Discover more from Great Transformations
The British Agricultural Revolution at Bay, 1740-1800
Contrary to triumphalist accounts that agrarian capitalism enabled structural transformation in Britain, the nation’s food output was falling behind population growth by 1800. Indeed, total farm product flatlined from 1740 to 1800 and worker productivity declined. Why did agrarian change slow to a creep during the “classic phase” of the British Industrial Revolution? Why did British farming, for long the handmaiden of economic superiority, become a drag on industrial growth?
I propose that Britain was a victim of its own agrarian precocity—that specialization and market flexibility promoted a land use regime that optimized for a low-output solution.
The Agricultural Revolution is a clumsy but enduring counterpart to the Industrial Revolution as a totemic concept in British economic history. Arnold Toynbee and Lord Ernle, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, pinpointed 1750-1850 as a period in which Britain’s farms became as precociously productive as its factories, thanks to their own great “inventions”—new fodder crops, selective livestock breeding, and the seed drill—and “inventors”—Arthur Young, Robert Bakewell, and Jethro Tull. Dedicated improvers and their organic gadgets were thought to have swept away the hidebound traditions of the open fields to make space for rational, market-oriented cultivation. Higher yields and worker productivity were thought to have “released” labor for the service of mechanized industry and provided sufficient calories to fuel Britain’s world-leading urbanization. Echoing Marx’s emphasis on enclosure and the birth of agrarian capitalism, the twinned Revolutions held currency with Deane and Cole as late as 1967.1
Like the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution experienced sharp revisionism—but this correction was earlier and even more successful. The “great inventors” were shown to be frauds (Tull never devised the seed drill), and the inventions either appeared too early (crop rotations) or too late (the drill) to impact the eighteenth century. Eric Kerridge, the lead revisionist, suggested that the true agricultural revolution took place between 1560 and 1767, but mostly before 1673. He stressed the role of convertible husbandry (the practice of rotating pasture and arable around the farm), fertilizers, and land improvement in facilitating the doubling of Britain’s population from 1550 to 1750 with a declining share of the workforce. He found limited support from E. L. Jones, who pointed to grain exports and high yields from 1650 to 1750 as a sign that rotations and fodder crops had proved successful. He attributed these advances to a period of low grain prices, which threatened to annul profits unless innovations were made in response.
But there’s nothing new under the sun. In 1992, Robert Allen consolidated and reformulated the revisionist scholarship in Enclosure and the Yeoman. He found that most of the output and productivity increase in British agriculture took place between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century and dismissed the “great inventions”—clover/turnips, convertible husbandry, and New Leicester sheep2—as scant contributors. He attacked what he called “Agrarian Fundamentalism,” which attributed the Industrial Revolution to the Agricultural (through labor release and savings) and the Agricultural to the replacement of peasant with capitalist farming. Tories thought that large tracts cultivated by wage laborers increased efficiency and thus the scale of output; Marxists, that such enterprises raised productivity by lowering employment. Allen identified “two agricultural revolutions,” one by yeomen farmers in the seventeenth century and another by landlords in the eighteenth, and attributed most of the output gains to the former. Engrossment and amalgamation were really vehicles for redistribution to elites, not expansion or investment.
Six years later, Mark Overton proposed a “counter-revisionist” interpretation in his celebrated book Agricultural Revolution in England (1996), arguing that 1750 was still the point of “take-off” into sustained agricultural growth.3 He used probate inventories to infer crop yields, apparently showing that enclosure—the parcelling out of the commonly-managed open fields into contiguous, wholly private plots—increased productivity. This was primarily through the adoption of new crops and methods: an enclosed farmer could switch his plot to the most efficient use, or experiment with potential crops and rotations, without consulting the local community. Turnips, clover, and the four-course rotation were indeed more prevalent on enclosed farms, and both yields and livestock density were greater. Overton also showed that farm output rose by 2.14 times from 1520 to 1651, 13 percent until 1741, 39 percent up to 1801, and by 71 percent between 1801 and 1851.
In a devastating 1999 riposte, however, Allen cast the classic Agricultural Revolution back into the historiographical abyss. Overton assumed that the consumption of food remained constant over time, so his measurement of output growth really just tracked population. Since the second half of the eighteenth century had seen a demographic explosion, agricultural expansion naturally appeared just as impressive. Allen, following Crafts and Jackson, noted that the per capita consumption depended on the relative price of agricultural goods and purchaser incomes. Varying consumption over time in alignment with price indices and wage series changed Overton’s picture dramatically. Allen identified three distinct periods: first, one of steadily rising output from 1520 to 1739, matching the Kerridge/Jones revolution; second, stagnation during the period 1740-1800, with output up by just 10 percent; and renewed acceleration from 1800 to 1850, increasing by 65 percent. Food consumption per capita actually fell during the second half of the eighteenth century, from a peak no higher than the levels of the sixteenth.
In terms of food consumption, the idea of absolute immiseration during the early industrial revolution was no myth. English workers were not getting extra food from the parliamentary enclosures and farm amalgamations of the second half of the eighteenth century. Food consumption per person did jump in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, but it did not exceed sixteenth-century levels until the very end of the period. The output of English farms failed to keep pace with population growth. It was international trade, not rising farm productivity, that fed the expanding British population after 1800. Allen (1999), p. 217.
Nor was the productivity side of the classic Agricultural Revolution any more impressive. Allen used the “real rents” method pioneered by McCloskey (1972) to examine changes in TFP over time and found a similar periodization. Considerable productivity growth had taken place from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century, but 1750-1800 was a period of stagnation, if not outright decline. Open field farming improved just as much as the regional sample, and a rent index computed for the country as a whole by Turner, Beckett, and Afton showed the same dynamics. Allen (1988) also computed labor productivity change from 1600 to 1800 and found a peak in 1750, followed by regression up to 1800. There was nothing special about enclosure, he claimed, and no agricultural revolution during the first stages of the Industrial Revolution.
Historically speaking, however, that doesn’t make very much sense. Why should a period in which Britain saw the widespread introduction of more efficient forms of cultivation (the four-course rotation), organization (larger farms that economized on labor), and institutions (enclosure, private property) have been one of unprecedented stagnation? Rather than follow his “two agricultural revolutions” dichotomy, I’m calling the second half of the eighteenth century “Allen’s Pause”—a lull in the long upward march of output and efficiency growth amid incremental change. This is my homage to Allen’s well-known “Engels’ Pause,” the period of stagnation in British real wages from 1780 to 1840. As we’ll see later on, the analogy is closer than one might expect.
To explain why output stagnated during the classic phase of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, it’s necessary to understand why and how it was expanding in the preceding two centuries. As noted above, Allen has posited the existence of a “yeomen’s revolution” of the seventeenth century to fill the void. Smallholders were not hidebound traditionalists but avid experimenters receptive to commercial imperatives toward efficiency and profit. A series of innovations preceded the enclosure movement of the eighteenth century: three- and four-field crop rotations, peas and beans, and draft horses were all introduced on the open fields, and farmers independently converted arable to grass where conditions were suitable. During the eighteenth century, arrangements were made to try out crops like sainfoin and turnips on “inclosed” sub-plots, frequently on a purely voluntary basis. And the presence of cheap family labor meant that land was intensively cultivated and that capital per acre could be accumulated at low cost, so long as improvements (such as drains) could be built. Owner-occupiers were invested in improvement by merely inhabiting their lands without the external impulse of exclusive property rights. Crop yields rose substantially, especially in wheat (by 76 percent in Lincolnshire from 1550 to 1725), but also in barley and oats. Labor productivity increased too, by 50 percent during the seventeenth century alone, thanks both to technological advances and increases in yields.
So what happened during the eighteenth century? What were the effects of intensive cropping, selective breeding, and enclosure? Labor productivity continued to improve, chiefly as a result of the predicted process—the amalgamation of land meant that large farms could economize on hands and capital per acre. 50-acre holdings had on average 5 cows, 1.4 boys, and 1.7 maids, but those exceeding 150-200 acres rarely held more than 10-12 cows and 3 boys and maids. Larger farms also could afford to employ specialists, or hire gangs of menial workers to liberate the managers for higher-skill tasks. The “internal division of labor” between servants, ploughmen, hedgers, and cowherds undoubtedly increased the Ricardian surplus per acre. Enclosed farms, meanwhile, were both larger on average and more likely to have drains, plant the new fodder crops, and house denser livestock populations.4 Light arable units more frequently practiced the Norfolk rotations with improved breeds of sheep, and pasture district enclosures were much likelier to convert from arable to grass (the most efficient land use) than their open counterparts. And yields did rise, across all three of the main cereal crops—wheat, according to Overton, turned an additional 1.5 bushels per acre on enclosed plots. Barley saw even more eighteenth-century progress, rising from 18-20 bushels in the first half of the century to 30 or more by 1800.
The problem was while enclosure were generally better, it wasn’t by much. Compared with the advances in wheat yields during the yeomen’s revolution, the changes wrought during the period of Parliamentary enclosure (1760-1800) were modest at best. And while barley and oats saw more significant gains, their relative importance should not be overstated: around 1800, the value of wheat was 26 million pounds, barley 10 million, and oats 2 million. Yields were higher in heavy arable districts where enclosed farms installed drains, but independent of cropping patterns and farm size in general. Overton’s own studies, even when construed to be most favorable to enclosure (without controlling for soil types, for example), showed very modest returns. And while amalgamation did tend to save on inputs, corresponding output increases were rare or nonexistent. More cattle and new crops, in short, were never responsible for driving agricultural expansion prior to 1800, so one should not be surprised that the intensification of these factors during the Industrial Revolution failed to produce much of an acceleration. Specialization, market deepening, better seed varieties, and the aforementioned open-field experiments driven by urban demand and the seventeenth-century consumer revolution were the main engines of change.
We have explained the lack of an acceleration. But the figures above show that from 1740 to 1800, output growth stagnated and productivity declined outright—seeming contrary to the evidence of modest returns to enclosure. The answer, I think, has to do with the nature of enclosure itself. There were two kinds: reclamation enclosure, which turned waste to cultivated land, and enclosure of arable commonfields, which was usually for pasture. Prior to 1800, the vast majority of Parliamentary acts were passed for the latter purpose, as shown in Figure 4.1 below, from Overton’s book. That is, during the period of stagnation, the dominant change in land use was the conversion of arable, open-field tillage to privately-held pasture. This process could be extremely lucrative for both the landowner and the farmer—Overton estimates that on open field farms with good soil, profits would increase by 37 percent and rents by 2.5 times as labor and capital costs fell to a fraction of their previous levels. But the overall value of produce would tend to decline, in this hypothetical example by nearly 40 percent. In short, enclosure of open-fields raised rents and profits through input saving, frequently at the cost of overall product.
The overall land use statistics confirm the general picture. Total sown acreage increased by 30 percent, largely as a result of reduced fallowing (though partly via the enclosure of commons, wastes, and parkland). But pasturage rose by 75 percent, becoming by far the largest single land use in the country at 17.5 million acres. Since farm wages were relatively high and grain prices low, it paid (especially on heavy soils) to conserve labor costs and reap the superior profits of animal husbandry. Real agricultural wages peaked in 1750 as nominal incomes crept upward and wheat prices dwindled. The ratio between livestock and arable prices, which had fallen to a nadir in 1620, was rising again into the second half of the eighteenth century. The number of sheep nearly quadrupled during the eighteenth century, and cattle and pig stocks also rose. A great regional specialization took place between the pastoral northwest and the arable southeast to exploit the advantages of varied soil types.
Urban demand from the swelling cities—where high-wage artisans consumed significant quantities of meat—meant that landlords and farmers made choices that actually tended to retard the growth of agricultural output. Britain’s textile sector needed wool to make the New Draperies that founded the island’s exporting fortunes. Improved internal transport and deeper, newly national produce markets connected farmers to nationwide price impulses. Indeed, livestock markets may well have been integrated earlier, as animals could be walked to market (while grains needed to be shipped by water or cart). The new industrial centers and the metropolis promoted precocious specialization in British agriculture, and thus efficiency—but efficiency and volume were not synonymous. Urban elite demand and the adaptive responses of landlords and their tenant farmers crowded out tillage, the most productive form of land use. Output growth thus slowed to a creep, in spite of the expansion of Britain’s land area and the intensive cultivation of existing arable. So did labor productivity, since per acre output was lower on pastures than in cereals. Crop rotations and mechanical tools arrived too late (well after 1800) to stave off decline.
Allen unsparingly condemned the enclosure movement, which increased inequality in the countryside—between rich landlords and redundant farmhands—without improving the national product. The fact that output did not expand elastically to meet population growth during the second half of the nineteenth century raised food prices, which then lowered real wages and the standard of living. Far from starting the Industrial Revolution through capital accumulation and labor release, enclosure had retarded it: “one reason for the slow economic growth in the early phases of the industrial revolution was the stagnation in agricultural output and productivity in the second half of the eighteenth century” (Allen 1999, p. 210). In Enclosure and the Yeoman, he somehow managed to be even more damning. “The conclusion is unavoidable—most English men and women would have been better off had the landlords' revolution never occurred” (Allen 1992, p. 21).
Like Engels’ Pause, Allen’s Pause may have yielded future dividends. As industrial inequality in the early nineteenth century facilitated capital investment and a later rise in real wages, agricultural inequality probably put Britain on the long, grinding path toward modern commercial agriculture. While open-field agriculture had been inventive up to 1750, large farms with greater access to loan finance (especially mortgages) were better-suited for the world post-1800. The ability to purchase capital goods and fertilizer, as well as mechanized equipment by the middle of the nineteenth century, was the basis of productivity in the Victorian Age, and here the 15-acre open field farm could not compete. It’s important to note, however, that British agriculture ultimately failed to feed the population, and industrial goods were increasingly exported to earn the foreign exchange for food imports. What’s certainly clear is that classic Agricultural Revolution, like its Industrial counterpart, led first to structural transformation, not swiftly rising living standards. Unlike industry, however, agriculture experienced no great eighteenth-century acceleration—just a temporary halt in the incremental progress of three centuries.
This was thanks in part to Chambers and Mingay, who authored The Agricultural Revolution, 1750-1880 (1966) and said just about what you’d expect.
Clover and turnips formed part of the famed “four-course Norfolk crop rotation,” in which periods of grain cultivation were interspersed with nitrogen fixation to improve soil fertility. Convertible husbandry rotated the location of grass and arable on individual farms, theoretically improving the productivity of the soil through livestock manure and natural replenishment. The New Leicester sheep was developed through selective breeding to provide additional meat and less bone.
Excuse another facile reference to Rostow, but when one squints at output curves, take-off is usually the object.
One statistical study of Oxfordshire apparently reported a 5-bushel yield increase from a one-unit increment in livestock density, presumably thanks to the additional manure that they deposited.