The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution in Britain

In Britain’s history we refer back to the Industrial Revolution but rarely reference the Agricultural Revolution. What factors contributed to it? What were the major advances, inventions, challenges and their impact on British society in the 18th and early 19th centuries?

Historically taught in schools as a single event, ‘the’ Agricultural Revolution was actually a series of episodes, during which significant and substantive changes were made to both the technology and methodology applied to agriculture. School history is again full of the great characters of the Agricultural Revolution. ‘Turnip’ Townsend and Jethro Tull are held up as pioneers of the new age of agricultural reform and agricultural revolution.

You will find a hand reference here to the timeline chronology and key dates and events relating to the Agricultural Revolution in this article, scroll down to view. For our broader Agricultural and Industrial Revolution Timeline  and theme click here

Do the facts support the stories of these great agrarian heroes or is it time to pause and reflect?

Many history books seem to settle on the century that follows, the 18th Century, as being the one in which the Agricultural Revolution took place. This is due in part to a book written by G. E. Mingay and J.D Chambers,‘The Agricultural Revolution 1750 – 1880’. Mingay asserts that in this time period, the agricultural progress, was a technological revolution that raised the productivity of the land substantially. Many other writers illustrate the point by drawing on individuals and their inventions, even if some of their ideas were far from revolutionary or effective. So what other factors were in the mix at the same time? The parliamentary enclosure of land was probably the most significant of these.

What was Parliamentary enclosure of land?

Enclosure and agricultural revolution

An example of enclosure maps

Enclosure was a way of making sure land was consolidated into a field system that could be more economically and efficiently farmed. These fields were then either held and farmed by individuals or rented out to other individuals or groups of people. It was done initially through informal agreement and had been taking place in England since after the Norman Conquest. Who was deemed to have rights over the land was a point over which many arguments ensued.

It led to a land owning system in England, in which the extremes of who owned land and who did not were polarized. To this day only 0.06% of the population own the land in England and this figure has its roots deep in the early history of enclosure.



Enclosure created an open battle field with supporters on one side and dissenters on the other.

The beneficiaries of land under enclosure thought it a jolly good thing, those who had been dispossessed of their land, their families starving and any chance of producing an income taken away, did not.

The government though it a good thing, since they made up a large part of the land owning minority, that is no surprise. During the C17th, enclosure could be authorised by an Act of Parliament and this became established as the norm.

The English landscape as a series of enclosures or fields was created during the 150 years from 1750. An estimated 6.8 million acres were enclosed under the original Act.

There is little doubt that enclosure greatly improved the agricultural productivity of farms from the late 18th century by bringing more land into effective agricultural use. The extent to which it forced people off the land to seek work in urban areas is open to debate but enclosure PLUS agricultural advances had the combined affect of creating a maelstrom of change.

What agricultural improvement, changes advances and challenges were happening in this period 1750 onwards?

What changes and improves, what challenges and shifts in society were happening that influenced and contributed to the Agricultural Revolution

