1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agriculture/History of English Agriculture
History of English Agriculture
The “combined” or “common-field” system of husbandry practised by the village community or township (see Village Communities) may be taken as the starting-point of English agriculture, in which, till the end of the 18th century, it is a dominant influence. The territory of the “township” consisted of arable land, meadow, pasture and waste. The arable land was divided into two or, more usually, three fields, which were cut up into strips bounded by balks and allotted to the villagers in such a way that one holding might include several disconnected strips in each field—a measure designed to prevent the whole of the best land falling to one man. The fields were fenced in from seed-time to harvest, after which the fences were taken down and the cattle turned in to feed on the stubble. According to early methods of cropping, which were destined to prevail for centuries, wheat, the chief article of food, was sown in one autumn, reaped the next August; the following spring, oats or barley were sown, and the year following the harvest was a period of fallow. This procedure was followed on each of the three fields so that in every year one of them was fallow. In addition to the cereals, beans, peas and vetches were grown to some extent. The meadow-land was also divided into strips from which the various holders drew their supply of hay. The pasture-land was common to all, though the number of beasts which one man might turn into it was sometimes limited. Rough grazing could also be had on the outlying waste lands. In the absence of artificial grasses and roots, hay was Very valuable; it constituted almost the only winter food for live stock, which were consequently in poor condition in spring.
Under the manorial system, the rise of which preceded the Norman Conquest, communal methods of husbandry remained, but the position of the cultivator was radically altered. “Villeins,” instead of free-holders, formed the most numerous class of the population. They were bound to the soil and occupied holdings of scattered strips (amounting usually to a virgate or 30 acres) in return for a payment partly in labour and partly in kind. A portion of the manor, generally about a third, constituted the lord’s demesne, which, though sometimes separate, usually consisted of strips intermingled with those of his villeins. It thus formed part of the common farm and was cultivated by the villeins and their oxen under the superintendence of a bailiff. Below the villeins in the social scale came the cottiers possessing smaller holdings, sometimes only a garden, and no oxen. Free tenants and, after the Norman Conquest, slaves formed small proportions of the population. During the middle ages cattle and sheep were the chief farm animals, but the inter-mixture of stock consequent on the common-field system was a barrier to improvement in the breed and conduced to the propagation of disease. Oxen, usually yoked in teams of eight, were used for ploughing. Sheep were small and their fleeces light, nevertheless, owing to the meagreness of the yields of cereals and the demand for wool for export, sheep-farming was looked to, as early as the 12th century, as the chief source of profit. Pigs and poultry were universally kept. The treatise on husbandry of Walter of Henley, dating from the early 13th century, is very valuable as describing the management of the demesne under the two- or three-field system. The following are typical passages:—
“April is a good season for fallowing, if the earth breaks up behind the plough; for second fallowing after St John’s Day when the dust rises behind the plough; for seed-ploughing when the earth is well settled and not too cracked; however, the busy man cannot be always waiting on the seasons.” “At sowing do not plough large furrows, but little and well laid together, that the seed may fall evenly.”
“Know that an acre sown with wheat takes three ploughing, except lands that are sown each year, and that each ploughing costs 6d. more or less and the harrowing 1d. It is well to sow at least two bushels to the acre.”
“Change your seed every year at Michaelmas, for the seed grown on other land will bring you more than that grown on your own."
“Neither sell your stubble nor move it from the ground unless you need it for thatching. Have manure put up in heaps and mixed with earth.”
“Ridge marshy ground so as to let the water run off.”
During the 13th century there arose a tendency to commute labour-rents for money payments. This change led to the gradual disappearance of tenants in villeinage—the villeins and cottiers—and the rise on the one hand of the small independent farmer, on the other of the hired labourer. The plague of 1348 marks an epoch in English agriculture. The diminution of the population by one-half led to a scarcity of labour and an increase of wages which deprived the landowner of his narrow margin of profit. To meet this situation, the Statute of Labourers (1351) enacted that no man should refuse to work at the same rate of wages as prevailed before the plague. In addition the landowners attempted to revive the disappearing system of labour-rents. The bitter feelings engendered between employer and employed culminated in the peasants’ revolt of 1381. Meanwhile large numbers of landowners were forced to adopt one of two alternatives. In some cases they ceased to farm their own land and let it out on lease often together with the stock upon it; or else they abandoned arable culture, laid down their demesnes to pasture, enclosed the waste lands and devoted themselves to sheep-farming. In the latter course they were encouraged by the high prices of wool during the 14th century, and by Edward III.’s policy of fostering both the export of wool and the home manufacture of woollen goods. The 15th century, barren of progress in methods of husbandry, was in its early years moderately prosperous. Later on the increasing abandonment of arable husbandry for sheep-farming brought about a less demand for labour, and rural depopulation was accelerated as the peasant was deprived of his grazing-ground by the enclosure of more and more of the waste land.
From the beginning of the reign of Henry VII. to the end of Elizabeth’s, a number of statutes were made for the encouragement of tillage, though probably to little purpose. “Where in some Agriculture
Stuarts. towns,” says the statute 4th Henry VII. (1488), “two hundred persons were occupied and lived of their lawful labours, now there are occupied two or three herdsmen, and the residue fall into idleness”; therefore it is ordained that houses which within three years have been let for farms, with twenty acres of land lying in tillage or husbandry, shall be upheld, under the penalty of half the profits, to be forfeited to the king or the lord of the fee. Almost half a century afterwards the practice had become still more alarming; and in 1534 a new act was tried, apparently with as little success. “Some have 24,000 sheep, some 20,000 sheep, some 10,000, some 6000, some 4000, and some more and some less”; and yet it is alleged the price of wool had nearly doubled, “sheep being come to a few persons’ hands.” A penalty was therefore imposed on all who kept above 2000 sheep; and no person was to take in farm more than two tenements of husbandry. By the 39th Elizabeth (1597) arable land made pasture since the 1st Elizabeth shall be again converted into tillage, and what is arable shall not be converted into pasture.
The literature of agriculture, in abeyance since the treatise of Walter of Henley, makes another beginning in the 16th century. The best of the early works is the Book of Husbandry (1st ed. 1523), commonly ascribed to Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, a judge of the Common Pleas in the reign of Henry VIII., but more probably written by his elder brother John. This was followed by the Book of Surveying and Improvements (1523), by the same author. In the former treatise we have a clear and minute description of the rural practices of that period, and from the latter may be learned a good deal of the economy of the feudal system in its decline.
The Book of Husbandry begins with a description of the plough and other implements, after which about a third part of it is occupied with the several operations as they succeed one another throughout the year. Among other passages in this part of the work, the following deserve notice:—
“Somme (ploughs) wyll tourn the sheld bredith at every landsende, and plowe all one way”; the same kind of plough that is now found so useful on hilly grounds. Of wheel-ploughs he observes, that “they be good on even grounde that lyeth lyghte”; and on such lands they are still most commonly employed. Cart-wheels were sometimes bound with iron, of which he greatly approves. On the much agitated question about the employment of horses or oxen in labour, the most important arguments are distinctly stated.
