ECONOMIC CHANGES: THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION
 ENGLAND'S triumph over Napoleon was due not only to her courage and endurance, but also to the vast riches which enabled
her, besides paying her own share of the cost of war, to send huge sums to her allies. For she was growing
fast in population, in industry, in commerce, and in general wealth. When George III became king there were
not seven million people in all England and Wales. When he died there were close upon twelve millions. In his
reign, too, England's foreign trade doubled twice over.
Meanwhile, thanks to the "Agricultural Revolution," far more crops and cattle were being produced than ever
before. Yet the "Industrial Revolution" had already begun its work of turning England from a land mainly
agricultural into the greatest manufacturing country in the world, and filling her with great whirring
machines, and busy factories, and huge, smoky towns.
1. COUNTRY LIFE IN THE GOOD OLD TIMES
In the early eighteenth century one-third of the English nation was occupied in tilling the soil or raising
sheep and cattle. Some towns were indeed of great importance: a few were already famous for their
manufactures. Manchester was reckoned to
 contain thirty thousand cotton spinners. Sheffield and Birmingham were renowned for cutlery and other goods.
There were noted ironworks in Sussex and Northumberland, and noted "potteries" in Staffordshire. Yet there was
no such marking-off of town from country life as in present-day England: a manufacturer might often work in
the fields; many a farmer and labourer occupied his leisure with manufacturing.
Nevertheless, much land now under plough was still uncultivated. Even in the south there were vast undrained
bogs and uncleared forests, and in the far north, from Derbyshire to the Border, a great waste stretched over
a hundred and fifty miles.
Communication between distant places, too, was slow and uncertain. Few roads, except the great high roads,
deserved their name. Often mere cart-tracks alone connected village with village, and in more than one county
church bells rang at night to guide the lonely traveller. So wheeled vehicles were rather rare in country
places, and horses and mules were used more to carry loads than to drag them.
Nor were the high roads themselves by any means perfect. A famous traveller, indeed, declared, in 1770, that
all but four roads in England were either "vile," or "execrable," or "execrably vile." And, even if he
exaggerated, he had good cause for grumbling as he rode about the country. In one place the cart-ruts were
fully four foot deep. Elsewhere wagons got so firmly stuck in the mud that it needed thirty or forty horses to
drag them out. Throughout some districts the roads were drained by channels cut across them, which brought
 traveller headlong to the ground. Even good roads, moreover, were far from safe. Highway robberies were
constant. Almost every day coaches were stopped and passengers stripped of all their wealth, or even killed;
and that not only in remote country places, but in what are now the suburbs of London itself. As late as 1781
a lady going to dine at Twickenham had to give up her purse on the way. And so little surprised was she that
she had filled the purse for the occasion with worthless coin!
Compared with this uncertainty of ever reaching the journey's end in safety, it was a small grievance that the
journey itself should be slow and tedious. Yet sixteen days was a long time to spend on the way from London to
Edinburgh, and it was something like a scandal that the London mail-bags—carried till 1784 by mounted
postboys, and often robbed—should take three days to reach Bristol.
In these conditions villages and country towns were naturally occupied mainly with their own concerns. Every
village, every large farmhouse almost, produced itself most of the necessaries of daily life. Bread was baked
and beer brewed at home. The men made tools, and bowls, and baskets: the women spun and wove the clothes of
the household. A carpenter and a smith were found in every village of any size, while travelling workmen
visited more out-of-the-way spots.
Meanwhile the instruments and methods of farming were what they had been for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of
years. More than half England was still cultivated on the old and wasteful "open field" plan. Instead of many
separate fields, each hedged in
 and belonging entirely to a single cultivator, the "open field" village contained three great fields, which
included nearly all the arable land in the parish.
Each field was split up into acre or half-acre strips, and a farm was simply a collection of these strips,
scattered all over each of the three fields. Hence endless time was lost in moving from strip to strip, much
space in making turf "balks" or boundaries to mark the strips off, and not a little temper in boundary
quarrels between neighbours.
All the strips in a field, too, had to be treated alike. Every year one field was sown with wheat, and one
with some inferior grain, and one lay fallow. And, after the crops were gathered in, the sheep and cattle of
all the villagers grazed together over the stubble, watched by the village shepherd and herdsman, as they did
at other times in the water meadows or on the open downs or commons. So no one could break away and try
experiments of his own with either crops or cattle.
2. THE REVOLUTION
FARMER GEORGE: THE KING REWARDING AN INDUSTRIOUS HAYMAKER NEAR WEYMOUTH.
Three centuries before, this system had been sometimes abandoned and the land enclosed. But the "enclosures"
which caused such suffering in Tudor days were mainly rather enclosures of commons or of cultivated lands to
form large sheep pastures. Under the Georges, however, especially George III, enclosing for agricultural
purposes was practised on an enormous scale, and it went on, even faster, till well into the following
 For agriculture was now the pet—and profitable—hobby of many leading men in England. Even in the
age of Walpole the Prime Minister's brother-in-law had earned the name of "Turnip Townshend." At a later date
the sheep shearings of the Duke of Bedford, or of "Coke of Norfolk" (afterwards Earl of Leicester), were
landmarks in the English farmer's year. While Fox and Burke were fighting the king's influence in Parliament,
they had yet a thought to spare for their own carrots and turnips: like the Walrus and the Carpenter, they
talked of "cabbages and kings." And the king himself was
 "Farmer George"—a real worker, as well as a writer on his favourite subject. Even the Government caught
the farming fever. A Board of Agriculture was set up, and its secretary, the famous Arthur Young, taught the
new farming throughout the kingdom.
The treatment of the soil, the choice of crops, the breeding of cattle, were all entirely changed. The great
open fields were broken up. The parts assigned to each farmer were enclosed with hedges, and lay close
together. The soil was scientifically manured. And the whole course of crops was altered—for the fallow
year was given up and root crops (such as turnips) and grass were now grown alternately with wheat and other
grain. Thus far more was got out of the land, and the heaviest crops came from soil once so poor that "two
rabbits fought for every blade of grass" on it.
In like manner the breeding of cattle and sheep was greatly improved. Breeders, too, thought no longer only of
good milking cows, and oxen strong for the plough, and sheep whose fleeces would give valuable wool. They
tried also to produce good beef and mutton. The growth of the population encouraged all the farmers' efforts
by increasing the demand for corn and meat. So more and more land was taken into cultivation, and better and
better crops and beasts were raised, and landlords bound their tenants to practise the new farming on pain of
forfeiting their farms.
Meanwhile the means of communication at last improved. Under George III a canal was built by James Brindley to
carry the Duke of Bridwater's coals from Worsley to Manchester. This
 example was followed—well or badly—in every quarter. A network of canals spread over the country,
and the cost and difficulty of carrying heavy goods grew ever less.
At last, too, especially when Parliament allowed "tolls" to be charged for keeping up turnpike roads, the
roads themselves became better. The inventions of Telford and Macadam for making really good roads belonged,
indeed, to the nineteenth century. But even in 1784 mail coaches—carrying an armed guard and a few
passengers—began to take over the carriage of letters from the postboys. And soon the golden age of
coaching opened, lasting till—in the early days of Queen Victoria—the railway drove the coach out
of the field.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics