Agricultural change in the East Riding of Yorkshire: 1850-1880: an economic and social history
Adams, Michael G.
Economics; Social history
Thesis or dissertation
- © 1977 Michael G Adams. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.
Emphasis in this study is primarily economic, examining the nature and scale of technical progress in the East Riding of Yorkshire in the years of high farming, and the ability and willingness of landowners and farmers to invest in land improvement. A social dimension is added by considering fluctuations in the prosperity of those who owned, farmed and worked the land, but detailed discussion is reserved for labourers.
Most of the study's conclusions fall within current thinking though some indicate the need for re-interpretation and revision. It is undeniable that there was significant technical progress in the agricultural industry of the East Riding in the three decades after 1850. This is attested by improved trunk and field drainage in many parts of Holderness, the Vale of York and the Hull Valley; increases in the average size of farms in some of the least efficient areas of the lowlands; the widespread use of new types of machinery and implements, first on the Wolds and later in the lowlands; and the increasingly systematic use of artificial feedstuffs and fertilisers on medium-sized and large farms. However, equally undeniable is the considerable gap between the effort and cash expended in up-grading the agricultural system and practical achievements measured by heavier crop yields, higher productivity among farm workers and the greater efficiency of drainage systems.
The main conclusions reached in this study are as follows. First, the farming technology of the 'Railway Age' was applied most extensively on the Wolds. Its application on the clays, which predominated in the lowland areas, was partially successful but was frustrated in many instances by lack of knowledge, conservatism in the handling of new techniques and methods, and the enormity of the physical and legal difficulties in modifying the traditional farming landscapes of the Vale of York and the plains of Holderness. The progress of the middle decades of the nineteenth century narrowed the gap between farming standards on the Wolds and lowlands but Wold farmers still commanded outright superiority
by the l870s. Farming developments in the East Riding give no support to the notion of a technological breakthrough in clayland farming; on the contrary they strengthen the notion of a slow evolutionary development in which more farmers over successive generations became acquainted with, and more inclined to use, improved methods.
Second, the absence of an 'agricultural revolution' in the 1850s and 1860s in connection with the introduction of cheap drainage, can be traced to several factors, among the most important being high costs and lack of co-operation between estate managements in drainage enterprises. Drainage was not cheap. East Riding evidence indicates that savings were significantly less than those calculated previously. Local landowners also showed little inclination to co-operate in drainage schemes, an essential prerequisite if the problems of entire watersheds were to be resolved satisfactorily. Field drainage was certainly better in 1880 than a generation earlier but the improvement had been piecemeal and was certainly not large enough to underpin any radical change in the quality of lowland farming.
Third, despite important drawbacks, estate Managements showed sound business qualities which equipped them to play a determining role in agrarian improvement. The large majority of East Riding landowners involved themselves in improving their estates and were dedicated to the business of farming. This also applies to farmers. Tenants invested in improved seeds, artificial fertilisers and feedstuffs, and occasionally in items of fixed investment like buildings and drainage systems. Most investments were unprotected by farming covenants in the early part of the period and some historians have concluded from this that farmers were either foolish in laying out their capital, or were inclined to caution and lacked the spirit of those farming under long leases. The East Riding study finds no support for this view. Farmers' investments were underpinned not so much by contractual arrangements between tenant and landlord as by informal understandings. A large part of the county's progress in agriculture can be traced to the firmness of landlord-tenant relations.
Fourth, there was no smooth shift to grass farming or a mixed farming system more heavily committed to grass and livestock. Corn was less important in the overall composition of East Riding agricultural output in 1880 than at the time of Repeal, but this hides the fact that the acreage under the plough increased in the 1850s and early 1860s, and that the total cereal acreage was fairly stable down to 1880. Farmers were not deliberately unresponsive to price movements which were generally more favourable to livestock producers. For example, there was a high correlation between movements in wheat supply and price in the years between 1867 and 1890. The movement against grass in the early part of the period reflects the absence of a strong price trend in corn, loyalty to wheat, and a determination to see reasonable returns from investments in the drainage of arable land.
Finally, and at a social level, the standard of living of agricultural labourers rose between 1850 and 1880 but rural families remained perilously close to the poverty line. The 'Revolt of the Field', which had distinct echoes in the East Riding, is a useful symbol here because at one level the articulateness of its leaders and the movement's efficient. organisation attest to the progress achieved by labourers since the days of Swing. However, at another level, and judging from evidence collected from strike meetings held in villages throughout the East Riding, the 'revolt' still remained basically a protest against elemental poverty. Wages and conditions had improved but a hard winter or a brief period when prices rose faster than wages, still overwhelmed household budgets leaving labourers, even on the Wolds where wages were highest, beholden to farmers and parish officials for basic necessities.
- Department of Economic and Social History, The University of Hull
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