Welcome back to our series on the history of Agriculture in Britain! Our first post explained the history from its origins up to 1750. This post will focus on the time between that and 1939, just before the start of the Second World War. This period was one of ups and downs for Britain, society was in constant upheaval and developments around the world would start to affect the British Isles through its empire.
Agriculture in Britain 1750-1873
During this century, the British population had multiplied from 5.7 million to 16.6 million, almost tripling in size. This was a great thing for the economy and strength of Britain, however, this great increase in population also required feeding.
The British managed to achieve this by intensifying agriculture and continuing the Norman policy of reclaiming land for farming purposes. securing Woodlands, fens and pastures that laid upland. Barley begun to be replaced by both Rye and Wheat in order to create more useable food Legumes were also used in order to create sustainably increasing yields.
At the same time, Capitalism started to take hold in the agricultural industry as transportation improved and more regional markets, as well as the national market grew. This meant that farmers were no longer forced to sell at low prices if the market was overstocked. They were now able to go to neighbouring regions and sell for higher prices where there was more demand and lower supply.
This also encouraged the farmers to lower the cost of production as much as possible in order to make as much profit as possible and thus buy more land and produce more. This meant paying labour less and using the latest farming tools and innovations to speed up production and lower costs. This also meant however, that the increased production of food didn’t require as much extra manpower due to the efficiency brought about by these changes.
The only great period of downturn for agriculture was between the end of the Napolenic Wars (1815) and 1836, when Britain suffered a large depression. This was due to the post-war period of less useable manpower and labour, as well as society becoming less rural and more urbanised. This depression clearly outlined how futile the old landlord and tenant system was to use in the new capitalist society, those farms that were still under this rule suffered great financial ruin, both to the owners and renters, leaving hectares of farmland abandoned across the country.
Parliament had to create new measures to hold farmlands to in order to keep the population supplied with enough food. One of these were the Corn laws 1815-1846, which imposed higher taxes on grains imported from overseas. This succeeded in aiding farmlands within the country, though it did raise prices for those living in Urban areas as it was previously cheaper for them to import than to transport from the rural land. Another measure was to standardise the rights of tenants, which were normally down to local traditions and customs and no real law concerning this was in place.
These measures aided in making British agriculture one of the best industries in the world for many years.
Agriculture in Britain 1873-1939
In 1873 however, this all changed. The American Civil War had ended in 1865, which meant the American prairies were now free to farm and harvest and at the same time, steam trains, and specifically steam boats started to become commonplace. This meant American could now flood the world with grains and cereal at an incredibly cheap price and undercut domestic farms. Britain suffered a depression of its agricultural industry that lasted until 1896.
With bad luck, at the same time, Britain suffered a row of bad harvests in 1875, 1877, 1878 and 1879. These disguised the real cause of the depression at the time and parliament did nothing to try and stem the flow of produce from other countries, believing that only the bad harvests were causing the depression. Also, around 1891 refrigeration technology became reliable enough that meat could be imported from across the new world and this eroded the production of livestock in Britain.
Parliament once again tried to intervene in tenant’s right in order to allow the tenants more compensation for higher yields by improvements they had made to the farm as well as other benefits. Landlords reacted against this by hiring labourers for cheaper and leaving the land untenanted. Parliament responded by making this illegal. Parliament then continued to create more rights for tenants in multiple subsequent laws over the next few decades.
In 1885, the Digging Plough was created which enabled farms to be more efficient with land-turning and planting. In 1889 The Board of Agriculture was established by Parliament in order to be a dedicated service for the agricultural industry and provide Parliament with detailed knowledge of the industry’s health.
During the First World War, in 1916, the Ministry of Food was created in order to improve food security and ensure the population was not starving. Rationing wasn’t required until the end of 1917 and 1918 however, with Britain’s agriculture and stockpiles doing enough to secure the country for a few years. In 1919 the Board of Agriculture and Ministry of Food were combined to create MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). In 1926 agricultural law shifted in favour of ex-servicemen, giving them greater rights to hold land and farms to provide them a livelihood after the war.
This concludes this post on British Agricultural History, however, we will be back with the final chapter soon!