  • The Medieval rotation system in which fields were left fallow between planting with grain crops had been used in English agriculture for centuries but the use of two new crops turnips and clover on which cattle could be fed had a double impact on soil fertility.
  • The vegetable Turnip was effective in suppressing weeds, was a food staple and provided food for cattle which in turn added manure to the soil and thus nitrogen. Clover added nitrogen back to the soil through its roots. Thus the need to leave fields fallow in order to allow nitrogen to be absorbed form the atmosphere back into the soil had gone.
    • More livestock could be kept, soil fertility increased and much more food could be produced.
    • How much turnip and clover were actually grown across the country is a matter of debate and Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend’s Norfolk rotation system probably wasn’t universally adopted either. By the way he didn’t introduce the turnip, it was already being grown in fields. 
  • 1723-1731: Agricultural Societies begin to be formed and spread knowledge and know how: they aimed to promote improvements by testing new methods, crops and machinery. Examples were the Scottish Society of Improvers and the Dublin Society, they both offered prizes to encourage innovation in farming. Later the regional societies in Britain and the annual shows would start to be launched.
  • 1733 Jethro Tull published “Horse-Hoeing Husbandry” which explained his emphasis on clean farming and reduction in seed and drilling points making improvements in yields and the knowledge needed o do so available to anyone who could access his book. Jethro Tull, perfected the art of sowing seeds by improving upon the design of machines he had seen whilst touring Europe. He is seen as the man who invented the seed drill and this method of seed dispersal was definitely more efficient and resulted in higher yields.
  • 1764 Joseph Elkington of Warwickshire developed use of deep trenches for under drainage of sloping land: this was important because it meant that land that was subject to flooding by the bursting of springs could in effect drain itself. A process we still use today.
  • 1777 English Societies under the interests of the English Society of the Arts started to hold regional shows, the earliest being the Bath Agricultural Society. Many of the still existing Agricultural Shows around the country and counties started in this manner. Some even gaining royal patronage, The Royal Berkshire Show and more.
  • 1778 Thomas Coke started annual gatherings to share and spread agricultural knowledge:  not everyone could read, but gatherings made verbal knowledge sharing possible and physical demonstrations of tools and processes could be seen and witnessed by those who would then go back and literally spread the word.
  • 1784 Threshing machine invented by Andrew Meike again increasing the productivity and efficiency of harvesting the grain.
  • 1800 Hay-tossing machine invented invented by Salmon of Woburn: enabling the labour needed to dry the hay and turn it to be reduced.
  • Napoleonc Wars was a key period 1803-18-15 at the start of the 19th century: Britain was embroiled in an expensive series of Wars with Napoleon, the Napoleonic Wars. War was never cheap and taxes were customarily high as the Pitt Coalitions sought to lead Britain to triumph. These wars were as much about commercial interests and trade overseas as they were about the tyranny and power hungry nature of Napoleon. The disputes with the old enemy of France and war over land rights cost both sides a heavy price. This is the time of the Battle of Trafalgar and Waterloo and the stark contrast between respected leaders such as Nelson and Wellington up against Villeneuve and Napoleon. But if you were on the and in Britain, these were tough economic times. The poor were suffering and there was not much comfort to be had if you lost your work on the land to “new fangled machinery.”  Problems that would slow and inhibit both the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution but would also fuel the ambitions for Empire and expansion that would also ultimately
  • 1812 Luddites Riot, the Machine Breakers: With productivity however comes a basic and further threat to low earning workers, not as many hands would be needed on each farm to produce the increased yields. What would happen to the poor souls who would not be needed. What would lead in the years that follow to the Luddites and the ‘machine breakers’ was significant enough that the Luddites would result to riotous assembly across England.
  • 1815-1846 The Corn Laws and their Repeal: The Corn Laws of 1815 and the Corn Laws Repeal by 1846 dealt with the issues of raising and maintaining prices for grain to protect and favour producers, the capitalists, landowners and tenant farmers as opposed to the population who depended on bread as a staple and once cheap source of food. It is a complex area and Robert Peel as Prime Minister had the unfortunate task of ultimately repealing these protectionist measures but in effect it would cost him his premiership. But a fall in grain prices would also impact on Agriculture as well as the population generally.
  • 1827 Reaper invented by the Reverend Patrick Bell of Carmyllic:  nearly all the key processes of creating and harvesting the grains now had some element of automation.
  • 1830-1840 Wooden tools replaced by stronger iron  tools: the efficiency and productivity of tools such as the plough and harrow for example were massively improved when made from iron. Industrial revolution and commercial smelting was also impacting on agriculture.
  • 1835 System of shallow drains filled with stones covered over: this idea was first implemented by James Smith of Deanston in Perthshire. He had an engineering background had studied at Glasgow University and had practical experience of the Cotton Mills but turned his focus to becoming an agricultural engineer. He had a farm that had little if any productive land and by a systematic approach turned it using his drainage system, within a relatively short period of time, into productive land. He also invented the turn-wrest plough and the web-chain harrow. By 1842 he left his homeland and went to be an engineer in London. He became involved in the development of the drainage and sewer systems looking to improve the sanitary conditions of the city.
  • 1843 Invention of Cylindrical Clay Pipes by John Read:  a clay round and hollow pipe seems far from high-tech to us today but we found a good example of how far and wide this innovation spread. his invention was a significant advance in drainage systems but to start with these pipes were being manually produced but not for long.
" In 1843, at the Derby Show of the Royal Agricultural Society, John Read, 
a gardener by trade, a self-taught mechanic, exhibited cylindrical clay pipes 
with which he had been in the habit of draining the hot beds of his master.— 
His mode of constructing them was to wrap a lump of clay round a mandril 
and rub it smooth with a piece of flannel. Mr. Parks showed one of theye pipes 
to Earl Spencer, saying, ' My Lord, with this pipe I will drain all England.'— 

