The Changing Face of the Countryside Agricultural Improvements

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The Changing Face of the Countryside

Agricultural Improvements
Many pages of history books are filled with the deeds of a few politicians, soldiers, sailors and the like -but the lives of the remainder of the population, though not so glamorous, were devoted to no less important matters. Farming was the main occupation of the British in the eighteenth century, and the same was true of all the peoples of the world at that time. The village and its agriculture was the backbone of the nation. Therefore changes in farming methods could, if widely adopted, affect the lives of millions. In the seventeenth century, there were agricultural changes in plenty. For example, much extra land was brought into cultivation by draining marshes and fenland, new root crops and artificial grasses were introduced, and pasture was improved by flooding water-meadows in the springtime -which helped to increase the number and quality of livestock. Such improvements were taken further and added to in the eighteenth century.
The ‘open field’ village

Around 1700 most of the cultivated land in the Midlands and South was still being farmed in ‘open fields’, as it had been since the Middle Ages. Numerous villages in these regions were surrounded by three great, hedgeless fields which contained all the arable (plough) land. The fields were divided into separate strips, which were shared out among the villagers according to the amount of land they owned or rented. Traditional methods of ploughing had fixed the size of strips. A ‘furrow long’ or furlong of 220 yards (roughly 200 meters) was about as far as a team of oxen could plough before resting and turning round. The width of the average strip was about 20 meters, which gave it an area of an acre. The separate strips making up each family’s total holding were scattered about the fields so that good soil could be evenly distributed.

Each family cultivated its own land, but some of the work was best done on a community basis. Families ploughed the fields in groups, each contributing a share to the ploughing team -usually one of the oxen. Two of the fields were normally devoted to corn crops -rye, barley, oats or wheat. The third normally remained fallow (left unsown after ploughing) so that the soil could recover its richness after two consecutive years of cultivation. The fallow period therefore came to each field in rotation, one year out of three, which meant that only two-thirds of the arable land was cultivated at any time. In addition to the three fields, there were commons and wastelands, on which the villagers’ livestock grazed in the summer, and meadows, which provided hay for their winter feed.

The open field method of farming was probably started in Britain by the Anglo-Saxon settlers in the fifth century, but we cannot be sure. Some historians think it existed in Britain before the time of Christ. It was still common in many parts of Europe in the eighteenth century, by which time it had also been introduced into the New World by the early colonists. Its long history is understandable, because it was ideally suited to the simple community life of teh countryside before the modern industrial age. It made possible the sharing out of each new piece of land as it was brought into cultivation. Above all, it allowed for co-operative ploughing, which was necessary in an age when few families owned either a plough or sufficient oxen to make up a ploughing team.

Nevertheless, open field farming had its drawbacks. It was wasteful of land. The fallow field produced nothing, and, even in the other fields, land was wasted on numerous paths and cart tracks and often by grass spaces or ‘balks’ which separated one strip from another. It was wasteful of labour, for the fallow field had to be ploughed even though it was not sown. It was also wasteful of time. Families continually travelled from one part of the village to another to cultivate their scattered strips. The raising livestock was often handicapped by the open field system. Animals mingled together on the commons and wasteland, spreading diseases and making selective breeding very difficult. There was often insufficient hay to feed all the animals in winter, so some had to be killed off in the autumn and their meat salted. Those that were carried through to the spring were frequently so weak and undersized on their scanty diet of hay that they had to be carried into the fields when grazing was resumed.

The open field system was no longer as rigid as it had been in the Middle Ages. In some areas manures were used to enrich the soil and make the fallow period unnecessary. Some farmers managed to introduce new crops on their strips, and even selective breeding of livestock was practised in fenced-off portions of pasture. Nevertheless it was not easy to introduce new methods, because it was usually necessary for the whole village to agree to them.

The difficulty in experimenting with new methods had not mattered so much in previous centuries. Then the main concern of the people had been to produce enough for their own needs (‘subsistence’ farming). However, by the eighteenth century, the old methods were unsuited to producing large surpluses of food for the rapidly growing towns. The decline of the open field village, which began long before 1700, was therefore accelerated.
New methods and ‘improving landlords’
Interest in experimental farming had been aroused by seventeenth century travellers to the Continent. They had been impressed by the advances made in countries like the Netherlands, where good agricultural land was too scarce to be wasted by inefficient methods of cultivation. By the mid-eighteenth century, the search for better farming techniques in Britain was further encouraged by the need to feed a quickly growing population -although an important reason for the population increase in the first place was the improved diet made possible by earlier agricultural advances. The population almost doubled in the reign of George III (1760-1820). Most of the increase was in the towns, which depended on the surplus produce of the countryside. Landlords saw that they could make handsome profits if they could find ways of producing a greater surplus for sale. To help increase the productivity of their land they converted open fields into separate, enclosed units so that the latest farming techniques could be freely used.

Many ‘improvers’ published accounts of their experiments. One of the best known of the earlier writers was Jethro Tull (1674-1741). On his Berkshire estate he applied some of the methods he had observed abroad, especially in the French vineyards, and described them in The New Horse-Hoeing Husbandry (1731). Tull believed that fallow periods could be cut out altogether if the soil was properly ploughed and then regularly hoed while the crops were growing. He invented a horse-drawn hoe which penetrated deeper into the ground than the old-fashioned harrow, so that the roots were kept moist and harmful weeds cleared.

Tull, along with many other farmers, was very critical of the old-fashioned method of sowing seed by broadcasting (throwing it in handfuls on to the ploughed land). Tull’s answer was to invent a horse-drawn seed-drill, which sowed seeds in rows at a regular depth.

