for south Lancashire.

The recovery from the agricultural depression, considerable urban growth, improved railway access to markets and continuous innovation from the 1840s were reflected in the mosaic of regional patterns of farming. Up to the early 1870s wheat dominated all types of soil in arable lowland Britain, occupying between 25 and 50 per cent of tillage and combined, especially on lighter soil, with barley. In wetter, cooler areas oats with barley were usual. In both systems root crops, rotation grasses and clovers were standard fodder crops.  From the early 1870s the price of grain fell dramatically as railways opened up the American prairies and cheap bulk ocean transport reduced costs. Wheat prices fell from an average of 55s to 28s a quarter between 1870 and 1890. Barley similarly fell in price. Oats, an important fodder crop especially for the increasing number of horses for draught and transport, did relatively better. Pastoral farmers did not feel the results of depression so severely but even they were hit by refrigeration. How did farmers respond to this challenge?

  1. The number and density of stock increased substantially in most areas.
  2. Consumption of milk and dairy products increased and dairying dominated the pastures round cities. Liquid milk production was the most profitable form of stock farming. Numbers of dairy cattle rose steadily after 1870, beef cattle fell slightly and sheep flocks were considerably reduced. By 1914 70 per cent of milk production went direct to the consumer.
  3. There was an increasing demand for vegetables and fruit. By the 1980s canning, jam making and preserving was using both home and imported products for processing at large ports but many manufacturers were in specialist fruit or vegetable areas. In many areas cash crops of potatoes, green vegetables and legumes were added to previously grain-dominated rotations.

Improvements and innovations

Specialisation reflected farmers' abilities to adapt to the market by investment in improved techniques and equipment. From the 1840s the flow of capital into farming was heralded by the reform of the 'old' Poor Law in 1834, which significantly reduced the costs to farmers of the rural poor, the Commutation of Tithes Act 1836 and the recovery of prices. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 -- it had provided protection for arable farmers by preventing imports until British prices reached a certain level -- did not result immediately in the demise of the grain farmer [that has to wait until the 1870s and foreign competition]. The result of improved conditions was high levels of investment in land management, buildings and machinery between the 1830s and the early 1870s and these were little improved upon over the next half-century. The major developments were:

  1. More effective underdrainage, especially on heavy claylands. Though it is difficult to quantify around half of cultivated land in England was in need of drainage in 1850. There had been earlier attempts but they had limited success. Two developments stimulated change: the perfecting of cheap, machine-made pipes in the 1840s and the availability of £2m in loans under the Public Draining Acts of 1846 and 1850.  Some 4 - 5 million acres were tackled between 1846 and 1876.
  2. Fertilisers, especially imported nitrates and potash, had an important contribution to make.
  3. There was a significant trend towards more scientific farming. What was the role of Justus von Liebig and Sir John Lawes?
  4. Machinery. Although agricultural improvers advocated the use of machinery, effective mechanisation was slow to develop and spread. Cheap labour, not least in the harvest gangs of women, children and itinerant Irish, gave little incentive to invest in machinery and the machine breaking in the Swing riots of 1830 reflected widespread opposition to their use. There had been substantial improvements in the quality and design of implements in the years before 1830 but as long as implement manufacture was small-scale and local, the pace of change was slow.  The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a splendid showcase for agricultural machinery, but general adopting as judged from catalogues, farm sales and inventories was limited before the High Farming of the 1850s and 1860s. Attempts to mechanise harvesting date from the late eighteenth century but modern reapers came after 1848 with the large-scale production of the American McCormick reaper. Many developments awaited improvements in motive power. Plough horses had ousted oxen from all but the heaviest land but steam did not achieve general success in harvesting or ploughing. Many farmers, especially on small family farms, could not afford mechanisation. Harvesting was not generally mechanised until movement from the land and restriction on child labour together with rising wages made hand methods increasingly uneconomic. Although the 1880s depression saw fewer innovations, there was more widespread use of machinery: in 1871 only a quarter of British grain was harvested by machine, by 1900 four-fifths was.
  5. New buildings. There was large-scale investment in farm buildings, particularly on large estates. By 1850 larger farms sometimes had a boilerhouse and engine to drive equipment, process stock food or run a sawmill. Stock farms increasingly provided winter shelter for both milking and fatstock, as well as piggeries, hen houses and the like. While most farms were still made of local materials, cheap rail transport introduced slate, machine-produced bricks and cast-iron into the buildings and their equipping, especially on large estates. The decline of farming from the 1870s saw much neglect of both farm buildings and of labourers' cottages.

