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The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume VII, 1850-1914

Author(s):Collins, E.J.T.
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)


E.J.T. Collins, editor, The Agrarian History of England and Wales: Volume VII, 1850-1914 (two volume set). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 2336 pp. $300 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-66214-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

The publication of Volume Seven completes the eight-volume Agrarian History of England and Wales under the general editorship of Joan Thirsk. The whole set was originally planned in 1956, and the first volume appeared in 1967. While the thirty-five-year span of publication means that some of the volumes are dated, and some even out of print, the series does provide a useful reference for the whole history of English agriculture from the Neolithic period to 1939. This review will discuss only Volume Seven, the latest publication in the series, which was edited by E.J.T. Collins. The volume was fifteen years in the making, and two of the contributors died before publication (Cherry and Holderness). Part Six was completed in 1990. Still, the volume does contain references to relatively recent publications. The “Select Bibliography” contains references as late as 1999, and Turner, Beckett, and Afton’s 1997 book on rents is used extensively.

The work is colossal. There are forty-five chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, written by twenty-five different authors. Its 2277 pages could not have been bound in one volume, so “Volume Seven” of the Agrarian History actually appears in two volumes (Part I and Part II, not to be confused with the internal headings of Parts I through VII). The two volumes are edited as one book, though; Part II begins with page 947 and includes the index and bibliography for the whole text. Paradoxically, this mammoth is a good place to go for a quick summary of a particular topic. The chapters are logically arranged, so a quick look at the index will allow you to find the section on, say, animal breeds, and the 80-page index will also help you find a topic of interest quickly.

The book is an excellent reference, comprehensive and well-written. It is more like an encyclopedia than a monograph. For the most part the historiography is buried in the footnotes, or occasionally just plain buried. Generally the footnotes are adequate to guide the researcher to the appropriate sources (though a separate bibliography for each chapter would have been nice), but the main subjects of the text are the historical actors, not the historians studying them. An exception is Chapter 3, in which Turner lays out in excruciating detail attempts since the mid-nineteenth century to calculate agricultural output. Though long, the book is well-written and a pleasure to read. While probably not for the undergraduate student, this book will be very valuable for the graduate student or researcher. It does an excellent a job of discussing issues of definition and questioning whether commonly used categories are accurate or useful. For example, Chapter 22 questions whether parishes can be neatly divided into the categories of open and close parishes. Researchers will also find the statistics in Part VII useful. As an encyclopedic work, this book is not meant to be read cover to cover. For the general reader seeking an overview of the period, I recommend starting with Chapter 2.

One reason for the book’s size is its broad scope. The Rural History of England and Wales would probably be a more accurate title, since a large portion of the text discusses topics that are related to rural history, but not to agriculture per see. Chapter 18 discusses non-agricultural industries located in rural areas, and Part VI discusses the geology and ecology of the countryside. This broad scope seems to have been a conscious choice. Alun Howkins begins his introduction to Part V, “Rural Society and Community,” by noting that “Recent, previous volumes of this work have been criticized for their lack of social history and their overemphasis on the purely economic or econometric history of rural England” (p. 1229). The same could not be said of the present volume. It may overreach when it discusses industries such as textiles and construction, but in a reference volume not meant to be read straight through the extra material does not harm to the usefulness of the book.

A fairly clear picture emerges of agriculture between 1850 and 1914. During this period agriculture faced increasing competition from imports, and shrank in importance both as an employer of English and Welsh labor and as a source of English and Welsh food. In the 1850s and 1860s agricultural prices were relatively high in spite of free trade, but everything changed in the late 1870s when transportation costs fell, ushering in a new era of food imports from the New World and low prices. By the early twentieth century Britain imported over half of its food supply, and was the largest food importer in the world. Production shifted away from grains toward livestock, and towards highly perishable goods such as milk. The 1850-1914 period covers both the “High Farming” era and the “Great Depression.” While not completely overturning to old periodization, this book does encourage us to move beyond simplistic understandings of “High Farming” and the “Great Depression”. Profits rose during the “High Farming” era, but output did not. The Great Depression did see dramatic falls in prices, and lower profits for farmers, but it did not see a decrease in the volume of agricultural output. Despite the emphasis in the conclusion on the question, “did Victorian farming fail?”, the reasons for the decline in English agriculture are fairly clear: declining transportation costs increased world trade, leading to the decline of an industry that was not Britain’s comparative advantage. What I found most interesting was the extent to which current agricultural events had their parallels in the nineteenth century. A cattle plague hit in 1865, leading to extermination of cattle and increased regulation. Playing on the fears of the public, protectionists tried to use food safety regulation as a substitute for lost import quotas.

For those who want to know more, the following paragraphs include more detailed discussion of the seven major parts of this text.

