The Agricultural Revolution

Alan Barclay

“They hang the man and flog the woman
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.”
(Folk Rhyme)
The Agricultural Revolution used to be seen as something cataclysmic occurring in the late 1700s and early 1800s, focussed around the inventions of people like Jethro Tull, Lord “Turnip” Townsend and Coke of Holkham, involving scientific and technological developments, including the enclosure of open land. It is more complicated than that. It was a long process, from 1700-1850 at least, which brought about a fundamental and total re-shaping of our society – social, practical and political.

To convey something of the scale of this upheaval, it is useful to study some facts and figures referring to the period 1700-1900. Campden’s Inclosure Act of 1799 sits right in the middle of this period.

Population growth in England & Wales

1700    5.8 million
1800    9.1 million
1900    32.2 million

Average number of additional “mouths” to feed per annum

1700-1760    c.6,000
1760-1800     60,000
1800-1900   229,000

Shift from rural to urban population

1700 1800 1900
Rural 87% 75% 20%
Urban* 13% 25% 80%

*Urban = town of 5000+

Shift in occupation of workers

1700 1800 1900
Agriculture, fish & food 75% 36% 9%
Industry, trade, professions 25% 64% 91%

Employment in agriculture

1700 1800 1900
Millions of people 0.9 1.7 1.5
% of employed population 70% 36% 8.7%

These figures are broad brush estimates – there isn’t firm statistical evidence until well into the 19th century, but they are generally accepted, and clearly indicate change on a massive scale.  Those changes caused huge pressures on what had hitherto been a relatively stable and long-established society.  Never before had such a growth rate of population been sustained over a comparatively long period in conjunction with urbanisation and industrialisation.

The country remained largely self-sufficient in food during this time. In 1880 we were still supplying 80% of our food from home resources.  So one way of restating those figures is to say that in 1700 it required 70% of the working population to feed us, whilst by 1900 it only required 8.7% of the working population to do the same thing on a vastly increased scale.  There was a consequent need for huge increases in food production, and for that food to be grown away from centres of population and transported to them.  The world was awash with an explosion of new scientific, technological, philosophical, and therefore inevitably political thinking.  There were wars and revolutions all over Europe.

These developments and pressures inevitably led to changes in agricultural practice, and the success of those changes depended on large farms and the investment of large amounts of capital.  This could only be achieved by the displacement of the strips in the open fields by large consolidated farms, which in turn could only be brought about by the enclosing of hitherto open commons and wastes and the rationalisation of how the land was farmed.
Inclosure was clearly part of this vast upheaval, but it didn’t cause that upheaval; it was just part of it.  It arose in response to the developments and pressures on agricultural practice.  It had consequences, and some of those consequences were arguably unsocial, unfair, and caused significant hardship; and the consequences were themselves part of a complex pattern of change.

A brief definition of inclosure

The ways in which inclosure occurred were many and various, but the concept of an inclosure always involved the re-organisation of scattered plots so that an owner ended up with a similar amount of land, but all in one or two places, the abolition of common rights, changing forever traditional access and usage, hedging, fencing, and ditching of the land
the securing of public rights of way.

We can get a sense of the impact or contribution of inclosures to what was happening by looking at the number of Inclosure Acts that were passed during this period:

Period No. of Inclosure Acts
1700-1710 1
1750-1760 156
1760-1770 424
1770-1780 642
1800-1810 906

Parliamentary ‘mania’

We can see that there was a kind of Parliamentary “mania” taking place, rather like the canal and railway manias that were happening during the same period. Parliament tried to bring some order to things by passing some General Enclosure Acts, which were intended to standardise the process.  By 1830 Inclosure Acts had virtually ceased, although they continued sporadically for the rest of the century.

What were Inclosure Acts and Awards?

Each inclosure required an individual parliamentary Act. The process varied from the straightforward to the very complicated. The area covered by a particular Act generally consisted of a specific parish (or  parishes).  If the majority of the landowners in a parish agreed, they would “promote” a Bill in Parliament.  The Bill, if passed by Parliament, would become the Inclosure Act. This would specify the promoters; the land area concerned; the names of the “Commissioners” to be appointed to oversee the implementation of the Act, detailed provisions for the powers and proceedings of the Commissioners, including surveys, public hearings, witnesses, appeals; and then the arrangements for the making of the subsequent Award, which became a separate legally enforceable document.

“Inclosure” or “Enclosure”?

The words are effectively interchangeable. Up to the end of the C18th, “inclosure” is generally the word used, particularly in legal and parliamentary documents. During the C19th it was gradually superceded by “enclosure”. Chipping Campden’s Act and Award are entitled “Inclosure”.

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