There was a progressive switch to a market-oriented farming economy after the 1840s and this was reflected in tenure and size of farms and estates. Eighteenth century enclosures had increased the number of small holders and had produced a three-fold structure of landlord, tenant farmer and landless labourers. Large estates dominated England and especially Scotland but the balance between tenant and family farms was more equal in Wales. Changes in farming methods contributed to substantial falls in agricultural labour from 1850 but there was an increase in the number of smallholdings. Although mixed, stock and cash-crop farmers adapted well to the post 1870s depression, bankruptcies of grain producers in the late 1870s and 1880s and of small stock farmers in the early 1890s reflected poor harvests, increasing grain imports and the fall in wheat, wool and then meat prices. Great estates reached their peak of dominance in the 1870s when in England and Wales some 1,700 of the 270,000 landowners held over 43 per cent of the land and in Scotland the 25 largest owners held one-third of the land. While very small units were largely removed from many areas by enclosure and in later nineteenth-century depopulation, small acreage typified intensive cash-crop production in the Fens and south-west Lancashire, and in vegetable, fruit and market gardening production. From the depressed 1880s, there was a drive to increase smallholdings: Acts to extend allotments in 1882 and in 1887 empowered local councils to compulsorily purchase land for that purpose.

The worst of the depression for arable farmers was over by the mid-1890s by which time wheat prices had fallen by 50 per cent over twenty years. Their position was, at best, stabilised up to 1914. Contraction of grain production was most marked in low-output areas and where land could be successfully converted to grass as in northern and western Britain and in many parts of midland England. Wheat and barley remained important in eastern England where good farmers on the better soils made it pay. On heavy land, which was costly and difficult to work, many arable farmers continued to go out of business. By 1913 permanent grassland occupied over one third of the country's cultivated area and over one sixth was agriculturally unproductive. The switch to grassland was most marked on midland clay and in western districts: nearly 70 per cent of Wiltshire's farmland was under permanent pasture by 1914 and one-fifth of its arable under grass ley. Increases in fruit, market garden and field vegetables were reflected in intensive cultivation of specialist crops.

Responses to agricultural change

The landscape and economy of rural Britain were substantially reshaped after 1830. Despite substantial advances in 'new farming', many parts of Britain were still backward in the 1830s and 1840s. The stimulus of High Farming transformed grain growing and enhanced commercial meat and then milk production and this was reflected in investment in soil improvement, stock, machinery and farm buildings. These had greatest impact on the bigger estates and large tenant farms of lowland arable and grazing districts and on milk and vegetable producers near the urban markets. The following areas need to be noted:

  1. By 1874 the High Farming boom was over. The depression to the 1890s was initially largely a grain crisis that most affected high-cost clayland farmers. Large-scale cereal growers on lighter soils could adjust by growing more fodder, keeping more stock or producing cash crops.
  2. Land use changed substantially from the late 1870s. Marginal land went out of cultivation on a massive scale: some went over to forestry like the Brecklands; some to sporting estates; some tumbled down to weedy pasture and scrub. There was a good deal of conversion of arable, especially cereal, to grassland with permanent pasture on heavier soils and longer temporary grass leys within arable rotations. The grassland/arable boundary was displaced eastward.
  3. Despite the endorsement of free trade after 1846, the problems of the late nineteenth century brought many basic issues concerning agricultural policy into the political arena. The agricultural lobby was still powerful and many of them were prominent witnesses to the Royal Commissions on the Depressed State of the Agricultural Interest of 1879-82 and the 1883 Royal Commission. Most legislation of the period favoured tenants -- for example the outlawing of restrictive leases in Agricultural Holdings Acts of 1875, 1883 and 1906 -- or offered palliatives such as allotments and smallholdings to landless labourers. But the plight of farming failed to shift belief in free trade and state aid came only after 1914.
  4. Few rural areas were wholly remote from urban influences in this period. Many were affected by urban sprawl and suburbanisation made possible by improved transport and greater affluence. The urbanisation of the countryside was increasingly recognised in planning legislation as planners sought to recreate the perceived advantages of rural living within new and extended urban communities. This can be seen in the Garden City Movement. In 1898 Ebenezer Howard published Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform and in 1900 the Garden City Association was founded. Its aims were both to provide a new urban environment in small communities of around 6,000 people within a garden city with a maximum population of 30,000 and, at the same time, revitalise the countryside. Howard's vision sought to combine urban amenities with rural beauty. In 1903 the First Garden City Company was farmed and, mainly through the initiative of Thomas Adams and Raymond Unwin, Letchworth was built in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The importance of agriculture, as a contributor to the national economy and as an employer of labour, declined during the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1831 agriculture, forestry and fisheries contributed 23.4 per cent of the total national income but this fell progressively during the remainder of the century: 20.3 per cent in 1851, 14.6 per cent in 1871, 8.6 per cent in 1891 and 6.1 per cent in 1901. The benefits that High Farming brought to the landed interest were short lived and illusory. Those who opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 were proved correct in the 1870s and 1880s when British farmers found that they could not compete with foreign imports. Faced by falling profits farmers either adapted or went under.


