The Revolution In British Agriculture Essay Research

The Revolution In British Agriculture Essay, Research Paper

To what extent was there a revolution in British agriculture

between 1750 and 1815? The Oxford English Dictionary defines the

word "revolution" as "any fundamental change or reversal of

conditions". In the context of British Agriculture between 1750 and 1815

there was a change but it was slow and really a continuation of improvements

which go back much further. To call these changes "revolutionary" is

probably misguided. However, there was a gradual dissemination of new ideas and

methods. The factors which brought about the greatest changes in the existing

system were the adoption of new farming techniques, machines and methods and

the enclosure of open fields. New farming techniques consisted of

improvements in crop rotation, soil fertilisation, and selective breeding

allied with the development of new machinery. Four names are commonly

associated with these innovations; Jethro Tull (1674-1741) is best remembered

for the invention of the seed drill which planted in rows rather than

broadcasting, thus allowing hoeing between the rows. (Tull’s book

"Horse-Hoeing Husbandry was published in 1733.) Charles Townshend

(1674-1738) introduced marl – a mixture of clay and lime – to his sandy Norfolk

estates. He advocated the use of turnips as fodder as an addition to traditional

rotational crops. Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) pioneered selective breeding and

developed quick-fattening sheep for mutton. Thomas Coke (1752-1842) set out to

educate farmers in new methods. He initiated agricultural shows and encouraged

his tenant farmers to improve their methods by granting them long leases. The

real achievement of all of them was the publicity their innovations attracted. These new ideas spread slowly. Many had

originated in Holland and taken root in Norfolk and the eastern counties. There

was however a marked difference between the east and west of England. The

potential for progress was greater on the eastern sandy soil. In the west the

lighter soil was found on higher ground and once it could be fertilised cereals

could be grown there more cheaply than on the heavy clays of the lowland areas

which required more labour-intensive ploughing. On lower ground the working

season was shorter, root-crops did not grow as well, and it was too wet for

livestock in winter. During the 18th century there was a marked expansion into

formerly barren uplands while the clay lowlands were turned to grass, providing

more land for fattening and dairying cattle which would previously have been

slaughtered at the beginning of the winter. This in turn meant fresh rather

than salted beef. Improved methods of manuring also improved crop yields. New

crops such as turnips, root vegetables and legumes like clover, sanfoin,

trefoil and lucerne meant that more stock could be kept, producing more dung

which improved soil fertility. Soil was dressed with clay-marl, sand, or chalk,

depending on the soils natural deficiencies. Near the coast seaweed was used,

near textile-centres waste rags, around Sheffield bone and horn waste from

making cutlery handles, and from the large cities came the street sweepings and

the contents of privies. In 1750 much of the British countryside was

farmed by an open field system. This suited a system geared to subsistence

farming. Large open fields were divided into strips either owned by freeholders

or rented from the local squire by tenants. However, open field farming was

wasteful. It often meant long walks between a farmer’s different parcels of

land and the loss of acreage to paths and tracks among the fields. It

encouraged the spread of weeds and plant diseases. Fields were susceptible to

damage from unfenced animals which also made selective breeding impossible. This open field system was not found

everywhere. Enclosure meant joining the strips of open field to make larger compact

pieces of land. Half the country was already enclosed, especially the areas

catering for the markets of large cities such as London. Some farmers had

bought or exchanged land in order to facilitate enclosure. The extent of this

enclosure is difficult to document as opposed to the later Parliamentary

enclosures which were the climax of the transformation of British agriculture.

There were two great periods of enclosure -the 1760s and ’70s and the period of

the Napoleonic Wars from 1793-1815. In both cases the timing was due to the

opportunities for greater profits due to high cereal prices and the initiative

was taken by large landowners. Prior to 1740 most land was enclosed by

agreement between the major landowners but where smaller landowners opposed it

an Act of Parliament had to be obtained. After 1750 this became the accepted

practice. However, obtaining an Act of Enclosure could be a lengthy and

expensive procedure. The effects of enclosure were both economic

and social. Enclosure facilitated new agricultural methods and led to more land

under cultivation. It enabled livestock farming to work in tandem with arable

farming and encouraged selective breeding. However, it meant a decline in the

number of small landowners and cottagers and many farm labourers left for the

industrialising cities. This migration away from the land was compensated for

by the increased volume and regularity of employment for those who remained.

There was still little labour saving machinery and enclosure meant work putting

up fences and hedges, building new farms, and making roads to transport the

increased volume of produce. The numbers engaged in agriculture rose from 1.7

million in 1801 to 2.1 million in 1851, but this did not match the increase in

agricultural output. This meant that farm labourers were becoming more

productive, which coupled with the rise in population, released workers from

the land. When assessing the changes in agriculture

between 1750 and 1815 it is also important to look at its relationship with

industry. In fact there were no direct links – both helped each other. True,

the growth in population created a greater demand for agricultural products but

at the same time farmers embraced new methods and often helped to finance

improved transport systems which allowed them to feed the workers of the

ever-expanding industrial cities. Landowners exploited the mineral deposits

under their land, or used it for developing urban estates. Money was also moved

from country banks to the cities. At the same time some industrialists invested

in agriculture, sensing the possibility of high profits. In conclusion it can be seen that in as

much as there was an agrarian revolution between 1750 and 1815 it was a slow

one, and a continuation of earlier changes. There was a diffusion of new ideas

, but it was hindered by the considerable regional differences in agricultural

practice. However, the uniquely English system of landholding was well suited

to change. Large landowners had the capital to invest in innovation. It was in

the interest of the tenant-farmers to change their existing methods and there

was a large rural labour force on hand to carry out the changes. The end of the

open field system and the enclosure of previously unusable land meant that

during this period the acreage of cultivable land increased. Finally, all this

meant that agriculture was able to sustain the increased demand for food caused

by the growth in population, while itself reaping some of the rewards of The

Industrial Revolution. (1233 words.) SOURCES.


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