There were other ways of avoiding wasteful fallows, apart from those suggested by Tull. Some enterprising farmers, in the seventeenth century, had copied the Dutch method of growing corn and root crops alternately on the same land. Roots, such as turnips and swedes, take their nourishment from the soil at a deeper level than grain crops. Therefore, they can be grown straight after corn and still leave the upper soil refreshed for another corn crop in the following year.

The idea was popularised by Charles, Lord Townshend (1674-1738), a diplomat turned farmer. Because he was a well-known public figure he attracted widespread interest and influenced other farmers. He began by improving the quality of the soil, by draining it and adding manure and marl (a mixture of clay and lime). Farmers using Townshend’s methods found that they produced so much animal feed that their livestock no longer had to be slaughtered in the autumn. Fresh meat could be eaten all year round, replacing salted meat during the winter months.

A more plentiful supply of winter feed made it possible to breed better quality livestock. But a good diet could never be sufficient in itself. Separate enclosed pastures were required so that different breeds of animals could be isolated from each other. In enclosures, breeding could be carefully controlled and the spread of disease greatly reduced.

Sheep- and cattle-farmers had previously concentrated on producing wool and milk, but now they aimed to produce high quality meat as well. They experimented with cross-breeding and before long succeeded in greatly increasing the amount of flesh on those parts of the animals which yielded the best cuts. In 1700 most animals were small and stringy, but by 1800 better care and selective breeding sometimes produced beasts which weighed from two to three times heavier than those a century earlier.

The reign of George III (1760-1820) saw the experimental approach to farming well established. The King himself played a part in popularising new methods. He turned part of Windsor Park into a model farm, and his enthusiasm for agricultural improvements earned him the nickname of Farmer George.

The spread of enclosure

Improvements in soil preparation, crop rotation and stock-breeding usually required the enclosure of farmland. When land was enclosed, open fields, commons and wastelands were converted intoa number of separate compact farms by means of fences, hedges and ditches.

Up to about 1740 enclosure normally took place as a result of general agreement among the villagers. If the whole village was owned by one landlord it was even simpler. However, as the century progressed, there remained many landlords who were keen to enclose their land but were prevented from doing so by the opposition of smallholders. The latter feared they would not be able to farm their land on their own, and they were reluctant to give up their right to use the common pasture. Landlords, sometimes overcame stubborn smallholders by buying up their land, but this could be a long and expensive process. They grew impatient and began to seek private Acts of Parliament which made enclosure compulsory, so long as a sufficient proportion of the landowners were in favour.

To obtain an Enclosure Act, the owners of at least four-fifths of the land of the village had to send a petition to Parliament. When the Bill had been passed by Parliament -usually a formality- a group of Parliamentary Commissioners visited the village. They investigated all claims to a share of the land, settled disputes, and eventually produced a map showing each landowner’s allocation and the position of roads and paths. It seemed a fair procedure, but it worked to the advantage of wealthy landlords and often ignored the wishes of scores of smallholders. Many villagers had no legal documents to prove their ownership of land and their claims were ignored by the Commissioners as a result. Even if they could prove ownership, they were often unable to afford the expense of hedging and ditching and their share of the Commissioners’ fees. They were forced to sell out to the highest bidder.

The number of Enclosure Acts increased sharply after 1760 and after about 1810 began to fall. By the mid-nineteenth century, open field villages had become a rarity.
Some results of enclosure

Enclosures did not automatically lead to better farming. It had been common for centuries in much of the North and West, yet these parts of the country were relatively backward in their farming methods. However in the flatter, more fertile regions of the South and Midlands most agricultural improvements were introduced on enclosed farms. They brought about great changes in the diet of the average family. Not only was a greater quantity of food produced, but also a wider variety. More vegetables were grown, including potatoes, which became a basic part of the diet in this period. Improvements in the care of livestock resulted in more milk and dairy produce and fresh instead of salted meat in winter.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the growth of industrial towns made it necessary for agriculture to be run more on ‘business’ lines -in the same way as iron, coal or textiles. Even after the land was enclosed, the bigger landlords still tried to buy out the smaller ones so as to increase the scale of their farming. As often happens when traditional ways of life are upset, many poor people suffered. Those who had no land or were forced to sell out had lost their ‘little piece of England’, and with it much of their security and self-respect.

There were anti-enclosure riots among the landless poor, in spite of the harsh punishments, such as death or transportation, inflicted on the ringleaders.

This conflict between agricultural improvement and social distress can be seen in the works of Arthur Young, the leading agricultural writer and journalist of the period. From 1767 onwards, he travelled widely in England and on the Continent, noting improvements and their effects. He helped set up the Board of Agriculture (1793) of which he became Secretary.

The loss of grazing rights on the commons and wastelands was a severe blow to the poorer villagers. These pastures, where they often kept a cow and a few geese or poultry, were almost as valuable to them as the strips they cultivated. They were sometimes given tiny plots of land in return, but these were too small to be of much value. Enclosure, by concentrating the ownership of land into fewer hands, added to the class of landless labourers. Their numbers were already increasing in any case as a result of the rapid growth of population after about 1750. Where industrial towns were within easy reach, some labourers left the countryside and went to work in factories; but most of them, especially in the South, stayed on the land to work for wages. There was plenty of work on enclosed estates, and as the amount of land under cultivation increased more families earned their living from farming. But despite the growing prosperity of landowners, the wages paid to labourers were pitifully low and often had to be made up to the necessary minimum level out of the parish rates.

(adapted from)

BRITAIN SINCE 1700 (1996) by RJ Cootes (chapt. 5)

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