A number of stories can be told about English agriculture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Firstly, there's the consolidation of landed estates in the hands of an increasingly small landholding class, contrary to the earlier rise of the yeoman farmer in the Tudor and Stuart periods. There's the concomitant proletarianisation of much of the rural workforce as they lose both their land and their use-rights to common resources. There's the enclosure movement, a wave of Parliamentary enclosure that began to attack the 30% of unenclosed land that was left in the country in 1700. Most interesting of all is perhaps the relationship of agriculture in this period to the "Industrial Revolution", and how the land managed to feed Britain's rocketing population.
Possibility for growth?
The classical economists were pessimistic about the possibilites of growth in British industry and agriculture in the few decades around 1800. Adam Smith, writing in his Wealth of Nations in 1776, talked about the possibilities of economic growth through regional specialisation and the divison of labour. But he also stressed the limits to growth, which he believed would eventually lead to immiserisation of the standard of living as the economy reached its full potential. This would occur with agricultural production was maximised, no profitable opportunities for investment remained in industry, and the nation's commerce was unable to find any more profitable openings abroad. At this point rising population would begin to squeeze real wages and the standard of living would deteriorate.
The Reverend Thomas Malthus, writing an Essay on Population in 1798, was concerned with just this demographic quandary. While population increased geometrically because everyone tended to do more than simply replace themselves, a constant increase in food supply could not be achieved so easily at all. If a rapid deterioration in the standard of living were to be avoided, then the English people would have to adopt an attitude of "prudential restraint" in marriage and in begetting their children. This "preventive check" would stop the unleashing of much more horrific "positive checks" when population got too large - famine, war and pestilence.
David Ricardo examined the economic ramifications of an economy which was reaching the limits of its growth. Focusing upon argiculture, he developed the concept of "economic rent" or "Ricardian rent". He said that as food became more scarce marginal (poor-quality) land would have to be brought under cultivation, which would require a greater investment of labour and capital. However, with supply and demand forcing prices up, this would became profitable. But, consequently, as land was now scarce, landowners would increase the rent on premium land. The difference between the rent on premium land and the rent on marginal land was the "Ricardian rent", and because of it any gains in farmers' profits would accrue to the landowning class. Wages would take up an increasing share of the farmers' profits and the price of agricultural goods would increase relative to industrial prices. As industrial profits declined the dreaded 'stationary state' would set in and growth would stop.
By the 1830s economist Nassau Senior was more optimistic about the possibilities for growth, noting the possibility that capital and machinery could allow Britain to avoid the onset of the stationary state. By this time the rules of the game had changed and the large-scale exploitation of mineral resources was allowing Britain to escape the limits of an organic economy. But the classical economists had missed other crucial possibilities for growth that existed and were taking place all around them - foremost among these was the possibility for market integration. An increase in efficiency and productivity was possible by the creation of a true national market, not least in agriculture, that would allow each region in Britain to exploit its comparative advantage. British agriculture was capable of supporting the increased population of the country without a deterioration in the standard of living during that time.
It used to be thought that British agriculture was revolutionised by pioneering landlords who showed the ignorant yeoman the error of his ways. This was largely due to the myth they created about themselves. Although the role of the large landowner should not be totally underestimated, it is now recognised that the entrepreneurial small yeoman (someone who both owns and farms a small plot of land) was responsible for many of the gains in productivity. Most of these gains were made in the period 1650 - 1700, before population growth really kicked off.
They were achieved mainly through increased labour power being applied to the soil, with notable gains made in labour productivity. More people were needed to manure the soil and apply nitrate to it, as well as to work on systems of crop rotation. Concomitantly, a lot more animals were applied to the soil. Not only did they contribute by manuring the soil, they could also be used to carry stock around the farm. Increased horsepower allowed labour to be released to work in other tasks on the farm, or to work in cottage industry. All this took place against the background of institutional changes which were encouraging the small farmer to take care of his soil over a long period - tenantry agreements were tending to be more secure and so investment was worthwhile. Less benignly, farmers had more control over workers because of the erosion of their customary rights and their proletarianisation. Hence labour could be organised more rationally to achieve greater gains in productivity and economies of scale.
The first revolution in British agriculture was hence more about labour than industrial techniques, and it was still operating within the limits of the organic economy. The limits were defined by the amount of muscle power and animal power that could be applied to the soil rather than getting help from heavy machinery and capital. This high labour productivity in agriculture - supporting a relatively low-productivity industrial sector - allowed Britain to deal very well with its population growth and ensured the subsistence crisis of 1697 - 99 in Scotland was its last. By contrast, France had sixteen between 1700 and the French Revolution.
The French Revolution was notable because it reinforced the existence of small estates, which were seen as more democratic. England had no such comparable experience and instead saw the consolidation of large-scale modern agriculture relatively early, a dichotomy that is to an extent still visible today. By 1873 only 10% of Britain's agricultural land was still in the hands of yeoman. How did this come about?
Nineteenth century liberals offered their own interpretation, in synthesis with their political views. In their version, it was the peculiarities of the laws of the land that had allowed this process to begin and gradually accelerate. Inheritance and marriage laws were to blame with stopping the free market operating in land. The particular object of their displeasure was the law on 'strict settlement', by which a father would attempt to ensure his estate passed intact to his grandson, hence depriving his son of the chance to squander it. This meant the immediate son could not subdivide and sell the land, and hence primogeniture was ensured and a free land market could not operate. De facto, things didn't quite work like this.
