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Farm Production in England 1700-1914

Author(s):Turner, M. E.
Beckett, J. V.
Afton, B.
Reviewer(s):Verdon, Nicola

Published by EH.NET (August 2002)

M. E. Turner, J. V. Beckett and B. Afton, Farm Production in England

1700-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xii + 295 pp. $74 or ?45

(hardback), ISBN: 0-19-820804-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nicola Verdon, Rural History Centre, University of

Reading.

When was the English agriculture revolution? This is one of those key

questions that historians have been debating for many decades. In their new

book, Michael Turner of the University of Hull, and John Beckett and Bethanie

Afton from the University of Nottingham, present fresh evidence on farm output

during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in doing do offer a

reinterpretation of the timing and nature of the agricultural revolution in

England.

Lord Ernle penned the classic account of the agricultural revolution back in

the early twentieth century. He stressed the importance of technological and

institutional change, the introduction of new crops and the ‘Great Men’ who

encouraged the adoption of them in the period running concurrently with the

industrial revolution (c.1750-1850). This perspective was undermined by a wave

of new scholarship in the 1960s, led by J. D. Chambers and G. E. Mingay, E. L

Jones, and Eric Kerridge. These studies stressed the importance of change in

the period before 1750 and widened the parameters of the agricultural

revolution (although Chambers and Mingay still cited the period 1750 to 1850 as

the key one). F. M. L. Thompson, meanwhile, suggested that after 1815 a ‘second

agricultural revolution’ took place. Since then new sources which allow a more

thorough quantitative assessment of output and productivity have been sought by

historians, with recent research by Mark Overton, for example, stressing once

more the importance of the century between 1750 and 1850.

Turner, Beckett and Afton maintain however that much of the available ‘hard

data’ are weak and a ‘significant gap’ in our understanding of the agricultural

revolution persists because of deficiencies in surviving evidence from the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p. 24). Before the 1860s no official,

systematic data on agricultural output were recorded and historians have been

reliant on the data collected by Arthur Young and the authors of the General

Views of Agriculture, amongst others. As Turner, Beckett and Afton point out,

these are not necessarily systematic or unbiased. Instead, they suggest, fresh

data exist in the form of farm records. In chapter two the range and scope of

this material is examined. The authors do not draw back from highlighting the

limitations of these records. Farm accounts, labor records and memorandum books

are ‘highly individualistic documents,’ and vary greatly in quality and

quantity (p. 61). Yet, Turner, Beckett and Afton insist that when analyzed

together, their possibilities are enormous: ‘In truth it is a magnificent

collection which has been virtually neglected in the numerous efforts made to

understand the agricultural history of the two centuries or so prior to 1914′

(p. 212). Farm Production in England is then, the first systematic

attempt to analyze the evidence on agricultural output and practice provided in

farm records. What do they find?

Chapter Three deals with the question of the changing nature of farming

practice and techniques in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However,

the problems associated with using farm records are immediately apparent and

the authors concede that such sources only offer an impressionistic and

qualitative perspective on this issue. The evidence does suggest though that

‘agriculture moved, albeit slowly, from a low input/low output position in the

early eighteenth century, to a higher input/higher output agricultural economy

in the mid-nineteenth century’ (p. 115). This contention is explored in much

greater depth in the next three chapters when output in the key agricultural

sectors – wheat, barley, oats and livestock – is assessed. New estimates of

wheat yields based on farm records show an average for the 1720s of 19 bushels

per acre, rising to 21-22 bushels by the mid eighteenth century. This declined

in the 1780s and 1790s, but thereafter the trend was upward, rising to a peak

in the 1840s at around 30 bushels per acre. After this yields settled to a

plateau of 27-28 for the remainder of the century (Table 4.4, p. 129). Wheat

yields therefore suggest that the agricultural revolution should be firmly

located in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. Barley yields

point to a similar conclusion, with the key period for rising yields being

between the 1820s and 1840s (Table 5.1, p. 153). The trend in oat yields is not

so emphatic but also shows a considerable increase in yields in the first half

of the nineteenth century, reaching a peak of nearly 50 bushels per acre in the

1840s (p. 157). Observations on other crops (rye, beans and peas) are fewer but

also show trends comparable to wheat, with an upward curve in output in the

second quarter of the nineteenth century. Put together, all this evidence on

crop output becomes ‘compelling evidence of a real, and sustained, break with

the past’ (p. 213).

Animal carcass weights also indicate advances, with the increase in size of

lambs and calves the best indicators of productivity improvements. Although the

authors concede that measuring livestock output is ‘very complicated’ (p. 173)

and fraught with pit-falls, overall ‘we have no reason to doubt that the output

of the livestock sector improved in terms of both numbers and weights’ (p.

215). In their concluding chapter the authors argue that English agriculture

successfully fed a growing population, with yields rising significantly from

the turn of the nineteenth century. Farm records therefore place the

agricultural revolution ‘firmly within the period from about 1800 to 1850′ (p.

230).

This book lends powerful support to the view of the agricultural revolution as

a phenomenon largely of the first half of the nineteenth century. The evidence

presented on wheat yields – often seen as the standard gauge for the state of

English agriculture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – is especially

useful. But caution is needed. There are clearly many problems with using farm

records to date the agricultural revolution. Turner, Beckett and Afton base

their findings on evidence from just under one thousand estate or

owner-occupied farms. Although at least one record comes from every English

county, the regional base of the dataset is skewed in favor of the south-east.

More importantly, data from individual farms can significantly skew the

results. This is especially the case for livestock figures, which are the least

convincing part of the thesis. In addition, farm records tell us little about

how crop yields were increased or about labor productivity. Farm records

then, perhaps do not offer the watertight solution to the issue of when and how

the agricultural revolution occurred. Yet this is an important and innovative

book and a useful addition to the historiography on one of the key questions of

modern English history.

Nicola Verdon is a Research Fellow in the Rural History Centre, University of

Reading. Recent publications on female and child work patterns in the

nineteenth-century English countryside have appeared in the Agricultural

History Review (2001) and the Economic History Review (2002). Her

book Rural Women Workers: Gender, Work and Wages in the Nineteenth-Century

Countryside will be published by Boydell in November 2002.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII