Which straw broke the back of British agriculture?

The Agrarian History of England and Wales Volume 7 1850-1914

September 13, 2002

In 2000, for the first time, the contribution of agriculture to Britain's gross value added fell below 1 per cent. In 1851, at the outset of the period covered by this monumental work, agriculture accounted for about 20 per cent of national income. Yet the countryside and its needs attract far more political debate, public discussion and media coverage today than they did in the second half of the 19th century. The importance of the years between 1850 and 1914 in rural history is that they were decisive in the economic decline of agriculture and in the cultural rise of the countryside.

The Agrarian History of England and Wales had its origins as long ago as 1956, and even this volume, the last to be published of eight covering the period from prehistory to 1939, was planned in the mid-1980s. Despite this, the book exhibits few signs of age. Both agricultural history as a specialism and history as a discipline have changed significantly over the past 15 years, with the application of increasingly sophisticated econometric techniques, a new emphasis on culture within social history and the broadening of agricultural history into a more socially inflected rural history. These innovations receive due weight here, notably in the almost overwhelming 384-page statistical section, in part five ("Rural society and community") and in part six ("The urban impact on the countryside"). The age of the project as a whole, does, however, show in its limitation to England and Wales. While this may have made sense in 1956, it seems unlikely, in view of the greater sensitivity that historians have developed towards the complex economic, political and cultural interaction between the component parts of the British Isles, that an agrarian history planned today would exclude Scotland and Ireland (and the lengthy sections of the book that do consider Irish and Scottish influences suggest that some of the contributors to this volume thought likewise).

Before this volume, the most substantial overview of late 19th-century rural history was the two-volume collection edited by G. E. Mingay, The Victorian Countryside (1981). The book under review shows an impressive advance in detail and subtlety, resting on the massive accumulation of monograph and periodical literature since 1981. Furthermore, despite the multi-author approach, it is a work of synthesis rather than a collection of articles. However, the older work will retain its value, precisely because it breaks the subject down into component elements: for a short overview of estate villages in the second half of the 19th century, for example, students may do better to turn to Michael Havinden's chapter in The Victorian Countryside than anywhere else.

It is difficult to do justice to the range of perspectives provided by the 2,7 pages of this two-volume set, but most attention will focus on the economic framework, which continues to define the subject. Bethanie Afton and Michael Turner's statistics on agricultural output confirm what has gradually become the orthodox account of agricultural change in the last quarter of the 19th century. The agricultural depression of which Lord Ernle made so much in his English Farming Past and Present (1912) was in fact a highly regionalised experience, concentrated in the arable areas of the South and East but less severe in the livestock and dairying North and West. Turner argues that "the real volume of agriculture was at least maintained or even rose throughout the period".

In many ways, however, this book is at its most interesting where it moves beyond the long-established historiographical tradition. Many of the most useful new insights derive from setting English and Welsh material in a wider European context, as E. J. T. Collins does in chapter three. While accepting the traditional characterisation of the "golden age" of the 1850s and 1860s as one in which prices and profits were unexpectedly buoyant, Collins argues that this reflects little credit on British agriculture. The costly inputs of "high farming" often failed to achieve a commensurate rise in output. On the contrary, crop yields stagnated and livestock production was unimpressive. It was only because of rising urban demand and the limited availability of imports that prices rose. Without having done much to deserve it, British agriculture enjoyed an "age of serendipity", ending only when the long-term effects of the repeal of the corn laws in 1846 made themselves felt with the sharp rise of foreign competition in the 1870s and 1880s.

Some of the most challenging questions for the next generation of rural historians will relate to the question posed by Collins in chapter three:

"Did Victorian farming fail?" If production and productivity in both the arable and livestock sectors rose more slowly in the second half of the 19th century than it had in the first - or was to again in the interwar years - why did this happen? One possibility is that the rapid advances of the first phase of the "high farming" era (1835-50) were not sustained thereafter because of technical difficulties. Beyond a certain point, for example, applying more nitrogen fertiliser to corn crops had negative effects because the additional growth occurred in the straw rather than the grain. However, if the suggestion that the Royal Agricultural Society's injunction to "practise with science" proved unhelpful in the "golden age" is correct, we need to think carefully before blaming lack of technological education and innovation for Britain's poor agricultural performance in the "great depression" ( c .1873-c.1896). One possibility, canvassed by Paul Brassley, is that the early exposure of British farmers to agricultural chemistry, at a period when it was insufficiently advanced to provide reliable guidance to farmers, created a scepticism about science among British agriculturalists that was damaging in the potentially more propitious scientific circumstances of the last quarter of the 19th century.

Among the wide range of other explanations for British agriculture's loss of momentum after 1850 that are considered, one of the most interesting is that Britain's landownership structure was inefficient. Most continental countries were dominated by owner-occupying peasant farms, but in Britain most farmers rented their land until the first world war and beyond. Because the social and political advantages associated with landownership in Britain gave land an artificially high value, rents were set at levels above the land's true economic value.

Other explanations for British agriculture's disappointing performance after 1850 assessed in this volume relate closely to this. One of the most persuasive is the preponderance of large farms at a time when circumstances favoured small-farm products such as fruit, vegetables, poultry and milk. Similarly, the failure of British farmers to develop cooperative distribution and marketing organisations contrasts sharply with the pace-setters in European agriculture such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

Equally challenging questions await social historians. Gordon Cherry and John Sheail chart in geographical and ecological detail the developing urban interest in and impact on the countryside in the last few decades of the 19th century. They demonstrate unequivocally that the complex nexus of attitudes towards the countryside that so significantly shaped 20th-century British culture had its roots in the late 19th century. But, as several of the contributors point out, we still know far too little about middle-class immigrants to the countryside: it is time we looked beyond broad-brush generalisations about going "back to the land" to situate these people in a more precise sociological and motivational context. Seemingly more familiar elements of rural society also remain under-researched. Alun Howkins demonstrates the inadequacy of the traditional tripartite model of landowners, farmers and labourers and calls for research into neglected geographical areas, especially northern England, and social groups including women beyond the confines of agricultural labour, small farmers and, interestingly, the aristocracy.

Most of all, however, economic and social historians of the countryside need to engage with questions of periodisation. Brassley's question of whether 1850 to 1914 forms a natural unit for the study of agriculture could be extended to rural social change; indeed Howkins suggests that the 1870s and 1880s formed a watershed, relating this to a general European "agrarian crisis" of the last quarter of the 19th century. But while it is easy to see continuities and discontinuities between the agrarian history of the first and second halves of the 19th century, it is much less clear whether the first world war represented an abrupt caesura .

Was it the case, as John Chartres and Richard Perren suggest, that the rural trades and industries whose resilience before 1914 they document were swept from the face of the land by the first world war? Is it true, as Brassley has suggested elsewhere, that inter-war British agriculture began to develop in ways that looked forward to the massive output and productivity gains achieved after 1945? If so, does the appearance of continuity between the agricultural depression of the late 19th century and that of the inter-war period belie more important contrasts in farming systems and methods? Similarly, is the argument put forward by both Howkins and John Beckett, that in many respects the localism and elite dominance of rural society remained largely intact until the first world war, correct? If so, did the war permanently rupture this hierarchical and deferential society, or only temporarily so? It is a mark of the scholarship and synthesis achieved in this volume that questions such as these emerge with new clarity.

Jeremy Burchardt is lecturer in rural history, Rural History Centre, University of Reading.

The Agrarian History of England and Wales Volume 7 1850-1914

Editor - E. J. T. Collins
ISBN - 00 ISBN 0 521 66214 1 (two volumes)
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £195
Pages - 2,7

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