“In some places,” he says, “a horse plough is better,” and in others an oxen plough, to which, upon the whole, he gives the preference. Beans and peas seem to have been common crops. He mentions the different kinds of wheat, barley and oats; and after describing the method of harrowing “all maner of cornnes,” we find the roller employed. “They used to role their barley grounde after a showr of rayne, to make the grounde even to mowe.” Under the article “To falowe,” he observes, “the greater clottes (clods) the better wheate, for the clottes kepe the wheat warme all wynter; and at March they will melte and breake and fal in manye small peces, the whiche is a new dongynge and refreshing of the corne.” This is agreeable to the present practice, founded on the very same reasons. “In May, the shepe folde is to be set out”; but Fitzherbert does not much approve of folding, and points out its disadvantages in a very judicious manner. “In the latter end of May and the begynnynge of June, is tyme to wede the corne”; and then we have an accurate description of the different weeds, and the instruments and mode of weeding. Next comes a second ploughing of the fallow; and afterwards, in the latter end of June, the mowing of the meadows begins. Of this operation, and of the forks and rakes and the haymaking there is a very good account. The corn harvest naturally follows: rye and wheat were usually shorn, and barley and oats cut with the scythe. The writer does not approve of the common practice of cutting wheat high and then mowing the stubbles. “In Somersetshire,” he says, “they do shere theyr wheat very lowe; and the wheate strawe that they purpose to make thacke of, they do not threshe it, but cut off the ears, and bynd it in sheves, and call it rede, and therewith they thacke theyr houses.” He recommends the practice of setting up corn in shocks, with two sheaves to cover eight, mstead of ten sheaves as at present—probably owing to the straw being then shorter. The corn was commonly housed; but if there be a want of room, he advises that the ricks be built on a scaffold and not upon the ground. The fallow received a third ploughing in September, and was sown about Michaelmas. “Wheat is moost commonlye sowne under the forowe, that is to say, cast it uppon the falowe, and then plowe it under”; and this branch of his subject is concluded with directions about threshing, winnowing and other kinds of barn-work.
Fitzherbert next proceeds to live stock. “An housbande,” he says, “can not well thryue by his corne without he have other cattell, nor by his cattell without corne. And bycause that shepe, in myne opynyon, is the mooste profytablest cattell that any man can haue, therefore I pourpose to speake fyrst of shepe.” His remarks on this subject are so accurate that one might imagine they came from a store master of the present day.
In some places at present “they neuer seuer their lambes from their dammes”; “and the poore of the peeke (high) countreye, and such other places, where, as they vse to mylke theyr ewes, they vse to wayne theyr lambes at 12 weekes olde, and to mylke their ewes fiue or syxe weekes”; but that, he observes, “is greate hurte to the ewes, and wyll cause them that they wyll not take the ramme at the tyme of the yere for pouertye, but goo barreyne.” “In June is tyme to shere shepe; and ere they be shorne, they must be verye well washen, the which shall be to the owner greate profyte in the sale of his wool, and also to the clothe-maker.”
His remarks on horses, cattle, &c., are not less interesting; and there is a very good account of the diseases of each species, and some just observations on the advantage of mixing different kinds on the same pasture. Swine and bees conclude this branch of the work.
The author then points out the great advantages of enclosure; recommends “quycksettynge, dychynge and hedgeyng”; and gives particular directions about settes', and the method of training a hedge, as well as concerning the planting and management of trees. Fitzherbert throws some light on the position of women in the agriculture of his day. “It is a wyues occupation,” he says, “to wynowe all maner of cornes, to make malte, to washe and wrynge, to make heye, shere corne, and, in time of nede, to helpe her husbande to fyll the mucke wayne or dounge carte, dryue the ploughe, to loode heye, corne and suche other; and to go or ride to the market to sel butter, chese, mylke, egges, chekyns, capons, hennes, pygges, gese, and all maner of cornes.”
The Book of Surveying adds considerably to our knowledge of the rural economy of that age. “Four maner of commens” are described; several kinds of mills for corn and other purposes, and also “quernes that goo with hand”; different orders of tenants, down to the “boundmen,” who “in some places contynue as yet”; “and many tymes, by colour thereof, there be many freemen taken as boundmen, and their lands and goods is taken from them.” Lime and marl are mentioned as common manures, and the former was sometimes spread on the surface to destroy heath. Both draining and irrigation are noticed, though the latter but slightly. And the work concludes with an inquiry how to make a township that is worth XX. marke a yere, worth XX. li. a year,” advocating the transition from communal or open field to individual or enclosure farming.
“It is undoubted, that to every townshyppe that standeth in tyllage in the playne countrey, there be errable landes to plowe and sowe, and leyse to tye or tedder theyr horses and mares upon, and common pasture to kepe and pasture their catell, beestes and shepe upon; and also they have medowe grounde to get theyr hey upon. Than to let it be known how many acres of errable lande euery man hath in tyllage, and of the same acres in euery felde to chaunge with his neyghbours, and to leve them toguyther, and to make hym one seuerall close in euery felde for his errable lands; and his leyse in euery felde to leve them togyther in one felde, and to make one seuerall close for them all. And also another seuerall close for his portion of his common pasture, and also his porcion of his medowe in a seuerall close by itselfe, and al kept in seureall both in wynter and somer; and euery cottage shall haue his portion assigned hym accordynge to his rent, and than shall nat the ryche man ouerpresse the poore man with his cattell; and euery man may eate his oun close at his pleasure. And vndoubted, that hay and strawe that will find one beest in the house wyll finde two beestes in the close, and better they shall lyke. For those beestis in the house have short heare and thynne, and towards March they will pylle and be bare; and therefore they may nat abyde in the fylde before the heerdmen in winter tyme for colde. And those that lye in a close under a hedge haue longe heare and thyck, and they will neuer pylle nor be bare: and by this reason the husbande maye keoe twyse so many catell as he did before.
“This is the cause of this approwment. Nowe euery husbande hath sixe seuerall closes, whereof iii. be for corne, the fourthe for his leyse, the fyfte for his commen pastures, and the sixte for his haye; and in wynter time there is but one occupied with corne, and than hath the husbande other fyue to occupiy tyll lente come, and that he hath his falowe felde, his ley felde, and his pasture felde al sommer. And when he hath mowen his medowe, then he hath his medowe grounde, soo that if he hath any weyke catell that wold be amended, or dyvers maner of catell, he may put them in any close he wyll, the which is a great advantage; and if all shulde lye commen, than wolde the edyche of the corne feldes and the aftermath of all the medowes be eaten in X. or XII. dayes. And the rych men that hath moche catell wold have the advantage, and the poore man can have no help nor relefe in wynter when he hath moste nede; and if an acre of lande be worthe sixe pens, or it be enclosed, it will be worth VIII. pens, when it is enclosed by reason of the compostying and dongyng of the catell that shall go and lye upon it both day and nighte; and if any of his thre closes that he hath for his corne be worne or ware bare, than he may breke and plowe up his close that he hadde for his layse, or the close that he hadde for his commen pasture, or bothe, and sowe them with corne, and let the other lye for a time, and so shall he have always reist grounde, the which will bear moche corne with lytel donge; and also he shall have a great profyte of the wod in the hedges whan it is growen; and not only these profytes and advantages beforesaid, but he shall save moche more than al these, for by reason of these closes he shall save meate, drinke and wages of a shepherde, the wages of the heerdmen, and the wages of the swine herde, the which may fortune to be as chargeable as all his holle rente; and also his corne shall be better saved from eatinge or destroyeng with catel. For dout ye nat but heerdemen with their catell, shepeherdes with their shepe, and tieng of horses and mares, destroyeth moch corne, the which the hedges wold save. Paraduenture some men would say that this shuld be against the common weale, bicause the shepeherdes, heerdmen and swyne-herdes shuld than be put out of wages. To that it may be answered. though these occupations be not used, there be as many newe occupations that were not used before; as getting of quicke settes. diching, hedging and plashing, the which the same men may use and occupye.”
The next author who writes professedly on agriculture is Thomas Tusser, whose Five Hundred Points of Husbandry, published in 1562, enjoyed such lasting repute that in 1723 Lord Molesworth recommended that it should be taught in schools. In it the book of husbandry consists of 118 pages, and then follows the Points of Housewifrie, occupying 42 pages more. It is written in verse. Amidst much that is valueless there are some useful notices concerning the state of agriculture at the time in different parts of England. Hops, which had been introduced in the early part of the 16th century, and on the culture of which a treatise was published in 1574 by Reginald Scott, are mentioned as a well-known crop. Buckwheat was sown after barley. Hemp and flax are mentioned as common crops. Enclosures must have been numerous in some counties; and there is a very good comparison between “champion (open fields) country and several,” which Blith afterwards transcribed into his Improver Improved. Carrots, cabbages, turnips and rape, not yet cultivated in the fields, are mentioned among the herbs and roots for the kitchen. There is nothing to be found in Tusser about serfs or bondmen, as in Fitzherbert’s works.
