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A fool sat beneath an olive tree and a wondrous thought had he

Why be content with an olive when I could have a tree, Why be content with a tree when I could have a grove.

And then he went to sleep because he was indeed a fool.


The English Agricultural Revolution

The Role of the Twit

The Chaff in the Grain


In order to examine the question we need to gauge whether in quantity or quality the agricultural developments which took place in the 18th & 19th centuries was worthy of being called a "Revolution".

The term in the words of T.S. Ashton1 implies a sudden change. It of course also implies a big change. In dealing with then term it is important to realize that nearly all revolutions have some evolutionary background, very few are or have been completely instantaneous or spontaneous. This assessment is faced with the difficulty of the lack of good reliable statistics and records. The question will be briefly discussed in the division of Agricultural Development in Land Enclosures, Greater Use of Land, Stockbreeding, Machinery and Environment Control. All of these factors must be viewed against the of England’s total agricultural history and in comparison with similar periods of time.

The enclosure concept was not new to 18th Century England, it had been taking place for some 400 years8. The enclosure movement was where the land which had been farmed by all the villagers in common, like a modern collective was enclosed and given or sold to an "owner". Those enclosures which took place after 1750 were however different in their methods of attainment, extent and results. Prior to 1750 enclosures of what had been common land used by all had been achieved through agreement, purchase, force or fraud17 , often in the case of Royal eg Tudor disfavour and decree9, but after this date the full weight of parliamentary favour was brought to bear in the 2000 Enclosure Acts passed after the accession of George III4. Legislative Acts for enclosure pre 1700 compare with the 2600 Acts between 1702 and 18103 or even more startling the 906 from 1800 – 1810 a mere ten years19.


What must be understood in this context is that large areas of England had probably never used the open field system, Devon, Cornwall, the Lakes District and the southern counties near London. Ashton calculates that 50% (Tawney says 60%)3 of english arable land was using an enclosed system. Then from 1710 – 69 some 300.000 acres were enclosed and gathering full momentum from 1760 – 1843 nearly 7 million acres were enclosed6. It is interesting to compare the latter 83 year period with that from 1450 - 1610 (160 years) when despite the large redistribution of land, approximately 20% of the total land was redistributed due to the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-9)7 , the withdrawal of the demesne land land from the open field system, and the rise of the profit motive meant that only 20% of english arable was ever affected. After a brief period of disturbance bt these events the new owners settled down and moves toward change lost momentum 5. Those of the 18th however were stimulated by other changes.

The production performance and potential of the open field system has often been underestimated2 there were many large productive and economic farms. It is important to remember that this system had supported the majority of England’s population for centuries. The social environment of the era did not encourage or support initiative or development of new ideas. This was largely due to the conservative effect of the jury system of control of the farms, the manner of distributing allotments, the general insecurity of land tenure and short leases with conservative clauses12,7. These were the things which led Plattes in 1638 and Blith in 1649 to complain bitterly of the difficulties in the way of experiment and improvement.

The objectives of the enclosure movement prior to 1750 had been to increase sheep pasturage for wool production whereas after that date it was to provide food for the increasing population and increase the profits from agriculture. It is therefore arguable that the output figures form 1750 on would have substantially derived from the resetting of the plough to these areas of pasture.

The production increases which took place were in a very large part due to the introduction and/or spread of better crops and methods. Most of these improvements were things which had already become commonplace in other parts of Europe. Many had already been put into general use in the more innovative parts of England. Norfolk and Suffolk, were the most notable in this respect and this was likely due to their proximity to and trade with Holland2. Amongst the introduced crops were Spanish Clover, and Burgundian and French grasses10. It was not however until the 18th Century that they became widely used.

Mixed farming had been advocated as early as 1523 by Fitzherbert, in 1577 Googe had advised the use of turnips and artificial grasses, in this his idea was supported by Martleb. Forster in the early 17th century had suggested potatoes11, however as Heaton10 has pointed out this period was richer in ideas and performance than it was in performance.

Many 18th century personalities have been held up as icons of progress however they have been toppled from their pedestals. Parker12 has shown that that Lord Coke increase his income from his Holkham estates not by 10 fold as stated by Stirling and followed by Ernle, Ashley, Trevelyn12 and others but by two fold between 1776 and 1816. Indeed the huge increase was due to increase in acreage not by productivity. This should shurely haqve been obvious to any farm hand let alone historians. His was an example of large holdings combined with big capital.

Despite the attempts in the 17th century of Cromwell to direct the attention of the farmers to the husbandry of the Flemmings, many of whom had been captured by Blake. These Dutch farmers dug, hoed and manured (often with pilchards) and marled their garden-like farms13, it was left ot Townsend (1730) to popularize the 4 course rotation and turnips.

Potatoes which had been written about in the early 17th century did not become a popular food in the area around London, in the North or in Wales until the 18th and 19th centuries. When accepted it brought about substantial economies in the use of land1.


