Public opinion and agriculture 1875-1900

Fisher, John Richard

Economic and social history
November 1972

Thesis or dissertation

© 1972 John Richard Fisher. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The work of historians over the past decade has done much to clarify the nature of the impact of cheap imports on British agriculture in the late nineteenth century. A feature of such work has been the emphasis placed on the positive adaptation of agriculture in changing economic circumstances; an emphasis which runs counter to the older tradition of historical writing on this subject. There has, however, been less attention paid to the process by which this tradition came to be established, originating as it did in the contemporary response of public opinion to the fate of agriculture. It was not the economic fortunes of agriculture alone which excited contemporary interest. Rather, it was the effect of these on the role which agriculture played in the life of the nation and the effect on the nature and status of those classes whose incomes derived directly from the land. In fact, for contemporaries, interest lay not so much in the agricultural question as in the Land Question.

A general historical literature has touched on various aspects of this contemporary interest in the land and agriculture. It is the purpose of this thesis to attempt a more systematic approach to this interest and, more specifically to examine the problems of agriculture within the context of attitudes towards the land and rural society.

Two major themes emerge within this context. The first concerns those most closely involved with the economic and technical aspects of agriculture. It is connected with their appreciation of the need for adaptation and as to how this should be met, or, alternatively, rendered unnecessary. The second is the wider interest in structural change in agriculture as an answer to associated economic, social and political problems. As such, it encompasses the historical background to the variegated schemes of land reform advanced in the late nineteenth century, the nature of these and their relation to contemporary interest in the status of the agricultural labourer. It also raises the questions of the political response to the advocacy of land reform and of the defence of the continued existence of the English land system. Finally, an examination of the historiography of this and later periods reveals the degree to which these two themes have contributed towards a traditional picture of an agricultural system in dire straits.

Department of Economic and Social History, The University of Hull
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