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The modernisation of British farming

Posted in British Countryside, Farming, Historical articles, History, Technology on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about British farming originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 113 published on 14 March 1964.

Harvest time, picture, image, illustration

Harvest time on a British farm by Ronald Lampitt

Prehistoric man was a hunter and fisherman. It did not occur to him to domesticate the wild animals or plant seeds. When at last cultivation began he had no metals, and the wheel had not been invented. He made his tools of wood, horn, flint or stone.

The Ancient Britons, like other peoples, would farm in one place for a season or two, then move on. But the Celts, arriving from the Continent, established permanent farms.

With the discovery of metals and the invention of the wheel the plough became a primary tool of farming. The Romans who colonized Britain used a light plough, unsuited to British conditions. But another tribe from the Continent, the Belgae, brought a heavy, wheeled plough with an iron blade, or coulter, to cut into the soil and a ploughshare and mouldboard to turn the soil over – as it is done today.

Roman methods were rejected. The Belgic plough was drawn by six oxen and because these powerful teams were difficult to turn round, the land was ploughed in long strips, called furrows.

This set a farming pattern in Britain right up to the nineteenth century. The strip, 220 yards long, became a standard of measurement still used today – one furrow long, or furlong.

The strip, which was 22 yards wide, was also the origin of the English acre, 220 yards by 22 – the area which a team of oxen could plough in one day.

The land was split up into big, open fields, divided into the long, Belgic strip for growing crops. Ploughing was by a village team but crops from each strip belonged to the owner of that strip. Meadow, pasture and woodland was shared.

In return for their land the farmers gave military service to the Lord of the Manor – a title which exists in England to this day. He ruled the soldier-farmers who lived in self-governing, self-contained villages.

This was the feudal system, strengthened by the Normans, which existed in England after 1066.

The system lasted for centuries and for much of this time men farmed merely to feed their families, paying their rulers either by their labour or their produce.

But changes were ahead. The peasants began to pay money to rent their land, instead of working for the lord. In 1348 the Black Death killed off one-third of the population of about three million. The lords, their estates enlarged since they had seized the communal land left unoccupied, were desperate for labour, and offered tenancies to the surviving villagers, so that they became farmers in their own right.

This marked the beginning of the end of the feudal system. The lords became landlords. They fenced off more and more land to rent.

The pattern of farming, too, was changing. Wool growing had become a big industry and sheep had become the most important of farm animals.

Men began to farm for profit instead of mere subsistence. Wool, made into cloth and exported, was a money spinner. Sheep needed pasture and more and more land became enclosed for grazing.

The old system of open fields and communal labour impeded progressive men who wanted control over their crops and animals and incentive to spend money on improvements. So the enclosure of land continued. The pioneers of a new kind of farming began to experiment on private farms.

A major advance, in the seventeenth century, was the use of turnips and hay as winter feed for livestock. Before this all farm animals except breeding stock were killed and salted down as winter advanced because there was no feed to give them.

A century later the turnip was first effectively used as a farm crop by a Norfolk landowner, Lord Townshend – “Turnip” Townshend, he came to be called.

Townshend did more than popularize the turnip. He established the “Norfolk four-course rotation,” a sequence of crops which could be grown successively in the same field – turnips barley, clover and wheat.

Proper rotation of crops is important because different plants take different foods from the soil. If you grow the same crop in the same field year after year that particular food is used up. Plant diseases grow stronger as the plant grows weaker.

Some plants, such as clover, build up nitrogen on their roots which, left in the soil, provide this important plant food for the crop which follows.

Townshend did much to develop the work of another landowner and inventor of genius, Jethro Tull.

Up to his time, seed was sown by hand, scattered first one side, then the other, of the ploughed strip.

Plants grew without any order and weeds flourished because they could not easily be removed. Tull invented a mechanical drill which sowed seed at a controlled depth in the soil, in a straight line. He also invented a horse-drawn hoe to weed between the rows. Yields of corn were tripled.

Forty years after Lord Townshend had evolved his famous rotation another Norfolk landowner, Thomas Coke, made his mark on British farming.

He bred better sheep and cattle and held demonstrations of his methods and prize animals. He set new standards for feeding animals and imported oil cake and other feeding stuffs. He was a model landlord whose tenants prospered through his encouragement and advice.

Other men were improving livestock. Outstanding was Robert Bakewell, a Leicestershire farmer of immense ability, and inventive genius.

He established principles of animal breeding which laid the foundations of fine sheep flocks and cattle herds in this and many other countries. This spread of our livestock was to give Britain the title “stud farm of the world.”

Despite the work of these very great men and others like them progress in rural Britain was slow until Napoleon blockaded us.

Britain had to feed her growing population from her own resources. Parliament decided that more land must be enclosed to make farming more efficient – and in the “Great Enclosures,” as it was called, the big farmers became bigger while the peasants, instead of living off their strips and common land, became farm labourers, working for a meagre wage.

The peasants revolted – but in vain. In 1834 six Dorset labourers, the “Tolpuddle Martyrs,” were savagely sentenced to transportation for attempting to form a trade union at Tolpuddle.

There followed an era of Victorian prosperity. Enclosure made farming, aided now by science and engineering, more efficient. Steam power began to be used, threshing corn and working the land with ploughs wound by cable across the fields.

But these “golden days” were short lived. Food production in Commonwealth countries and elsewhere was increasing. In North America the development of the reaper, a machine for cutting corn, was revolutionizing the cereal harvest.

Cheap food – corn, meat and dairy products – began to flood industrial Britain’s market in exchange for our manufactured goods. Farming slumped and thousands left the land.

It took a world war to help restore the balance of agriculture and industry. In 1914-18, when German submarines brought Britain close to starvation, agriculture came to the rescue.

But when peace came again support for farming was withdrawn. Another depression set in, lasting into the “Hungry 1930s.”

Once again it took a world war to drive home the lesson that a prosperous and efficient agriculture was vital. Farming was mobilized from the outset of the 1939-45 war and production enormously increased. Today it is 86 per cent higher than it was in 1938.

Agriculture is unlikely ever again to be allowed to fall back into the doldrums of past years. Government Acts passed in 1947 and 1957 give the farmer guaranteed prices for his main products and more security than he has ever had before.

The money for farm support, allocated each year at the Farm Price Review, keeps down the cost of Britain’s food and helps Britain’s economy. For, just as agriculture is inextricably entwined with British history, so it is with the well-being of the nation.

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