Part I is a heterogeneous group; it contains a good introduction to the period (Chapter 2), a detailed analysis of agricultural output and productivity (Chapter 3), and discussions of agrarian politics (Chapters 1 and 4). In the first chapter E.J.T. Collins provides a good summary of the increasing importance of imports in the food supply and the policy debate about protection for agricultural goods. He suggests that, in the debate over trade policy, free trade won because it had both economic theory and public sentiment on its side. In the second chapter Collins divides the 1850-1914 period into three eras — High Farming (1850-75), the Great Depression (1875-1896), and the Recovery (1897-1914). While the division of the 1850-1914 period into three distinct eras is useful, the chapter makes it clear that the differences among the eras should not be overstated, and that there was some continuity. Recent research suggests that the growth of output during the “High Farming” period was not as great as once believed. Crop yields didn’t rise, and prosperity was due mainly to high prices and, in arable agriculture, lower costs for inputs, especially decreased labor costs due to the growth of labor productivity. While prices certainly fell during the Great Depression, not all areas of the country were in depression (the north and west did better than the south and east), and average per capita income in agriculture rose in real terms (once declining prices are taken into account). What stands out most in this chapter is not the differences among the three periods, but the continuity. The movement from grain to livestock, and from the traditional grain and meat to less traditional crops (milk, fruits, vegetables, poultry, etc.), as well as the reduction in farm employment and increasing labor productivity, span all three eras. Increasing income and improved transportation led to the growth of crops with high income-elasticities of demand.

In Chapter 3 M.E. Turner presents a thorough historiography of measures of agricultural output and then moves us beyond the existing estimates of the nominal value of output by constructing some new series. First, drawing heavily on the work of Bellerby, he constructs an output series for England and Wales only, rather than for the whole UK. More importantly, he constructs a new agricultural price index and uses this price index to deflate the nominal output series, producing an index of the volume of output. This exercise shows that, while prices fell during the Great Depression, real output did not fall. He also calculates total factor productivity and demonstrates that the growth rate of total factor productivity was higher between 1871 and 1891 than between 1891 and 1911. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Chapter 38, which contains many of the tables referred to in Chapter 3.

Part II contains a wealth of detail on farming practice. The first three chapters of this section are compilations of shorter sections, each by a different author. Thus we get a large number of short discussions of various topics. This section will be valuable to researchers because it describes the actual methods of farm production in great detail. Want to know how new potato varieties were introduced or how farmers were educated? This is the section for you. Regional differences are discussed in two different ways, by geographical district and by farming system. The chapter on geographical regions includes the best maps in the book. In Chapter 8 Paul Brassley notes that Britain fell behind the continent in agricultural science, but we can sympathize with the farmers who were skeptical of science when we learn that the fertilizer sold by the scientist Liebig didn’t actually work.

Part III focuses specifically on the people who provided the inputs for farming — landlords, farmers, and laborers. The researcher will find this section to be useful because it points to various measurement problems. In Chapter 10 we learn about the problems of finding accurate measures of land ownership, and in Chapter 12 we learn about the limitations of occupational information in the census. This section is also for the general reader; the topics are of general interest, and the chapters contain numerous examples of specific individuals in each class, giving these histories a richness that statistics by themselves don’t provide.

Part IV includes both topics essential to understanding agriculture in this period, such as changes in fertilizers and in food marketing, and topics only loosely related to agriculture, such as textile and clothing industries, construction, retail and professional services. Though I normally prefer statistics, I must admit that this section is the strongest where the authors stay away from statistics. In the section on prices in Chapter 15, Richard Perren gives very little data, but provides instead an excellent discussion of the reasons behind changes in agricultural prices. Jonathan Brown’s nine-page description of malting gave me a much better understanding of how malt was made. Chapters 18 and 19, however, contain fifteen tables with the mean location quotients, a statistic that is difficult to make sense of.

The next two sections focus on rural England more broadly, rather than solely the agricultural industry. Part V moves beyond the business of farming to discuss more broadly the communities in which farm workers lived. We learn, for example, about marriage, migration, and attempts to civilize the rowdy public festivals. This section is notable for its attention to gender issues. For example, in Chapter 22 Alun Howkins notes that Northumberland had not only hinds but also cottars, and in Chapter 24 Anne Digby notes the importance of women in local government. Part VI discusses the geology and ecology of rural areas, and the encroachment of cities into the countryside. Authors Gordon Cherry and John Sheail note that, paradoxically, during this era when agriculture shrank in economic importance, urban dwellers became increasingly fascinated with the countryside. The cities not only took over rural areas for suburbs, but also sent legions of travelers out by train, bike, and car to enjoy the countryside.

Part VII is probably the most important part of the book for the professional historian. In this section Bethanie Afton and Michael Turner give extensive tables of agricultural statistics available, with commentary on the difficulties of definition and interpretation. It is clear where more work is needed. Statistics on rent are good because of a recent series estimated from farm accounts by Turner, Becket, and Afton. Wages, by contrast, seem to have suffered from a hundred years of neglect. Most of the statistics in the chapter on wages are based on publications from the first decade of the twentieth century. In the chapter on wage data there are only two references to data after 1914 — one from 1931, and one from 1973 (E.H. Hunt’s Regional Wage Variations). However valuable the studies by Bowley and Fox, this topic deserves more attention.

Joyce Burnette is Associate Professor of Economics at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN. She is the author of “Labourers at the Oakes: Changes in the Demand for Female Day-Laborers at a Farm near Sheffield during the Agricultural Revolution,” Journal of Economic History, March 1999, 59: 41-67.

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