In 1577 appeared the Foure Bookes of Husbandry, translated, with augmentation, from the work of Conrad Heresbach. Much stress is laid on the value of manure, and mention is made of clover.
Fitzherbert, in deploring the gradual discontinuance of the practice of marling land, had alluded to the grievance familiar in modern times of tenants “who, if they should marl and make their holdings much better, fear lest they should be put out, or make a great fine or else pay more rent.” This subject is treated at length in Sir John Norden's Surveyor's Dialogue (1st ed. 1607), the next agricultural work demanding notice. The author, writing from the landowner's point of view, ascribes the rise in rents and the rise in the price of corn to the “emulation” of tenants in competing for holdings, a practice implying that the agriculture of the period was prosperous. Norden's work contains many judicious observations on the “different natures of grounds, how they may be employed, how they may be bettered, reformed and amended.” The famous meadows near Salisbury are mentioned, where, when cattle have fed their fill, hogs, it is said, “are made fat with the remnant—namely, with the knots and sappe of the grasse.” “Clouer grasse, or the grasse honey suckle” (white clover), is directed to be sown with other hay seeds. “Carrot rootes” were then raised in several parts of England, and sometimes by farmers. London street and stable dung was carried to a distance by water, and appears from later writers to have been got for the trouble of removing. Leases of 21 years are recommended for persons of small capital as better than employing it in purchasing land. The works of Gervase Markham, Leonard Mascall, Gabriel Plattes and other authors of the first half of the 17th century may be passed over, the best part of them being preserved by Blith and Hartlib, who are referred to below.
Sir Richard Weston's Discourse on the Husbandry of Brabant and Flanders was published by Hartlib in 1645, and its title indicates the source to which England owed much of its subsequent agricultural advancement. Weston was ambassador from England to the elector palatine in 1619, and had the merit of being the first who introduced the great clover, as it was then called, into English agriculture, about 1652, and probably turnips also. Clover thrives best, he says, when you sow it on the barrenest ground, such as the worst heath ground in England. The ground is to be pared and burnt, and unslacked lime must be added to the ashes. It is next to be well ploughed and harrowed; and about 10 lb. of clover seed must be sown on an acre in April or the end of March. If you intend to preserve seed, then the second crop must be let stand till it come to a full and dead ripeness, and you shall have at the least five bushels per acre. Being once sown, it will last five years; the land, when ploughed, will yield, three or four years together, rich crops of wheat, and after that a crop of oats, with which clover seed is to be sown again. It is in itself an excellent manure, Sir Richard adds; and so it should be, to enable land to bear this treatment. Before 1655 the culture of clover, exactly according to the present method, seems to have been well known in England, and it had also made its way to Ireland.
A great many works on agriculture appeared during the time of the Commonwealth, of which Walter Blith's Improver Improved and Samuel Hartlib's Legacie are the most valuable. The first edition of the former was published in 1649, and of the latter in 1651; and both of them were enlarged in subsequent editions. In the first edition of the Improver Improved no mention is made of clover, nor in the second of turnips, but in the third, clover is treated of at some length, and turnips are recommended as an excellent cattle crop, the culture of which should be extended from the kitchen garden to the field. Sir Richard Weston must have cultivated turnips before this; for Blith says that Sir Richard affirmed to himself that he fed his swine with them. They were first given boiled, but afterwards the swine came to eat them raw, and would run after the carts, and pull them forth as they gathered them—an expression which conveys an idea of their being cultivated in the fields.
Blith’s book is the first systematic work in which there are some traces of alternate husbandry or the practice of interposing clover and turnip between culmiferous crops. He is a great enemy to commons and common fields, and to retaining land in old pasture, unless it be of the best quality. His description of the different kinds of ploughs is interesting; and he justly recommends such as were drawn by two horses (some even by one horse) in preference to the weighty and clumsy machines which required four or more horses or oxen. The following passage indicates the contemporary theory of manuring:—“In thy tillage are these special opportunities to improve it, either by liming, marling, sanding, earthing, mudding, snayl-codding, mucking, chalking, pidgeons-dung, hens-dung, hogs-dung or by any other means as some by rags, some by coarse wool, by pitch marks, and tarry stuff, any oyly stuff, salt and many things more, yea indeed any thing almost that hath any liquidness, foulness, saltness or good moysture in it, is very naturall inrichment to almost any sort of land.” Blith speaks of an instrument which ploughed, sowed and harrowed at the same time; and the setting of corn was then a subject of much discussion. Blith was a zealous advocate of drainage and holds that drains to be efficient must be laid 3 or 4 ft. deep. The drainage of the Great Level of the Fens was prosecuted during the 17th century, but lack of engineering skill and the opposition of the fen-men hindered the reclamation of a now fertile region.
Hartlib’s Legacie contains, among some very judicious directions, a great deal of rash speculation. Several of the deficiencies which the writer complains of in English agriculture must be placed to the account of climate, and never have been or can be supplied. Some of his recommendations are quite unsuitable to the state of the country, and display more of general knowledge and good intention than of either the theory or practice of agriculture. Among the subjects deserving notice may be mentioned the practice of steeping and liming seed corn as a preventive of smut; changing every year the species of grain, and bringing seed corn from a distance; ploughing down green crops as manure; and feeding horses with broken oats and chaff. This writer seems to differ a good deal from Blith about the advantage of interchanging tillage and pasture. “It were no losse to this island,” he says, “if that we should not plough at all, if so be that we could certainly have corn at a reasonable rate, and likewise vent for all our manufactures of wool”; and one reason for this is, that pasture employs more hands than tillage, instead of depopulating the country, as was commonly imagined. The grout, which he mentions as “coming over to us in Holland ships,” about which he desires information, was probably the same as shelled barley; and mills for manufacturing it were introduced into Scotland from Holland towards the beginning of the 18th century.
Among the other writers previous to the Revolution mention must be made of John Ray the botanist and of John Evelyn, both men of great talent and research, whose works are still in high estimation.
The first half of the 17th century was a period of agricultural activity, partly due, no doubt, to the increase of enclosed farms. Marling and liming are again practised, new agricultural implements and manures introduced, and the new crops more widely used. But the Civil War and the subsequent political disturbances intervened to prevent the continuance of this progress, and the agriculture of the end of the century seems to have relapsed into stagnation.
Of the state of agriculture in Scotland in the 16th and the greater part of the 17th century very little is known; no professed treatise on the subject appeared till after the Revolution. The south-eastern counties were the earliest improved,Scottish agriculture
of the 17th
century. and yet in 1660 their condition seems to have been very wretched. Ray, who made a tour along the eastern coast in that year, says, “We observed little or no fallow ground in Scotland; some ley ground we saw, which they manured with sea wreck. The men seemed to be very lazy, and may be frequently observed to plough in their cloaks. It is the fashion of them to wear cloaks when they go abroad, but especially on Sundays. They have neither good bread, cheese nor drink. They cannot make them, nor will they learn. Their butter is very indifferent, and one would wonder how they could contrive to make it so bad. They use much pottage made of coal-wort, which they call kait, sometimes broth of decorticated barley. The ordinary country-houses are pitiful cots, built of stone and covered with turfs, having in them but one room, many of them no chimneys, the windows very small holes and not glazed. The ground in the valleys and plains bear very good corn, but especially bears barley or bigge, and oats, but rarely wheat and rye.”
