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Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History: From the Mid-Seventeenth Century to the Present

Author(s):Jones, Eric L.
Reviewer(s):Broad, John

Published by EH.Net (September 2018)

Eric L. Jones, Landed Estates and Rural Inequality in English History: From the Mid-Seventeenth Century to the Present. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xi + 129 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-319-74868-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Broad, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, University of Cambridge.

In the 1960s and early 70s, Eric Jones’s articles and book contributions on English landed society and agricultural history stood at the forefront of the discipline, combining a deep understanding of the sources and secondary literature with a creative mind and persuasive writing style. Jones then moved abroad to the U.S. and then La Trobe University in Australia and his interests also went global, using his fertile mind to incisively chart the role of risk mitigation in development of modern economies, and in The European Miracle (Cambridge University Press, 1981) to initiate debate on why Europe became economically dominant. When he and seven other historians came under broadside for their Eurocentric stance, his antagonist conceded that Jones’ revised edition successfully addressed most of perceived deficiencies of the original.

In retirement to rural England, Jones returns to his original interests in this short volume, providing a provocatively argued overview of the dominance of the landed elite in the countryside and its power over both local and national politics. Jones is quite explicit in his methodology. He uses apposite case studies and examples to illuminate his theories. Into this narrative are pitched a variety of high order generalizations about political and economic power, illustrated by micro-studies often drawn from less well known, not to say obscure, secondary literature. The landed elite is treated as a body for whom the countryside is not primarily an economic asset to be developed but instead a place where social power is applied and displayed.

He starts with a discussion of the place of the English Civil War and the “revolution” of 1688 in cementing the economic dominance of the landed classes. The book then devotes short chapters to a selection of illustrative features across the whole period rather than any attempt at a comprehensive discussion. It begins with a short study of how newcomers entered the world of the landed elite, using Lancashire cotton masters and their purchases in the west Midlands and the area around Bristol to make his case. A chapter on the lower orders follows, viewing them as engulfed by landed estates that created poverty and rural overcrowding as rural industry in southern England was stifled from the later eighteenth century onwards, thereby reinforcing deferential power relationships in the countryside. The much-discussed issue of English enclosure is considered in a rather off-beat way in two chapters focused on the remodeling of the landscape to make parks that demolished and reoriented existing villages, and on the manipulation of road and footpath links to enhance elite privacy at the expense of the customary well-worn ways used by working people — a story continued to the present.

Two further chapters consider the recreational use of the countryside by the landed elite for blood sports — particularly fox hunting and pheasant shooting — and the way in which the protection of these assets was used to cow and politically dominate the rural population. The two final chapters return to more abstract ideas about rural institutions and inequality in the countryside. The hierarchical structure of rural society became fossilized and its nature fostered increased inequality of both capital and income that outweighed the economic efficiency of the capitalist agricultural system of large farms that it created. For Jones the estate system should be viewed long-term as an example of market failure.

The book overall addresses big themes and introduces some theoretical concepts worth testing. There are only 123 pages of text, while each chapter begins with a one-paragraph abstract and a list of half a dozen keywords. This suggests that its intended audience is undergraduate students. If so, it serves the cause of good history teaching poorly. The narrative is one-sided and barbed. Previous historians of English estates and landed society are variously derided as nostalgic and lacking critical intent — a judgement which readers of Sir John Habakkuk, Lawrence Stone, F.M.L. Thompson, and John Beckett, to name but a few, might with English understatement regard as more than a trifle harsh. The short bibliography attached to each chapter is frankly bizarre: partial, eclectic, and certainly no adequate guide to further study by students and readers intrigued by the book’s themes.

Jones appears to work from a neoliberal economic outlook in which the economic potential of ordinary country folk was stifled by rural institutional structures and the economic and social power of a rural elite unable to look beyond their own narrow interests. But he does not appear to be immersed in the wider research portfolio of English rural history since the 1970s. Rural religion is treated purely in terms of the power relationships of the Anglican Church, but the village chapels proliferating across England from the eighteenth century onwards tell a different story. Most readers coming new to the topic might take from this book a view that a rural tyranny was exerted by lords and ladies alternating philanthropy with harsh punishments and sexual exploitation to a subservient rural population. Yet from the eighteenth century onwards the landed elite appears to have spent most of its time in London, pleasure resorts such as Bath, Tonbridge Wells, Cheltenham Spa and Scarborough, or travelling. Much of the tyranny (and directed philanthropy) of the countryside was carried out by the stewards and Anglican clergy who acted as magistrates as well as land agents, and — if they were lucky — were grudgingly admitted to the outer circle of fox hunters and pheasant exterminators. The over-arching narrative may have some applicability to the English countryside within a hundred miles of London, but the North was different, less landlord dominated except in certain enclaves. Overall it reminds us that an up-to-date understanding of English rural society is much more nuanced than the partial story told here by Jones.

John Broad most recent publications are “English Agrarian Structures in a European Context, 1300-1925” in James Bowen and Alex Brown, Custom and Commercialization (University of Hertfordshire, 2016) and “Joan Thirsk and Agricultural Regions: A Fifty-year Perspective” in C.C. Dyer et al. (editors), Farmers, Consumers and Innovators: The World of Joan Thirsk (University of Hertfordshire, 2016). He is currently completing a book on rural housing in England from the late medieval period to the present day and researching themes in the distribution of landownership and social welfare c.1800.


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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII