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Agriculture 1750-1815.

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Agriculture 1750-1815 The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "revolution" as "any fundamental change or reversal of conditions". In the context of British Agriculture between 1750 and 1815 there was a change but it was slow and really a continuation of improvements which go back much further. To call these changes "revolutionary" is probably misguided. However, there was a gradual dissemination of new ideas and methods. The factors which brought about the greatest changes in the existing system were the adoption of new farming techniques, machines and methods and the enclosure of open fields. New farming techniques consisted of improvements in crop rotation, soil fertilisation, and selective breeding allied with the development of new machinery. Four names are commonly associated with these innovations; Jethro Tull (1674-1741) is best remembered for the invention of the seed drill which planted in rows rather than broadcasting, thus allowing hoeing between the rows. (Tull's book "Horse-Hoeing Husbandry was published in 1733.) Charles Townshend (1674-1738) introduced marl - a mixture of clay and lime - to his sandy Norfolk estates. He advocated the use of turnips as fodder as an addition to traditional rotational crops.


In 1750 much of the British countryside was farmed by an open field system. This suited a system geared to subsistence farming. Large open fields were divided into strips either owned by freeholders or rented from the local squire by tenants. However, open field farming was wasteful. It often meant long walks between a farmer's different parcels of land and the loss of acreage to paths and tracks among the fields. It encouraged the spread of weeds and plant diseases. Fields were susceptible to damage from unfenced animals which also made selective breeding impossible. This open field system was not found everywhere. Enclosure meant joining the strips of open field to make larger compact pieces of land. Half the country was already enclosed, especially the areas catering for the markets of large cities such as London. Some farmers had bought or exchanged land in order to facilitate enclosure. The extent of this enclosure is difficult to document as opposed to the later Parliamentary enclosures which were the climax of the transformation of British agriculture. There were two great periods of enclosure -the 1760s and '70s and the period of the Napoleonic Wars from 1793-1815.


Landowners exploited the mineral deposits under their land, or used it for developing urban estates. Money was also moved from country banks to the cities. At the same time some industrialists invested in agriculture, sensing the possibility of high profits. In conclusion it can be seen that in as much as there was an agrarian revolution between 1750 and 1815 it was a slow one, and a continuation of earlier changes. There was a diffusion of new ideas , but it was hindered by the considerable regional differences in agricultural practice. However, the uniquely English system of landholding was well suited to change. Large landowners had the capital to invest in innovation. It was in the interest of the tenant-farmers to change their existing methods and there was a large rural labour force on hand to carry out the changes. The end of the open field system and the enclosure of previously unusable land meant that during this period the acreage of cultivable land increased. Finally, all this meant that agriculture was able to sustain the increased demand for food caused by the growth in population, while itself reaping some of the rewards of The Industrial Revolution. (1233 words.)

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