It is probable that no great change had taken place in Scotland from the end of the 15th century, except that tenants gradually became possessed of a little stock of their own, instead of having their farm stocked by the landlord. “The minority of James V., the reign of Mary Stuart, the infancy of her son, and the civil wars of her grandson Charles I., were all periods of lasting waste. The very laws which were made during successive reigns for protecting the tillers of the soil from spoil are the best proofs of the deplorable state of the husbandman.”
In the 17th century those laws were made which paved the way for an improved system of agriculture in Scotland. By a statute of 1633 landholders were enabled to have their tithes valued, and to buy them either at nine or six years’ purchase, according to the nature of the property. The statute of 1685, conferring on landlords a power to entail their estates, was indeed of a very different tendency in regard to its effects on agriculture. But the two Acts in 1695, for the division of commons and separation of intermixed properties, facilitated improvements.
From the Revolution to the accession of George III. the progress of agriculture was by no means so considerable as might be imagined from the great exportation of corn. It is probable that very little improvement had taken place,Progress
1760. either in the cultivation of the soil or in the management of live stock, from the Restoration down to the middle of the 18th century. Clover and turnips were confined to a few districts, and at the latter period were scarcely cultivated at all by common farmers in the northern part of the island. Of the writers of this period, therefore, it is necessary to notice only such as describe some improvement in the modes of culture, or some extension of the practices that were formerly little known.
In John Houghton’s Collections on Husbandry and Trade, a periodical work begun in 1681, there is one of the earliest notices of turnips being eaten by sheep:—“Some in Essex have their fallow after turnips, which feed their sheep in winter, by which means the turnips are scooped, and so made capable to hold dews and rain water, which, by corrupting, imbibes the nitre of the air, and when the shell breaks it runs about and fertilizes. By feeding the sheep, the land is dunged as if it had been folded; and those turnips, though few or none be carried off for human use, are a very excellent improvement, nay, some reckon it so, though they only plough the turnips in without feeding.” This was written in February 1694. Ten years before, John Worlidge, one of his correspondents, and the author of the Systema Agriculturae (1669), observes, “Sheep fatten very well on turnips, which prove an excellent nourishment for them in hard winters when fodder is scarce; for they will not only eat the greens, but feed on the roots in the ground, and scoop them hollow even to the very skin. Ten acres (he adds) sown with clover, turnips, &c., will feed as many sheep as one hundred acres thereof would before have done.”
The next writer of note is John Mortimer, whose Whole Art of Husbandry, a regular, systematic work of considerable merit, was published in 1707.
From the third edition of Hartlib’s Legacie we learn that clover was cut green and given to cattle; and it appears that this practice of soiling, as it is now called, had become very common about the beginning of the 18th century, wherever clover was cultivated. Rye-grass was now sown along with it. Turnips were hand-hoed and extensively employed in feeding sheep and cattle.
The first considerable improvement in the practice of that period was introduced by Jethro Tull, a gentleman of Berkshire, who about the year 1701 invented the drill, and whose Horsehoeing Husbandry, published in 1731, exhibits the first decided step in advance upon the principles and practices of his predecessors. Not contented with a careful attention to details, Tull set himself, with admirable skill and perseverance, to investigate the growth of plants, and thus to arrive at a knowledge of the principles by which the cultivation of field-crops should be regulated. Having arrived at the conclusion that the food of plants consists of minute particles of earth taken up by their rootlets, it followed that the more thoroughly the soil in which they grew was disintegrated, the more abundant would be the “pasture” (as he called it) to which their fibres would have access. He was thus led to adopt that system of sowing his crops in rows or drills, so wide apart as to admit of tillage of the intervals, both by ploughing and hoeing, being continued until they had well-nigh arrived at maturity. Such reliance did he place in the pulverization of the soil that he grew as many as thirteen crops of wheat on the same field without manure.
As the distance between his rows appeared much greater than was necessary for the range of the roots of the plants, he begins by showing that these roots extend much farther than is commonly believed, and then proceeds to inquire into the nature of their food. After examining several hypotheses, he decides this to be fine particles of earth. The chief and almost the only use of dung, he thinks, is to divide the earth, to dissolve “this terrestrial matter, which affords nutriment to the mouths of vegetable roots”; and this can be done more completely by tillage. It is therefore necessary not only to pulverize the soil by repeated ploughings before it be seeded, but, as it becomes gradually more and more compressed afterwards, recourse must be had to tillage while the plants are growing; and this is hoeing, which also destroys the weeds that would deprive the plants of their nourishment.
The leading features of Tull’s husbandry are his practice of laying the land into narrow ridges of 5 or 6 ft., and upon the middle of these drilling one, two, or three rows, distant from one another about 7 in. when there were three, and 10 in. when only two. The distance of the plants on one ridge from those on the contiguous one he called an interval; the distance between the rows on the same ridge, a space or partition; the former was stirred repeatedly by the horse-hoe, the latter by the hand-hoe.
“Hoeing,” he says, “may be divided into deep, which is our horse-hoeing; and shallow, which is the English hand-hoeing; and also the shallow horse-hoeing used in some places betwixt rows, where the intervals are very narrow, as 16 or 18 inches. This is but an imitation of the hand-hoe, or a succenadeum to it, and can neither supply the use of dung nor fallow, and may be properly called scratch-hoeing.” But in his mode of forming ridges his practice seems to have been original; his implements, especially his drill, display much ingenuity; and his claim to the title of founder of the present horse-hoeing husbandry of Great Britain seems indisputable.
Contemporary with Tull was Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, a typical representative of the large landowners to whom the strides made by agriculture in the 18th century were due. The class to which he belonged was the only one which could afford to initiate improvements. The bulk of the land was still farmed by small tenants on the old common-field system, which made it impossible for the individual to adopt a new crop rotation and hindered innovation of every kind. On the other hand, the small farmers who occupied separated holdings were deterred from improving by the fear of a rise in rent. Townshend’s belief in the growing of turnips gained him the nickname of “Turnip Townshend.” In their cultivation he adopted Tull’s practice of drilling and horse-hoeing, and he was also the founder of the Norfolk or four-course system, the first of those rotations which dispense with the necessity of a summer-fallow and provide winter-keep for live-stock (see below, Rotation of Crops). The spread of these principles in Norfolk made it, according to Arthur Young (writing in 1770), one of the best cultivated counties in England. In the latter half of the century another Norfolk farmer, Thomas William Coke of Holkham, earl of Leicester, (1752–1842), figures as a pioneer of high-farming. He was one of the first to use oil-cake and bone-manure, to distinguish the feeding values of grasses, to appreciate to the full the beneficial effects of stock on light lands and to realize the value of long leases as an incentive to good farming.
Of the progress of the art in Scotland, till towards the end of the 17th century, we are almost entirely ignorant. The first work, written by James Donaldson, was printed in 1697, under the title ofAgriculture in Scotland in the 18th century. Husbandry Anatomized; or, Inquiry into the Present Manner of Tilling and Manuring the Ground in Scotland. It appears from this treatise that the state of the art was not more advanced at that time in North Britain than it had been in England in the time of Fitzherbert. Farms were divided into infield and outfield; corn crops followed one another without the intervention of fallow, cultivated herbage or turnips, though something is said about fallowing the outfield; enclosures were very rare; the tenantry had not begun to emerge from a state of great poverty and depression; and the wages of labour, compared with the price of corn, were much lower than at present, though that price, at least in ordinary years, must appear extremely moderate in our times. Leases for a term of years, however, were not uncommon; but the want of capital rendered it impossible for the tenantry to attempt any spirited improvements.