For a start, land was often kept out of the settlement to allow freedom of action in case of a liquidity crisis. This meant that the land market would always have some supply on it. Additionally, the agreements could be circumnavigated by private Act of Parliament. Finally, the agreements weren't always made in the first place because the father was not always around when his eldest son got married, and hence the agreement could not be secured. This was especially true in the eighteenth century when demographics were working against the English aristocracy and they were breeding - or failing to breed - themselves out of existence.
A further consequence of this peculiarity of demographics was that there were few men on the marriage market. This meant that a woman who wanted to maintain her status when she married would have to make herself as attractive an option as possible - no, not by lead-based make-up, but by a large dowry. This encouraged the fragmentation of estates as the so-called 'portion' of land would pass to the groom, who would probably regard it as different to his patrimonial land and sell it. Furthermore, in the mid-eighteenth century it was made mandatory for the man to provide for his siblings out of the land. This would tend to encourage the fragmentation of estates as the burden of debt weighed on the owner.
The use of 'fictive heirs' - the passage of land into the hands of someone outside the origin family, failing the family's ability to reproduce - would at first sight tend to reinforce primogeniture, but fictive heirs generally disposed of the land in a way contrary to this. Usually not considering the land in the same way they viewed their patrimonial land, they would often sell it. This was especially so because of the law obliging them to look after the dependents of the former owner of the land - usually these dependents would take a particularly liberal view of the new owner's obligations towards them, him not generally been someone they knew nor cared about.
Marriage laws and 'strict settlement' were hence not the reason for the rise of the great estate, in fact often they had contrary effects. The reason for the rise of the great estate was in fact rather banal - piecemeal acquisition by already rich landowners who could exploit their capital to buy yet more land by mortgage. This was made possible by a change in the power relations between tenant and landowner, which tended to encourage the consolidation of large estates whether going in favour of the landowner or the tenant. To find the reasons why it is necessary to analyse the nature of tenantry in England at this time.
There were a variety of tenantry agreements that could be held between landowner and farmer. The best, if you were a small farmer, was to have a freehold. This essentially meant you were a yeoman and could dispose of your land as you wished, because you had the legal right to it. Of a more blurred nature was the copyhold type of tenantry, whereby a copy of your right to the land existed on the manorial roll of the Lord of the Manor. A copyhold was less stable and could be subject to annual negotiation, or more frequently negotiation upon the death of the occupant and the passing of the land to the next heir. It was at this time that a landlord could strike, initiating a legal battle over ownership of the land.
If the landlord won - which was by no means a foregone conclusion - the occupant would be transformed into a tenant-at-will, which meant he could be kicked out at any time. The landlord would then be free to raise the rent if he wanted (rack-renting) or to sell the land for cash. Food or land price increases made such a legal challenge worthwhile on the part of the landlord, because his fixed rent would be falling in value in real terms as the value of his land increased. And because large landowners could more easily secure capital for further investment, so even if a small farmer managed to become a yeoman by dint of this legal battle he might want to sell up and invest in commerce or industry.
Great estates became worthwhile in this period because the value of land was indeed rising. This was due not in part to the applicability of Ricardo's analysis to the situation (see above). Furthermore, land was seen as a very secure investment that was not as subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as commerce and industry. It was also possible for appreciation to take place as more was invested in land, especially when enclosure took place. This shall be the subject of our final analysis.
Enclosure had been going on since Tudor times, when Thomas More complained of "sheep that eateth up men". The enclosure movement took up a fresh impetus in the late eighteenth century and began to appear more like class war than something that represented the desires of most members of the community. The old village common field system was based on use-rights to various resources around the parish and classic systems of crop rotation. At the heart of it was the ability of everyone to graze their animals in common on all land, hence meaning no hedges could be errected. Enclosure is the putting up of hedges and fences around land to mark it as the exclusive property of one individual, and this often was done in areas of already consolidated land (i.e. where one person had established legal ownership over a large swathe of land). In the late eighteenth century it began to be forced.
Enclosure was a three step process. First, a large holding of land had to be consolidated. Secondly, those wishing to enclose the land had to get rid of all contrary use-rights and gain exclusive right to dispose of the land as they wished. Finally, an Act of Parliament had to be passed to give the enclosure final sanction. By 1700, 71% of land was enclosed already, but getting at the rest was a tough battle. But perhaps not as tough as it might have been - crucially, when a vote was taken on whether to enclose a particular village's land, votes were weighted on land rather than by plebiscite. Hence the largest landowners had the say in what was done, and could force their decision on the hapless rest of the population despite their numerical inferiority.
The people most hurt by this were the landless people who merely had use-rights to the land before. They would be left with nothing but the choice to work on the new consolidated holding, and many would even lose their homes. Small landowners were next to suffer, because they would be required to bear the cost of the capital investment necessary to put hedges around their holding and construct new transport links. Often the burden of this debt would mean small landowners would sell up rather than establish themselves on the land given to them as part of the settlement.
Enclosure didn't even lead to massive gains in yields, but economies of scale meant it did lead to a large gain in labour productivity. It was the final step in the consolidation of the great estate which took land from so many people and yet laid British agriculture on a strong foundation of growth that allowed it to feed the rapidly expanding urban centers and avoid catastrophic unrest like the sort in the Italian Po Valley that did so much to bring Fascism to power there. Social unrest there was, however, and the creation of a large class of landless rural labourers would have a huge effect on the country's demographics and politics.
Floud and McCloskey, Cambridge Economic History of Britain vol. 1: industrialisation
M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty: an economic and social history of Britain 1700 - 1850
Lectures by Professors Daunton and Szreter in the Cambridge Faculty of History in Michaelmas Term of 2003 and Lent Term of 2004.