Hanoverians - C. J. B. Gaskoin

Economic Changes: The Agricultural Revolution

England's triumph over Napoleon was due not only to her courage and endurance, but also to the vast riches which enabled her, besides paying her own share of the cost of war, to send huge sums to her allies. For she was growing fast in population, in industry, in commerce, and in general wealth. When George III became king there were not seven million people in all England and Wales. When he died there were close upon twelve millions. In his reign, too, England's foreign trade doubled twice over.

Meanwhile, thanks to the "Agricultural Revolution," far more crops and cattle were being produced than ever before. Yet the "Industrial Revolution" had already begun its work of turning England from a land mainly agricultural into the greatest manufacturing country in the world, and filling her with great whirring machines, and busy factories, and huge, smoky towns.

1. Country Life in the Good Old Times

In the early eighteenth century one-third of the English nation was occupied in tilling the soil or raising sheep and cattle. Some towns were indeed of great importance: a few were already famous for their manufactures. Manchester was reckoned to contain thirty thousand cotton spinners. Sheffield and Birmingham were renowned for cutlery and other goods. There were noted ironworks in Sussex and Northumberland, and noted "potteries" in Staffordshire. Yet there was no such marking-off of town from country life as in present-day England: a manufacturer might often work in the fields; many a farmer and labourer occupied his leisure with manufacturing.

Nevertheless, much land now under plough was still uncultivated. Even in the south there were vast undrained bogs and uncleared forests, and in the far north, from Derbyshire to the Border, a great waste stretched over a hundred and fifty miles.

Communication between distant places, too, was slow and uncertain. Few roads, except the great high roads, deserved their name. Often mere cart-tracks alone connected village with village, and in more than one county church bells rang at night to guide the lonely traveller. So wheeled vehicles were rather rare in country places, and horses and mules were used more to carry loads than to drag them.

Nor were the high roads themselves by any means perfect. A famous traveller, indeed, declared, in 1770, that all but four roads in England were either "vile," or "execrable," or "execrably vile." And, even if he exaggerated, he had good cause for grumbling as he rode about the country. In one place the cart-ruts were fully four foot deep. Elsewhere wagons got so firmly stuck in the mud that it needed thirty or forty horses to drag them out. Throughout some districts the roads were drained by channels cut across them, which brought many a traveller headlong to the ground. Even good roads, moreover, were far from safe. Highway robberies were constant. Almost every day coaches were stopped and passengers stripped of all their wealth, or even killed; and that not only in remote country places, but in what are now the suburbs of London itself. As late as 1781 a lady going to dine at Twickenham had to give up her purse on the way. And so little surprised was she that she had filled the purse for the occasion with worthless coin!

Compared with this uncertainty of ever reaching the journey's end in safety, it was a small grievance that the journey itself should be slow and tedious. Yet sixteen days was a long time to spend on the way from London to Edinburgh, and it was something like a scandal that the London mail-bags—carried till 1784 by mounted postboys, and often robbed—should take three days to reach Bristol.

In these conditions villages and country towns were naturally occupied mainly with their own concerns. Every village, every large farmhouse almost, produced itself most of the necessaries of daily life. Bread was baked and beer brewed at home. The men made tools, and bowls, and baskets: the women spun and wove the clothes of the household. A carpenter and a smith were found in every village of any size, while travelling workmen visited more out-of-the-way spots.

Meanwhile the instruments and methods of farming were what they had been for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. More than half England was still cultivated on the old and wasteful "open field" plan. Instead of many separate fields, each hedged in and belonging entirely to a single cultivator, the "open field" village contained three great fields, which included nearly all the arable land in the parish.

Each field was split up into acre or half-acre strips, and a farm was simply a collection of these strips, scattered all over each of the three fields. Hence endless time was lost in moving from strip to strip, much space in making turf "balks" or boundaries to mark the strips off, and not a little temper in boundary quarrels between neighbours.

All the strips in a field, too, had to be treated alike. Every year one field was sown with wheat, and one with some inferior grain, and one lay fallow. And, after the crops were gathered in, the sheep and cattle of all the villagers grazed together over the stubble, watched by the village shepherd and herdsman, as they did at other times in the water meadows or on the open downs or commons. So no one could break away and try experiments of his own with either crops or cattle.

2. The Revolution

George III


Three centuries before, this system had been sometimes abandoned and the land enclosed. But the "enclosures" which caused such suffering in Tudor days were mainly rather enclosures of commons or of cultivated lands to form large sheep pastures. Under the Georges, however, especially George III, enclosing for agricultural purposes was practised on an enormous scale, and it went on, even faster, till well into the following century.

For agriculture was now the pet—and profitable—hobby of many leading men in England. Even in the age of Walpole the Prime Minister's brother-in-law had earned the name of "Turnip Townshend." At a later date the sheep shearings of the Duke of Bedford, or of "Coke of Norfolk" (afterwards Earl of Leicester), were landmarks in the English farmer's year. While Fox and Burke were fighting the king's influence in Parliament, they had yet a thought to spare for their own carrots and turnips: like the Walrus and the Carpenter, they talked of "cabbages and kings." And the king himself was "Farmer George"—a real worker, as well as a writer on his favourite subject. Even the Government caught the farming fever. A Board of Agriculture was set up, and its secretary, the famous Arthur Young, taught the new farming throughout the kingdom.

Arthur Young


The treatment of the soil, the choice of crops, the breeding of cattle, were all entirely changed. The great open fields were broken up. The parts assigned to each farmer were enclosed with hedges, and lay close together. The soil was scientifically manured. And the whole course of crops was altered—for the fallow year was given up and root crops (such as turnips) and grass were now grown alternately with wheat and other grain. Thus far more was got out of the land, and the heaviest crops came from soil once so poor that "two rabbits fought for every blade of grass" on it.

In like manner the breeding of cattle and sheep was greatly improved. Breeders, too, thought no longer only of good milking cows, and oxen strong for the plough, and sheep whose fleeces would give valuable wool. They tried also to produce good beef and mutton. The growth of the population encouraged all the farmers' efforts by increasing the demand for corn and meat. So more and more land was taken into cultivation, and better and better crops and beasts were raised, and landlords bound their tenants to practise the new farming on pain of forfeiting their farms.

James Brindley


Meanwhile the means of communication at last improved. Under George III a canal was built by James Brindley to carry the Duke of Bridwater's coals from Worsley to Manchester. This example was followed—well or badly—in every quarter. A network of canals spread over the country, and the cost and difficulty of carrying heavy goods grew ever less.

At last, too, especially when Parliament allowed "tolls" to be charged for keeping up turnpike roads, the roads themselves became better. The inventions of Telford and Macadam for making really good roads belonged, indeed, to the nineteenth century. But even in 1784 mail coaches—carrying an armed guard and a few passengers—began to take over the carriage of letters from the postboys. And soon the golden age of coaching opened, lasting till—in the early days of Queen Victoria—the railway drove the coach out of the field.