The next work on the husbandry of Scotland is The Countryman’s Rudiments, or Advice to the Farmers in East Lothian, how to labour and improve their Grounds, said to have been written by John Hamilton, 2nd Lord Belhaven about the time of the Union, and reprinted in 1723. The author bespeaks the favour of those to whom he addresses himself in the following significant terms:—“Neither shall I affright you with hedging, ditching, marling, chalking, paring and burning, draining, watering and such like, which are all very good improvements indeed, and very agreeable with the soil and situation of East Lothian, but I know ye cannot bear as yet a crowd of improvements, this being only intended to initiate you in the true method and principles of husbandry.” The farm-rooms in East Lothian, as in other districts, were divided into infield and outfield.
“The infield (where wheat is sown) is generally divided by the tenant into four divisions or breaks, as they call them, viz. one of wheat, one of barley, one of pease and one of oats, so that the wheat is sowd after the pease, the barley after the wheat and the oats after the barley. The outfield land is ordinarily made use of promiscuously for feeding of their cows, horse, sheep and oxen; ’tis also dunged by their sheep who lay in earthen folds; and sometimes, when they have much of it, they fauch or fallow a part of it yearly.”
Under this management the produce seems to have been three times the seed; and yet, says the writer, “if in East Lothian they did not leave a higher stubble than in other places of the kingdom, their grounds would be in a much worse condition than at present they are, though bad enough.” “A good crop of corn makes a good stubble, and a good stubble is the equalest mucking that is.” Among the advantages of enclosures, he observes, “you will gain much more labour from your servants, a great part of whose time was taken up in gathering thistles and other garbage for their horses to feed upon in their stables; and thereby the great trampling and pulling up and other destruction of the corns while they are yet tender will be prevented.” Potatoes and turnips are recommended to be sown in the yard (kitchen-garden). Clover does not seem to have been in use. Rents were paid in corn; and for the largest farm, which he thinks should employ no more than two ploughs, the rent was about six chalders of victual “when the ground is very good, and four in that which is not so good. But I am most fully convinced they should take long leases or tacks, that they may not be straitened with time in the improvement of their rooms; and this is profitable both for master and tenant.”
Such was the state of the husbandry of Scotland in the early part of the 18th century. The first attempts at improvement cannot be traced farther back than 1723, when a number of landholders formed themselves into a society, under the title of the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland. John, 2nd earl of Stair, one of their most active members, is said to have been the first who cultivated turnips in that country. The Select Transactions of this society were collected and published in 1743 by Robert Maxwell, who took a large part in its proceedings. It is evident from this book that the society had exerted itself with success in introducing cultivated herbage and turnips, as well as in improving the former methods of culture. But there is reason to believe that the influence of the example of its numerous members did not extend to the common tenantry, who not unnaturally were reluctant to adopt the practices of those by whom farming was perhaps regarded as primarily a source of pleasure rather than of profit. Though this society, the earliest probably in the United Kingdom, soon counted upwards of 300 members, it existed little more than 20 years.
In the introductory paper in Maxwell’s collection we are told that—
“The practice of draining, enclosing, summer fallowing, sowing flax, hemp, rape, turnip and grass seeds, planting cabbages after, and potatoes with, the plough, in fields of great extent, is introduced; and that, according to the general opinion, more corn grows now yearly where it was never known to grow before, these twenty years last past, than perhaps a sixth of all that the kingdom was in use to produce at any time before.”
In 1757 Maxwell issued another work entitled The Practical Husbandman; being a collection of miscellaneous papers on Husbandry, &c. In it the greater part of the Select Transactions is republished, with a number of new papers, among which an Essay on the Husbandry of Scotland, with a proposal for the improvement of it, is the most valuable. In this he lays it down as a rule that it is bad husbandry to take two crops of grain successively, which marks a considerable progress in the knowledge of modern husbandry; though he adds that in Scotland the best husbandmen after a fallow take a crop of wheat; after the wheat, peas; then barley, and then oats; and after that they fallow again. The want of enclosures was still a matter of complaint. The ground continued to be cropped so long as it produced two seeds; the best farmers were contented with four seeds, which was more than the general produce.
1760 to 1815.The gradual advance in the price of farm produce soon after the year 1760, occasioned by the increase of population and of wealth derived from manufactures and commerce, gave a powerful stimulus to rural industry, augmented agricultural capital and called forth a more skilful and enterprising race of farmers.
A more rational system of cropping now began to take the place of the thriftless and barbarous practice of sowing successive crops of corn until the land was utterly exhausted, and then leaving it foul with weeds to recover its pover by an indefinite period of rest. Green crops, such as turnips, clover and rye. grass, began to be alternated with grain crops, whence the name alternate husbandry.
The writings of Arthur Young (q.v.), secretary to the Board of Agriculture, describe the transition from the old to the new agriculture. In many places turnips and clover were still unknown or ignored. Large districts still clung to the old common-field system, to the old habits of ploughing with teams of four or eight, and to slovenly methods of cultivation. Young's condemnation of these survivals was as pronounced as his support of the methods of the large farmers to whom he ascribed the excellence of the husbandry of Kent, Norfolk and Essex. He realized that with the enclosure of the waste lands and the absorption of small into large holdings, the common-field farmer must migrate to the town or become a hired labourer; but he also realized that to feed a rapidly growing industrial population, the land must be improved by draining, marling, manuring and the use of better implements, in short by the investment of the capital which the yeoman farmer, content to feed himself and his own family, did not possess. The enlargement of farms, and in Scotland the letting of them under leases for a considerable term of years, continued to be a marked feature in the agricultural progress of the country until the end of the century, and is to be regarded both as a cause and a consequence of that progress. The passing of some 3500 enclosure bills, affecting between 5 and 5½ million acres, during the reign of George III., before which the whole number was between 200 and 250, shows how rapidly the break-up of the common-field husbandry and the cultivation of new land now proceeded. The disastrous American War for a time interfered with the national prosperity; but with the return of peace in 1783 the cultivation of the country made more rapid progress. The quarter of a century immediately following 1760 is memorable for the introduction of various important improvements. It was during this period that the genius of Robert Bakewell produced an extraordinary change in the character of our more important breeds of live stock, more especially by the perfecting of a new race of sheep the well-known Leicesters. Bakewell’s fame as a breeder was for a time enhanced by the improvement which he effected on the Long-horned cattle, then the prevailing breed of the midland counties of England. These, however, were ere long rivalled and afterwards superseded by the Shorthorn or Durham breed, which the brothers Charles and Robert Colling obtained from the useful race of cattle that had long existed in the valley of the Tees, by applying to them the principle of breeding which Bakewell had already established. To this period also belong George and Matthew Culley—the former a pupil of Bakewell—who left their paternal property on the bank of the Tees and settled on the Northumbrian side of the Tweed, bringing with them the valuable breeds of live stock and improved husbandry of their native district. The improvements introduced by these energetic and skilful farmers spread rapidly, and exerted a most beneficial influence upon the border counties.
From 1784 to 1795 improvements advanced with steady steps. This period was distinguished for the adoption and working out of ascertained improvements. Small’s swing plough and Andrew Meikle’s threshing-machine, although invented some years before this, were now perfected and brought into general use, to the great furtherance of agriculture. Two important additions were about this time made to the field crops, viz. the Swedish turnip and potato oat. The latter was accidentally discovered in 1788, and both soon came into general cultivation. In the same year Merino sheep were introduced by George III., who was a zealous farmer. For a time this breed attracted much attention, and sanguine expectations were entertained that it would prove of national importance. Its unfitness for the production of mutton, and increasing supplies of fine clothing wool from other countries, soon led to its total rejection.