The work from that time went rapidly forward. Drain-cutting implements were 
brought to perfection, and tile-making machines have been invented which now 
make pipes rapidly and cheaply. In 18' r,, Sir Robert Peel, whose management 
of his own property had made him thoroughly alive to the national importance 
of the subject, passed the act by which four millions sterling were appropriated 
towards assisting land owners with loans for draining their land, with leave to 
repay the advance by installments extending over 22 year.... 

Knowing as we do the benefits and success of this system of drainage in Eng- 
land, and the other old countries, it will only remain to examined whether the 
same be adapted to the circumstances of this country, and I think it can be 
shown that where it is beneficial in milder climates, 'it is doubly so in ours. — 
What are, the evils which we have specially to encounter?"

Thanks to the Internet archive from an 1859 article in Canada shows how his word and ideas were spread some 16 years after he first introduced the concept.

  • 1842/1843 was a good year it seems. Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire was setup: it was founded to support the application and development of agricultural chemistry. Is first applications being in respect of manure and fertilisers. Amazingly it still is near Harpenden in Herts and is one of the oldest agricultural research stations in the world since its original inception in 1843. Lawes its founder became not only a successful entrepreneur he became a notable Victorian Scientist. Find out more on Rothamsted’s current website by clicking here

” John Bennet Lawes, the owner of the Rothamsted Estate, appointed Joseph Henry Gilbert, a chemist, as his scientific collaborator. As a young man, Lawes had been interested in the effect of fertilisers on crop growth and, in 1842, started the first factory for the manufacture of artificial fertilisers. Lawes was not only a successful entrepreneur, he was destined to become one of the great Victorian scientists.” Rothamsted Research

  • 1844 Marx is already publishing about the concept of alienation:  with the industrialisation of processes he saw it as a negative impact that the workers were now unable to directly utilise the produce they were involved in creating. That automation also meant that the social relationships were changing and that this would ultimately in a capitalist society result in dissatisfaction amongst the workers, who as the value of labour fell would start to be competing for less pay pay and less jobs over time. Whatever our political persuasion’s in social history terms he had more than a point, look at what was happening with the Luddites and Machine breakers, there were pockets of insurrection. The forthcoming Agricultural Depression after the Golden Age of Agriculture would more than support his views. But the solutions, well that is is more debatable.
  • Both the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions would be developing the basis of a capitalistic society, whether that was a good or bad thing depends on our perspective. But certainly there is evidence that not all progress was universally welcomed and some of the innovation had ultimately a detrimental impact on the workers, their wages and conditions. Later both alienation and anomie (an expression and idea/concept developed by Emile Durkheim around 1897) would focus on the removal of the workforce  from direct involvement with the physical product of their labours, the division of labour demanded by automation negatively breaking down the social interaction as the worker in the field or factory becomes just another step in the process and a virtual cog in the wheel. where the bosses and the owner’s of capital would be the major winners whilst they paid the workers less than the value of their labours. Important ideas that were emerging by the mid to late 19th century and foretold some of what would genuinely cause unrest and instability especially in times of a depression as opposed to a boom
  • By 1845 Machine made clay pipes were introduced by Thomas Scruggy:  drainage for agriculture had taken-off and was making unproductive land profitable and ensuring productive land remained so. The cost of the drainage also became less expensive to the tune of a 70% reduction, as manual processes were replaced by machine based extrusion and manufacture. The process invented by Thomas that enabled the automatic extrusion of the drainage pipes was very successful and helped to rapidly expand the amount of agricultural drainage implemented. But by the 1890’s the Agricultural Depression was underway and the private finance and government loans to undertake such works evaporated. it would remain that way for most of the period up until the later part of the 1930’s, some 40 years. For more details see this article available as a PDF to read online or download from the British Agricultural History Society here
  • 1848 State Loans were available for drainage pipes:  repayable over 22 years, made available as a scheme sponsored by Robert Peel.
  • 1850-1873 known as the ‘Golden age of British Agriculture’: it was a period of exceptional prosperity following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1834. Population growth and urbanisation of the towns and cities as they spread across he British landscape increased demand for British produce.Improvements included breeding system for livestock, drainage systems and farm buildings, more businesslike management, specialisation and increased economies of scale but despite this prosperity the lion’s share was retained by the land owners and their tenant farmers, the labourers remained about the lowest in Britain. With the pressure on the general workers here and in the factories and the willingness of the majority of bosses to keep wages low, it is unsurprising that eventually the very same labour would want to organise, rebel and obtain its own rights and means of securing a fair wage. Arguably this issue with the pay and a fair price for Labour is as old as our history, just take a look at the Statute of Labourers  in 1351 here to consider how the owners of the land be they the nobility or private capital will seek to maximise their profit and collude as an oligarchy to set the parameters o favour the owners and you start to see why Socialism in such tough conditions has the name it does.