[1] Most of the general textbooks on economic and social history provide a useful discussion of farming in this period: see section 4.1 of the bibliography. However, for this research you will need greater detail. J.D. Chambers  and  G.E. Mingay The Agricultural  Revolution  1750-1880, Batsford, 1966 is the most straightforward introduction  to  the subject. E.L. Jones The Development  of  English Agriculture 1815-1873, Macmillan, 1968 is an invaluable bibliographical study for work before the mid-1960s. C.S. Orwin and E.H. Whetham History of  British Agriculture 1846-1914, David & Charles, 1964 and P.J.Perry (ed.) British Agriculture 1875-1914, Methuen, 1973 are useful for the end of the period.  G.E. Mingay (ed.) The Victorian Countryside, 2 volumes, Routledge,  1980  is  a collection of invaluable and readable  essays which contain much on the period. G.E. Mingay (ed.) The Agrarian History of England and Wales, volume 6, 1750-1850, CUP, 1989 and T.J. Collins (ed.) The Agrarian History of England and Wales, volume 7, 1850-1914, CUP, 2001 are similarly invaluable.

[2] In addition to textbooks you will need to examine more detailed monographs on industry. The  most straightforward study of British industry is A.E. Musson  The Growth of British Industry, Batsford, 1978. R. Church (ed.) The Dynamics of Victorian Business, Allen and Unwin, 1983 covers the period 1830-1880. For the  textile  industry S.D. Chapman The Cotton Industry  in the Industrial Revolution, Macmillan, 2nd ed.,  1987 and D.T. Jenkins and K.G. Ponting The British Wool Textile Industry 1770-1914, Scolar Press, 1987 are the more accessible introductions.   For the iron industry see T.S. Ashton Iron and Steel during the Industrial Revolution,  3rd ed., 1963, A.Birch The Economic History of the British Iron and Steel Industry 1784-1879, 1967 and J.R.Harris The British Iron  Industry 1700-1850,  Macmillan, 1988 which  summarises recent  research. Two  volumes  of the Oxford  history of the  coal industry  are  relevant  to this period:  M.W. Flinn A History of  the British Coal Industry, volume 2: The Industrial Revolution, OUP, 1984 and R. Church volume 3: Victorian Pre-Eminence 1830-1913,  OUP,  1986. B. Lewis Coal Mining in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, Longman, 1971 is  short, contains  useful sources and is good  on  social conditions.  The  simplest  analysis  of movements in the economy can be found  in S.G. Checkland The  Rise of Industrial Society  in England 1815-1885,  Longman, 1964. More  detailed  discussion  can be examined  in   A. Gayer, W.W. Rostow and A.J. Schwartz The Growth and Fluctuations of the British Economy 1790-1850. R. Church The Great Victorian Boom 1850-1873, Macmillan, 1975 and S.B. Saul The Myth of the Great Depression 1873-1896, Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1988 provide short analyses of these critical themes. D.H. Aldcroft and H.W. Richardson The British Economy 1870-1939, Macmillan, 1969 is more detailed

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