In Scotland the opening up of the country by the construction of practicable roads, and the enclosing and subdividing of farms by hedge and ditch, was now in active progress. The former admitted of the general use of wheel-carriages, of the ready conveyance of produce to markets, and in particular of the extended use of lime, the application of which was immediately followed by a great increase of produce. The latter, besides its more obvious advantages, speedily freed large tracts of country from stagnant water and their inhabitants from ague, and prepared the way for the underground draining which soon after began to be practised. Dawson of Frogden in Roxburghshire is believed to have been the first who grew turnips as a field crop to any extent. It is on record that as early as 1764 he had 100 acres of drilled turnips on his farm in one year. An Act passed in 1770, which relaxed the rigour of strict entails and afforded power to landlords to grant leases and otherwise improve their estates, had a beneficial effect on Scottish agriculture.
The husbandry of the country was thus steadily improving, when suddenly the whole of Europe became involved in the wars of the French Revolution. In 1795, under the joint operation of a deficient harvest and the diminution in foreign supplies of grain owing to outbreak of war, the price of wheat, which, for the twenty preceding years, had been under 50s. a quarter, suddenly rose to 81s. 6d., and in the following year reached 96s. In 1797 the fear of foreign invasion led to a panic and run upon the banks, in which emergency the Bank Restriction Act, suspending cash payment, was passed, and ushered in a system of unlimited credit transactions. Under the unnatural stimulus of these extraordinary events, every branch of industry extended with unexampled rapidity. But in nothing was this so apparent as in agriculture; the high prices of produce holding out a great inducement to improve lands then arable, to reclaim others that had previously lain waste, and to bring much pasture-land under the plough. Nor did this increased tillage interfere with the increase of live stock, as the green crops of the alternate husbandry more than compensated for the diminished pasturage. This extraordinary state of matters lasted from 1795 to 1814, the prices of produce even increasing towards the close of that period. The average price of wheat for the whole period was 89s. 7d. per quarter; but for the last five years it was 107s., and in 1812 it reached 126s. 6d. The agriculture of Great Britain, as a whole, advanced with rapid strides during this period; but nowhere was the change so great as in Scotland. Indeed, its progress there, during these twenty years, is probably without parallel in the history of any other country. This is accounted for by a concurrence of circumstances. Previous to this period the husbandry of Scotland was still in a backward state as compared with the best districts of England, where many practices, only of recent introduction in the north, had been in general use for generations. This disparity made the subsequent contrast the more striking. The land in Scotland was now, with trifling exceptions, let on leases for terms varying from twenty to thirty years, and in farms of sufficient size to employ at the least two or three ploughs. The unlimited issues of government paper and the security afforded by these leases induced the Scottish banks to afford every facility to landlords and tenants to embark capital in the improvement of the land. The substantial education supplied by the parish schools, of which nearly the whole population could then avail themselves, had diffused through all ranks such a measure of intelligence as enabled them promptly to discern and skilfully and energetically to take advantage of this spring-tide of prosperity, and to profit by the agricultural information now plentifully furnished by means of the Bath and West of England Society, established in 1777; the Highland Society, instituted in 1784; and the National Board of Agriculture, in 1793.
The restoration of peace to Europe, and the re-enactment of the Corn Laws in 1815, mark the beginning of another era in the history of agriculture. The sudden return to peace-prices was followed by a time of severe depression, low1815 to
1875. wages, diminished rents and bad farming. The fall in prices was aggravated, first by the unpropitious weather and deficient harvest of the years 1816, 1817, and still more by the passing in 1819 of the bill restoring cash payments, which, coming into operation in 1821, caused serious embarrassment to all persons who had entered into engagements at a depreciated currency, which had now to be met with the lower prices of an enhanced one. The frequency of select-committees and commissions, which sat in 1814, 1821 and 1822, 1833 and 1836, testifies to the gravity of the crisis. The years 1830–1833 are especially memorable for a disastrous outbreak of sheep-rot and for agrarian outrages, caused partly by the dislike of the labourers to the introduction of agricultural machines.
During this period of depression, which lasted till the ’forties, want of confidence prevented any general improvement in agricultural methods. At the same time, certain developments destined to exercise considerable influence in later times are to be noted. Before the close of the 18th century, and during the first quarter of the 19th, a good deal had been done in the way of draining the land, either by open ditches or by James Elkington’s system of deep covered drains. In 1834 James Smith of Deanston promulgated his system of thorough draining and deep ploughing, the adoption of which immeasurably improved the clay lands of the country. The early years of the reign of Queen Victoria witnessed the strengthening of the union between agriculture and chemistry. The Board of Agriculture in 1803 had commissioned Sir Humphry Davy to deliver a course of lectures on the connexion of chemistry with vegetable physiology. In 1840 the appearance of Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology by Justus von Liebig set on foot a movement in favour of scientific husbandry, the most notable outcome of which was the establishment by Sir John Bennet Lawes in 1843 of the experimental station of Rothamsted. Since Blith’s time bone was the one new fertilizer that had come into use. Nitrate of soda, Peruvian guano and super phosphate of lime in the form of bones dissolved by sulphuric acid were now added to the list of manures, and the practice of analysing soils became more general. Manual labour in farming operations began to be superseded by the use of drills, hay-makers and horse-rakes, chaff-cutters and root-pulpers. The reaping-machine, invented in 1812 by John Common, improved upon by the Rev. Patrick Bell in England and by Cyrus H. McCormick and others in America, and finally perfected about 1879 by the addition of an efficient self-binding apparatus, is the most striking example of the application of mechanics to agriculture. Improvements in the plough, harrow and roller were introduced, adapting those implements to different soils and purposes. The steam-engine first took the place of horses as a threshing power in 1803, but it was not until after 185o that it was applied to the plough and cultivator. The employment of agricultural machines received considerable impetus from the Great Exhibition of 1851. The much-debated Corn Laws, after undergoing various modifications, and proving the fruitful source of business uncertainty, social discontent and angry partisanship, were finally abolished in 1846, although the act was not consummated until three years later. Several other acts of the legislature passed during this period exerted a beneficial influence on agriculture. Of these, the first in date and importance is the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836. Improvement was also stimulated by the Public Money Drainage Acts 1846–1856, under which government was empowered to advance money on certain conditions for the improvement of estates. Additional facilities were granted by the act passed in 1848 for disentailing estates, and for burdening such as are entailed with the share of the cost of certain specified improvements.
Meanwhile much had been done in the organization of agricultural knowledge. Mention has already been made of the institution of the Highland Society and the National Board of Agriculture. These institutions were the means of collecting a vast amount of statistical and general information connected with agriculture, and by their publications and premiums made known the practices of the best-farmed districts and encouraged their adoption elsewhere. These associations were soon aided in their important labours by numerous local societies which sprang up in all parts of the kingdom. After a highly useful career, under the presidency till 1813 of Sir John Sinclair, the Board of Agriculture was dissolved in 1819, but left in its statistical account, county surveys and other documents much interesting and valuable information regarding the agriculture of the period. In 1800 the original Farmers’ Magazine came into existence under the editorship of Robert Brown of Markle, the author of the well-known treatise on Rural Affairs. The Highland Society having early extended its operations to the whole of Scotland, by and by made a corresponding addition to its title, and as the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland gradually extended its operations. In 1828, shortly after the discontinuance of the Farmers’ Magazine, its Prize Essays and Transactions began to be issued statedly in connexion with the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture. This society early began to hold a great show of live stock, implements, &c. In 1842 certain Midlothian tenant-farmers had the merit of originating an Agricultural Chemistry Association (the first of its kind), by which funds were raised for the purpose of conducting such investigations as the title of the society implies. After a successful trial of a few years this association was dissolved, transferring its functions to the Highland and Agricultural Society.