Much quoted and written about from this era was Jethro Tull and his so called Horse Hoeing Husbandry. His unfortunate, retrograde1 and even sometimes absurd7 theories fortunately soon found strong antagonists amongst those who had studied the more scientific works like "Anatomy of Plants" written by appropriately named Grew in 1672. Tull claimed to have invented the Seed Drill and diagrams of the alleged machine have been included in text books ever since. If you try to replicate it as I did you will find it cannot work. Indeed a real seed drill have been invented more than a century earlier by an Italian Lucatello. His device was designed for planting peas and it actually worked. It is interesting to note that some of the theories being presented as his own, were remarkably similar to what was common practice in French vinyards10 indeed they would have been useful for some agriculture such as peas.

Close examination of the " Horse Hoeing Husbandry reveals the claim that the hoeing was done around each stand of corn. Later it is said that the hoe was drawn by 4 horses abreast. The claim was that he had grown corn on the same land for 4 consecutive seasons. No doubt.! If you had grown it that far apart you could probably do so forever. It is or would be quite uneconomic and wasteful of the land.

In regard to marling (a Dutch discovery) or manure used as widely as to cause a major improvement. The prime reason was the prohibitive cost of between 2 and 3 pounds per acre. This fact was much lamented by real reformers such as Arthur between 2 and 3 pounds per acre. This fact was much lamented by real reformers such as Arthur Young one of the most notable real innovators of the time (1741 – 1820)8

There is of course no doubt that the yields be acre and the total food production increased. It had to in order to meet the demands of the population which was increasing at an unprecedented rate. Before 1751 the greatest decennial increase has been estimated at about 3% per annum, after this date it began to increase at an increasing rate, for example between 1811 and 1821 it had become 18%6. The increase demand could only be achieved by 3 means :

  1. Imports,

(b) an increase in acreage under cultivation, and/or

(c) a greater yield per acre through the use of more efficient means of production.

That a is not the case is attested to byTravelya when he points out that not until after the Napoleonic wars was Russia or any other country able to supply Britain with appreciable quantities of grain14. This conclusion is supported by Porter's figures15 that imports of wheat to Britain between 1801 and 1830 would have provided approximately 1 peck (approx 9 litres) per head per annum. Obviously the increased supply did not come from this source .

The acreage under the plough certainly did increase through the enclosure of common and waste land and by the elimination of fallow land. However the changes were not only in the quantity of land but also in the quality of the methods used in that yields per acre in creased at a rate unprecedented in British history. The most rapid being between 1750 and 185015.

From 1200 - 1450 yields increased from 8 to 8.5 bushels per acre 18

1650 - 1750 11 15

1750 - 1850 15 26

A bushel is approximately 8 imperial gallons

Surely this "revolutionary increase can only be attributed to the rapid spread and application of imrpoved methods of agriculture. Though much more might be discussed here it is time to move on to consider the development of better breeds of livestock.


-rior to 1750 the only notable breeding advances were in Durham where horses had been bred specifically for power in charging rather than for speed, during the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1702-13)5. Before this time also the main value of sheep was considered ot be in their wool and manure, whilst that for cattle was considered to be for their milk and powers of draft8. Then Bakeweel developed his breeding methods and produced the Leicestershire Sheep5 and initiated the improvements in cattle breeding which were taken up by the brothers Colling who produced the Durham Shorthorn.

Although Ashton4 argues that in earlier times it is likely that the larger cattle were kept on the farms it must be remembered4 they were not, as were those after Bakewwell, bred for their choice joints but for their pulling prowess. Also despite the fact that the oft quoted "Smithfield" market figures19 have come under serious query by Fussell as to their accuracy. There is no doubt however that there was a considerable increase in size, quality and quantity. For instance from 1700 to 1750 75-80,000 cattle were slaughtered per year at Smithfield, and by the end of the 18th century there were 100,000 plus those which went to the new slaughter houses supplying London20. It is felt that these increases in quality, quantity and variety were no less revolutionary for England than the very idea in England that cattle and sheep should be specially bred for the table.

Agricultural Machinery & the Role of the Twit

This now brings us to a consideration of the developments in agricultural machinery.

In this field again another legendary figure, Jethro Tull has been toppled. As Marshall7 points out workable seed drills had already been invented in the 17th century, by Moxley 1601,Lucatello for peas, and Worlridge 16691. The horse hoe had been in in use for more than a hundred years in Kent where it was known as a "skein". It is clear that Tull had had any little if any direct practical influence though he is still referred to in must texts on this period. It might be considered and quite correctly that he has just drawn attention and credit away for others. I would however suggest that his real contribution to events was that he was indeed a twit. The role of the twit in history has never been properly investigated. In Tull’s case it is clear he published and spoke out loudly this enabled the real innovators and reformers come out and publish with the really useful information. He had indeed provided a launching pad for reform. This in its own way was a valuable contribution. It should be noted that George Bernard Shaw in the 20th Century took this concept a major step forward when through letters to the Editor he produced criticisms of himself in order to draw attention to himself.




