The Agricultural Revolution
The Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. It preceded the Industrial Revolution and is often considered one of its causes. The Agricultural Revolution was linked to such new agricultural practices as crop rotation, selective breeding, and more productive use of arable land.
Examine the foundations of the Agricultural Revolution in Britain.
Analyze the social and technological impact of the Agricultural Revolution on the British classes.
Key Terms / Key Concepts
Agricultural Revolution: a period of agricultural reform in England that produced numerous technological inventions and techniques
Enclosure: The process that ended traditional rights on common land and restricted land use to the property owner
General Enclosure Act of 1801: an early piece of English legislature sanctioning the practice of enclosure
Threshing machine: a piece of farm equipment that separates grain seeds from stalks and hulls
The Agricultural Revolution
The Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain due to increases in labor and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the century up until 1770; thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world. This increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, and domestic production gave way to food imports in the 19th century as population more than tripled to over 32 million. The rise in productivity accelerated the decline of the agricultural share of the labor force, adding to the urban workforce on which industrialization depended. The Agricultural Revolution has, therefore, been cited as a cause of the Industrial Revolution. However, historians also continue to dispute whether the developments leading to the unprecedented agricultural growth can be seen as “a revolution,” since the growth was, in fact, a result of a series of significant changes over a long period of time. Consequently, the question of when exactly such a revolution took place and of what it consisted remains open.
Crop Rotation and New Industrial Tools
One of the most important innovations of the Agricultural Revolution was the development of the Norfolk four-course rotation, which greatly increased crop and livestock yields by improving soil fertility and reducing fallow.
Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons to help restore plant nutrients and mitigate the build-up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one plant species is continuously cropped. Rotation can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants. The Norfolk System rotates crops so that different crops are planted with the result that different kinds and quantities of nutrients are taken from the soil as the plants grow. An important feature of the Norfolk four-field system was that it used labor at times when demand was not at peak levels.
Townshend is often mentioned—together with Jethro Tull, Robert Bakewell, and others—as a major figure in England’s Agricultural Revolution, contributing to the adoption of agricultural practices that supported the increase in Britain’s population between 1700 and 1850.
An important factor of the Agricultural Revolution was the invention of new tools and advancement of old ones, including the plough, seed drill, and threshing machine, to improve the efficiency of agricultural operations.
The mechanization and rationalization of agriculture was a key factor of the Agricultural Revolution. New tools were invented and old ones perfected to improve the efficiency of various agricultural operations.
In his 1731 publication, Jethro Tull described how the motivation for developing the seed drill arose from conflict with his servants. He struggled to enforce his new methods upon them, in part because they resisted the threat to their position as laborers and skill with the plough. He also invented machinery for the purpose of carrying out his system of drill husbandry, about 1733. His first invention was a drill-plow to sow wheat and turnip seed in drills, three rows at a time.
A threshing machine or thresher is a piece of farm equipment that threshes grain: removes the seeds from the stalks and husks by beating the plant to make the seeds fall out. Before such machines were developed, threshing was done by hand with flails and was very laborious and time-consuming, requiring about one-quarter of agricultural labor by the 18th century. Mechanization of this process removed a substantial amount of drudgery from farm labor. The first threshing machine was invented circa 1786 by the Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle, and the subsequent adoption of such machines was one of the earlier examples of the mechanization of agriculture.
Eighteenth-Century Threshing Machine.
The Enclosure Acts
Enclosure is the process that ended traditional rights on common land formerly held in the open field system and restricted the use of land to the owner; Enclosure is one of the causes of the Agricultural Revolution and a key factor behind the labor migration from rural areas to gradually industrializing cities.
Background: Common Land
Common land is owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel. A person who has a right in or over common land jointly with others is called a commoner. Originally in medieval England, the common was an integral part of the manor and thus part of the estate held by the lord of the manor under a feudal grant from the Crown or a superior peer, who in turn held his land from the Crown, which owned all land. This manorial system granted rights of land use to different classes. A commoner would be the person who, for a time, occupied a particular plot of land.
Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure was the process that ended traditional rights, such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner and the land ceased to be for the use of commoners. Under enclosure, such land was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons were largely restricted to large areas of rough pasture in mountainous places and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.
Implementation of the Acts
The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies. English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor. Some practices of enclosure were denounced by the Church and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the large, enclosed fields were needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.
The Act of 1801 was one of many parliamentary enclosures that consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although the “other land” was often of poor quality and limited extent. They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense of uninhabited places), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, and moors.
The primary benefits to large land holders came from the increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price, post enclosure. Protests against parliamentary enclosures continued, sometimes also in Parliament, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organized mass revolts. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, as a higher price could be sustained by its higher productivity. While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England as compared to the Continent, although others believe that this process began earlier.
Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosures, employment in agriculture did not fall but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently, large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.
Enclosure is considered one of the causes of the British Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under the control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. There was widespread agreement in contemporary accounts that profit-making opportunities were better with enclosed land. Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.
Effects and Significance of the Agricultural Revolution
The increase in agricultural production and technological advancements during the Agricultural Revolution contributed to unprecedented population growth and new agricultural practices, triggering such phenomena as rural-to-urban migration, the development of a coherent and loosely regulated agricultural market, and the emergence of capitalist farmers.
The Agricultural Revolution proved to be a major turning point, allowing the population to far exceed earlier peaks and sustain the country’s rise to industrial preeminence. During the nineteenth century, improved technology helped agriculture output soar not only in England but also throughout much of Europe and North America. England’s position as the leading industrial-agricultural nation eroded as European countries experienced their own agricultural revolutions, raising grain yields on average by 60% in the century preceding World War I. Interestingly, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain did not result in overall productivity per hectare of agriculture that would rival productivity in China, where intensive cultivation (including multiple annual cropping in many areas) had been practiced for many centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the substantial gains in British agricultural productivity were rapidly offset by competition from cheaper imports, which were made possible by the exploitation of colonies and advances in transportation, refrigeration, and other technologies.