In England the Agricultural Society was founded in 1838, with the motto “Practice with Science,” and shortly afterwards incorporated by royal charter. In 1845 the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester was incorporated. This era of revival was not, however, without its calamities. The foot-and-mouth disease first appeared about 1840, having been introduced, as is supposed, by foreign cattle. It spread rapidly over the country, affecting all domesticated animals except horses, and although seldom attended by fatal results, caused everywhere great alarm and loss. It was soon followed by the more terrible lung-disease, or pleuro-pneumonia. In 1865 the rinderpest, or steppe murrain, originating amongst the vast herds of the Russian steppes, had spread westward over Europe, until it was brought to London by foreign cattle. Several weeks elapsed before the true character of the disease was known, and in this brief space it had already been carried by animals purchased in Smithfield market to all parts of the country. After causing the most frightful losses, it was at last stamped out by the resolute slaughter of all affected animals and of all that had been in contact with them. Severe as were the losses in flocks and herds from these imported diseases, they were eclipsed by the ravages of the mysterious potato blight, which, first appearing in 1845, pervaded the whole of Europe, and in Ireland especially proved the precursor of famine and pestilence.
A short period of low prices followed the repeal of the Corn Laws, wheat averaging only 38s. 6d. a quarter in 1851, but the years from 1852 to 1875 were the most prosperous of the century. The letters written by Sir James Caird to The Times during 1850, and republished in 1852 under the title English Agriculture in 1850-1851, give a general review of English agriculture at the time. The scientific and mechanical improvements of the first half of the century were widely adopted, while the prices of the protectionist period showed little decline. Amelioration in all breeds of domesticated animals was manifested, not so much in the production of individual specimens of high merit as in the diffusion of these and other good breeds over the country, and in the improved quality of live stock as a whole. The fattening of animals was conducted on more scientific principles. Increased attention was successfully bestowed on the improvement of field crops. Improved varieties, obtained by cross-impregnation either naturally or artificially brought about, were carefully propagated and generally adopted, and increased attention was bestowed on the cultivation of the natural grasses. The most important additions to the list of held crops were Italian rye-grass, winter beans, white Belgian carrot and alsike clover.
The last quarter of the 10th century proved, however, a fateful period for British agriculture. The great future that seemed to await the application of steam power to the tillage of the soil proved illusory.Agricul-
1875. The clay soils of England, the latent fertility of which was to be brought into play in a fashion that should mightily augment the home-grown supplies of food, remained intractable, and the extent of land devoted to the cultivation of corn crops, instead of expanding, diminished in a marked degree. British farmers of long experience look back to 1874 as the last of the really good years, and consider that the palmy days of British agriculture began to dwindle at about that time. The shadow of the approaching depression had already fallen upon the land before the year 1875 had run its course, and the outlook became ominous as the decade of the ’seventies neared its close. One memorable feature was associated with 1877 in that this was the last year in which the dreaded cattle plague (rinderpest) made its appearance in England. The same year, 1877, was the last also in which the annual average price of English wheat (then 56s. 9d.) exceeded 50s. a quarter. With declining prices for farm produce came that year of unhappy memory, 1879, when persistent rains and an almost sunless summer ruined the crops and reduced many farmers to a state of destitution. Much of the grain was never harvested, whilst owing mainly to the excessive floods there commenced an outbreak of liver-rot in sheep, due to the ravages of the fluke parasite. This continued for several years, and the mortality was so great that its adverse effects upon the ovine population of the country were still perceptible ten years afterwards. A fall in rents was the necessary sequel of the agricultural distress, to inquire into which a royal commission was appointed in 1879, under the chairmanship of the duke of Richmond and Gordon. Its report, published in 1882, testified to “the great extent and intensity of the distress which has fallen upon the agricultural community. Owners and occupiers have alike suffered from it. No description of estate or tenure has been exempted. The owner in fee and life tenant, the occupier, whether of large or of small holding, whether under lease, or custom, or agreement, or the provisions of the Agricultural Holdings Act—all without distinction have been involved in a general calamity.” The two most prominent causes assigned for the depression were bad seasons and foreign competition, aggravated by the increased cost of production and the heavy losses of live stock. Abundant evidence was forthcoming as to the extent to which agriculture had been injuriously affected by an unprecedented succession of bad seasons.” As regards the pressure of foreign competition, it was stated to be greatly in excess of the anticipations of the supporters, and of the apprehensions of the opponents of the repeal of the Corn Laws. Whereas formerly the farmer was to some extent compensated by a higher price for a smaller yield, in recent years he had had to compete with an unusually large supply at greatly reduced prices. On the other hand, he had enjoyed the advantage of an extended supply of feeding-stuffs—such as maize, linseed cake and cotton-cake—and of artificial manures imported from abroad. The low price of agricultural produce, beneficial though it might be to the general community, had lessened the ability of the land to bear the proportion of taxation which had heretofore been imposed upon it. The legislative outcome of the findings of this royal commission was the Agricultural Holdings Act 1883, a measure which continued in force in its entirety till 1901, when a new act came into operation.
The apparently hopeless outlook for corn-growing compelled farmers to cast about for some other means of subsistence, and to rely more than they had hitherto done upon the possibilities of stock-breeding. It was in particular the misfortunes of the later ’seventies that gave the needed fillip to that branch of stock-farming concerned with the production of milk, butter and cheese, and from this period may be said to date the revival of the dairying industry, which received a powerful impetus through the introduction of the centrifugal cream separator, and was fostered by the British Dairy Farmers’ Association (formed in 1875). The generally wet character of the seasons in 1879 and the two or three years following was mainly responsible for the high prices of meat, so that the supplies of fresh beef and mutton from Australia which now began to arrive found a ready market, and the trade in imported fresh meat which was thus commenced has practically continued to expand ever since. The great losses arising from spoilt hay crops served to stimulate experimental inquiry into the method of preserving green fodder known as ensilage, with the result that the system eventually became successfully incorporated in the ordinary routine of agricultural practice. A contemporaneous effort in the direction of drying hay by artificial means led to nothing of practical importance. By 1882 the cry as to land going out of cultivation became loud and general, and the migration of the rural population into the towns in search of work continued unchecked (see below, Agricultural Population). In 1883 foot-and-mouth disease was terribly rampant amongst the herds and flocks of Great Britain, and was far more prevalent than it has ever been since. It was about this time that the first experiments were made (in Germany) with basic slag, a material which had hitherto been regarded as a worthless by-product of steel manufacture. A year or two later field trials were begun in England, with the final result that basic slag has become recognized as a valuable source of phosphorus for growing crops, and is now in constant demand for application to the soil as a fertilizer.
In 1883 the veterinary department of the Privy Council—which had been constituted in 1865 when the country was ravaged by cattle plague—was abolished by order in council, and the “Agricultural Department” was substituted, but no alteration was effected in the work of the department, so far as it related to animals. In 1889 the Board of Agriculture (for Great Britain) was formed under an act of parliament of that year (see Agriculture, Board of). The election took place in the same year (1889) of the first county councils, and the allotment to them of various sums of money under the Local Taxation (Customs and Excise) Act 1890 enabled local provision to be made for the promotion of technical instruction in agriculture (see below, Agricultural Education). It was about this time that the value of a mixture of lime and sulphate of copper (bouillie bordelaise), sprayed in solution upon the growing plants, came to be recognized as a check upon the ravages of potato disease.
The general experience of the decade of the ’eighties Was that of disappointing summers, harsh winters, falling prices, declining rents and the shrinkage of land values. It is true that one season of the series, that of 1887, was hot and droughty, but the following summer was exceedingly wet. Nevertheless, the decade closed more hopefully than it opened, and found farmers taking a keener interest in grass land, in live stock and in dairying. Cattle-breeders did well in 1889, but sheep-breeders fared better; on the other hand, owing to receding prices, corn growers were more disheartened than ever. With the incoming of the last decade of the century there seemed to be some justifiable hopes of the dawn of better times, but they were speedily doomed to disappointment. In 1891 excessively heavy autumn rains washed the arable soils to such an extent that the next season’s corn crops were below average. Wheat in particular was a poor crop in 1892, and the low yield was associated with falling prices due to large imports. The hay crop was very inferior, and in some cases it was practically ruined. This gave a stimulus to the trade in imported hay, which rose from 61,237 tons in 1892 to 263,050 tons in 1893, and despite some large home-grown crops in certain subsequent years (1897 and 1898) this expansion has never since been wholly lost.