The Non-twits

The 17th century draining tools which are illustrated by Blith are primitive inded when compared with those of Cuthbert Clarke’s Draining Plough of 1776 or Vaissey’s Mole Plough of 180721. It is noted also that Blith’s Horned spade was still widely used in 1764 mainly because of the particular rather than the general utility of the later machinery. The new machinery tended to be sturdier and wider in range than before.

With general ploughs Lord Sommerville on reproducing Blith’s illustrations commented on the lack of improvement in more than 150 years, but then it should be noted that even in the time of Fitzherbert and Googe (1607) there was a great variety of adaptation of the basic design and that in the 17th century slow and unweildy ox teams were used for ploughing21

The early 19th century saw wide use of practical seed drills and also harvesters23 to take the burden of the heaviest farm work. Although not fully conclusive the above evidence would indicate that there was a great improvement in both the quantity and quality of the agricultural machinery available, especially in the 19th century. We now come to a brief consideration of Environmental Control.

As in the material above the 18th and 19th century drainage and irrigation methods have their basis in the 16th and 17th century usage. Soughs for drainign wet lands were mentioned by Fitzherbert (1523); later open ditch drainage by Tusser, whilst Blithnhad suggeste covered drains21. Norden records the successful experiments of Lovell and Englebert in improving the marsh wastes of three counties13, and Dutch sailors captured by Blake in1653 were employed in this work8. It is not however until the late 18th century that tiled drainage was widely used and special machinery designed for this work21 , allowing over 1000 square miles of fen land to be drained in Lincoln and East Anglia alone, and causing Cobbett to comment on the reclaimed pastures16.

The first specific treatise was written in1779 by Boswell although open ditch irrigation had been mentioned by More, John Norden in his Surveyors dialogues of 1607 (pp193 & 198) had mentioned dams, and there had been several references during the 17th century to "water meadows"21. In this section it would appear that there was a greater di versity and use of methods of irrigation and drainage than before, and although this section could be discussed further I will close with a few general remarks.

Although there has not been sufficient space to deal with other important aspect of the question, such as capital, interest rates, impetus given by continual conflict, motives, markets, social factors and un rest, and the political aspects. I feel that the evidence presented here shows that it is not unreasonable to call this period of development a revolution either in quantity, quality or variety of agricultural production at least in terms of history of England. It should be borne in mind that this revolution like others is not without background, and that although many of these ideas and innovations werfe, or had been in use in Europe before the 18th century, this does not detract from the fact that the speed of adoption of these ideas took place at an unprecedented rate and were supplemented by British invention. They were carried along by the impetus of a swiftly rising population, constantly at was, and provided yet another in an age of revolutions, one which was to help place Britian in the vanguard of industrial nations as the "Workshop of the World". The single fact that Britain managed to support her increasing population with and ever decreasing proportion of the land at a rate which was to enable Rostow’s "Take Off"22 must argue strongly for a "revolution" in agriculture. The difficulty in reaching this level of per capita production in so short a space of time may be gauged today in the many Afro-Asian nations struggling to achieve the self same revolution.

Mervyn K. Vogt 1960



1 Ashton T.S. The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (OUP) 1958 pp7,4,27

4 Ashton T.S, Economic History of England in the 18th Century (London} 1955 pp33,40,51,52

5 Ashley W. The Economic Organization of England (Longmans)1954 pp 63,124

9 Bindoff S.T. Tudor England Pelican (1961) p64

18 Bennett M.K. British Wheat Yields per acre for 7 Centuries Economic History Review Vol,111 No. 10 pp 27-8

2 Court W.B.H A Concise Economic History of Britain form 1750 to Recent Times OUP

1957 pp 31,33,34

16 Clapham Sir John A Concise Economic History of Britain from the Earliest Times to 1750

OUP 1957 p 221

11 Ernle Lord Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences pp578-9

20 Fussell G.E. &

Goodman C. Economic History Review Vol. III Second Series p216

21 Fussell G.E, The Farmers Tools 1952 pp16-24, 107

13 Garnier History of the English Landed Interest (1892) pp334,343

17 George D. England in Transition Pelican (1962) p79

23 Hammond J.L.&B. The Village Labourer Vol 2. (Guild 19480 p45

10 Heaton Economic History of Europe Revised Edn p407

7 Marshall T.H. Jethro Tull and the New Husbandry. Economic History Review Vol2 (1935)

12 Parker R.A.C. "Coke of Norfolk and the Agrarian Revolution" Economic History Review vol 8

(1955) pp 156, 159, 163

19 Plumb J.H. England in the Eighteenth Century Pelican (1962) p82

15 Porter G.R. The Progress of the Nation (1851 Edn.) pp 139, 140

22 Rostow W.W. The Stages of Economic Growth

3 Tawney R.H. The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century pp 401, 402, 465

6 Toynbee A. "The Classical Definition of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Triumph or

Disaster (Taylor. PAH) p3

14 Trevelyan G.M. A Shortened History of England Pelican (1960) p455

8 Waters C.M. An Economic History of England 1066 – 1874 pp 182,275,315,320


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