Agrarian Revolution

18th - 19th century

The Agrarian Revolution is the term given to the transformation in agriculture in England during the Georgian period. Though the roots of the revolution go back as far as the late medieval period, it was not until the 18th century that these transformations really accelerated and began to drastically change the way people lived and, at the same time, changed the English landscape forever.

One of the prime changes brought on by the agrarian revolution was enclosure, the act by which large tracts of land were fenced in. In the Middle Ages, most land was farmed by individual farmers who each had a strip of a large, open field. Because the land was used 'in common', changing land use was not easily implemented, and changes in farming practice were slow to be implemented.

Between 1730 and 1820 there were an astonishing total of over 3500 individual acts of Parliament authorizing enclosure of agricultural land. This resulted in almost all of the Midlands and the north being enclosed.

Though often this enclosure created hardship for peasant farmers, the landowners were able to implement new farming practices such as regulated stock breeding, controlled crop rotation, and more efficient production on marginal farmland.

The social cost of these changes was immense, as many poor farm labourers were rendered redundant, poor farmers lost their land, and the rural working classes were often forced to move to industrial urban areas to find work.

Some of the changes brought on by the Agrarian Revolution involved planting crops (particularly clover and turnips) to provide food for overwintering animals. Equally important was the introduction of new farm machinery, such as the wheeled seed drill, which mechanised the traditional practice of scattering seeds by hand.

Another innovation was the horse hoe, a tool to eradicate weeds between rows of crops. Iron tools replaced earlier wooden ones - the iron plough was a big advance on the wooden plough and was so much more efficient that it could be drawn by horses instead of oxen.

Influential 'Gentlemen Farmers' such as Coke of Holkham Hall (Norfolk) and Viscount Townshend made agricultural experimentation a fashionable pastime.

Under the reign of George III, who was passionately enthusiastic about agricultural reform, scientific research stations were set up and agricultural reports were regularly produced on a county by county basis.

The pace of reform accelerated during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain was forced to get by without imports from Europe. As a result, wide areas of land were farmed for the first time. This led to higher yields and enabled Britain to more easily feed a growing population.

Time period(s): Georgian

Tags: enclosure   Agrarian Revolution  

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