The misfortunes of 1892 proved to be merely a preparation for the disasters of 1893, in which year occurred the most destructive drought within living memory. Its worst effects were seen upon the light land farms of England, and so deplorable was the position that a royal commission on agricultural depression Was appointed in September of that year under the chairmanship of Mr Shaw Lefevre (afterwards Lord Eversley). Thus, within the last quarter of the 19th century—and, as a matter of fact, only fourteen years apart-two royal commissions on agriculture were appointed, the one in a year of memorable flood, 1879, and the other in a year of disastrous drought, 1893. The report of the commission of 1893 was issued in March 1896. Amongst its chief recommendations were those relating to amendments in the Agricultural Holdings Acts, and to tithe rent charge, railway rates, damage by game, sale of adulterated products, and sale of imported goods (meat, for example) as home produce. Two legislative enactments arose out of the work of this commission. In the majority report it was stated “that, in order to place agricultural lands in their right position as compared with other ratable properties, it is essential that they should be assessed to all local rates in a reduced proportion of their ratable value.” The Agricultural Rates Act 1896 gave effect to this recommendation. Its objects were to relieve agricultural land from half the local rates, and to provide the means of making good out of imperial funds the deficiency in local taxation caused thereby. It was provided that the act should continue in force only till the 31st of March 1902, but a further act in 1901 extended the period by four years, and in 1905 its operation was extended to the 31st of March 1910. The other measure arising out of the report of the royal commission of 1893 was the Agricultural Holdings Act 1900. This was an amending act and not a consolidating act; consequently it had to be read as if incorporated into the already existing acts. As affecting agricultural practice there were three noteworthy improvements in respect of the making of which, without the consent of or notice to his landlord, a tenant might claim compensation-(1) the consumption on the holding “by horses, other than those regularly employed on the holding,” of corn, cake or other feeding-stuff not produced on the holding; (2) the “consumption on the holding by cattle, sheep, or pigs, or by horses other than those regularly employed on the holding, of corn proved by satisfactory evidence to have been produced and consumed on the holding ”; (3) “laying down temporary pasture with clover, grass, lucerne, sainfoin or other seeds sown more than two years prior to the determination of the tenancy.” A further act was passed in 1906 (the Agricultural Holdings Act 1906) which improved the tenant's position in respect of freedom of cropping, disposal of produce and compensation for disturbance.
After 1894, in which year the brilliant prospects of a bountiful harvest were ultimately extinguished by untimely and heavy rains, all the remaining seasons of the closing decade of the 19th century were dominated by drought. A fact that was amply illustrated, moreover, is that the period of incidence of a drought is not less important than its duration, and the same is true of abnormal rainfall. A spring drought, a summer drought, an autumn drought, each has its distinctive characteristics in so far as the effect upon the crops is concerned. The hot drought of 1893 extended over the spring and summer months, but there was an abundant rainfall in the autumn; correspondingly there was an unprecedentedly bad yield of corn and hay crops, but a moderately fair yield of the main root crops (turnips and swedes). In 1899 the drought became most intense in the autumn after the corn crops had been harvested, but during the chief period, of growth of the root crops; correspondingly the corn crops of that year rank very well amongst the crops of the decade, but the yield of turnips and swedes was the worst on record. It is quite possible for a hot dry season to be associated with a large yield of corn, provided the drought is confined to a suitable period, as was the case in 1896 and still more so in 1898; the English wheat crops in those years were probably the biggest in yield per acre that had been harvested since 1868, which is always looked back upon as a remarkable year for wheat. The drought of 1898 was interrupted by copious rains in June, and these falling on a warm soil led to a rapid growth of grass and, as measured by yield per acre, an exceedingly heavy crop of hay.
With the exceptions of 1891 and 1894, every year in the period 1891–1900 was stricken by drought. The two meteorological events of the decade which will probably live longest in the recollection were, however, the terrible drought of 1893, resulting in a fodder famine in the succeeding winter, and the severe frost of ten weeks' duration at the beginning of 1895. Between these two occurrences came the disastrous decline in the value of grain in the autumn of 1894, when the weekly average price of English wheat fell to the record minimum of 17s. 6d. per imperial quarter. As a consequence, the extent of land devoted to wheat in the British Isles receded in 1895 to less than 1½ million acres. The year 1903 was memorable for a very heavy rainfall, comparable though not equal in its disastrous effects to that of 1879. Successful trials of sulphate of copper solution as a means of destroying charlock in corn crops took place in the years 1898–1900. Charlock is a most persistent cruciferous weed, but if sprayed when young with the solution named it is killed, the corn plants’ being uninjured. In 1901 the formation of the Agricultural Organization Society marked the first systematic attempt to organize co-operation among the farmers of Great Britain. In the subsequent years the principle, which had already made great progress in Ireland, began to obtain a hold in England and Wales, where, in 1906, there were 145 local co-operative societies with a turn-over of £350,000.
Amongst legislative measures of importance to agriculturists mention should be made, in addition to those that have been referred to, of the Tithe Rent-charge Recovery Act 1891, which transfers the liability for payment of tithe from the occupier to the owner. In the same year was passed the Markets and Fairs (Weighing of Cattle) Act. The object of the Small Holdings Act 1892 was to facilitate the acquisition of small agricultural holdings. It provided that a county council might acquire any suitable land, with the object of allotting from one to fifty acres, or, if more than fifty acres, of an annual value not exceeding, £50, to persons who desired to buy, and would themselves cultivate, the holdings. If, owing to proximity to a town or otherwise, the prospective value were too high, the council might hire such land for the purpose of letting it. (See Allotments and Small Holdings for this and other acts.) The Fertilizers and Feeding Stuffs Act 1893 compelled sellers of fertilizers (i.e. manures), manufactured or imported, to state the percentage of the nitrogen, of the soluble and insoluble phosphates, and of the potash in each article sold, and this statement was to have the effect of a warranty. Similar stringent conditions applied as regards the sale of feeding-stuffs for live stock. The Fertilizers and Feeding Stuffs Act 1906, amending and re-enacting the act of 1893, provided for the compulsory appointment by county councils of official samplers. It also provides penalties for breaches of duty by the seller, but grants him protection in cases where he is not morally responsible. The Finance Act of 1894, with its great changes in the death duties, overshadowed all other acts of that year both in its immediate effects and in its far-reaching consequences. The Copyhold Consolidation Act 1894 supersedes six previous copyhold statutes, but does not effect any alteration in the law concerning enfranchisement. The Diseases of Animals Act 1896 provided for the compulsory slaughter of imported live stock at the place of landing. The Light Railways Act and the Locomotives on Highways Act were added to the statute book in 1896, and various clauses in the Finance Act effected reforms in respect of the death duties, the land-tax, farmers’ income-tax and the beer duty. The Chad-cutting Machines (Accidents) Act 1897 is a measure very similar in its intention to the Threshing Machines Act 1878, and provides for the automatic prevention of accidents to persons in charge of chaff-cutting machines. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1899 has special reference in its earlier sections to the trade in dairy produce and margarine. In 1899 was also passed the act establishing the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in Ireland.
The year 1900 saw the passing of a Workmen’s Compensation Act, which extended the benefits of the act of 1897 to agricultural labourers.
- Walter of Henley mentions six bushels per acre as a satisfactory crop.
- This process of enclosure must be distinguished from that of enclosing the arable common fields which, though advocated by Fitzherhert in a passage quoted below proceeded slowly till the 18th century.
- Chalmers’ Caledonia, vol. ii. p. 732.