Agricultural Revolution and boom, guess what happens next?

Following a sustained period of growth and relative success in terms of overall economic benefit to the nation as opposed to the common man, you can probably start to guess what happens next. In the period between 1873-1914 the threat to British Farming caused by the Repeal of the Corn laws becomes a vivid reality. This period has been termed, arguably, the Agricultural Depression.

International trade and farming became a competitive issue as the Railways and Steamship opened-up the American Prairies to allow the importation of cheap grain into Britain. This threat was compounded with the invention of refrigerated holds on cargo ships which opened the path for New Zealand and Argentinian Farmers to export meat to Britain. By 1895, one third of all meat consumed in Britain was imported.

  • Arable Highland farmers abandoned the hills and reverted to lowland farming to reduce their costs of production
  • By 1914 only 20% of cereals consumed in Britain were produced here.
  • Demand for fresh meat remained buoyant so it was better for livestock owners and dairy farmers benefited from the fall in grin prices for feed.
  • Whilst market gardens close to the urban areas provided some scope for an alternative and profitable approach but there would be no return to the ‘golden age.’

What of man himself toiling in the fields?

There seems to be an area of study about the agricultural revolution that deserves more study, the capacity of the worker to work more efficiently. Whatever the debate about enclosure it brought with it a farming system, still in place today. Land owner, farmer and farm labourer collected under one more efficient authority. Farm size increased and the advances discussed above meant an increase in output per worker. It has been suggested that from about 1650 through to the middle of the 18th Century that output increased by as much as a third. Although enclosure also put much farmland under pasture and therefore crop yields fell. But the overall picture was never really favourable to the man toiling in the fields. There was genuine fear across the countryside that not only would machines put workers out of a job but with a repressive Poor Law and little  or worse social welfare provision by the state, the workers and their families could still starve. These issues had a long way to run yet, the Industrial Revolution might improve and reduce the cost of production but again the workers would and were being exploited, the lot of the poor had not improved much despite the progress of both the indusrial and agricultural changes that had taken place.

Did the Agricultural Revolution stoke the fire of the Industrial Revolution?

A better fed population were able to work harder and sustain longer hours of hard labour, so yes, several hundred years of agricultural revolution certainly made the latter possible and the need to maintain food production stimulated invention, drills, threshing machines, ploughs and steam tractors all added to the mix.

No one aspect of change created either the Agricultural or Industrial Revolution. It was a series of connected events over centuries, pushing and pulling by Government, stark choice and demand that fueled events. Defining either as a separate or a whole revolution would be an inaccurate description of a many layered and complex subject. There is a definite overlap and some individuals transfer from one to the other but with not as many workers needed in the fields, certainly the supply of labour was increasing.

When supply exceeds demand, we all know what happens and it did, the average workers wages were just even more under pressure and it is hardly surprising that there would be a move towards redressing the inequalities that existied in society as another century starts and Agiculture seeks to crawl its way out of recession.

For more on the industrial Revolution take a look at our theme page here Industrial Revolution where you will find an array of articles and more information. You can also take a look at our centuries pages to get a wider view of what else is happening during the period of the Agricultural Revolution try the 17th Century and the 18th Century for starters.



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